Joss Whedon, the creator of The WB’s new horror hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, knows how to inspire dread and terror. Just ask his agent. “When I said I was doing Buffy, my agent went ‘Aaaaaaaagghhhh!!'” remembers Whedon. “He begged me, (‘Don’t do it.’)”
It was, after all, one of the weirdest career moves since Mickey Rourke announced he was a boxer. Consider that Whedon, an A-list screenwriter and script doctor, has worked on such megaflicks as Speed, Twister, and Toy Story (typical salary for those in his league: at least $100,000 – per week). What demon could have possibly possessed him to go slumming in the low-rent, prestige-challenged world of TV? And at the upstart WB network, of all places? (Buffy airs there Mondays at 9 p.m.)
“So many people ask me that,” says Whedon, 32, who is also exec-producing the show. “But the movies I write – if they get made – take several thousand years…..With TV, it’s like I get to make an independent movie every week.”
And here’s a bonus: People are actually watching. About 4.1 million viewers sank their teeth into each of Buffy’s first two episodes; the 2.94 rating may be teensy by Big Four standards, but it’s given The WB its highest Monday numbers yet. Based on Whedon’s 1992 film script, Buffy is part X-Files, part Heathers, part Xena: its blond, miniskirted high school senior heroine (All My Children’s Sarah Michelle Gellar) kickboxes vampires, witches, and giant insects back to hell, all the while making snappy asides in Valley-speak.
“I think Buffy will do for The WB what 21 Jump Street did for Fox,” says network exec VP Susanne Daniels. “It (attracted) new teenage viewers and got critical acclaim as well.”
Like Fox in its infancy, The WB is aiming for the Oxy 5 set (24, the average viewer age, is the youngest of any web). The network can boast some modest hits (The Jamie Foxx Show; Sister, Sister) but still bleeds tens of millions of dollars annually. Execs hope to turn a profit by the year 2000, and Buffy is doing its part by sucking in new advertisers and hiking rates. “They needed a show like this,” says media analyst Steve Sternberg of BJK&E. Now they ‘need to build on it.’
Freedom isn’t the only reason Whedon was drawn to TV: It’s in his blood. Grandfather John wrote for The Donna Reed Show; father Tom produced The Golden Girls. Joss – whose name means luck in Chinese – drifted into the family biz after graduating from Wesleyan with a film degree and nary a job prospect. “(My father) suggested I write a TV script – so I could make enough money to move out of the house,” laughs the New York native. At 25, he landed on the staff of Roseanne. “It was baptism by radioactive waste,” says Whedon. “(Roseanne) was like two people. One was perfectly intelligent and good to be around. One was very cranky. You never knew which would show up.”
One year later, he sold his Buffy screenplay and said ta-ta to TV. For Whedon, though, the movie world has been about as pleasant as a stake through the heart (cushioned just a bit by obscene paychecks). “I have always looked at my movie career as an abysmal failure,” he says. Most of his original screenplays (including Suspension, described as Die Hard on a bridge) have been optioned but not produced. And his job as a script doctor (he operated on Speed and Twister) has produced more headaches than highlights. Consider the ‘nightmare’ of Waterworld. On location for seven weeks in Hawaii, Whedon jotted down ideas from Kevin Costner and others, typed them up – then watched them get tossed out. “I became the world’s highest-paid stenographer,” he says. The bright spots: the Oscar nod for Toy Story (Whedon rewrote it so Woody wasn’t such an ‘a–hole’) and scripting the upcoming Alien Resurrection (he made Ripley ‘very strange and morally ambiguous and (Sigourney) went for it’). But even those projects dragged on for years.
Buffy the movie experienced similar growing pains. Whedon cooked up the screenplay in 1988 after watching countless blond-bimbo-get-murdered-in-alley-by-demon horror flicks. “I thought, I’d love to see a movie where (she) kills the monster.” Just as appealing was tackling teen angst. “For me, high school was a horror movie,” says Whedon, who attended New York’s ritzy Riverdale School. “Girls wouldn’t so much as poke me with a stick.” (Apparently that has changed: He’s now married to Kai Cole, 30, a textile and interior designer.)
But by the time Buffy hit theaters, Whedon’s vision had been warped. Director Fran Kuzui hiked the camp factor and downplayed the terror. “When you wink at the audience and say nothing matters, you can’t have peril,” points out Whedon.
Buffy, though anemic at the box office, had a second life on video, and the movie’s producers approached Whedon about doing the series his way – with a savvier Buffy and a darker tone. He agreed, joining a growing group of film folk dabbling in TV, drawn by the lightning pace and promise of creative control. This year alone, Spike Lee and Edward Burns are developing comedies for ABC; Robert Altman produced the upcoming ABC anthology series Gun; and Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Independence Day) are cranking out a sci-fi series for Fox.
Of course, TV has its own drawbacks. Instead of $80 million to throw around, he has to scrape by on about $1.2 million per show. (“They’d tell me, that scene where she’s attacked by 30 vampires? She’s attacked by two vampires.”) There are censors – ever ready to tone down the gore (“It’s the least bloody violence on television,” boasts The WB’s Garth Ancier) – and the occasional scrapes with the network: The WB initially thought the name Buffy was too ’80s, says Whedon.
But he’s not complaining. “As far as I’m concerned, the first episode of Buffy was the beginning of my career. It was the first time I told a story from start to finish the way I wanted.” To heck with his agent.