On Thursday, July 23rd 2010, Entertainment Weekly held a panel at Comic-Con entitled “The Visionaries”, which was basically a “discussion with geek gods J. J. Abrams (Star Trek) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) on the future of pop culture” conducted by EW’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen.
“EW presents an in-depth conversation with these two creative geniuses about how technology, gaming, and global culture are reshaping how we tell and consume stories on television, film and the web. Plus: Is the superhero movie waning, or is it on the cusp of reinvention? And what do they think the pop culture universe will look like a decade from now?”
We have transcribed the entire hour-long discussion for those of you who couldn’t make it to the Con. Hit the jump for Part One. Part Two will follow tomorrow.
Moderator: Thanks for coming. Our guests today need little introduction to any of you in this room. Their combined fantasy worlds alone could inspire a four day fan convention in proverbial pop culture Mardi Gras.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog
Maybe we should save the applause for the end. This is a really long resume. Fringe, Mission Impossible. Cloverfield, and Star Trek.
These are the signature works of Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams, but their creative fingerprints have been all over the pop culture of the past 20 years, as they have contributed to all sorts of entertaining joyrides, toy stories, and fun time Armageddon in movies, television, and yes, even comic books.
They produce, write, direct, make music, and have been known to act. And they, like you, are fans. Their work has been inspired by the passion they have for the stories of their youth, and their influences continue to inspire their current work, which is helping to lead us into the future of entertainment.
Don’t you think it would be cool if, like, JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon teamed up and, like, made a movie or a TV show?
Well, they are not.
But I say we bring them out here and bully them into it. Please welcome to the stage JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon.
Moderator: Yo! Thanks for coming.
JJ Abrams: Thanks for having us.
Moderator: The people are excited.
Joss Whedon: Test, test.
Moderator: So you guys like know each other, right?
Joss Whedon: Yes we do. We have met.
JJ Abrams: Back in the day at the WB when we were doing Felicity and you were doing your spectacular shows.
Joss Whedon: Yes, we were…
JJ Abrams: We met at the parties.
Joss Whedon: We think. We don’t remember very well. But we knew each other. We’ve never met.
Moderator: Have you had the opportunity to, like, talk to each often?
JJ Abrams: We’ve hung out.
Joss Whedon: Yeah. We’ve partied.
JJ Abrams: No, we haven’t…not that hard.
Joss Whedon: We haven’t partied. But yeah, we’ve hung out. We’ve had dinner. But we don’t see each other that much. We’re both real busy.
JJ Abrams: But I hear about you through like Drew Goddard and stuff.
Joss Whedon: Yes, Drew Goddard. This entire panel will be about Drew Goddard. He told me to say that.
Moderator: Before we sort of get into the questions, just to let you know, we will have time for questions from you guys, so we’re going to leave that toward the end.
You guys have been to Comic-Con many times. You guys are big fans of the things that you love. What’s the most extreme thing that you guys have done in the name of fandom in your entire pop culture consuming life. JJ, do you want to take that one?
JJ Abrams: The most extreme thing? When I was a kid, I would send fan letters to people that I loved, but usually they were not actors or directors, they were usually like the makeup people. So like, I sent letters to like Dick Smith and Tom Savini. And Dick Smith did, like, The Exorcist. He was one of the greats. And he sent me the tongue from The Exorcist in a box. I was like 14. And I open up this box and there was a tongue with a note, a handwritten note that said: “Put some peanut butter in it, stick it in.” My mom was like, “What the fuck is that?”
JJ Abrams: She was so…So that was mostly my fandom.
Moderator: Do you still have the tongue?
JJ Abrams: Oh yeah. I do. I should have brought the tongue. Shit!
Joss Whedon: There’s no way I can top the tongue.
Moderator: You have nothing better than the tongue?
Joss Whedon: No. I do have an Alien egg. But I had to bury the franchise in order to get it.
Moderator: When did you guys decide that you wanted to be storytellers? What was the inspiration that made you want to do what you guys do today?
