Jesse Knight chats with Joss Whedon, the creator of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL and FIREFLY. In this, the first part of a three-part interview, Whedon discusses the upcoming FIREFLY film, SERENITY.
DARKWORLDS: What stage is SERENITY in right now?
WHEDON: We just locked picture. We finished picture editing, and now we’re finishing sound effects and music, scoring. We’ve got about two more months of work.
DW: Will it go through any major changes between now and the release?
WHEDON: No, no major changes. I mean, there will be extremely affecting, subtle changes like having a coherent score all the way through, and not temp music from 96 different movies. And we’ll also do a digital intermediate and color time the movie, which means it’ll, again, have a very subtle but very important coherence. It’ll be a lot prettier and will generally just gussy the whole thing up.
DW: And then do you finally get some time off?
WHEDON: That’s what they tell me. I’ll believe it when I see it. There will be some marketing. We have to convince people that they need to see it. So there’ll be that.
DW: How much longer will the screenings run?
WHEDON: I don’t know. The first one went over pretty well, and now there’s the second one. And if they keep going over well then Universal, I imagine, will probably keep screening them. But there’re no hardened plans.
DW: How much do you have to do with the screenings that people can by tickets for?
WHEDON: Occasionally I go online and mention them, and if I can, go to them. But I don’t handle that stuff. Let me put it this way, not only could I not get my friend into one, when I went to the one in Vegas, I couldn’t get a seat and I had to sit in a folding chair. So they’re handled by Universal, through the ticket agencies, and they really are just for the fans.
DW: Do you know if Universal or any other major studio has promoted a movie like this before?
WHEDON: I’m not sure. It’s definitely pretty new territory for Universal. I think it’s pretty new territory all around. They were very excited and challenged — and challenged is not the word you necessarily want to hear — by the experience because it’s not, as I mention in the screenings, it’s not a big premise movie, it’s not a star vehicle, it’s just a yarn that they believe people ought to see, and a universe they think people will embrace. So, they went a different way than they’ve ever gone before. They’re known for their marketing savvy, but they’re definitely sort of walking in the woods a little bit with this film, which is both gratifying that they’re willing to try something a little bit out of the box, and terrifying. But what we’re counting on is that people will like the film enough, and that they’ll sort of spread the word, and by the time it comes out, its presence will be known by people who don’t follow my work, and don’t know anything about SERENITY or FIREFLY or even BUFFY.
DW: Have you been reading the reviews that have shown up online?
WHEDON: Oh, I nev… Yes, every one. (Laughter.) And, you know, a lot of them are good. Some of them aren’t. But that’s the risk you take, I mean, I think the reaction has been more positive than negative, for sure. I mean, there have been a ton of good ones. I read a negative review today, and that’s, you know, if you make a movie that pleases everybody, well, then you stop movies forever, I think. I mean, I hated TITANIC, which certainly was the most popular movie ever made. And I didn’t hate it in a backla—I didn’t hate it, I disliked it — and not in a backlash-y “Oh it’s popular so I’m not gonna like it” way, I just thought it was not good. And there’s a billion dollars worth of people who were lining up to tell me I’m wrong. So, there’s no way you’re going to please everybody. Even if you try.
DW: So, the reviews don’t influence you at all?
WHEDON: Well, they don’t influence what I’m gonna do, necessarily. I mean, I might look at the reviews the way I look at a focus group, or the reactions of people I love. If everybody’s saying, “Gee, that one bit moves slow,” I might go, “Well, let’s look at that bit.” And I might go, “It moves too slow,” or I might go, “You know what, that’s a moment we need to move slow and relax because we’re coming up to something else. So, I appreciate that, but I think they need it, and they’ll actually feel worse about the next sequence if I don’t do that.” But it’ll certainly make me examine something if it’s a common complaint or something. Feedback is always part of the process.
DW: What was the most important reason for you to make this movie?
WHEDON: The most important reason for me to make this movie ultimately became because I had a story to tell that I thought was worth telling. That’s not how it started. It started because I believed in that world, and those characters, and those actors and what we had created with this TV show so much, that I didn’t want it to die. And it’s no secret that I was talking about trying to get the series picked up somewhere else, or doing a string of low-budget TV movies, or– I just wanted some way for those people who played those characters to get some closure on what they were going through, because I was so devastated by the cancellation of the show when I was so convinced that we were getting it right. And I love the actors so terribly much. But all of that, while it may be sweet, possibly even the closest I’ll ever get to noble, is it may not be a reason to make a movie. The good reason to make a movie is that you have a story that’s worth telling and ultimately, when I sat down and really hashed it out, I found yes, there was a reason to continue this, to make a FIREFLY movie that would stand on its own.
