SOURCE: Chicago Tribune
By Charlie McCollum
Knight Ridder/Tribune news
Published September 12, 2002
CENTURY CITY, Calif. — It is the late morning of just the fifth day of production on his new television series, “Firefly,” and Joss Whedon already looks burned out, exhausted, fried.
Some of the usual twinkle has gone out of his eyes, and he is losing his voice. He doesn’t so much sit in a director’s chair as slump into it.
Joss Whedon’s life these days?
“It’s a nightmare,” he says, only half-jokingly.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the 37-year-old man many consider the finest writer in television today. In fact, Whedon was supposed to be at the top of the TV world.
Although they rarely break into the top 100 shows in terms of viewership, his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on UPN and its spinoff, “Angel,” on the WB are critically acclaimed and have become signature series for the smaller networks. And “Firefly” was the most anticipated new show on Fox’s fall lineup, generating a lot of early buzz.
But in the weeks leading up to the start of production on “Firefly” — an elaborate science-fiction show — the wheels started to come off.
Focusing on `Firefly’
Last season, Whedon turned over the day-to-day operation of his shows to others. He still wrote individual episodes and oversaw story lines, but his focus was on developing “Firefly.”
Then, just days before the series were to begin shooting episodes for this coming fall season, Whedon had to at least temporarily take back those reins because “Buffy” producer Marti Noxon went on maternity leave and “Angel” producer David Greenwalt left to do his own show for ABC. That left Whedon overseeing three shows at the same time.
Then rumors started that “Buffy” star Sarah Michelle Gellar would leave the series when her contract is up next spring.
And if that wasn’t enough, the two-hour, $8 million pilot of “Firefly” that Whedon had written and directed had to be shelved when Fox executives decided it didn’t have enough action. That meant coming up with a new opening episode for the series’ debut Sept. 20.
It’s the kind of train wreck that seems to happen whenever a talented
television writer takes on too much too quickly. So why did Whedon decide to do a third — and decidedly high-pressure series — at a time when things were going well with his other work?
“Because I’m an idiot,” Whedon says with a laugh.
“I just thought it would be something doable. It still is, but now it’s a little more challenging.”
Whedon is a true child of television. His grandfather, John Whedon, was a comedy writer on the “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It to Beaver” in the 1950s and 1960s. His father, Tom Whedon, was a writer on “Alice” and “Benson.” And right after graduating from college, Whedon himself got a job as a story editor and writer on “Roseanne” in the early (and very good) days of that series.
Whedon has dabbled in film over the years, writing — for example — the much-admired script for the original “Toy Story.” But television has always been Whedon’s medium, starting with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in 1997. Based on a 1992 film that Whedon wrote but was unhappy with, “Buffy” was considered a short-time summer-spring replacement series. No one really believed that a show about vampires, demons and the girl who slays them — done as a metaphor for growing up in modern times — would last more than a
Whedon was so confident there wouldn’t be a second season of “Buffy” that he “wrapped up the entire story at the end of the season, so that if there was never another episode of `Buffy,’ those 12 episodes would tell the story that needed to be told.”
Instead, “Buffy” caught on, attracting a relatively small but devoted
audience that helped to establish the WB within the television world. It also became a darling of the critics.
Even though “Firefly” is set 500 years in the future, out in space, Whedon considers it his most “realistic” series.
After reading Michael Shaara’s Civil War book “The Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettysburg, Whedon says he “got obsessed with the minutiae of life way back then: early frontier life and when things were not as convenient as they are now. We wanted to do a show in the future that had a sense of history, that we don’t solve all our problems and have impeccably clean spaceships.”
No `Star Trek’
As a result, “Firefly” is something far removed from, say, “Star Trek.” There are no aliens and no monsters. The spaceships are crude. The crew of the Serenity — a small transport ship — carry what amount to six-shooters, not laser guns or phasers.
“I wanted to stay away from the easy science-fiction fixes,” Whedon says. “The android, the clone, the alien, all the stuff that, for all I know, may be lurking around the corner, but I’m not expecting to see anytime soon.”
Instead, Whedon is making a series that is more “Stagecoach,” the 1939 John Ford classic, and “Grapes of Wrath” than what sci-fi fans may be expecting.
It’s a tricky proposition, even for a TV guy of Whedon’s talents.