Scriptwriter, television producer, and feature film director
Born Joseph Hill Whedon, June 23, 1964, in New York, NY; son of Tom Whedon (a television scriptwriter) and Lee Stearns (a teacher); married Kai Cole (an architect), late 1980s; children: two. Education: Wesleyan University, Connecticut, film studies degree, 1987.
Addresses: Home —Los Angeles, CA. Production company —Mutant Enemy Productions, PO Box 900, Beverly Hills, CA 90213.
Scriptwriter for television, including: Roseanne, ABC, 1989; Parenthood, NBC, 1990. Screenwriter for films, including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992; Speed, 1994; The Getaway, 1994; The Quick and the Dead, 1995; Toy Story, 1995; Waterworld, 1995; Twister, 1996; Alien: Resurrection, 1997. Wrote and produced television shows, including: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The WB and UPN, 1997-2003; Angel, The WB, 1999-2004; Firefly, FOX, 2002. Made feature film directorial debut with Serenity, 2005.
Awards: Annie Award for best individual achievement in writing, for Toy Story, 1996; Viewers for Quality Television Founder's Award, 2000; Saturn Award, best genre network series, for Buffy, 2001.
Joss Whedon became a hero in television's cult-pop underground world after creating the hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show,
Born Joseph Hill Whedon on June 23, 1964, the future scriptwriter grew up in Manhattan alongside two older brothers and two half-brothers. That Whedon ended up in television is not surprising considering his father and grandfather both worked in the field. Whedon's father, Tom, wrote for Benson, The Golden Girls, Electric Company, and Captain Kangaroo, while his grandfather, John, wrote for classics such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Donna Reed Show. Whedon's mother, Lee Stearns, taught high school and aspired to write novels. His parents divorced when he was nine and his mother remarried.
Early on, Whedon's vivid imagination became his closest companion. In many interviews Whedon has noted that as a child he felt peculiar and lonely, like he did not fit in. Whedon escaped these feelings by transporting himself to parallel universes. He imagined his toys were quirky characters with special powers and he created unending storylines about their lives. Whedon also read tons of comics, including Spider Man and Fantastic Four and pored through science-fiction books.
For Whedon, teenage life at the private Riverdale High School in upstate New York proved arduous. He escaped Riverdale in 1980 when he joined his mother on her sabbatical to England and gained admission into an all-boys boarding school called Winchester College. Based in Hampshire, the elite prep school first opened in the 1300s. At Winchester, Whedon's teenage misery—and perpetual unpopularity—continued. He shared a room with a dozen other boys and spent his weekends sneaking into town to catch movies at the local theater. He stayed at Winchester even after his family returned to the United States.
Later on, Whedon resurrected the feelings from his angst-ridden teenage years in his storylines for Buffy, striking a chord with countless teenagers and young adults. In an interview posted on the Edinburgh International Film Festival website, Whedon described how his dark worldview developed. "I think it's not inaccurate to say that I had a perfectly happy childhood during which I was very unhappy…. And I had a very painful adolescence, because it was all very strange to me. It wasn't like I got beat up, but the humiliation and isolation, and the whole, existential 'oh God, I exist and nobody cares' thing about being a teenager, were extremely pronounced for me." Many Buffy plotlines were developed from his adolescence. For example, in high school, Whedon felt so invisible and insignificant that he once drew a self-portrait with a disappearing hand. In a first-season episode titled "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," Whedon told the story of a high school girl who actually disappeared because she felt so unnoticed.
After leaving Winchester in 1982, Whedon enrolled at Wesleyan University in Wesleyan, Connecticut. During this time, he escaped reality by playing Dungeons and Dragons. In 1987, Whedon completed his film studies degree and headed to Los Angeles, California, to pursue a career in independent filmmaking, moving in with his father. At this time, Whedon changed his name to Joss, which is Chinese for "luck," though he did not have any at first. Whedon worked on experimental film projects and barely scraped by, taking jobs at a local video store and working as a researcher at the Film Institute. He spent his free time pitching film ideas to area producers but failed to interest anybody.
