With the successful launching of the “Iron Man” franchise in 2008, the first hints for what would be Marvel’s most ambitious new franchise to date began to surface – bringing together its beloved characters in one film for “The Avengers,” the holy grail of the Marvel Universe. “When I finished writing the script, it really felt like an original story,” says director Joss Whedon. “You get to see how these characters come together to form The Avengers despite themselves and all of the forces trying to prevent it from happening. Even with so many characters in the story, they all have their moments and scenes in which they get to shine.”
MoviesOnline sat down with writer/director Whedon and actors Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders to talk “The Avengers” and what it was like to bring the world’s mightiest Super Heroes together on screen for the first time. The told us how they prepared for their roles, what it was like playing such iconic characters, what their most memorable moment was while making “The Avengers,” and what it was like working in the amazing costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne.
Whedon also discussed the challenges of bringing all these characters from the other films together, what he thinks distinguishes a good comic book adaptation film from a bad one, how he approached a large scale movie like “The Avengers” and struck an interesting balance between the action, the characters and the conflicts they have. He also suggested Warner Bros. call him about how to get their “Justice League” movie going.
Q: Joss, what was the biggest challenge for you personally to wrap your head around in terms of being the guy who finally did the Avengers film and brought all these people from the other films together?
Joss Whedon I think the exciting thing kind of speaks for itself. That bunch of characters, that bunch of actors playing them, that much money. It was kind of a no brainer. The hardest part is and always will be structure. How do you put that together? How do you make everybody shine? How do you let the audience’s identification drift from person to person without making them feel like they’re not involved? It’s a very complex structure. It’s not necessarily particularly ornate or original, but it had to be right, it had to be earned from moment-to-moment, and that’s exhausting. That was still going on in the editing room after we’d shot.
Q: What in your mind separates a good comic book adaptation film from a bad comic book adaptation film?
Joss Whedon Well, there’s all sorts, but for me, it’s capturing the essence of the comic and being true to what’s wonderful about it, while remembering that it’s a movie and not a comic. I think Spiderman, the first one particularly, really captured it. They figured out the formula of how to tell the story that they told in the comic. It was compelling. That’s why it’s iconic. But, at the same time, they did certain things that only a movie can do and were in the vein of the comic. I think you see things like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” where they just threw out the comic, or the “Watchmen,” where they do it frame for frame, and neither of them work. You have to give the spirit of the thing, and then step away from that, and create something cinematic and new.
Q: Cobie, as a parent, what does being a part of a superhero movie like this mean to you?
Cobie Smulders: Everything. Everything. It means a lot more action-figures in your house. I think we have all of them, and she knows all of the names. But it’s very cool to be a woman in a man’s world in this film and have my daughter see that. That’s probably the coolest thing.
Q: What was your most memorable moment making Marvel’s “The Avengers”?
Clark Gregg: I’m gonna say it was the day I got the script, just because I felt like this was not an achievable task as someone who writes sometimes and loves movies and watches a lot of them. I just didn’t think it was really feasible to have this many characters and have them all get to move forward and to have the story of them coming together really work. If it did work with that many amazing superheroes and movie stars, I felt it was unlikely that Agent Coulson would do anything but bring some super coffee to somebody. So, when I read it and saw that it was my fan boy wet dream of an Avengers script and that Coulson was a big part of it, that was the great day for me. I just drove around the streets with the script in the other seat, just kind of giggling.
Tom: For me, there are so many things that are memorable about it because it was such a long shoot. It was the whole summer for all of us and we had so many different experiences together. It was an amazing time for me to work with all of these, you know, some of the greatest actors in the world, sitting at this table, and Clark, but I think probably the thing, if you said how was the Avengers shoot? There’s an image in my mind, which was the first day on set that everybody was there together, and it was insane. The picture of everybody in costume, of all of these actors and all of these characters in their chain mail and their capes and their armor, except for Mark Ruffalo in his, um, grey and white pajamas in the back. But to see everybody finally assembled, it was an extraordinary moment, just the picture of the Avengers. It was amazing.
Joss Whedon I don’t remember any of it. [laughter] Mine is super boring, but people kept asking me “Are you excited that you’re directing this movie?” And I kept saying, “I will be.” You know, I just don’t feel things necessarily in the moment. It’ll happen. And, we were in the lab where all of the Avengers, almost all of the Avengers, get together for the first time and I was giving Chris Evans a piece of direction and I walked into the hall and I stopped and I just said to the producers, “It happened. I’ll tell you later.” And that was the moment it just sort of flooded over me and I was like “Oh, that’s nice – excitement!” [laughter] That was it. I told you it was dull.
