Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

From Dark Horse
by Shawna Ervin-Gore

Joss Whedon is the man responsible for creating one of the hippest shows on television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d been hearing what a great show it is for months — it’s been recommended to me by everyone from well-established comics creators to people who write for industry magazines, to random middle-agers on the bus. Still, I don’t own a TV, so I was out of luck until a friend at work taped the show, so I could watch it before I interviewed Joss for this assignment. Even my hour-long viewing of the show in the editorial conference room caused a furor as I walked down the hall and received poopy glances from co-workers who wanted to watch Buffy on the job. Then our director of editorial, Randy Stradley, came in while I was watching. “What are you watching? Is it the season finale? Can I watch it? We missed it. Is that your tape? Can I borrow it?” Then he was sprinting down the hall to ask the person who gave it to me if he could borrow it for the night.

So, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great big deal, and as happy as I am that we’re doing the comic book, I was worried that trying to interview Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon was going to be a great, big pain in my butt, just because he’s incredibly busy and he’s quite a hot property in Hollywood these days (in addition to acting as executive producer and often writer on Buffy, in the last few years, he’s also been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for writing Toy Story, and he’s worked on the screenplays for Twister, Aliens: Resurrection, and Speed as well as writing for Roseanne and the NBC series Parenthood). So imagine my relief when we finally get connected, and on the other end of the line is a really cool, soft-spoken, likable guy with a good sense of humor and the patience to thoughtfully answer questions he’s probably heard a thousand times before.

Enjoy the interview, and keep an eye out for the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic series, debuting in September from Dark Horse.

Shawna Ervin-Gore: Where did the idea for Buffy come from?

Joss Whedon: You mean the movie? The very beginning?

SE: The very beginning.

JW: I wanted to do this, and I’ve said this a lot, so if it sounds a little rote I apologize. It came from watching a lot of horror movies with a funny, gregarious, somewhat dim blonde who invariably gets killed, and I always felt bad for her. So I thought it would be funny to have that girl go into a dark alley where we knew she would get killed and actually have her trash the monster. From that came the idea for Buffy.

SE: What were you doing . . . what was going on in your life when the idea for Buffy first occurred to you?

JW: I was fresh out of college, and it just stuck in my head for a long while, and it was a couple of years before I actually wrote anything out.

SE: Were you already a writer at that point?

JW: By the time it came out I was already a writer on Roseanne. That was my first gig, but I thought of Buffy a couple of years before that.

SE: As things progressed from the idea stage, the first movie came out. What happened with that? It’s pretty well known that you weren’t entirely thrilled with how that one came out.

JW: Well, I like horror movies, and I had intended the Buffy movie to be a horror movie, and it wasn’t. The direction it was taken in was more broad humor, and I had intended it to be more action adventure with a lot of humor. My original draft was somewhat darker and a lot grosser.

SE: So how did the series develop from the movie?

JW: Well, Gail Berman from Sandollar approached me about doing it, and at that point the interest was more in doing a sort of half-hour Power Rangers kind of thing — a kiddie thing. But I sort of thought about it, and thought it should be a little more tongue in cheek, and the more I thought about it, and the more we developed it, it grew into this hour-long drama — a real show with lots of schtik and spoof.

SE: How much time had already passed between the original film and when all this came about?

JW: About four years.

SE: And had you given Buffy any further thought since the film?

JW: Not really. I hadn’t really thought about it. You know, I thought, that was that and I’ll get over it. And then when the idea was brought to me, I was really surprised.

SE: It must’ve been cool to have somebody bring it up to you after you’d pretty much written it off.

JW: Yeah, it was.

SE: What happened as the series was developing? Were you more hands on this time around to make sure the series was closer to your vision than the movie?

JW: Yeah, that pretty much made all the difference this time around.

SE: So, now the Buffy television series is immensely popular, and it’s got a really wide viewing audience. What do you think makes Buffy so appealing to so many different people?

JW: I think the concept is appealing because it represents a real fantasy for a lot of people. When things are starting to get really complicated in life, and you’re starting to think like a grown-up, but you’re being treated like a kid, it’s nice to have this fantasy where everybody treats you like a kid, but by night, you’re saving all their lives.

SE: It definitely seems like you’re giving your characters a lot of respect. I mean, they’re obviously cute kids, and they’re teenagers with teenager lives, but the show gives them a lot of respect.

JW: Respect, actually, is THE word here. I can’t write somebody that I don’t understand. If I don’t understand them, I don’t know what they’re gonna say. And a lot of high school portrayals are often heartfelt and sweet, but they tend to focus on the central characters; they don’t have all these peripheral characters. And those stories tend to make those other characters stereotypes, you know — the fat kid, the shy kid — and this show is really for them. There’s also some reality to it; these friendships are really strong. And the whole point is that these are the people with the richest internal lives. Buffy is a reflection of that.

This reflects the imagination of the `loser,’ much like myself (laughs).

SE: I doubt anybody would call you that at this point, so there’s your come-uppance. Ultimate teenage revenge. Anyway, I’ve noticed how the main characters on the show really act as a family. Is that another thing you intended to show all along? That when your family doesn’t understand or if they’re not around you can sometimes find other `family’?

