Life and work lessons from Joss Whedon’s biography

Originally published on September 11, 2014 by Fast Company

There are particular challenges to writing a book on as prolific a writer and director as Joss Whedon. The night before Amy Pascale was to turn in the manuscript of her Joss Whedon biography, the actor Nathan Fillion tweeted news of an upcoming movie, Much Ado about Nothing, a low-budget project that Whedon shot in 10 days between working on The Avengers.

“I was like ‘Are you kidding?,’” Pascale says. “My next reaction was [Whedon] was trying to kill me.”

The manuscript did not get turned in the next day. After an 18-month delay, Joss Whedon: The Biography was released last month.

While much has been written about Whedon’s work, less attention has been paid to his life. As a fan who followed his career starting with the original airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s, Pascale knew the broad strokes of his story. But to get the full story for the book, she went so far as to assemble a family tree on and interview over 40 people.

“We don’t really know what television writers are going through,” she says.

Pascale shares some of the life lessons gleaned from her research that help explain how Whedon built his fanbase and got all these projects done without killing himself.

Failure is inevitable but sometimes it also opens doors

When he was working primarily as a screenwriter (before the days of directing The Avengers), Whedon wrote the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie script and hated how it turned out. It wasn’t the “dark and comedic action-horror film of empowerment” that he had envisioned. Luckily 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the movie, never secured television rights. Whedon turned the Buffy TV show into his directorial debut and told the story the way he had wanted for the movie.

That wasn’t the only silver lining story in Whedon’s career. The day he pitched his idea for the Batman reboot to Warner Brothers, which ended up going to Christopher Nolan, his “space western” show Firefly was canceled after 11 episodes. A few years later, with his schedule cleared, he was in a position to take on The Avengers, a movie that took in $1.5 billion worldwide with glowing reviews.

“Joss Whedon’s career is a testament to failure,” Pascale said. “But it’s okay to fail as long as you celebrate your wins.”

Make your work accessible

Whedon’s oeuvre is famous for launching a thousand graduate theses. There is a semi-annually journal published from the Whedon Studies Association and an annual scholarly gathering called “The Slayage Conference of the Whedonverses.” The heady work spans from the Warrior Heroes: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beowulf to The (Bio)political Economy of Bodies, Culture as Commodification, and the Badiouian Event: Reading Political Allegories in The Cabin in the Woods.

But Pascale said what makes Whedon’s work universally loved is how accessible his characters are and the breezy dialogue. While deeper themes exist, his narratives are designed to be easy to follow and relate to.

Whedon has said that Buffy is a feminist role model but more importantly, she’s also, in a lot of ways, a typical high school girl.

Similarly, Whedon describe The Avengers as a story basically about a dysfunctional family, which almost everyone can relate to better than superheroes.

“Everyone has a Whedon story,” Pascale said. “People love to talk about how much they love a particular show or how it affected them.”

Create the community you want to work with

Whedon is known for having certain actors work with him again and again. Nathan Fillion has been in four of his projects, Felicia Day and Elizabeth Dushku have been in three.

“I call them ‘the Whedon Repertoire of actors,’” Pascale said.

But it’s not just actors. He often works with the same editors, writers, and even makeup artists from show to show over the years. The group of trusted collaborators allowed him to juggle Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on the air at the same time.

“When he gets busy, he knows he can trust these people,” Pascale said.

Sneak in labors of love however and whenever you can

The musical miniseries Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was dreamed up and shot during the Writers Guild’s strike in 2008. With his studio work on hold, Whedon funded the project himself, shot it in six days and then went on the unusual route of releasing it, for free online. Dr. Horrible also scored him his first Emmy.

Much Ado About Nothing partially came from Shakespeare readings held around his kitchen table that Whedon has done for years just for the fun of it. Much Ado even stayed true to the kitchen table readings by being filmed in Whedon’s Los Angeles home.

“No matter what his schedule was, he’d get people to do this several times a year,” Pascale said. “He loves to do this so much he finds the time.”