JR: Ah, it’s the same thing. It’s when everybody was together. That’s the most memorable, and creepy, and funny and yeah, getting to play with Thor’s hammer while he stroked my bow. I mean, that’s terrible. [laughs] Oh, here we go. That’s gonna be great. Yeah, it’s gonna get me in trouble. [laughter] I think it’s just when getting all the actors in one room all in costume, it was like Halloween. I was fans of them as humans and now they’re dressed up like silly people and it’s great to laugh at each other and that always stuck in my mind.
Cobie Smulders: That’s the same for me. I was very much a newbie coming in and [I loved] when I got to do a scene where I got to see everybody sitting at the table for the first time and I got to kind of stand back and see everybody. I also loved any moment I got to work with that man in the middle (referring to Joss Whedon), because I’ve been wanting to work with him for a very long time.
Q: Joss, you’ve done movies with big ensemble casts before, like “Serenity,” where you’ve had to introduce all of the characters. How did you go about introducing all of the cast members/characters of this film?
Joss Whedon Well, it’s the same problem I had with “Serenity” and swore I’d never have again. Tracking the information is almost as difficult or more difficult because it’s not as much fun as tracking the emotion of the thing. You have to know how much people need to know, because some people come in knowing everything, and you don’t want to tell them too much, and some people will come in knowing nothing, and you don’t even want to tell them too much. You want some things to be inferred. It’s fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand necessarily that you know. Like, when I watched “Wall Street,” I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. [LAUGHTER] Or if I watch any film about sports, I feel the same way. If you feel that there’s a life behind the life, if there’s a life outside the frame, then you feel good about it. So, you don’t necessarily have to lay everything out, but organizing that was the most exhausting part of the film because the stuff between the characters, that’s just candy. That’s just booze and candy all day.
Q: Nowadays, comic books and video games are closely related. What are your favorite video games?
Cobie Smulders: I feel like you’re looking at me.
JR: Half Life, first-person shooter. That got me hooked on gaming.
Clark Gregg: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Mass Effect. I still will rock some Asteroids.
JR: Dance, Dance Revolution. [laughter]
Clark Gregg: I think we did that at your house. There’s an Avengers edition of Dance, Dance Revolution. It should be videotaped at your house.
Joss Whedon I have friends, so I don’t do that. I didn’t. Everybody knows that’s not true.
JR:: Said the king of comic books.
Joss Whedon I don’t own any video games, because if I start playing one, that will be it. Yeah, I’ll be gone and I won’t be able to do this.
Tom: I don’t know video games either, but the last video game I played, apart from Dance, Dance Revolution at Jeremy’s house…
Joss Whedon..which you were very good at.
Tom: I was. Scarlett and I will always have Billy Jean.
Joss Whedon Nobody Lambadas like Loki.
Tom: But the last video game I played before that was Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo, so I’m like from the dark ages.
Cobie Smulders: I’m classic too. I like Super Mario Brothers, the very first one with the mushrooms and the [sound effects] do-do-do-do-do-do-do. That was my favorite one.
Q: Joss, you did a reddit at AMA the other day. What prompted that and what were the highlights of it for you?
Joss Whedon I’m a little confused by the whole reddit thing. My assistant Danny suggested he knows a lot about it. It seemed to be a Q&A. I enjoy those, but I don’t know why it’s an exciting one. Tell me, why was it cool? What is it about reddit? What does it mean? It seemed just like there were some questions, and then I answered them.
Q: Was there anything that really stood out?
Joss Whedon The highlight was any question that wasn’t about why I kill characters. [laughter] Any question where they don’t ask me that is a good day.
Q: Joss, what advice would you give Warner Brothers on getting their “Justice League” movie going?
Joss Whedon Call me. [laughter] Honestly, I would just say it’s enormously difficult to take very disparate characters and make them work. DC has a harder time of it than Marvel, because their characters are from an old, bygone era where characters were bigger than we were. And they’ve amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code in terms of “Oh, they’re just like us.” So, you know, a dose of that sort of veracity that Marvel really started with Iron Man. I think you need to use that as your base.
Q: Joss, what was your approach to spectacle in a large-scale movie like “The Avengers”?
Joss Whedon My approach to spectacle was kind of wrong-headed, but the most important thing, for me, was that it not be spectacle for its own sake, that it be earned, that it be believable, that it be understandable visually, that you knew exactly where things were, what was at stake, who had to get where from where and how, and what was in their way. I tend to be very pedantic about that. I don’t just want a blur of things crashing around. I want to know how everybody’s doing. I think sometimes I would try to obey the laws of physics, and that would actually just make for weaker footage, and eventually I just had to give myself up and realize that every time a car is hit by anything, it blows up and flips over. A hamster could hit it and [sound effect].