Joss Whedon: I decided that JJ wanted to be a storyteller when he was just a young lad…I always wanted to be a storyteller. There’s never been any doubt. I had no idea what form that would take, I just knew I couldn’t make an honest living, because that sounded hard. And I just felt…you know, I had these universes in my head.
I didn’t study writing. I knew I wanted to make films; probably that was what it was going to be. But I knew I’d create them. I didn’t really think about writing them. And then when I started to write television specs, because I actually had to eat food and live under a roof, that’s when I realized, “Oh my God, writing is, and will always be, the thing by which I define myself.
JJ Abrams: I think that for me it was when I was a kid. I was, and I guess still am, the idiot who loved to do magic tricks for my relatives. So I was just always doing things, and they would be like, “Oh, wow! That was amazing!” And, you know, try and convince me they were amazed. But it was sort of that, I guess, feeling of creating an illusion and making people believe something was real that they didn’t expect.
And since I didn’t really want to become a professional magician, although I’m certainly debating it still, the idea of sort of writing the…I guess filmmaking was just a really natural progression and another option to do sort of the same thing in a different way.
Moderator: Not to bring up Drew Goddard again, but he and Bryan K. Vaughan were having an argument about whether comic book nerds or magic nerds were more pathetic. Where do you stand on that?
JJ Abrams: The honest answer is…You could make a joke. I could say that magic nerds, you know…But honestly, I think neither are really pathetic. I think really magic nerds.
Moderator: Well, Brian used the word cape. Did you wear a cap?
JJ Abrams: I didn’t wear a cape.
Moderator: OK. Well then you are cool.
JJ Abrams: And I always wanted a top hat. I never had one of those.
Moderator: Speaking of being a comic book nerd Joss, you…
Joss Whedon: Should we wake everyone up first? Wake up! I didn’t know if we had bored you to death. Sorry.
Moderator: No, they are into it. They are totally into magic nerd stories.
Moderator: Joss, superhero comics, comic books of all stripes—very important to you. And now you are now directing probably one of the most eagerly anticipated superhero movies ever, The Avengers. Is that true?
Joss Whedon: That is not an official thing, because I think Marvel couldn’t afford, like, a press release. So could I just make that an official thing? I’m directing The Avengers!
Joss Whedon: It’s just a gig, you know?
Moderator: Were The Avengers a big part of your comic book reading when you were a kid?
Joss Whedon: Yeah. They were one of the first books. When George Perez was drawing them, they were on Counter Earth, it was a big deal for me, yeah. [xx 8:25]
Moderator: How did the comic books kind of happen for you? Like, how did you start falling in love with them?
Joss Whedon: Just actually in a roundabout way, because my dad was the head writer of the Electric Company, and they were going to do Spidey; they were going to do Spidey stories. So he came home with a bunch of older Spiderman comics when I was about nine. And, you know….Sure, hand your son meth. That’s great. That was it. I never looked back.
Moderator: And that’s how the comic book love…
Joss Whedon: Yeah.
Moderator: And what were kind of the sentimental superhero stories of your youth?
Joss Whedon: You know, there’s so many that it would take forever. But I’m just going to go with the…Actually, The Avengers Annual and The Thing two in one annual that Jim Starlin did with the Death of Warhawk. That was, for me, the beginning of the road of comics. That was the most underrated piece, I think, in the whole Marvel universe.
Moderator: JJ, were you into superhero comics at all?
JJ Abrams: I was, but not as much as Joss. But I worked in a comic store when I was a kid; it was one of the first jobs I had. I was just 15 years old, I got a job in this store in LA. And the first day on the job, they guy, he was a really weird dude who owned the store, I don’t know what he was on. But he gave me the keys, and he’s like, “I’ll be back. I’ll see you tomorrow,” and left. I was like alone in the store with the keys. He didn’t even tell me how to lock the door.
So I kind of wanted to steal some of the older Spidey books that were there, and I didn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it…So I would read books there, and I got into it, but I was never into it as…I was more like into The Twilight Zone and more TV and movie stuff.
