SOURCE: Sci Fi
by Kathie Huddleston
Tell us about your new Fox series, Firefly.
Joss Whedon: It’s in the future, which has never been done before [laughs]. It’s a sci fi-action-drama-Western thing. Which of those comes first is a bit of a bone of contention, but it’s something that I thought up about three years ago and had on the boiler because I didn’t want to jump in for a while — not until I had three shows running. Then I thought now’s the time.
How can I describe it? It’s Stagecoach. It’s a chance to get back down to earth by going into space. As opposed to my latexy shows, which I love very much, it’s nice to have something with no monsters in it. It’s really a chance to deal with people who are not bigger than life, are not superheroes, are really just working-class people trying to make their way in an extraordinarily difficult environment. Sort of finding their way, finding themselves, their morals, their families, their loves — and with a lot of violence, too. As we learn on Buffy, violence resolves problems that talking can’t solve [laughs].
I wanted to do a show about the future that’s very personal. That’s about people. That’s not about politics. But that deals with the idea that 500 years from now we’re going to have the same problems and we’re still just going to be a small part of history. I want to take a look at what people are going through. That frontier life that is so — it’s something you have to create. I’m fascinated by frontier life. I’m fascinated, in this age of convenience, in the part where life is messy, which I don’t think will ever actually go away. There’s this attitude that you sort of go in and find the bad guys and make them stop. And we learned in Bosnia that wasn’t true, and we’re learning again that it’s not true. That life is complex and people’s ideologies can clash. I think we’re getting smarter, but I don’t know if we’re getting better. I know this is just becoming insane, but it’s very hard to describe the show. Stagecoach pretty much had it down. To look at life for people, where it’s always complicated, and morally, ethically and just physically, you have to figure out, “How do I make life work? How do I get through the day?” At the end of it, in the face of the black space, “How do I stay myself?” But with a whore [laughs]. Stagecoach had a whore.
Since these people have to worry about getting through the day, do they do less than honorable things sometimes?
Whedon: Yes, they’re crooks. They definitely are criminals. But they’re not the Mafia. They’re not killers. There’re people out there doing much worse things than they are, but when you’re out on the frontier, the law is not the first thing on your mind. Your next meal and fuel to get to the next planet is the first thing on your mind.
It’s about survival then.
Whedon: It is. It is.
What drew you to this material? Was it that raw look at humanity?
Whedon: Yeah, you know, the only thing that really interests me is humanity and different ways at looking at the human condition. Buffy was metaphorical and sort of mythological. And with Firefly, it’s a lot more complex and mundane. I’m interested in these nine different people and the nine ways they look at their lives and space. Some of them have no future, or think they have no future. Some of them are all about the future. Some of them struggling with religion, and all these things. At the same time they’re entering different societies, and adjusting to [each society’s] rules — or stealing things from them. Or just discovering where do we draw the line. What keeps us civilized?
It’s an unusually big cast.
Whedon: Yes, it is. And it’s an unusually big cast because the thing about a big cast is it makes stories much richer, because you have nine people that you know and care about react to every single event. And when you have nine different, often conflicting, and sometimes rather unexpectedly in-sync perspectives on an event — there’s a lot more to it. Although there will definitely be a good deal of excitement and humor and action, all those things that I love to do in the show. I wanted to make a drama about these people. They are nine very distinct characters played by nine really talented actors. All in very different positions of the ship.
So far for you, what’s been the biggest challenge in getting this show off the ground?
Whedon: The biggest challenge — it was very hard to cast to find the right people. And, boy, did we. I just can’t say enough about them. And I think there was a struggle, I wanted to make a Western that really took its time drawing you in. It was a struggle with the network I think actually quite rightly saying, “Okay, if you take time to draw people in, they won’t give you time.” You have to draw them in first and then they’ll give you time. And so what I envision as a real electronic Western that first started out slow and built up to this action climax, they were, you know, “Give them an action show. Give them the action up front and then find your quiet moments within that.” And I think they’re not wrong. So, in a way, I had to make a little shift there. But at the end of the day, it didn’t change the situation or the characters or the show at all. Just a little bit structurally, I had to make an adjustment. Which, I have to say, I think they’re right.
