‘The Avengers’ Set Interview

by Peter Sciretta for /Film | April 2012

Question: So everyone that we have spoken with has been talking about how great the script is.
Joss Whedon: And now it’s my turn.

Even Downey has said it’s not tinkering, or maybe not tinkering much.
There’s not tinkering and then there’s “not tinkering.”

Yeah, no everybody seems to be on board. I’m still working on it. I hope to finish it sometime before the DVD release. (Laughs) It’s been very fluid, but it always is with a movie anyway and especially a movie where the perspective changes nine times every scene. I swore I would never make Serenity again and here I am.

A lot of writers, comic writers, are afraid of the The Avengers, because there are so many characters in the books in general.  Did you know you could do it from doing Serenity?
You know Serenity had been very hard and I literally said “I’m never doing this again, a bunch of characters who already know each other and are established, but have to be introduced to new people” and all of that… But I didn’t fear it at all, I just regret it very much.

I walked in and I was like “I get why they should be a team. This is exciting!” But then you have to explain it to the audience, too; apparently they matter. It’s Vulcan chess, there’s just so many things. There’s a ripple effect on everything you do, but as long as you’re respectful of everybody’s perspective and everybody has a moment where they shine or hopefully several and everybody is speaking from who they are, you’re not going to fall too hard.

Is there one sequence that you’re really proud of or really excited to work on?
I’m not sure there’s any one particular sequence that I would say “Well yeah, nailed that!” For me, honestly my favorite moments are the scenes where I get to pair up two characters you might not expect to see together and see them go at each other whether they are getting along or not. There’s always friction and those scenes are probably not why everybody might rush to the theater, but they are the most fun when you really get to explore it with the actors and the space. The action is not small and some of the gags we’ve come up with are enormous and delightful and I’m proud of them and excited by them, because I like to live in that world too, but when you are in those quieter moments, that’s when I am just in heaven.

Was there a particular scene that you started with? Or a moment where you said, “I have to write this before I write anything else to show that I can do this.”
You know it started out basically with Kevin telling me “We know the basic structure of how they come together, what works, what doesn’t work, and how we see the climax,” which was nice, because he gave me a basic skeleton of three acts that I knew I had to hang on and then it was just a question of “How do I get there? How do I earn that? What moments would cause these people to be in that situation?”

I’m very fierce about making sure that everything is motivated, that nothing is by chance or misunderstanding or coincidence.  If people are going to fight or face a conflict or an enemy it has to be because of something they believe and something they’ve done as opposed to “And now we clock this fight. And now check that box.” The whole thing was to avoid that.

I wrote more St. Crispin’s Day speeches for Captain then you can shake a rattle at, none of which I think are in the film. I wrote monologues for all the characters and long scenes for all of them, bits of which wormed their way back in and many of which fell by the wayside, but all of which informed the characters. 

Scarlett said that you had given them a very early draft and then they were able to come back with some notes and they each spoke with you to adjust some things. Can you talk to some of the things that they brought to the table?
You know this is such a perfect time to make fun of actors, but the fact is going into this project knowing that it had been cast largely before I came onboard with the exception of Jeremy [Renner] and Mark [Ruffalo] and some of the supporting roles, I knew that I had a contract with these people to respect what they had already done and because this is all part of a grander plan and I did have for example those structural elements set.  I had this cast set, I knew who these characters were, because I had been reading about them since I was 11…

So usually I’ll just go and write things and say, “Why don’t you say this? I’ll hire you to say this.” But in this case having a dialogue with the actors was enormously useful, because they all had their own back stories or questions about their back stories and I could literally sit someone down and say “What are you looking for in this? Tell me what it is that you don’t want to repeat or you feel like you didn’t explore.” I would lay out my basic ideas about how I saw their characters. I think my favorite response was Sam Jackson’s. I told him how I saw Nick Fury and his role in the movie and was like “Is there anything you’re looking for or anything you particularly want to avoid?” He was like “Hell no. Thank you for asking. I don’t want to run.”

Then on set he pointed to the page, like “It says “Fury runs.” “I know, it’s just this one time…”

What’s the most iconic moment for you personally in The Avengers comics? Were you able to incorporate that into the script?
The truly iconic stuff from the comics isn’t really in the film. It’s part of the grand Marvel tradition to steal from all of the comics and all of the eras. For me The Avengers exist mostly in my heart because of the Jim Starlin AVENGERS ANNUAL with Thanos and Warlock and THE THING two and one that followed it. That defined why I love the The Avengers more than anything. Obviously that was a long time ago and Moon Dragon is not in the film.

But since then I think the most important stuff, Civil War, Ultimates… They’ve amped up the undercurrent of tension between The Avengers and that makes it really interesting to write, but when it comes to the iconic moments you sort of have to take all of those things and distill them the same way the costumers do… Distill them and then find your own. I mean ultimately for me the most iconic moment in the movie is “assuming they do,” when they assemble.

