June 1, 2013

Joss Whedon in a Commencement Speech to Wesleyan University Grads: 'You Are All Going to Die'

Joss Whedon Wesleyan CommencementCould there be a better message to initiate the besprinkling of college grads into the real world? Writer/Director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods, Buffy the Vampire Slayergave the commencement speech at Wesleyan University (his alma mater), telling the graduating class of 2013 that, yes, they are in fact going to die. He says, "You have, in fact, already begun to die." However, Whedon's dreary opener was just a clever ruse employed to teach these grads a lesson on contradictions, connections, and the duality of being both "the broken world and the act of changing it."

I'm so glad /Film posted about Whedon's speech, because being a student myself, whose impending graduation looms over her like the sword of Damocles, I found Whedon's seemingly sardonic words of wisdom quite inspiring. Really, you can expect nothing less from the guy who cowrote Cabin in the Woods and has a penchant for killing off his most beloved characters. So, how does "you're all going to die" turn into an uplifting sendoff? Well, Whedon, who graduated from Wesleyan University in '87 (also Philip Abraham '82, Michael Bay '86, Shari Springer Berman '85) breaks it down like this:

And the weird thing is your body wants to die. On a cellular level, that’s what it wants. And that’s probably not what you want. I’m confronted by a great deal of grand and worthy ambition from this student body. You want to be a politician, a social worker. You want to be an artist. Your body’s ambition: Mulch. Your body wants to make some babies and then go in the ground and fertilize things. That’s it. And that seems like a bit of a contradiction. It doesn’t seem fair. For one thing, we’re telling you, “Go out into the world!” exactly when your body is saying, “Hey, let’s bring it down a notch. Let’s take it down.”

Check out his commencement speech below. You can also find the transcript here.

So, life is all about accepting contradictions. It really is an important lesson to learn, especially at a time when I'm sure most graduates are feeling anxiously existential as well as excited (I know I am.) Whedon does his audience a great service by not beating them over the head with sappy promises of success and weary platitudes, instead offering great insight into the power of our minds and the staunchness of our dissent.

This is especially pertinent for filmmaking and screenwriting, because many times conflicts take the form of contradictions. What is a story if not a series of conflicts? What is a character if not a conflicted being? What is a 20-hour shoot with a tired and hungry cast and crew if not an atom bomb of conflict? The beauty of these things is in the balance -- the duality that the conflict represents and the active acknowledgement of it. Wheton says:

Joss Wedon Wesley 2To accept duality is to earn identity. You have, which is a rare thing, that ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor, because it is the key—not only to consciousness-but to real growth. To accept duality is to earn identity. And identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is not just who you are. It is a process that you must be active in. It’s not just parroting your parents or the thoughts of your learned teachers. It is now more than ever about understanding yourself so you can become yourself.

I'm currently writing a feature screenplay for a screenwriting class, and for 8 weeks all I did was write in a composition book about how the story just doesn't make sense -- how my protagonist just doesn't make sense. It wasn't until I was willing to let her own her own contradictions that I had the breakthrough I needed to finish the first act. Film, filmmaking, character, story: none of these things are about acquiescence of the tension. It's about holding it, carrying it -- owning it.

So, as we prepare for graduation, that rewrite, that shot, that edit, that pitch, let's keep this in mind. There is contradiction everywhere: in story, in film, in humankind. Accepting the dichotomy makes for something more dimensional, complicated, and interesting in a pigeonholing world, whether that be the real world or the fictional one you create. And graduates of college/high school/life can all take a page from Whedon's book. He ends his speech with:

The one thing that I wish I’d known and want to say is, don’t just be yourself. Be all of yourselves. Don’t just live. Be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it. And have fun.”

What do you think about Joss Whedon's commencement speech? What words of wisdom did you hear when you graduated that changed your approach to filmmaking, screenwriting, life? Who was your commencement speaker? (Please say Bill Cosby.)

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18 Comments

No wonder why he wrote the avengers.

June 1, 2013 at 8:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gman

The one certainty about Death is that has become a topic that people avoid as Death itself. The amount of comments on this post can be sign of how willing we are to consider it on our so called reality. Like Woody Allen said: " I am not afraid of Death. I just do not want to be there when that happens."
For me the three things we endeavor the most for are an indication of another reality beyond this duality we call Life. For instance, we strive for Happiness, though our experience tells us that even when if we can have financial stability to have it all, we cannot control other living creatures or nature itself to bring an end to our idea of Happiness. Then we pursue Knowledge, with imperfect senses and an intelligence that is very subjective and can be easily confused, by a mirage or religious ideas or unproven theories, from the ancient teachings like the Tree of Life to the Bing Bang, as we recede back in time, everything goes back to a point. Really? Why should a point create a universe? So, there are many points... consider another one: Why a Death generating universe? which bring us to the third thing we try to attain: to continue living. Nobody wants to die, from a young teen full of energy to the octogenarian in a wheelchair connected to a respirator, when facing an ax wielding psycho the will scream "No!"
So we have to conclude we either are all crazy pursuing the unobtainable or subconsciously we might be unto something that seems very tangible, as if we have already experienced that which we are after. So each may bring their understanding on this apparent dichotomy. For me is clear what I perceive my reality to be, just like Mr. Whedon understand his own.
Alas, I can say will be difficult to find another site like NFS, that constantly brings so many topics to the table that will encourage creativity for the independent filmmakers. keep it up!