DW: Did you have a specific story to tell?
WHEDON: Yeah. When I first started saying “Can we get this back on its feet?” I had just the characters, the world, and certain arcs that I wanted to explore and different ideas, but then when somebody actually said, and that somebody was very apparent at Universal, “I’m interested,” then I went “Ahhh! Uhm, okay. Hold on. Hold that thought for a few months.” It’s not a simple thing to do. You have all these characters, you have this world, you have what’s been established but cannot seem as though it’s been established. It’s tricks-y. So, you go in and then you say, “Okay, seriously now. Is there a big-screen, medium-budget film that’s worthy of the amount of time it’s going to take out of the lives of many people?” But I realized that where I was going with the series had in it an arc that was very epic, and a message that was very both political and personal to me, so that’s what makes a story worth telling for me. Do I have something to say about the world and the human condition? And is this a good venue for it? And will there be a hovercraft? Questions you ask yourself at four o’clock in the morning.
DW: When you have the story, and you sit down to write in any situation, is writing generally an enjoyable experience?
WHEDON: Usually. This was the hardest writing I ever had to do because there had been a series. Therefore, I was serving two masters. I had to be true to the people who loved the series and not repeat what I’d done and not contradict what I’d done, but you’re not making a movie for a select group. Even if you can’t please them all, that is what you’re trying to do. So, I had to make a movie that would stand on its own for somebody who had never seen the series and never wanted to, that would still be emotional, exciting and scary and funny and all of that good stuff. So it was very, very tricky. And again, it was an ensemble show without a simple premise. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is a simple premise. And it became an ensemble show, but to begin with it was an easy sell. You can say, “There’s a girl. She kills vampires.” Boom, you’re in. SERENITY doesn’t have that. So it was the hardest writing I’ve ever done. Once you find a scene, and you fall into it, I find nothing in this world more enjoyable than writing. But finding those scenes was harder in this case than it’s ever been.
DW: How close is the film to what you envisioned while writing it?
WHEDON: It’s very close. There’s definitely a rhythm it has that is more like an action movie. It’s a little tighter. The show was action-based but was very much a drama, and it was also a TV show, which meant it had a lot more leeway in terms of the rhythm of things. And I find that there are a lot of tangents of things that fascinate me that I filmed that are quite frankly not central to the momentum of the story. So, it’s a little more streamlined than I expected it to be. But it’s definitely the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. The big moments are very much as I imagined them. And in some cases they’re just better because they’re richer because of what the actors and Jack Green, the D.P., and everybody else brought to the party.
DW: I won’t give anything away when I print this, but the shocking moments in the movie, how did you decide on them?
WHEDON: That’s a process. There are some upsetting things in the movie, and it’s very simple: if nothing is at stake, then I’m making OCEANS 12. Or a movie for my friends that I expect people to pay to attend. And that’s not what I want to do. So you have to knock people for a loop every now and then to remind them that this is real and that the stakes are high, and that nothing is sacred and nobody is safe. If you believe those things then at the end of the movie, it’s exciting. If you don’t, then it’s just a bunch of noise.
DARKWORLDS: I know that you love your actors unconditionally, and after watching BUFFY and ANGEL for so many years, it’s obvious that no one in your cast is ever better than when directed by you. What’s your trick in bringing out the best in them?
WHEDON: Well, first of all, I have an advantage – two advantages – one, I created the show so I understand it as no other director can; two, I’m everybody’s boss so they learn their lines. Actually they all have a pretty good track record of learning their lines anyway, but everybody’s minding their P’s and Q’s. But I think mainly it’s because when I do an episode, it is my intent to fall in love with every character again. And I don’t like a character to be in a show of mine without a moment that defines them. Be it a dramatic or comedic moment, it absolutely crystallizes them. And in the case of BUFFY, it was always I had to do the big episodes. In the case of ANGEL it was the opposite. And so in BUFFY I got the big moments because I was doing the pivotal episodes. In ANGEL, I got to do it in a more sly fashion. I got to just say, “What do I want to see these guys do that they’re great at?” because I was doing the sort of incidental episodes. I didn’t have the onus of importance, and I could really just cut loose. And at the end of the day, I’m also looking to push myself. I don’t just want to go there and phone in something, I want to try something creative. Every time, I want some new challenge. And for the actors as well. As James Marsters said, “If we don’t have the shit scared out of us at least once a season, we’re not getting it right.” So I give them the musical, I give them THE BODY where they really have to push themselves. Because I know they can and I want to as well, and it’s hard to ask that of them by somebody who’s just stopping by.