I would think Bruce Banner and The Hulk are the toughest part, because we have seen two other movies with two other actors playing him. How have you been working on that and trying to develop your own Bruce Banner with Mark?
Well I had a very clear conception of what I wanted Bruce Banner to be and part of that was Mark Ruffalo. I was like “I want somebody who just opens himself to an audience who can’t help it and who just takes you along everywhere he goes.” The other was Bill Bixby and that’s something that Mark and I both talked about, it’s like I felt that the performances in the other movies were very internal and the movies themselves lead to that, because they were all about Bruce Banner and all about this and… you know the TV show was “I have a problem and I help other people and I live with that problem” and so that’s sort of the way I wanted to approach it.

Mark and I spent a lot of time in the very beginning talking about rage, how it feels, how it manifests, what causes it, what it feels like afterwards, just the nuts and bolts of the emotion itself, but in terms of the character it was very clear that we wanted to just have somebody who had gotten past where he was in those movies, so that when you meet him he is somebody who has internalized what went on in those movies to the extent that he’s someone you like and are interested in. If you’ve seen those movies, this would be a natural next step. If you haven’t, you’ll get the guy and you’ll get why he’s a good guy.

There’s a lot of second unit on this. How involved have you been in storyboarding exactly what they are shooting?
It’s a weird system; because they had a release date before they had a script, so the moment I came on I’m like “You know I think we could open with this…” “Great. It’s storyboarded with animatics. Here it is!” Which is necessary when you are moving at this pace and also can be very frustrating, because you’re basically having shots called out by other people, which is not how I usually operate, but when they are good it’s like “That will be fine. I’ll take that, thank you! I’ll take credit for that.” (Laughs)

There are a couple of sequences… There’s at least one sequence in this where the second unit director gets there before I do which is delicate, but everything that they do is very heavily storyboarded, animaticked, pre-vised, or you know called out and John is really inventive, really precise, and really caring. He and I will spend a lot of time talking about how I’m shooting a scene and what I’m looking for and so his stuff comes in really excitingly and really seamlessly.

I’ve never had a second unit. I shot my own second unit on Serenity. I shot second unit on Cabin in the Woods, so it’s new for me to hand that other, but when it’s this big you’re going to have to and I have enormous confidence in my crew.

Is it true that you pitched in on Capain America: The First Avenger in terms of some of the dialogue?
Yeah, I did. I did a dialogue polish which was really, really fun, because I got to write 40’s dialogue. You know Captain America: The First Avenger was a movie that just worked for me. The script was great, the structure… it’s gorgeous, but they said “We think we can push it in certain places.” I was like “sign me up.” “What? I have to make The Avengers? No, it’ll be fine.”

How much of your polish was you kind of prepping for The Avengers and specifically the Steve Rogers character? Were you building something in there that was going to lead into this?
I didn’t like sneak any particular Avengers easter eggs in, but I did spend a lot of time with the character which for me was important, because Steve’s perspective in this world is very much the audience’s. He is looking at this world with fresh eyes and he is not impressed. His feeling of disconnection is something that’s going to be laced throughout the film. It’s a film about lonely people, because I’m making it and my pony only does one trick. (Laughs) He’s a classic man out of time in the very literal sense and so to have worked on his 40’s incarnation, even a little bit, was a nice introduction and kept be grounded in his perspective.

Now in this movie you’ve got all of these characters who Marvel needs for future sequels and future franchises, so it’s not like you can kill off Iron Man.
“Awkward moment…” [Everyone Laughs]

So A) we know you like to kill people off for drama in your movies and TV shows, but B) just for stakes on a thing like this how do you make stakes when the audience knows that the seven main characters aren’t going anywhere?
You know it is a struggle. How do you make stakes when they are all really strong and really tall and handsome? Ultimately the answer is always what’s at stake has to be more than their lives. It has to be something bigger externally and smaller internally like they have to be going through an internal struggle that matches what they are facing on the outside, so that even if they survive, they may be compromised to a point where they can’t recover and if you have that and you really push them towards that, you push them towards something that is frightening and unlikable and a real choice that they can’t necessarily deal with, then you have some stake, you have emotional stakes that go beyond the hitty and the punchy.

So it’s the risk of characters losing themselves more than characters losing their lives?
Yeah.

But there is some loss of life. We saw that scene before that seems to indicate that somebody didn’t make it that seems to have particularly shaken up Tony.
Yeah, it’s a sad little film really.