Q: Cobie, what was your experience transitioning from the regular routine of a weekly sitcom to being a part of this blockbuster ensemble? Clark, you could also answer as well.
Clark Gregg: Yeah, well very few people know this, but the CBS Tuesday comedy block is actually like the farm leagues for the Avengers.
Cobie Smulders: It’s true. It’s true.
Clark Gregg: It’s the Groundlings, really.
Cobie Smulders: Yeah, it’s definitely a shift, in schedule alone. I made it a point to do a lot of training to prepare myself for this role with weapons and to get myself mainly comfortable using them. And that was the thing that I tried to do the most. In terms of schedule, it’s very different. I’m very blessed at my job at “How I Met Your Mother.” We have a very nice schedule, and this too was very good, but we had a lot of stunts to do and a lot of fun things to explode, so it’s very different.
Clark Gregg: First of all, Cobie, is one of the best stunt people on the Avengers team. She did all her own jumping and flipping and shooting and stuff, and she’s got that tomboy thing. You know what I’m talking about, that hot mom, tomboy thing. [laughter]
Cobie Smulders: That can be a new website now.
Clark Gregg: Hot mom tomboys.
Joss Whedon I kept trying to add frames to that shot of you flipping when he’s shooting at you so the people could see your face and know it wasn’t a stunt woman.
Cobie Smulders: Yeah, that was fun to do.
Q: Robert Downey Jr. said that you guys were actually filming a scene tonight. Is he kidding?
Joss Whedon He’s Robert. Of course, he’s kidding.
Q: Clark, was there ever any costume envy on set?
Clark Gregg: Well, I’m not going to lie, I think that Agent Coulson could rock some of Agent Romanoff’s cat suits. [laughter] Um, no, that’s being silly. There’s certain times of the morning when yes, I wish I did have some of the Asgardian armor to walk around in, and God knows, the antlers of doom that Loki has, but 13, 14 hours into the day, I’m quite pleased to be in my cool, pressed Dolce & Gabbana suit.
Tom: Can I say the inversion of what Clark just said? It takes two hours to get into Loki’s outfit sometimes and it’s even more fun when you fight in it. The sweat pools in the chest and it’s a really luxurious experience. But the thing that I should say, I want to publicly salute Alex Byrne (costumer designer Alexandra Byrne), because when you have to conceive of costumes at this scale, you’re risking ridicule. I mean, these are monster costumes and the last thing you want is for it to look silly or camp, and yet it has to look larger than life and heroic, and her work on it was amazing. She worked with everybody in terms of making them practical and so you could fight in them and jump in them and roll around and, and my costume particularly does so much of the work for me, because Loki’s silhouette is so incredibly menacing and those clothes are so mean, and it’s leather and metal and gold. But there were days when I longed for the suit, the Dolce & Gabbana one.
Joss Whedon We gave you one day.
Tom: That’s true. Yeah, in the museum. Three hours in a nice suit.
Q: What do you think your character would be good at competing in the Olympic sports?
Joss Whedon: That will be a tough one for you.
JR: Yeah. The javelin. The luge.
Clark Gregg: Yeah. The luge. Exactly. Go ahead.
Tom: Oh, God. Javelin. I would say javelin. Yeah. Or maybe pole vault. I’ve always been creative.
Cobie Smulders: I’m thinking like something in track and field. I’m thinking running, long distance running, something like that.
Clark Gregg: I don’t know what Coulson’s event would be.
Joss Whedon Basketball.
Tom: You’ve got to be on the basketball team.
Clark Gregg: The basketball team. Yes, Colson’s got a nasty three-point shot.
Q: Jeremy, can you talk about preparing for this role? Did you read a lot of the comic books? Did you do any kind of archery training? Weren’t you injured during filming?
JR: Yeah. Yeah. I broke my heart. [laughter] No, man. I stretched a lot, and I prepared by stretching. Yeah, I did take some archery, but I realized very quickly that I couldn’t really use it in the film. It ended up being superhero type archery, which is nice to know the technique behind it but then, you know, shooting behind my back and over my shoulder and using fake arrows. I gave it a go and shot a few bales of hay and missed a few. I think most of it, again, was the physical part. It’s just stretching so I don’t get injured. You get injured, banged around every day when it’s hand-to-hand stuff, and like Scarlett and I, we beat each other up pretty good. You know, that’s fun. I love getting beaten up by Scarlett. Wouldn’t you?
Q: For Tom, knowing how old school you are regarding video games, are you equally as old school when it comes to comics?