I read something about the pilot being written over a weekend.
Whedon: What happened was, when we shot the pilot they said, “Okay this is what we’re talking about.” And I was like, “I really am proud of it, but I want to do some reshoots, as is always the case. I’d like to shoot an action beginning, because I do feel like it starts a little slow even for me (laughs).” And they said, “Yeah, but we’d like to see the captain be a little more engaging. We’d like to see certain things. And we want to air an hour episode first and air the pilot later as a sort of origin special, instead of airing the pilot.” Which was frustrating, because I, like, shot it [laughs] and I didn’t actually ask to shoot a two-hour pilot. They told me to. And then they were like, “Well, we don’t want to air a two-hour pilot.” And I was like, “Could you have known that perhaps before I wrote and shot it?” But they said, “We want to see what an episode would be like.” And I’m like, “We could do a thing — ” And they’re like, “No, we actually want to see a script — on Monday.” So I looked [at] Tim Minear, who’s running [the show] with me, and I said, “Well, okay. Monday, huh?” It was Friday afternoon. We rolled up our sleeves and it was on their desks before they got in on Monday, and they ran it and they said, “Yes, that’s the show we’re talking about.” And they picked it up.
And they picked you up for fall. I’d heard they were thinking about midseason.
Whedon: Nobody ever said that to me at Fox. Frankly, I have no problems with midseason. Buffy was midseason. You don’t do as many of them in a year, [at least the] first year. But nobody at Fox actually talked about midseason to me at all.
You have the latex monsters in Buffy and Angel, but this seems like it would be a lot more FX heavy.
Whedon: It is. It is. We’ve got Radium just going out of their minds, Radium Effects, and doing the best visual effects that I’ve ever seen on TV. They’re better than most movies I’ve seen and they’ve done an extraordinary job. Because the whole mission statement of the show is to put you there. It is not to make space something grand and epic that you watched from afar. It is to make it something mundane that is happening to you the way your life happens to you. To that end, we shot most of thing hand held. We tried to make it feel a little bit like somebody happened to have camera and found all these people talking, as opposed to the stately, very controlled kind of filming that I usually do with Buffy and Angel. Radium and Loni Peristere are so great at giving you something that feels messy. So their shots, they find folks late, they’ll be following a space ship and lose it and come back and zoom in sort of awkwardly. They’ve made it look like somebody had a handheld camera on the ground just watching space ships go, instead of the stately perfect shot, then cut to the inside and everything is shaking. It all feels very organic and that’s a huge thing for me.
The ship … we built the whole ship and it’s all continuous. The downstairs and upstairs are two stages and we built the rooms below the hall, below the hall. So that you could go from one to the other and really feel the vertical space, the mundane aspects. The doors don’t open for you [laughs]. Just to feel — it’s really that you’re there.
How do you feel when you’re standing on the ship?
Whedon: [Laughs] Like I’ve got big damn space ship and I’m the happiest geek in geekland. It’s an incredibly good set.
Is this going to be as serialized as Buffy and Angel?
Whedon: You know the idea is to play things every much as stand alone episodes, yet ultimately what brings us back to TV are the relationships between people. So ultimately it will find a balance. We’re not creating an arc for the season the way we do for Buffy and Angel that is all set out. We want to sort of send this thing into space and see where it goes. And how much of it is — you know people respond to the serialization of the characters, romance and intrigue and whatnot, and how much of it they respond to as just week-to-week adventures. What we don’t want to do is create something so serialized that by [episode] two, nobody can join in. Very much the mission statement is, “Make the first 10 shows pilots.” Like, explain everything. Do it hopefully inventively and interestingly and make sure that at any given episode somebody who’s never seen it can walk in and go, “That guy’s the captain. That guy’s the doctor. They don’t like each other — they’re in love, so they’re bickering. And these planets are all frontiers, and so I get it.”
What is the biggest surprise that viewers will find with Firefly?