I’ve got the impression it’s a very big movie, like a huge movie compared to any of the other movies so far. What’s the danger of making movies so big that Marvel cannot release another movie, because they will just seem minor. Like if they do Iron Man 3, it’s going to be like “Oh, it’s not The Avengers…”
That’s a good question. The fact is one of the things that I was very adamant about and I don’t think people were really fighting me on it, is that these movies have their own internal workings, they have their own support system and feel. I’m like “First of all this can’t feel like any of those movies and second of all you have to take them away from their support systems.” That’s a good way to make a team, it’s like they all go to camp, and second of all they said “Do we want to put Jane Foster in the movie?” I’m like “Yeah, that’d be great. Then the writer of Thor 2 will come and kill me with a trowel, because their first meeting will be ‘I haven’t seen you, except that one time.”

There are iconic things going on in their own stories that I’m not going to touch. They have to step out of their worlds into the The Avengers world and hopefully this thing works on a big scale, but because there are so many of them everybody only gets so much juice and then they have to step aside, the other movies have a much easier through line… It’s never easy, but a simpler through line of that one person’s journey where they really get to explore that person on a level that in this movie I’m just never going to get to.

This will have to affect those movies. Obviously Jane hasn’t seen Thor, but he’s here busy fighting whatever he is fighting. She must be seeing him on TV like “How come you haven’t said hi to me?”
Right, “You never call!”

It’s got to affect them, because of the things going on.
Yeah, you can’t walk away completely, but I try to do as little collateral damage as possible. You do have to take them to a place they haven’t been and they have to have come back from there in their next movie, but it’s a fine line. I guess first “Do no harm” is now the screenwriters’ creed and the second is “F** sh* up.”

With Iron Man 2, Favreau talked about how Marvel came in and wanted him to put certain elements in there for Avengers to set that up. Are there elements that you have to or are planting in Avengers to maybe set something up later on?
Not really. I mean there’s a couple of things that I’m like “This could maybe point to what would happen later, long after I’ve retired and live in a tree…” But we are getting it here and I think it can be the death of a movie if you’re just smelling “franchise” and all of a sudden you’re making Jumper or Eragon or The Seeker and you really have to just concentrate… This is the culmination a grand plan that’s gone on for years. Beyond that there may be seeds planted, but we don’t know what will grow.

You are a big comic book guy, you must have a few maybe minor Marvel characters that you’re fond of. While you are maybe not planting seeds for sequels, are you doing any sort of easter eggs like other characters on a street corner or whatever?
Not really. You know, it’s so hard for me just to get this job done that I really don’t have time to get cute. If they tell me “We need… ” that’s about as tricksy as I’m getting. There are so many and it would be so easy, but it’s also a way to paint yourself into a corner if you make reference to somebody and then suddenly you’re like “I want to use that guy, but he knows that guy… Oh, what have I done? I had a cute little easter egg that’s boned a screenplay.” They are dangerous waters.

You talk about the other villains in this film. What you were looking for?
Well they handed me Tom Hiddleston and I didn’t really carp after that, because I had seen rough cuts of Thor. I had actually seen Tom at the Donmar Warehouse playing Cassio in OTHELLO a few years ago and so I knew him from that and I was really excited when they said… Because Loki was the grand sort of beginning of The Avengers back in the day and so to have him watch the beautiful performance he gave in Thor and then to know “Now I get to take him to some serious ass evil and build him up” was really exciting. We talked about different secondary villains and I’m not really going to talk about where we landed on that, because Loki really is the prime mover and Tom was primally moving.

Can you talk about the first day of shooting? Did the enormity of this hit you?
There was a time, there was a moment a couple weeks after I had taken the job when I suddenly went “Agh” and my wife just turned to me and said, “Honey, it’s just the next story.” I went, “Okay thanks. I’m back.” That was it, because ultimately it is.

The financial burden is not on me. As I have said many times, “The first weekend is your job, the second weekend is mine. If the story is compelling, if I got it right, if people want to come back to it, yay!” I can’t really concern myself with the numbers or I would just go “banoonoos.” They are large, but it is.

It’s always just a story. It’s like “Do you care? If so, we scored. If not, it doesn’t matter to me if it succeeds or not.” And I found in the first couple of weeks of production that it was more like making an internet musical than anything I’ve ever done. I was completely at the mercy of everybody’s schedules and you know we were constantly having to adjust what we were doing based on what we could get when and it was very bizarre. It was sort of both ends of the spectrum are exactly the same. There’s a ton of circumstance that you have to dance around and you just adapt.

What are your musical tastes for this? Is it going to be a big bombastic score? Are there going to be some metal tunes in it?
I don’t see metal working in this a lot unless Tony is playing it. Everybody has got their own source, their own vibe. For me I do think of this as a classical movie, not bombastic. I don’t want to hit people over the head, but I do look to the John Williams School with not necessarily the giant march so much as the really soulful rueful thing that is character specific, is specific to the moment and isn’t just a sort of room tone of emotion, but at the same time… Again, it comes from Cap and that feeling of what we had and what we’ve lost and how these people are going to try to regain it.

Can you get Giacchino?
I don’t know. Can you? Do you know him? Can you call him?

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in /Film, April.2012.

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