Tom: Well, it’s funny, because in the U.K., I grew up on these U.K. comics called The Beano and The Dandy, and most people’s access to Marvel and DC is a later one, and it’s through cartoons and trading cards, I guess. But, in terms of comics, the thing is, I was introduced to American comics really through the movies. It was Christopher Reeve. “Superman” was the first superhero I ever conceived of when I saw the movie when I was six or something, and, I loved it. It’s really that film and also Tim Burton’s “Batman” that kind of were my first early superhero contacts.
Q: Any trepidation about playing such an iconic character as Loki?
Tom: I’m never afraid of things. I only get excited. It’s just so much fun. It’s such a great character. He’s just a treat, never mind the iconography. It’s like playing an iconic Shakespearean character. It’s just a privilege to be asked to do it. And, with a character like Loki, he’s got such a level of complexity and so many layers to him and so many things to explore, especially when he is as well written as he was in this film by Joss. I mean, when I read it, I couldn’t believe my luck. The film was called “The Avengers” and yet Loki was on almost every page. He’s taken what I’d sort of built with Kenneth Branagh and he’s taken it further and it was as damaged and psychologically interesting as I hoped it would be, but it was also darker and funnier, and it demanded so much commitment. I just was so excited about it, so there was no trace of fear, just a huge amount of fun.
Q: Joss, could you confirm which alien race it was that Loki was working with in the film? Was it one from the Marvel comics or one you created?
Joss Whedon The alien race are the Chitauri or a version of them, because they are not one of the key races and they don’t have a story or history, and really, that wasn’t the point. I know this debate will go on long after I am dead, so I’ll just say it was the Kree-Skrull race and really make everybody angry. But then, as far as the sports groups go, my first instinct was not to have anybody from any of them, partially because you need to separate the characters from their support systems in order to create the isolation that you need for a team and put them in new environs, but also so that when they would go back to their own movies, they’d have something that “The Avengers” didn’t have, that I wasn’t sort of sucking the juice out of all the sequels that are going to be coming up.
Q: How did you decide which secondary characters, such as Pepper Potts, to incorporate into the movie?
Joss Whedon Pepper was really Robert’s thing. He pushed hard. He didn’t want to be this sort of crazy, alone guy. He wanted to be crazy in a relationship guy and he really thought Gwyneth (Paltrow) would bring something great to the table, and we all thought so as well. But he’s, I think, the one that convinced her to come and do it, and that made sense because he’s been through two movies. He’s had more of a journey and he is in more of a stable place. But, he can still be that and be completely isolated from the world in his giant tower that he built and owns.
Q: Joss, there’s an interesting balance between the action, the characters and the conflicts they have, such as Iron Man rejecting the soldier mentality Captain America had. How did you develop these characters? Was there any ideology involved?
Joss Whedon Well, you have to write something that you believe in. Captain America was kind of my ground zero for this film, and the idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst kinds of circumstances, in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being somebody who is a part of something, as opposed to being isolated from or bigger than or more famous than it, it’s a very different concept of manhood, and the way that it, in my opinion, has kind of devolved from Steve to Tony is kind of fascinating. I think you have to. Obviously, you’re not going to stand around and speechify too much, although a little bit, but the idea of the soldier, the idea of the person who’s willing to lay down their life, is very different than the idea of the superhero. And since I wanted to make from the start a war movie, I wanted to put these guys through more than what they would be put through in a normal superhero movie. It was very important for me to build that concept and to have Tony reject that concept on every level, so that in the end, when he’s really willing to make the sacrifice play, when he’s willing to lay himself down on the wire, you get where he’s come from and how Steve has affected him.
Q: Harry Dean Stanton sees Mark Ruffalo naked in one scene. How did you come up with the idea to cast Harry Dean Stanton for that scene with Mark?
Joss Whedon You know, we had this love scene that was cut [laughter], but I needed to get Banner from the horror of what he had done and almost killing Natasha into a place where he was prepared to go back into that state. I thought a lot about it, and I was like he needs somebody who will just accept him. Seamus (McGarvey), our DP, was actually shooting a documentary about Harry Dean and spending a lot of time with him, and I sort of got him stuck in my head, and I was like who is more accepting than Harry Dean Stanton? And so, I got to write this weird little scene, which when I wrote it was not little, it was about 12 pages long, and I was like “Oh, this is great. Bruce Banner falls into a Coen Brothers movie.” [laughter] And the fact that they even let me keep that concept and that we actually landed Harry Dean to play it was very exciting. But the idea was to put him in a slightly surreal situation with somebody who clearly had no problem with what he was, just to get him to make that little transition without milking it too much. Besides, to work with Harry Dean and to quiz him about “Alien” and “The Missouri Breaks,” what a privilege.
“The Avengers” opens in theaters on April 27th.