In a Tribeca Talk, Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo discussed Whedon's love for writing, how scripts that don't get made are like "masturbating," and more.
Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo are thick as thieves. They first bonded over a four-hour lunch—and later on wrestling mats—not long after Whedon signed on as director of Marvel's Avengers and Ruffalo agreed to play the Hulk. The film became both a critical success and a blockbuster hit.
"The moment I started writing, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is it. This is my true love. This is why I’m on the planet if there is any reason at all.'"
Sitting together onstage, the banter came easily. "So you started out as a writer…" Ruffalo said, and Whedon jumped in: "I came late to writing. All I knew is that wanted to be an artist—and by that I mean not really work."
Mark laughed, "I did the same thing. Then we bullshitted our way here. And [the Tribeca audience is] actually sitting here listening to us!"
You can watch the entire conversation below.
1. Above all, he identifies as a writer
"Writing is perfect joy," said Whedon. "The macro and the micro, having ideas, then actually writing the scenes once you figure out what they need to be. The moment I started writing, I was like, 'Oh my god, this is it. This is my true love. This is why I’m on the planet if there is any reason at all.'"
Whedon made it sound easy, but Ruffalo knew there was more to it. "You come from a family of writers," he said. And slowly, over the course of an hour, Ruffalo coaxed his friend to open up: Whedon’s journey toward self-awareness has not been without pain.
"I was raised by an angry pack of comedy writers," Whedon said. "Angry, jolly, and often drunk." Whedon’s father and grandfather wrote for film and TV; they also wrote off-Broadway musicals. His mother was an aspiring novelist. "They were all theater geeks. Occasional actors. My mom got a telegram from the playwright Moss Hart, inviting her to audition. She framed it, but she had three kids to raise, and became a teacher instead."
2. ...But he was once a royal theater geek
"I was a theater geek, just like my parents," said Whedon. In high school, he even got to sing for the Queen of England. "I still think performing in front of a live audience is the greatest feeling you can have. But theater wasn’t for me. I was always cast as the sidekick or the villain. I was very short. People were mean to me so I stopped." He looks down. "I wish I hadn’t."
3. Growing up, Truffaut's Hitchcock was his Bible
Whedon's parents loved film almost as much as they loved theater. They took him to see movies that were "wildly inappropriate" for his age; he saw The Exorcist at age nine. But this exposure lent itself to a great cinephile education.
"We watched Nosferatu, Grand Illusion, The Seventh Seal… and then I discovered Star Wars," he said. "And The Shining. And it occurred to me: somebody decided to do this! That sort of set everything in motion— and right after that I got Truffaut’s Hitchcock. That was my Bible. That and comic books."
"If no one buys your script.... you’re just telling yourself stories. Like when you masturbate."
4. Comic books = Shakespeare
"You see parallels between comic books and Shakespeare?" Ruffalo said. "What is it that they share, some kind of grand struggle?"
"Shakespeare was absolutely about the grand struggles—kings, queens, gods, fairies—but he brought it all down to earth," explained Whedon. "That was his genius. There’s no way that Stan Lee and those guys weren’t influenced by Shakespeare. Shakespeare is everywhere! He understood what we’re made of. And he knew how to write: he invented a lot of the structures and rhythms that we use today."
5. He 'masturbated' 10 unproduced scripts
"When I got out of college, I knew I wanted to make movies— to tell stories— but I had no particular plan," remembers Whedon. "I knew I wasn’t good with a camera, so I fell back on writing. I wrote ten scripts, 100+ pages each, and none of them were ever made. It felt like masturbation: if no one buys your script, if it never comes to fruition or gets shared with an audience, you’re just telling yourself stories. Like when you masturbate."
6. He learned how to tell stories by becoming a script doctor
After his failed attempts at screenplay writing, Whedon became a script doctor for movies such as diverse as Speed, Waterworld, Twister, and X-Men. He also served as a staff writer on sitcoms like Roseanne and Parenthood.
"I kept writing spec scripts, and gradually, I improved," said Whedon. "I remember the moment: I was writing Alien Resurrection, and I realized: 'Oh, this is a metaphor. The only way this will work is if I feel the way [Ripley] feels.' That was the beginning of becoming a storyteller instead of a yarn spinner."
"I chilled the fuck out and remembered that it’s a collaborative process. That’s when directing became fun. At least some of the time."
7. Buffy saw him hit his stride
"I first wrote Buffy as a film script, and the movie was made in ‘92," Whedon said. "But then a few years later— just when I was finishing up my work on Toy Story— Gail Berman suggested it could be a TV show, and we did it."
Toy Story was released in 1995; it earned Whedon a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The TV version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer followed, and from 1997 to 2003, it was a huge cult hit.
