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Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon

Emmy and Academy Award nominee Joss Whedon is one of Hollywood’s top talents, scripting several hit films and creating one of television’s most critically praised shows, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  Born June 23, 1964, in New York, Whedon is a third-generation television writer. His grandfather and father were both successful sitcom writers on shows such as “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Golden Girls.”  We sat down with Joss to talk about his upcoming show, DOLLHOUSE.  Premiering Friday, February 13, 2009 @ 9:00PM ET on FOX.

SHAKEFIRE: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the process of finding this show through the rewritten pilot, and then the early episodes, and then talk about how it differed from finding your earlier shows.

JOSS WHEDON: I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows.  Probably most similar to Angel in the sense of what we had in our minds about what Angel was ultimately was different than what the network did.  Our version was a little darker, and in this instance, it wasn’t so much a question of reworking what the show was as it was a question of reworking how we get into it.  There were definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show, but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in and the mandate was very much once they had seen the pilot. 

They made some noise about this before.  I don’t want to say that they just thought it up out of the blue, but the mandate “was give us not just the world of the show, but the structure of the show.”  The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways, and they said let the audience see an engagement so that they understand that every week she’s going to go to a different place and be a different person and that they have that sense of structure.

That part was simple enough.  It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn’t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more.

But there was some real questioning about what exactly we wanted to get at in terms of the humanity and what they do and why people hire them and there’s a sexual aspect to it that makes some people nervous.  Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous.  It’s to make them identify with people they don’t like and get into situations that they don’t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well.

So we’re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.

SF: I just wanted to ask you: what do you have to say maybe to the fans who are already in a panic and have formed these save Dollhouse campaigns long before the story even ends, maybe even starting last summer?  Do you have words of calming for them, or anything like that?  What do you say to people who are already worried about the show before it airs?

JW: Usually, words of calm in these situations lead to panic.  If you say there’s nothing to panic about, somebody says, he said the word panic.  Basically, we found the show.  My concern isn’t whether the show gets saved.  It’s whether these fans who are panicking about it love it.  They may get over their panic.  They may see it and go, you know, actually, we’re okay.  The network should do what they think is right.  Ultimately, the support is very sweet, and the fact that people care and they want to see the show get a chance.  That’s important to me too, because it really is a show that finds itself as it goes along, but, at the end of the day, my biggest concern is that I give them something worth panicking over.

SF: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the show?  What got you thinking about these characters in this world?

JW: Well, there’s already the famous story of lunch with Eliza where we were talking about what kind of stuff she should play and I thought she should play lots of different things, and then the show happened. 

Beyond that, there has also been I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what enounce is our own, what’s socialized, can people actually change, what do we expect from each other, how much do we use each other and manipulate each other, and what would we do if we had this kind of power over each other?  And in this, our increasingly virtual world, self-definition has become a very amorphous concept, so it just felt what was on my mind.  I don’t mean it felt timely like I was trolling the papers looking for something timely.  It’s just been something I think about a lot.

As for the characters, they sell out by necessity.  I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn’t want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting, or she would burn out.  So it was the question of really just doing the math.  You’re going to need the handler, you’re going to need somebody running the place, you’re going to need the programmer, and then realizing what all of those different perspectives would give us, even before we had the astonishing cast, started to make the show really live.

SF: Hello, Joss.  Thank you for your time today.  Given the pressures and drawbacks of being a creative person working within television, what keeps you going?  What inspires you?

JW: You know, the thing that keeps me going, chardonnay.  I shouldn’t have said that.  Honestly though, actually that kind of slows me down.  Ultimately, it’s two things.  It’s the story and it’s the people I’m working with.  I’ve gotten pretty good at putting together a group of people, both in the writing and in the acting fields who are not just really gifted and delightful to learn from and to watch, but are just good people to be around.  And creating an environment that is fun and safe and creative is difficult and enormously important, and a lot of shows obviously don’t feel the same way, and a lot of stars don’t feel the same way. 

But I have had both good luck and the good sense to make sure the people I’m around are the people you want to spend your time with, and when those people come to you with ideas, or bring you something you didn’t expect and really know what they’re doing, it snowballs and an idea gets bounced around between all of the people who are helping create it and it just gets bigger and better.

Ultimately, it comes from the world itself.  It comes from the world you’ve created.  If you’ve really created a world and not just a character, then it’s constantly going to be screaming its awesome variations at you.  And when you’re surrounded by a group of people who are hearing that scream as well, then you go on, despite being really tired some of the time.

SF: I wanted to ask your reaction to the Friday night time slot and what challenges or maybe even opportunities you see there.

JW: Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don’t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided.  It’s about growing a fan base, both for Dollhouse and Terminator.  I think Terminator is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with Dollhouse, so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that’s just too cool.

Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but not so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight.  I’ve always worked best under the radar.  Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and the Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen.

SF: Hello, Joss.  In reading the original pilot script, it really seemed like the basis for a highly serialized show, and I’m wondering what the challenges were involved in taking your original vision and transposing a more self-contained style of storytelling onto it, and if you were satisfied with the way the show turned out versus your original vision.

JW: There are things I miss from my original vision, and there are things that I think are better the way it is.  Ultimately, the show ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go.  There are elements of intrigue and high stake suspense that have been added, but I don’t think they hurt the show at all, and it really goes where we planned to have it go.

The idea was always to have a mythology that was counterbalanced by a standalone aspect that every episode would be self-contained, and that the mythology would play out, but you would feel a sense of resolve, be that an engagement, or some other aspect every week.

The mandate to go ahead and just really make the first several episodes pure standalone engagements is tough.  It’s more work for a staff to drum up that enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week.  That’s just difficult, but we knew that was part of the show going in, that every week, we were not only going to have to create a new world and care about it, but that she was actually going to have to join the guest cast, because she would be a new person.

So it’s a challenge, but it’s one that we knew going in we were going to have to tackle, and I think we’re getting better at it.  It is definitely a different skill.

SF: Hello, Joss.  Thank you for taking the time.  I was wondering: how will the audience connect with any of the actors?  Are they supposed to be like empty vessels with new info each week?

JW: They’re supposed to be empty vessels and the constant struggle with Dollhouse is that they’re not quite, that Echo and Sierra have formed a kind of bond, and that Echo is clearly evolving in a way that they have not imprinted her to do.

The ideal is to create people that people can relate to, because they were so helpless and so innocent, and then let them have these latent senses of identity and of their surroundings, and create sympathies through that, as well as through the characters that they become.

SF: Hello, Joss.  It’s very cool to be talking with you today.  You have a film coming out next year called Cabin in the Woods, and I was curious, you call it a game changer, and I was curious why you’re calling it that.

JW: And you sadly will remain curious until you see it.  Ultimately, it’s my take on the classic horror movie, which means that it is a classic horror movie, but we also have something specific to say about it, and we have a different way of saying it than we’ve seen before.

I think after it, everyone will love it so much that there will be no more need for movies.  That’s how it’s going to be.

SF: That will be frightening.

JW: People will just want to watch that movie over and over again, and they won’t make other ones.

SF: Also, I know rumors have been circulating for what seems like decades on the possibility of a Buffy movie based on the TV series.  Any updates on that?

JW: Yes.  There is not going to be one.

SF: Okay.

JW: I think that’s pretty much it.  Nobody has ever broached the subject from the studio side.  I think everybody is busy working, so I think that it probably won’t happen.  That’s my guess.
 

Interview by Clay Wright