Finally, Whedon's father persuaded him to try television. Though Whedon had been reluctant to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps, he realized selling a script would keep him afloat. After punching out a few scripts, Whedon decided he loved it. He sent scripts to every contact he had in Hollywood and finally landed a job as a staff writer on the ABC sitcom Roseanne. Whedon left a year later and worked on NBC's Parenthood series.
During this time Whedon completed his Buffy script but found studios reluctant to take a chance on such an atypical script by a writer with no name recognition. Studios did, however, begin offering him minor writing assignments because they could see he had potential and talent. Whedon did a small amount of script work on 1994's The Getaway, starring Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, as well as 1995's The Quick and the Dead, which featured Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman.
Meanwhile, Whedon continued pushing his Buffy script and in 1988 passed it off to Sandollar Productions. Around 1990, Sandollar reached a deal on the script with husband-wife filmmakers Kaz Kuzui and Fran Rubel Kuzui. The couple secured financing from 20th Century Fox and began production, with Rubel Kuzui serving as director. The 1992 film featured Kristy Swanson as Buffy, alongside Donald Sutherland, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, and Paul Reubens. For Whedon, it was a dream come true, though the excitement was short-lived as he watched the film come into fruition. In Whedon's mind, he had created a hip, horror-action-dark-comedy, complete with gut-wrenching emotion. Rubel Kuzui, on the other hand, had a different vision. She saw the film as a pop-culture comedy and, ignoring the horror and emotions, produced an off-the-cuff, second-rate film.
Most reviewers did not think much of the film overall, but Whedon's script received compliments. Writing on Filmcritic.com, James Brundage summed up the film this way: "The performances, admittedly, are lacking. The direction is downright bad, and the storyline really doesn't help much, but all of this is made up in spades with one of the most finely crafted formula scripts courtesy of Joss Whedon."
At this time, Whedon had plenty of prominent scriptwriting jobs coming his way. He doctored scripts for 1994's Speed, 1995's Toy Story and Water-world and 1996's Twister. Speaking to In Focus ' Jim Kozak, Whedon recalled that when he received the Toy Story script it was a mess, though it was easy to rework because the concept was so solid. "And that's the dream job for a script doctor: a great structure with a script that doesn't work. A script that's pretty good? Where you can't really figure out what's wrong, because there's something structural that's hard to put your finger on? Death. But a good structure that just needs a new body on it is the best. So I was thrilled." Whedon worked his magic and the film was nominated for an Oscar in screenplay writing. He won an Annie Award for writing from the International Animated Film Society.
Whedon also worked on 1997's Alien: Resurrection and penned five endings for it. Initially, the project excited him because he had been an Alien fan since he saw the first installment, starring Sigourney Weaver, at the age of 14. Once again, Whedon liked the script he wrote but thought the director did not capitalize on its strengths. Realizing he would never have control over the final product, Whedon began to have doubts about scriptwriting.
Meanwhile, Sandollar Productions executive Gail Berman contacted Whedon about his Buffy script. She remembered its edge and thought it might have great potential on television because she had not seen anything like it since. Berman persuaded Whedon to make a presentation film to give television executives a taste of what a Buffy series might look like. He struggled, having never directed a piece before, but his ingenuity came through. The WB picked up the show as a midseason replacement, though at first the network suggested the title be changed to Slayer. Whedon refused.
Because Buffy was a newcomer to the struggling WB network, its budget was rather small—attracting well-known talent was out of the question. In addition, the budget put a crimp on the special effects Whedon could afford. However, Whedon's dynamic energy and vision attracted a crew of unknown, yet highly talented writers and crew members. For his lead, he snagged All My Children star Sarah Michelle Gellar to play Buffy and the show hit the airwaves in 1997.