Moderator: At one point you did write a script for a Superman movie and it didn’t get made.
JJ Abrams: It was very well received.
Moderator: But is that a genre you would be interested in returning to, like superheroes? Or is that…?
JJ Abrams: Yeah, of course. Sure. I would be open to anything. For sure.
Moderator: Joss, is it too early to talk about what your take is on The Avengers? Even if you could just sum it up in a line?
Joss Whedon: I have to have a take?
Moderator: Yeah! It’s helpful when you are a director to have a take on it.
Joss Whedon: OK. It is a little early. I am still writing an outline. I am still in that stage of reworking, reworking, reworking. I will say that the thing that I love about it, the thing that made me excited to do it was just how completely counterintuitive it is. It makes no sense. These people should not even be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that, to me, is the very definition of family.
Moderator: JJ, you grew up making films on the Super 8 camera. You also grew up loving the films of Steven Spielberg. And now you are making a movie called Super 8 with Steven Spielberg. Is that like a total coincidence?
JJ Abrams: It’s sort of a dream come true, honestly. The strange thing…this is a weird story. When I was 16 years old, Matt Reeves and I…Matt directed Cloverfield, and we created Felicity together. Matt and I were at a Super 8 film festival in LA. And the LA Times wrote a story about it that came out the next day.
And we got a phone call that day from Steven Spielberg’s assistant, who at the time was Kathleen Kennedy. And she said, “Steven made films when he was your age, and they are damaged. The splices are sort of coming off, the little tape splices. Would you guys be interested in repairing them?” And Matt and I were like, “Yeah, we’ve got finals, but we could probably also repair Steven Spielberg’s movies that he made.” And they said, “Oh, great. Well we’ll drop them off.”
So someone comes and drops off these two original films, Firelight and Escape to Nowhere, that Steven Spielberg made when he was a kid. And these are the…There are no copies. These are the original movies. And it says on the film, which, of course we watched them, it says: “Written and directed by Steve Spielberg.”
And I was like, “Matt, we must take the frame of this. We have to.” And he was like, “No, no! We can’t do that! They’ll know!” So we didn’t steal it. Anyway, a lot of almost theft in my childhood.
So we repaired these movies. They were shot on regular 8, not Super 8. And we like peeled off every splice and put it back on. And just watching these movies that he made, it was insane, and it was just so inspiring.
I had no idea why this was happening. It felt like a complete joke. Because isn’t there like a building somewhere at Universal that is designed to house the team that restores Steven Spielberg’s films that he made when he was a kid?
So we repaired these movies and they picked them up. They gave us $300, and that’s when I knew why they had us do it.
But anyway, years later…this was a couple years ago…I called Steven and I said, “I have an idea for a movie called Super 8.” And I just sort of pitched him. And he was very excited about it. Because I knew, in a weird sort of way, having worked on those movies, I had a sense of what he had done when he was a kid.
Moderator: What can you say about Super 8? Is this also like a little too soon or can you say anything?
JJ Abrams: I mean it’s way too early. I would love to show you footage, but we haven’t shot any yet. My favorite thing about the movie though is that someone will go to the theater and see the trailer and hopefully say, “Oh my God, that looks bitchin” and have no idea they are starring in the movie. So we’re shooting in September. We haven’t shot the movie yet.
Moderator: What has been the collaboration then, like, with Steven so far?
JJ Abrams: It’s unbelievable. It really is surreal. I mean because there is a genre element to the movie, it’s impossible to work with him and not constantly reference the work he has done, and you don’t want to sound like you are being a sicko fan. But it’s been incredible, and he’s been beyond helpful. And the movie is, I think, very much in the spirit of some of the Amblin films that he made years ago.
So it is a dream come true. And I couldn’t imagine working on something that is more sort of personal and also hyper real. It’s not like the movie is some kind of autobiography, but there is a lot of stuff in it that feels very personal.
Moderator: Will a film called Super 8 be in 3D?
JJ Abrams: No.
JJ Abrams: Very interesting. You’re welcome.