Whedon: The biggest surprise? My biggest hope is that this show really reaches out to people who don’t watch science fiction. I unfortunately have never seen Farscape or Andromeda or the shows of sci-fi I’m accused of ripping off. I hear Farscape’s really good. I would watch it if I ever watched anything ever. You either make TV or you watch it — I actually met Ben Browder, and then of cours,e, he was so nice. And I was like, “I’ve never seen the show. What do I say? I’m so embarrassed.” He seemed roguish and cool. But somebody said, “Oh, the show is clearly exactly like Farscape, where a guy falls through [space] and ends up on a living ship with a bunch aliens.” I was like, “Oh, why they’re indistinguishable. [laughs] Why it’s practically … I’ve written the same thing!” [laughs] I was just shocked by that.
My hope is that people will get emotionally involved with this thing on a level that they do with a show like NYPD Blue. The reason I mention NYPD Blue is because of the incredible shaky cam and you just can walk into any episode, figure out the relationships, see the case, be excited, have the resolve, and it gives you that feeling of, “Oh these people — they care so much. They work so hard. Their lives are hard. That was really interesting.” Obviously, it will be a little bit lighter and more comedic than that show, but it has that same quality. Hill Street Blues is really the thing we talk about the most. That was more serialized than we intend to be on any of our shows at the beginning, but it did have that great unexpected quality of, “Hey look, the handsome guy’s actually an idiot and that really mean guy seems to be really sweet.” Like it understood that people were fluid. And that’s something that we definitely do with Buffy and I really want to take to Firefly. One week the captain will do something incredibly noble and the next week he could do something more or less on the cowardly side. That’s what’s practical and what a captain needs to do. I want to get real. I’m keeping it real.
What was the inspiration for Firefly?
Whedon: It was The Killer Angels. It’s a book. I think it won the Pulitzer. It’s a very detailed account of the Battle of Gettysburg that I read in London when I was on one of my vacations where I didn’t write anything, but I did come up with Firefly and a couple other shows. I read The Killer Angels. The minutia of the Battle of Gettysburg and the lives of the people in it really made Firefly just pop out of my head. I want to get into people’s lives this intimately. I want to do it in the future and show that the future is the past. So I built the structure of the world and the look of the show on the Reconstruction Era.
And you know, so there has been a war to unite the planets. Our captain was fighting for, shall we say, the South. Not for slavery, but because he didn’t want to be ruled by one central planetary government. Lost big time. So he’s a fairly bitter guy. Bitter but funny. Likeably bitter — like me, only he’s likeable — and, you know, everything is very low-tech. We based a lot of things on the Civil War and sort of the 1880s stylistically. We mixed it up with a lot of different cultures. There’re a lot of Chinese in their outfits and their culture and their language. Every working-class sort of American-seeming person speaks Chinese as well, because these are the two big powers. “The idea is [that] they are the Alliance — the powerful government that our hero fought against. They’re not the bad guys. They’re just representative of the big government who sometimes comes in and makes things better, and sometimes they come in and [mess] everything up. Just like real big governments do. I love my county. You know sometimes they’re America and sometimes they are America and Vietnam. Like, hey guys, you don’t understand the situation and you’re not helping. So on the one side, he has those people to deal with. Again, I never want to make it black and white. It’s not like, let’s fight the battle druids. You know, it’s complicated.
On the other side he has mindless savages called Reavers, which are a lot less complicated. You see them and you run. They’re not monsters. What they are, are people who went out into space, saw the extraordinary nothingness and went completely out of their heads. They’ve become cannibalistic marauding savages. They’re kind of like the Comanche in the old movies except without playing it as a racial thing at all, or even a cultural thing. It’s a very personal thing. These are men who just gave up on the concept of humanity and are the scariest, worst, most awful serial-killing pirates who ever sailed around in burnt out ships in space. Everybody is terrified of them — Yeah, they’re really fun [laughs].
So your horror background comes in a little bit there.
Whedon: But, you know, you look at a lot of the Westerns that I love. Look at Rio Grande, Ulzana’s Raid and even The Searchers. They played great horror-movie moments. They’re out there and they are going to rape us to death and they’re going to kill us.