DW: Did you ever have a plot construction that you threw out for being too out there, or too challenging for you or anybody else involved?
WHEDON: No, I mean, I think there are times when we look back and think maybe we could have constructed something a little more elegantly. There’s been certainly things we wanted to pursue that we couldn’t because an actor left or a situation changed, but there was nothing where we said “Okay, this is just too wacky.” I mean, we did THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, with ANGEL That was basically like, “Well, our guest actors (Christian Kane as Lindsey, and Julie Benz as Darla) are both unavailable for the last four episodes.” Lindsey and Darla were central to season two, and then they were gone. And we had four episodes left, and I said, “Can we do a four-episode gear-off? Can we just go to Oz?” And the answer was, “Why yes, sir, you can. Because you’re the boss.” And some people were sort of like “I don’t know,” some people were like, “Let’s do it!” But we went there.
DW: In your entire career as a storyteller, what are you most proud of?
WHEDON: In my entire career as a storyteller, what am I most proud of… I’m most proud of the fact that I was part of the wave of making the female hero something more than a footnote, or a heroine in disguise, or sort of a hapless person with martial arts skills, and for examining that character. If I was going to pick specifically, I wrote a musical one time. I’m all over myself about that.
DW: Are you, yourself, completely done with any future incarnations of BUFFY or ANGEL?
WHEDON: No, I don’t think so. There’re a lot of characters in that universe that are a.) very exciting, b.) very beloved, c.) played by people I really like, who d.) would actually like to play those parts again. I do believe that David and Sarah have moved on from those parts, but I think the universe is very rich, and there’re still stories to be told. And I haven’t let go of it at all. I’ve definitely taken a breather. I was in there for eight years, and I didn’t exactly come up for air.
DARKWORLDS: What has been inspiring you lately as far as film or TV?
WHEDON: The amount of WITHOUT A TRACE I’ve been watching has been pretty embarrassing. We have young kids, so when you have kids, you take naps, you basically have 45-minute windows. I finally did see THE INCREDIBLES, and everybody was right about that. But I have to say the movie that made me absolutely the most gleeful in the last year was SHAUN OF THE DEAD. That’s the kind of movie that makes me want to make movies.
DW: And those guys are fans of yours too, aren’t they?
WHEDON: Are they? That’s cool.
DW: Well, they have a (UK TV) show and I know there are references and jokes about BUFFY and ANGEL.
WHEDON: Sweet! I met Simon Pegg backstage at a convention, we were about to go on, and I didn’t know who he was or what was going on, and I said “Hey. Hi… I don’t where we’re meeting.” Because I’m always terrified before I do a panel. And then I saw the movie and I was like, “Oh, you’re way cooler than me. I should’ve been politer some.”
DW: Why do you get like that before a panel?
WHEDON: Public speaking makes me nervous. And I couldn’t have an easier audience than a bunch of fans. (laughter) But I still just get like that. There’s great, notable Shakespearean actors who still get nervous before a performance, so I think that I’m not in danger of getting over it any time soon.
DW: Is there any news on WONDER WOMAN?
WHEDON: There is no news. Just that I plan to start writing it some time.
DW: It’s not at your leisure, right?
WHEDON: It is, pretty much. There is no start date. One of the reasons I took the project is that they don’t need it yesterday. So I have time to kick back, recover a little bit from this experience and more importantly get it right. It will be, I think, an easier job than SERENITY was, for writing anyway, because it does have an easy sell.
DW: What are you working on today?
WHEDON: Today, we’re doing a little ADR (for SERENITY, the upcoming film based on Whedon’s TV series FIREFLY). I’m going to see Nathan (Fillion) and Morena (Baccarin) for looping some lines. And then, let’s see, I think I have another special effects meeting and I have to deal with the marketing thing, and then… you know, there’s a bunch of stuff. I’m not even positive. I just show up, and then someone tells me what I have to solve. And it’s actually a light day. Next week, we do the last temp mix. Oh god, I have to deal with a really difficult actress right now, so… if you could print it in your article: “Baccarin makes life a hell for Whedon.” And so homely. Such a homely creature. So I guess I gotta do that.