June 1, 2013 at 10:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Agni Ortiz

Wow, that was a long speech. The best advice I ever received. Embrace the fearlessness of youth. You'll make mistakes technically but creatively you'll never be as free as when time and money aren't an issue. And stay fearless as long as possible and remember! Nobody knows nothing,age just means that they are better at pretending that they know what they are doing. The rule book is written in the sand. Yes I'm drunk. It's early morning where I am, it gives me an elevated sense of importance and overconfidence in the belief that this advice is useful' I'm 99.9% certain that I will read this back in 4 hours and cringe, but what the hell, it's inspiring me as I write this, maybe someone else will be inspired also. It's just really nice not to be commenting about bit rates, crop factors, lens mounts, dynamic range and all that other bollocks. I love this site and I love everyone that contributes to it. Peace!

June 1, 2013 at 11:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Neill Jones

Don't cringe! Great wisdom and advice coming in from readers. Keep it coming!

June 2, 2013 at 12:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée

Don't Cringe "The rule book is written in the sand." - I have never heard it ,and for me (an Old Fart ) it is great. I've always felt that way. As I've gone through life and seen SO may people put SO many rules onto their own lives.
That "fearlessness of youth" you speak of is great ,but it also leads to really Stupid ,life -changing mistakes sometimes. Just put a Little thought into those choices. Every one opens up SO many different paths & roads. Roads you couldn't see before you went down that path.

June 6, 2013 at 4:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dheep'

i think life also as a spiritual journey...(and to have characters do the same)
nice!

June 2, 2013 at 6:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DIO

Thanks Renee.
For those of you who've not seen Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

It's a must:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

June 2, 2013 at 1:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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David F

I second this. I also put Corey Booker's commencement speaker up there in terms of top commencement speeches of all time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZ39FswOyFk

June 2, 2013 at 4:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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neil gaiman commencement. The alpha and most of the omega.

June 5, 2013 at 2:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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brett

Why you mentioned Buffy when he's most known for Firefly? And, probably for Alien Resurrection.
Well, yes, I loved Whedon before he was cool :-)

June 2, 2013 at 8:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Coil! Do you really want me to reveal to everyone my guilty pleasures? Don't do that to me! (but yes -- Firefly AND Serenity -- so excellent.)

June 2, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Firefly.

June 6, 2013 at 10:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DIY

I'm a leaf on the wind... Watch me s

June 2, 2013 at 10:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Natt

Nice job NFS..

I <3 Joss!

June 3, 2013 at 8:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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tbonemain

Don't Cringe "The rule book is written in the sand." - I have never heard it ,and for me (an Old Fart ) it is great. I've always felt that way. As I've gone through life and seen SO may people put SO many rules onto their own lives.
That "fearlessness of youth" you speak of is great ,but it also leads to really Stupid ,life -changing mistakes sometimes. Just put a Little thought into those choices. Every one opens up SO many different paths & roads. Roads you couldn't see before you went down that path.

June 6, 2013 at 4:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dheep'

It seems that these three questions are pretty important:
How did I get here?
Why am I alive or, what is the purpose of my life?
What happens to me when I die?
I'm guessing I'm a minority opinion here when I admit I am a "Christian", but I must say on these fundamental questions Christianity's answers hold up well against other worldviews. I know that doesn't make them true, but the nature of truth. . . , that's a long discussion.
I do like Joss Whedon's advise on losing arguments. Another way of saying it is that without humility, you will never abandon your wrong ideas.
Do these discussions relate to filmmaking? More than you know. I have wasted precious time and sacrificed much sleep and the contribution of hard earned skills to help people make worthless garbage that at best was a waste of time and at worst a destructive influence on those unfortunate enough to have watched it. There is such a thing as good and evil (and yes, a continuum of good, not so good, pretty bad, etc.), and after I started thinking of what I wanted my own children to see (and not to see), I re-calibrated my standards. I hope to use my time, energy and whatever God-given talent I have for good.

June 7, 2013 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Russell Steen

Amen, Russell... Amen

June 7, 2013 at 9:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Cal

Displays Energizing Optimism

August 4, 2013 at 10:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Lisa Dingie