Writing in the New York Times, Joyce Millman called the show "the coolest television coming-of-age horror-fantasy-love story ever told." Traditionally, most horror stories have portrayed women as helpless, hysterical victims; Whedon's vision was different. In Buffy, females rule. The protagonist is Buffy Summers, a teenage girl given the unique power to quash vampires, demons, and other supernatural foes, thereby protecting humanity from the dark side. A perky, blond cheerleader, Buffy is an unlikely hero who gets the job done with the help of her misfit friends. Buffy's companions included Willow, a brainy lesbian witch plagued by wallflower tendencies and played by Alyson Hannigan. There was also the wisecracking sidekick Xander, played by Nicholas Brendon.
The show, which explored adolescence through the lens of horror, included lively language and complex characters. It quickly nabbed a massive fan base of Internet-crazed fans who created a buzz. After five years on the WB, Buffy moved to the United Paramount Network (UPN) for its final two seasons. During the time the show aired, from 1997 to 2003, it received two Emmy nominations. The first came in 2000 when Buffy received a nomination for outstanding writing for an episode called "Hush," which included 29 minutes of dialogue-free viewing.
While Whedon was still in the throes of Buffy, he launched a spin-off, Angel, in 1999. The show was darker than Buffy and aimed at an older audience. It starred David Boreanaz as the vampire Angel, who had formerly been a pivotal character on Buffy. It was canceled by the WB after five seasons, with the final episode airing in 2004. The show's cancellation caught Whedon off guard. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly 's Jeff Jensen, Whedon expressed his dismay. "When we hit 100 episodes, we felt we had made a stand. I felt we had hit [our stride] in our fifth year—and then we got cut down. With Buffy, I was ready to end…. But with Angel, it was like 'Healthy Guy Falls Dead From Heart Attack.'"
At one point, Whedon had three shows running on television simultaneously. In 2002, he launched Fire-fly on FOX after the network approached him and asked for new ideas. Firefly was another genre-blending show—it was a science-fiction Western set in 2517. The show followed the mishaps of a renegade crew aboard a futuristic spacecraft as they traveled through the galaxy simply trying to survive. FOX canceled the show after 11 of the 14 episodes aired. When it was released on DVD, sales were brisk and Firefly twice landed at the No. 2 spot on Amazon's daily top-seller list. When reruns aired on the Sci Fi Channel, it nabbed even more viewers, prompting movie executives to give Whedon the go-ahead to produce a feature-length film based on the series.
The film was titled Serenity, the name of the oddball crew's interplanetary cargo vessel. It opened second in box office ticket sales, bringing in $10.1 million its opening weekend in October of 2005. While most people cringe at the idea of Western and science fiction together, Whedon believes the two are related because Westerns typically deal with lawlessness in remote areas, a scenario that lends itself to future frontiers as well. New York magazine film critic Ken Tucker noted that Serenity "achieves a grandness—a heightened rapture—that few adventure films even have the imagination, or the idealism, to aspire to these days."
Afterward, Whedon began work on a script for a Wonder Woman film, set for release in 2007, though he was mum as to the film's specifics. Speaking to In Focus ' Kozak, Whedon described his writing process and how he plays with outlines, charts, and graphs before writing a single word. "The way I work, I'm like a vulture. I circle and circle and then I dive. I usually don't actually write anything until I know exactly how it's going to turn out. I don't 'let the computer take me away.'"
Havens, Candace, Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy, Benbella Books, 2003.
Entertainment Weekly, May 21, 2004, pp. 46-48.
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2005, p. E1.
New York, October 3, 2005, p. 74.
New York Times, April 20, 2003; September 25, 2005.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Filmcritic.com, http://filmcritic.com/misc/emporium.nsf/84dbbfa4d 710144986256c290016f76e/d9787709f4d8f3e9882 567bd0002949e?OpenDocument (February 1, 2006).
"Reel Life: Joss Whedon Live Onstage Interview," Edinburgh International Film Festival, http://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/movies/show/reel_life_joss_whedon/details (February 15, 2006).
"Serenity Now!," In Focus, http://www.infocus mag.com/05augustseptember/whedonuncut.htm (February 15, 2006).
"Whedon seeks return of 'gritty' sci-fi," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/enter tainment/film/4318938.stm (February 1, 2006).
— Lisa Frick