Sunday, August 29, 2010

Joss Whedon and writing from “the dark place”

Joss Whedon at the Sydney Opera House with Wil Anderson (from notes scrawled in the darkness).

When it comes to telling stories, Whedon’s the man. When it comes to combining those stories with characters, emotion, sex, wit, sly humour, and dialogue that rewards use of the rewind button – Whedon’s the man.

So, when word went around that he was slipping up to Sydney after strutting his stuff in Melbourne for the MWF – I knew I wanted to be in that audience. In fact as I sailed through the air two days ago, airborne as a result of hitting a mossy wet footpath in plastic soled shoes, the thought that went through my brain as I crashed towards concrete was “Noooooooooooo, can’t hurt myself, tickets for Sundaaaaaaaay.’

Thirty-six hours later, ice packs and painkillers had done their job and I limped up the stairs with fellow acolyte Sophie to hear from The Master.

It was a beautiful sunny Sydney sprinter day – winter about to end and spring finally poised. Fair enough then, that Joss Whedon wondered ….. why? Why were we all prepared to surrender such a glorious afternoon to come and sit in a dark place and listen to him?

Well, clearly, it was because we were part of a cult, he told us. That was the term often used to describe people such as the couple of thousand gathered beneath the shells on Sydney Harbour this afternoon, and though Whedon used it self-deprecatingly and the audience laughed, he made the point that the term was often used to denigrate and marginalize. And so he touched on a theme that would become central to the question he then posed himself. Whedon decided that we were the ones who deserved an explanation. An answer to the question - why?

Why he does what he does and why he writes what he does and why it comes from “a dark place.”

And he did.

In a chat – it was too relaxed to be called a speech – he shared with the audience the discoveries he had made in thinking about why he writes what he writes and who he writes about. He recalled a starting point came about during a conversation with Stephen Sondheim about writing and about what their universal themes were. Whedon said that he always ended up writing about adolescent young girls with super powers. Sondheim said that his own writing would always be about yearning.

Whedon decided he needed to think somewhat more deeply about what he wrote – young adolescent girls with superpowers – and work out – why?

This took him back to his childhood which, he has to confess was boringly normal, a father he feared disappointing, elder brothers who teased him, certainly no grist for the horror memoir mill. But nevertheless he was physically a small child, curly haired and often mistaken for a little girl, who felt afraid and helpless.

So perhaps it was no coincidence that the characters he ended up writing were, on the surface, similarly small and helpless. He says he grew up feeling scared and alone, not scared and lonely, but scared and alone. Not all bad, he points out, as writers who wish to write should probably love being alone.

So, he asked, “Why is my avatar a female? Am I a literary transvestite? Why do I identify with these girls?”

The revelation, when it came, surprised him. For the 7 years he wrote Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, he identified with Xander, funny, clueless and never getting laid. Then when he was writing an extended piece of prose about a Buffy-type character, a first person narrative, it struck him that he was bucketing therapy on to the page. Only then did he finally see it –  “Buffy was me.”

Writers often talk about creating a loveable character, someone for the reader/audience to relate to. But Whedon describes writing characters that he wants to love him. And in a transmogrification they become him.

His avatar. “She will save my life. I’m tiny, terrified and in need of saving and this girl is going to save my life”

This then was “the dark place” Whedon draws his characters from.

It’s a fascinating and generous admission and one that most writers would respond to, knowing as we do, that stories, characters, ideas, come tumbling out of dark places that not all of us are willing to even look at – let alone share with a vast audience on a sunny afternoon in Sydney. Whedon admits he was always helpless. He describes getting mugged regularly in New York, the first time was when he was going to the comic store. He attempted to defend himself from future attacks by taping coins to the inside of his coat so that they wouldn’t jangle. The adult version of helpless was clueless, he tells the audience.

Returning to talking about character he insists that it’s vital that he respect all his characters. Good guys and bad guys and, when you respect your characters – the greatest act of disrespect is killing one of them. “I want them to overcome danger,” he says.

Every character has to have something to say, and a reason for being there. The villains as well as the heroes because, he asks, if you don’t have respect for them, then how can you write them. “Respect is the essence of why I write”. It can be a problem he says, because by giving the bad guys so much time, by making sure that all their actions have reasons, it can destroy the drama.

He talks about writing character and story as a need. “The need I have for everyone to feel that they are IN this story and respected.” The audience responds because it feels that need. He describes a desperate love of the character. The situation and the character comes first. He loves to create a character no one takes seriously and has knowledge that nobody else has.

In the end, Whedon says, he can’t really understand his own dark place, but he reckons all writers need to find their own dark place. Get stuck in with a trowel if necessary.