Moderator: Let’s talk about 3D filmmaking, because that’s been a big storyline in movies this year. Are you guys fans of the current 3D? I mean do you like 3D as a movie going experience? Not as moviemakers, but as moviegoers?
Joss Whedon: Honestly, I’m totally into it. I love it. I really think it’s…the technology is really good. It kind of puts you in the space, it doesn’t give me a big headache. And I think it’s being done so much now that we are past the “eat the pancake”, you know, sort of poke things at the screen era of 3D [xx 16:00].
There are definitely movies that shouldn’t be in 3D, like, I don’t know, Cabin in the Woods…
[laughter and applause]
Joss Whedon: Although I was watching once a long time ago and I was like, “You know, this may be OK in 3D”. It’s all about space! The thing that drives me crazy about 3D though is, when you put the glasses on, everything gets dim. Like, it all feels a little sort of gray and muted, and I feel like I want to see the vibrant…I want to see the movie. And I feel like…
You get into it, but for me it always has that…My brain adjusts to it after a while, but it always has that…Those first few minutes, you are always like, “Oh, wow, this seems like less than the experience…” You know, like an IMAX experience to me, which is my favorite kind of experience because it’s so immersive…
But the 3D thing to me, I’m not totally on board. But I’m sure it’s too late for me, so…
Moderator: I mean as storytellers, are there any opportunities…I mean are you writing to 3D in any way in your current projects?
JJ Abrams: Writing in 3D?
Moderator: Writing to 3D with 3D in mind.
Joss Whedon: Me?
JJ Abrams: No. There’s definitely no “And then, the sharp thing comes right at him!”
Joss Whedon: The thing is, if you are making an action movie, 3D, it lends itself to that anyway. Things are going to come at the screen, things are going to…You are going to want to get that sense of space. You are going to want to get that sense of where they are and how they are coming at each other. It’s going to be that kind of experience anyway. It’s going to work in 2D…the movie has to work in 2D; most people will see it that way.
So you just sort of…You will take it into account ultimately when you are framing, but I don’t think it would…It doesn’t really change the way I shoot. There are a few things; you want a sort of sense of depth of field that you get with the shorter lenses, your wider lenses…I like those anyway. You don’t cut as much because, you know, it messes with the eye a little bit; I like that anyway. You know, you want things to be coming at people so it’s exciting; I also want that. So it hasn’t changed anything except it’s going to make it harder to choose.
JJ Abrams: Years ago, I was in New York and I was kind of a little sick, and it was late at night, and I turned the TV on. I wasn’t feeling very well. And I was switching the channels and this movie came on that was about a bunch of young adults, and they were acting really weird, and they were really scared about something. But it kept doing weird jump cuts, and I had no idea what they were scared of. And then they would like offer someone something, and they were like, “Here dude, want some food?” And they push it right out, and the person is like, “Sure, thanks!”, and they take it. I was like, “What the hell?”
And they were talking about, like, these romantic scenes that didn’t exist. And I realized it was Friday the 13th 3D with no 3D, no violence, no sex. Everything was cut out.
And it was actually better.
Moderator: Joss, can you talk a little bit about… You mentioned Cabin in the Woods. Can you talk a little bit about why the 3D kind of conversion came about, and when are we going to see this film?
Joss Whedon: You know…I’ll answer the second question first. The fate of the studio that has the movie is in flux. I mean they have put James Bond on hold, and I don’t think we come before him. So we really don’t know what. The film is finished.
The 3D thing came because they looked at the schedule and said, “Oh my God, every horror movie is going to be 3D forever, or for the next few years, and so we should convert it.” Now, that, by the way, may still happen.
But Drew shot something very specifically in a classical mode. Like, he went away from really in your face and trying to keep things sort of…You know, we were studying John Carpenter, and really keep the suspense, and make it almost a little old fashioned.
So what we are hoping to do is be the only horror movie when we come out that is not in 3D, so that we can advertise: “2D! You believe things can move across the screen!” [xx 20:21] It’s going to be…you know, it’s going to revolutionize the industry.