And we’d rather shoot ourselves than fall in their hands.
Whedon: It was huge moment for me in Ulzana’s Raid. That was one of the most important cinematic movements for me with good old Horowitz, the horse soldier. You can tell it’s a ’70s western when a horse soldier is named Horowitz [laughs]. He’s bringing a woman across the plains and the Apaches come, so he shoots her in the head and he shoots his own brains out. And all Burt Lancaster said was, “Good man, Horowitz.” Because that’s the best way not to be tortured to death. There’s that incredible brutality of being all alone out in a wilderness and to be able to play that. That was a reality, but without having to play the reality of, “Oh, and by the way, we’re committing genocide and stealing all their land.” Not that those issues won’t come up on certain planets, but with the Reavers, I wanted to be able to play the horror of what humans are capable of without laying it off on a particular culture.
With Buffy, Angel and Buffy: The Animated Series, why get involved in another series now?
Whedon: Well, actually the animated series looked like it was falling through until just recently. It just went through. Why now? Fox really, really wanted me to do a show and I had been looking to do a movie and realized that a movie was going to take a really long time no matter what I did. The point of saying yes to making a series and actually shooting Firefly were incredibly close together and that kind of instant gratification is what I really enjoy [laughs]. Fox wanted a series. I have had Firefly in my heart for so long. And it just felt like, well, the movie’s going to take so long. I have to deal with Fox — they’re asking. So why not just take the opportunity? And then you realize that you have to do all things, and then you’re going to die. But you don’t think about that. You get excited. You get a spaceship — I’m just going to be more organized this year. I swear.
How do you handle being involved with so many projects at the same time?
Whedon: David Greenwalt just left Angel. Marti Noxon just gave birth. And so there’re actually a lot of scary things, but the fact is that I am sort of surrounded by smart, competent, wonderful writers, extraordinary casts and crews that I trust implicitly. And the other fact is that I just work harder.
I have a show, Buffy, that’s in its seventh year. I will not let it wane. I want to come out stronger than ever this year. I have a show that’s in its first year. I really have something to prove there. I believe in that show. And I have a show, Angel, which is kind of just hitting its stride and prime. I refuse to let any of them suck.
As a fan, I’m glad to hear that.
Whedon: I am, too. I’m just a big fan. I’m not going to let my favorite shows get crappy because then I won’t watch them anymore.
And congratulations on Buffy being named by TV Guide as one of the 50 greatest series of all time.
Whedon: That didn’t suck. You know what? It’s wonderful. And I’m in the thick of breaking Buffy stories, breaking Angel stories and breaking Firefly stories. Luckily we stacked up a few animated scripts while we were trying to get it off the ground. So we have some great scripts finished. So I have a couple weeks of a breather there before I have to start breaking those again. But, you know, it’s just about telling stories that are worthy of telling on every front and understanding what you’re doing. Okay, you don’t always [laughs]. And also, people don’t realize working on one thing galvanizes you to work on another. Like working on Firefly. It’s fun and then I got to Buffy and instead of being like, “Oh, I’m too tired to do Firefly. I’m like, “Ooh, a new place.” Whereas sometimes while just doing Buffy, I would get really burnt out. And I’d take like a movie rewrite or something just to go to a different world.
Most people actually go on vacation.
Whedon: Ahhh — I did. I wrote a musical.
I know. But most people go someplace and they don’t work.
Whedon: You know, I will never not work. That doesn’t mean I won’t spend days at a stretch not working. But I will never not work because I am a workaholic and I’m not going to get cured if I can help it. I want to live my life. I love my friends. I love my wife. I love hanging out with my friends. But you know, if I’m not writing every day, something’s very wrong and I get cranky.
As a writer, director and producer, what’s your most difficult job?