“Stories come from darkness and pain.”

“If there’s no why in your story then you’re just spinning a yarn.”

He discussed the episode, The Body, from Season 5 of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. He wanted to write about the surreal experience of the first few hours of a death. The dull pain of it. The way it goes on with no opening up because there IS no opening up in death, swimming through death.

After his talk about drawing on the dark places – Wil Anderson then joined Whedon onstage and conducted a Q and A followed by some audience questions.

Firefly cancellation - did it hurt? Did you have more stories?  “Are you fucking kidding?" Everyday the stories of Firefly, characters, dialogue still haunt him. “I learned about grief from Firefly. You never get over it you adjust.”

How to create a cult? Do it well. Work hard. Pop culture is about reaching out to the audience. Says he is lucky and a hard worker.

Music?  He comes from a musical family. Bonding with Dad meant listening to all the Sondheim musicals over beer. House filled with music. Music, like drawing, something he dabbled with. He was a talented 12 year old artist and still draws like a talented 12 year old artist, no follow through on anything except writing.

Fan fic? No greater compliment – the most beautiful part of this thing is the fan fic, the worlds people build.

TV Networks? Monkeys understand his work better than Network executives, but terror of cancellation makes the work better. Knowing the executives are outside the door makes the team inside work harder to make something good into something great.

Writing dialogue? Is a lot like joke writing, points out he was raised by a pack of comedians. He looks for the heightened moment in writing dialogue. Writes to movie scores, mood pieces where you just feel. Thinks about what do the characters actually have to say – the lines feed off each other – every line a leapfrog they’ve taken over the scene. He collects dialogue. Some lines are stolen from movies, but usually it comes in the moment of creation.

Character killer? Whedon jokes that he’s a bit shirty about being accused of killing too many characters, and he asks people to look at the percentage here. Says the common response on his gig directing Glee was - “Oh he’s directing Glee who’s he going to kill?” He defends himself - “I’m not the grim fucking reaper.”

He points out that when people die in his work, he does kill people that people love. He lost his mother suddenly. He understands death. Killing people that people care about is not something that happens too often. But when it does, the audience will feel something.

Broadway or Opera? Love to do both. – a pipe dream, a really good pipe. But difficult to find time, money – would love to see Buffy the Musical or Dr. Horrible.

The long form narrative for TV – initially Angel was going to be “Touched by The Equalizer” and it began as episodic TV then they realized they didn’t really do that – so went for the long form. Dollhouse had an ending then was surprisingly renewed.

Vampires? Whedon’s fault? Won’t take the blame for Vampires. “Ain’t taking the heat – Anne Rice can” he saw Interview with a Vampire as a teenager and it “totally changed some shit.”

Working on Dr. Horrible? Tells a story about arguing over the songs and sums it up with a deadpan “We’re cynical, ugly people, especially Nathan Fillion.”

Firefly – western? Civil war? – He was reading The Killer Angels a book about Gettysburgh and it was the catalyst for Firefly. He read it on his first vacation from Buffy.

The dialogue in Firefly came from old movies, from Elizabethan language. Slang from any age “I love language”. Speaks aloud as he writes. Loves writing the left of centre characters, River, Dru, Illyria.

And then it was over. Time had run out. Some of the questions had been personal statements – how Buffy had got a young woman called “Bella” through school, she’d “saved” her. How “The Body” had helped a young man feel connected and not so scared and alone in the wake of his mother’s sudden death from a brain aneurism.

Proof, if any were needed, of the power of stories and characters to reach into real lives and remind us that we are not alone, that human beings exist to tell and be told stories.


  1. Great re-cap of a fabulous event! I'll be able to point people here instead of trying to recount it all myself :-)

  2. It sounds that the questions delved a bit deeper than the melbourne interview. Thanks.

  3. Thankyou sincerely from those of us who couldn't be there - now I feel like I kinda was :) I will be tweeting this!

  4. Ah, now, see if I'd known this was here I may not have bothered typing up a quick summation of that central question...but I did and you obviously got there first! I wasn't taking notes at the time --how could you?! Joss had to have my undivided attention -- so I'm glad you were.

  5. Thanks for the happy feedback, guys. Glad to provide a hit of the vicarious for you that missed out.

    Ah, omarsakr, the note-taking was literally in the dark. I couldn't see at all so just wrote fast and big and filled a lot of pages. I was somewhat surprised when the lights went on to find what was there was readable. I'm wondering if, when the lights went on, Joss Whedon was similarly surprised to find us all out there having just opened himself up in quite a personal way.

    The dark places indeed.