JW: Well, that’s something I’ve always believed, and not just with Buffy. You know, everybody always talks about the family as being important, and I always want to just create one. Not an actual family, because actual families don’t get along, and they never do. It’s always the ones you build yourself that work the best, when people build bonds together because they actually need and love each other. It’s not really the genes that count so much. And, things are going to get harder for the family on the show. It’s going to get a little dysfunctional like any other family, just because it gets more complicated.

SE: And especially with the way the season finale ended, it seems like everything is completely up in the air. Are you predicting dramatic changes for the series?

JW: Not enormous changes, but those kind of inevitable changes.

SE: Did you get any panicked responses after the season finale showed Buffy leaving town?

JW: A couple of people were like, “is she leaving the show?” And the answer is “No, she will be back in Sunnydale, post haste.” But we did want to explore a little bit of a journey before she comes back. She will have been gone all summer, so when we pick up again, nobody will know where she is, and we’ll find out what she’s been doing.

SE: And you, of course, probably don’t want to get too far into that.

JW: No, I don’t (laughs).

SE: Okay. So, the show’s a success, and now you’re exploring some other options for Buffy, like comic books. Are you a fan of comic books?

JW: Oh, yes. From way back.

SE: What is your favorite comics read?

JW: Well, there have been different eras. There was the Spiderman era, in the Ross Andru days. And Warlock by Jim Starlin. And, of course, all the Miller stuff.

SE: And Spiderman was in your earlier years, I suppose?

JW: Yeah, but Warlock was around my first years in college. And Miller’s Daredevil, too.

SE: Yeah, I think that was pretty formative for anybody that had been reading Marvel stuff all along. Suddenly it was like, what the hell’s happening with Daredevil?

JW: Yeah, and I admit, I am a Marvel boy.

SE: That’s okay (laughs).

JW: No, no, you guys didn’t exist back then (laughs). But nowadays I’m really cranky about comics.

SE: Why?

JW: Because most of them are just really, really poorly written soft-core. And I miss good old storytelling. And you know what else I miss? Super powers. Why is it now that everybody’s like “I can reverse the polarity of your ions!” Like in one big flash everybody’s Doctor Strange. I like the guys that can stick to walls and change into sand and stuff. I don’t understand anything anymore. And all the girls are wearing nothing, and they all look like they have implants. Well, I sound like a very old man, and a cranky one, but it’s true.

SE: Well, I’m not very old, and that makes me cranky, too.

JW: And you can’t pick up an X-Men because you have to have read the 19 before the issue you pick up to understand what’s happening.

SE: That’s the bane of the industry. That’s why we have to try new things to reach people like you — our disaffected friends.

JW: Yeah.

SE: So, is there anything you read today, comics-wise?

JW: I’ve been reading Preacher, and I don’t know how old that is. And I’ve been reading Sin City. Other than that, not a lot. I’ve been shown a lot of things as far as movie developments go, but . . . I’ve kind of grown.

SE: You’re allowed to change. I was once really, really into the X-Men.

JW: Oh, I loved the X-Men. They were great, and I still really love the concept, but again, it’s impossible to follow, and everybody’s reversing the polarity of everybody else’s ions. But, I guess it was back at 107 that John Byrne took over?

SE: Or 108, something like that.

JW: I mean, that was the beginning and the end of everything. Well, things were already great in the world of comics, but that was the next level.

SE: Back to the Buffy comic. How did the idea for this come about?

JW: It had always been in the back of my mind that this would be a comic book. I’m not sure I made the first overtures; I had always assumed it would just sort of happen.

SE: And what are you hoping to achieve with the comic book version of Buffy?

JW: Um . . . a cool comic book (laughs). You know, when I made the movie, I was really concerned with not making it, you know, a lingerie flick. And I don’t want the comic book to be something that’s ostensibly about empowerment and have her running around, you know . . .

SE: Half naked?

JW: Right.

SE: Let’s talk about what you want to see and what you don’t want to see in the comic.

JW: Well, I really wish I could just do it myself, but I obviously can’t. I would rather do everything myself because I’m a control freak (laughs). But what I didn’t want to see was, . . . well, we’ve got to go back a bit. The work I do on Buffy in particular is influenced by comic books in that everybody is bigger than life, and I really think of the Buffy group as sort of a superhero team. To me, it’s actually like they all have their own costumes and their own powers. They have that going for them — you know, “just as a group of friends we are a bigger-than-life force.” It’s a very comic book aesthetic, like a lot of work I do. So in the comic I wanted to portray that kind of strong-team, and they each live very complicated lives, but they’re very bonded. At the same time, I wanted to see them all looking cool. On the other hand, there are a lot of things you can do in a comic book that we can’t do on the show. We can’t have giant monsters — we can’t afford them (laughs).

SE: Yeah, you don’t quite have Dreamworks behind you.

JW: Exactly, so we’ll just draw! I think it will become a little more fantasy based, just by necessity, in the comic book more than the show, and this is fine as long as the metaphor doesn’t get lost. This is still high school, and monsters aren’t all external, and something in the characters’ voices still needs to show through. Then I’ll be happy.

SE: So what you didn’t want to see was . . .

JW: I don’t want to see it become, you know, Xander’s “the nerd,” and Willow’s “the shy girl,” and Buffy’s in a towel fighting monsters, and none of it connects to how real life in high school is. I want them to be treated with the same respect I treat them.