Whedon: My most difficult job is being a writer while I’m being a producer and director. It’s finding the time. Producing is very simple. Do this. Do that. Change this. Change that. That costume is hilarious, make it go away. Direct this better. As a director, directing is also — it’s there while you’re doing it, but then it kind of goes away. Writing is the thing that stays with you forever. When you wake up, when you go to sleep, when you dream. And because you can’t let go of it, it exhausts you and because you can’t find the time for it, it sort of nags at you. If you have 20 minutes and you’re a producer, you can do five things. If you have 20 minutes and you’re a writer, you can’t do anything. You need blocks of time to get into the space where the writing happens, and to find those blocks of time while you’re running four shows is the hardest part.
How do you do it?
Whedon: You go away. You leave the office for a day. You don’t have weekends. You’re organized, like I promised I was going to be this year. And you go out to dinner a lot. Because I love to write while I eat. I seem to be doing a little more of the eating than the writing. Yes, I love to write in restaurants.
It’s amazing you could do four shows. For most producers, one show would be plenty.
Whedon: One show nearly broke me, you know, but that was when it was just in infancy and the only person I really had at my back was David Greenwalt. And then gradually, I found Marti Noxon and I found these other people. I found directors that I could really count on. And the actors became really comfortable with their parts. It doesn’t mean that I still don’t think I need to be in there, because I feel like I do. But when you’re just starting out you don’t have — I mean, I’m starting Firefly, my writers are writing a lot of the scripts. A lot of the production people have come over from Buffy and Angel, either to try something new or with a promotion. So they’re all part of the family already. I have people watching my back.
I have to say, while Buffy gets a lot of the attention, Angel had a great year last year.
Whedon: Thank you. I was wicked proud of it. We just felt so good about where it was going, what the characters got to do. And we feel that way about this year. We’re like — oh, the trouble we’re going to cause [laughs]. It does sort of fly under the radar, even more than Buffy, and I don’t actually think it gets it due in a way. But I was very proud of this year. I was very proud of what we did and how it all shaped up.
Who’s taking over for David Greenwalt?
Whedon: Well, David Simkins is coming in, who’s worked for Fox a lot and is really smart. And Tim and I never left. Tim Minear was running Angel with David and is a genius boy. He is running Firefly with me and consulting on Angel right now. So we’re sort of introducing David Simkins into the process. We’re still completely involved with Angel as much as we are with [all of them]. Once production starts we’ll be present at Firefly more, because that’s a show that’s still finding its sea legs. But we’ll never completely — neither I nor Tim — be completely gone from Angel.
Are the sets close to each other?
Whedon: Unfortunately, no. For a moment there they talked about bringing the Angel sets to where Firefly was, just by happenstance, and I was just drooling with delight, and of course they shut that down. Because God forbid anybody should ever make anything easier. You know I lost David Greenwalt because contract negotiations didn’t go well. I lost Jeff Loeb on the animated show because we couldn’t get it off the ground for so long. I keep getting more shows and fewer people to actually run them.
And all on different networks.
Whedon: All on different networks. Four networks.
Do you have other ideas just waiting to happen now?
Whedon: I will tell you the process of getting Firefly picked up was pretty grueling and I’ve been wanting to start making movies for quite some time. So I have a feeling, I’m going to say four is enough for now. I have tons of ideas for things that I want to do. Some of them are series, but those I’m putting on hold. Even I don’t think I can do more than this. Like — I want to live past 40. So I think the next things I focus on will be movies.
Was Firefly always a series, or did you consider it as a movie?
Whedon: It was always a series. Because I wanted it to be kind of a mundane show. I wanted to get into people’s lives. I just didn’t see anybody giving me that opportunity, and you don’t really have the opportunity with a movie. The great thing about television is that it’s the novel on film. It’s what TV has that no other medium has. And so I really wanted to find the tiny things that make characters tick, the quiet moments. Again I reference Hill Street Blues, because there’s plenty of cop stuff, but there’s Belker eating out of a can on Christmas, too. You know, those things that are indelible. To find those you have to go to TV. You can only learn to love a character so much in a movie. And in TV you have a very different experience. That’s experience enough to capture.
Well, that’s all I have. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Whedon: God, no. I’m so tired of my own voice. You know, it’s tough, because I really want to talk about all the shows. But in terms of Firefly, could I have talked more?