Moderator: Last question about 3D for you guys, which is, do you think that this is just a fad, or do you think it is kind of really changing the way we are going to see movies, it’s changing the way that, like, young kids going to movies, what they expect from film? I mean is it here to stay, do you think?
JJ Abrams: I have no idea.
Moderator: You have no idea?
JJ Abrams: I really don’t. My guess is that it will continue. The equipment will be there, the technology will get better. It will continue. Not everything will be made in 3D, but a lot will. I have no idea.
Joss Whedon: I don’t think it’s a fad. And I do think it is kind of extraordinarily immersive when it works. But everything is always going to built for a zillion different platforms, and many of them are simply not going to be 3D. So it’s going to be there, but it’s not going to, like, take over completely. Watch, like three years from now my phone will [xx 21:20].
Moderator: Joss, a couple of years ago you made a little thing called Dr. Horrible.
Moderator: And you did that for many reasons. You created it at a time when the television writers were on strike. And there was a lot of talk about whether or not the Internet could be sort of a viable alternative for TV writers as a mode of expression or a business model. Looking back on that, how do you feel about the Internet opportunity? And is that like a future mode for you to do more?
Joss Whedon: Well, gosh I hope so. I definitely feel like I missed my window a little bit. I was very…After Dr. Horrible, I sort of, kind of was like waiting for everybody else to show up at the party. I was like, “OK, now we’re going to get this all together. We’re going to make a ton of Internet stuff. It’s going to be really interesting.”
Dr. Horrible made money. It made money for me; I was the studio. But also for the writers, the actors—all of them were profit participants. So it really worked as a model by which people can actually go ahead and make a profit on the Internet. People always say, “Well there’s no money there at all. There is less.” Obviously there is much less than can be had in movies and TV, but it can be done.
And I was proud of that model because, you know, it benefited many of the artists who worked on it. And me, as a studio, it benefited more. So that was great. But then I really did think, “Well people will see this and want to get it on it.” But the studios, their views of how it would work extraordinarily old fashioned, and I kind of sat on my hands.
We were trying, obviously, to create, oh, say a sequel to Dr. Horrible. Part of the other problem was that we all had jobs. That was also my fault.
But, you know, I was just at the cusp of sort of getting something, and I don’t even know…This isn’t something I’ve ever mentioned at all in public, but I started to work on an Internet piece with Warren Ellis called Wastelanders that I was going to direct. And then Warren Ellis saw that I was doing The Avengers and said, “OK, I’ll just wait then.”
So, you know, there is a bunch of stuff that I would love to do. I think there is a way to make it work, but you have to be able, and I’m in this position, to lower your expectations and to work in a modular fashion where you don’t put everything on the table at once, you just keep building where it builds and scaling back where it doesn’t.
Moderator: JJ, does this interest you at all, like creating something like…?
JJ Abrams: Yes, very much so. In fact, there are a couple of things I’m working on right now, and for a lot of it I think we will be sort of following Joss’s lead on that . To me, the technology that exists is…it’s remarkable what you can do…You know, we shot a commercial for a Star Trek DVD literally using the camera that I used to film my kid’s soccer games. You know, the Canon 5D Mark II. The fact that you can use that camera and it looks the way it does, it has the lenses that you can get, and you can go and rent one, you can go and buy one, someone you know has one. It’s like you can actually make movies now.
So for me, doing something like Star Trek, clearly you need the resources of a studio. And also, they own Star Trek.
But when you have an idea for something and you’ve got friends…Like, I think my guess is that what Joss realized was he is working with the people he would hire at the studio. He knows them. They are friends. Why not ask them if they want to do this? They can be owners of this thing. They can put their heart and soul into it. And it’s a shorter, typically, investment of time.
So to me it’s a hugely exciting thing. And there’s actually someone here…we haven’t actually signed all the documents yet, but there is someone who has a table here on the floor who has got a series of characters, and we’re actually working with her to create one of these things now that will hopefully be out online soon.
…. To be continued tomorrow!
photo credit: willbib