8. Even though his films aren't 'Sundance-y,' he strives to humanize
"Your writing isn’t exactly naturalistic," Ruffalo pointed out. Whedon smiled. "I admit, I don’t have a very ‘Sundance-y’ vibe. Nobody in my script is gonna go on a road trip and reconcile with their family… unless, of course, it’s an evil road trip."
"I say everything out loud while I’m writing, so I can hear when it feels really awkward or abrupt or wrong."
"Your work is, however, incredibly humanistic," Ruffalo continued. "You have a universality in your people, even when they’re superheroes." Whedon was pleased to hear this. "Humanizing is important to me," he said. "I’m always doing something large and dire in my scripts. Some big concept drives me, but I always try to humanize it, bring it back down to earth."
This is why dialogue matters so much to Whedon. "It's not just the content, but the musicality of a phrase," he said. "I’m very attuned to how it’s going to roll off the tongue and into the next line, in terms of meaning and rhythm. In part because I’m a wanna-be actor, I say everything out loud while I’m writing, so I can hear when it feels really awkward or abrupt or wrong."
9. He became a director in order to 'protect his material'
Whedon’s first gigs as a director were a series of Buffy episodes—in part because he couldn’t bear how other directors and actors chose to interpret his scripts.
"The Age of Ultron was difficult: I felt so beaten down by process, by conflicts with Marvel, exhaustion."
"A lot of writers become directors to protect their material," he observed, "and frankly, after what happened to Alien Resurrection, anyone would feel that way. Even with Buffy... Yes, that was a successful series – but there were TV directors I had to ‘control,’ and that led to a lot of resentment."
"I was afraid of doing it myself at first," continued Whedon. "I hadn’t studied directing. I thought there was some secret language they all knew that I didn’t, so I felt like a fraud."
"What changed?" Ruffalo asked.
"When I started, I was in constant conflict with people, trying to make them say and do things exactly as I wrote them," said Whedon. "Then, as my work began to be recognized—validated—I began to feel better. Basically, I chilled the fuck out and remembered that it’s a collaborative process. That’s when directing became fun. At least some of the time.”
"Why is my avatar an adolescent girl with superpowers? Why do I tell that story over and over again?"
10. Avengers: The Age of Ultron was a difficult process
"There are some things that I’m proud of, and others that don’t meet my expectations," Whedon said. "The Age of Ultron was difficult: I felt so beaten down by process, by conflicts with Marvel, exhaustion…. But it wasn’t all bad. I got to make— for the second time— an absurdly personal movie about my views on humanity, in very esoteric and bizarre ways, for hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s so bonkers and beautiful that Marvel gave me that opportunity, not just once, but twice!"
11. He makes every character a part of him
It took Whedon decades to discover that all of the characters he has created contain parts of him— and Ruffalo knew this. "You write these beautiful, powerful, vulnerable women and you do it again and again."
"I’ve been asking myself why I do that for years!" said Whedon. "Why is my avatar an adolescent girl with superpowers? Why do I tell that story over and over again? Everything I write is about power and helplessness." He shook his head, almost embarrassed. "It wasn’t until four years after Buffy’s run ended that I really just went 'Oh. I was Buffy the whole time! I’m Xander before he started getting laid.'"
"I had no idea I was such a dick. I accessed this terrible person. I was so happy that I had this darkness in me."
“I think a lot of it has to do with me being tiny and helpless," Whedon continued. "I had terrifying older brothers, a terrifying father, I knew I was on my own and had no skills. I got mugged every time I left the house. Like people were waiting in line: 1 in 60 New Yorkers has already mugged me. I spent my childhood creating these narratives in my head, where these little tiny people kicked ass. The journey to power is the narrative that sustains me."
12. ...Especially the Hulk, who is basically Whedon
Before playing him, Ruffalo and Whedon had many conversations about who the Hulk was. "That line: ‘I’m always angry.’ That was one of my favorite things about The Avengers," said Whedon. "When I wrote it I was like, 'Boom, yeah. Drop the pen.' And you know why I think that? Because I believe that a guy could feel that way. Four months after that movie came out, something happened and I was like, 'Oh! It’s me.' I’m always angry. I had no idea I was writing about myself."
13. His next movie is very, very different
"Wait 'till you see what I’m writing now," Whedon teased. "It’s definitely a departure. Not from the themes I care about, but from the kind of storytelling I’ve done. It’s super good. I wrote some exploratory stuff, found myself going to places I didn’t know I could get to. I had no idea I was such a dick. I accessed this terrible person. I was so happy that I had this darkness in me."
"And that’s what’s good about it," he continued. "It’s remedial, both for me and the audience. It’s what you call the ‘humanist’ part of my dialogue: an examination of the human condition. It’s how I connect with other people. I think that’s what movies are: they’re connectors. They’re not just what I write, or my intention as a director. They’re not just your feelings about a particular character. They’re not any one group of crew members or actors or audience. They’re not even my vision vs. a funder’s agenda. They’re the frisson that happens when you bring those things together. That’s when it gets to be art."