Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon
follows a family tradition of writing for TV shows. His grandfather was a successful sitcom writer for shows including the The Donna Reed Show (1958) and Leave It to Beaver (1957), and his father wrote for shows including The Dick Cavett Show (1969), and Benson (1979). After obtaining a degree in film studies from Wesleyan University, Whedon landed a job as story editor on Roseanne. In 1997 he launched his own show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which proved so popular that he was able to start the spin-off series Angel in 1991. His next TV series Firefly (2002) was cancelled before it really got off the ground. But Whedon was convinced that there was something there and revisited the characters in his movie Serenity. We caught up with him as Serenity was due for release on DVD...

ReviewGraveyard: How did you know that Firefly was something that would translate to the big screen, that it had that pedigree?

Joss Whedon: Pedigree is a good word just because of the body of the people who make it up. I felt like, yeah, there are lot of perfectly good shows that wouldn't lend themselves to a movie, but when you are dealing with certain size, science fiction, action universe and if you can think of a story epic enough, then it makes visual sense to do it as a movie.

For me it's about these people. The movie obviously is about these people, which in an action movie is becoming rarer and rarer, but I think these people are extraordinary. I thought the actors embodied their characters, were amazing professionals, wonderful to work with. The fun working with them actually translated on screen, you could see that the chemistry between them was palpable. I never really had an experience like that where it was just so solid from the beginning, where these people absolutely had created something that I loved living in, that I believed in. And then have it yanked out from under me. I was like "No, no, no. This story isn't told yet".

I got to work with Buffy for seven years, Angel for five and I felt that to a large extent I got to tell those stories. And this world was more complete and more perfectly 'peopled' than any I ever created. People want to see this.

RG: How did you take the cancellation news?

JW: It wasn't cancelled so much as squashed like a bug from the very beginning. It was not a good match with the network. They didn't want it, they didn't understand it, they didn't advertise it, they didn't air it. These little things lead to people not seeing it. I had family members that could not find it on TV because they kept pre-empting it and changing it. It had no chance from the beginning. But luckily we got to make 15 hours of television during that 'no chance' which made for a hell of a reel to pitch the movie with.

RG: How was the day when you got the news that Firefly had been cancelled?

JW: It was a fun day because I went in to pitch an idea for a Batman origins movie which I guess didn't go over very well since I heard crickets in the room and possibly some snoring. As I was driving back to the office I was thinking: "Maybe I just don't know how to work in this system, maybe I'm just getting it wrong."

I got back to the office and the show was cancelled. So they just told me and I said only one thing: "Will you let me take it somewhere else?" because cancellation was bad news but not a bolt from a blue, not after the process of getting it on the air in the first place. They said "yes" and I hang up the phone.

Then I went to the stage and told the actors: "The show is over but we are not finished". All of them waited while I tried to figure out some way to keep this flying. So I relate to Mel a lot more than I used to. And eventually I got the call that said we are back.

RG: The show was on Fox and the movie is Universal. Did Fox have the first right of refusal?

JW: They did. And they refused [laughs].

RG: Did it become personal?

JW: No, if it was personal they would have kept Universal from buying the rights. They would have said: "We want to shut this down". They didn't get it, their TV division anyway, and they could've thought that "if someone else succeeds with it we will look silly," but the fact of the matter is that if somebody else succeeds with it they're going to sell a lot of DVDs.

RG: Everybody keeps talking about the DVD sales that fuelled the movie. How much did it sell?

JW: I don't know what the number is now. I know that within a few weeks of putting it out we sold about 200,000. So the idea that there was no audience for it kind of dissipated pretty quickly. But I was already working on the script. Universal had already expressed interest just by having seen the episodes, obviously not on TV, but because I gave them to them. It was in fact the Fox DVD arm that said: "We think this is a money maker." And this is before they were putting everything on DVD, it was a radical notion at the time.

But it didn't hurt at all, and the fan base has been increasing over the last 2 years. For a show that doesn't exist, that's pretty good.

RG: Can Fox resurrect the show or is it an avenue you don't even want to take?

JW:I absolutely have no idea what the contract is. I think ultimately you can never recapture what we did. You could have another show but it would be a new show. I think it's more likely that if it makes. uh, I'm not even going to say those numbers, they're too dreamy, if it makes a good deal of money we would see more movies. I think that's where it lives right now. But nothing, as I have recently learned, is impossible.

RG: Is there a sense of revenge from your part?

JW: The word we use is "redemption". I'm not going to lie, I was fairly bitter, but I transferred all my bitterness into getting the movie made. Universal made it easy but it was a while before we got there. The only thing on my mind was to get this made. And as far as revenge is concerned, if that's why you're doing something then you should stop. That's not going to get you through.

It was my love of the thing, of the project that made me want to do this. And the fact that it's done, my revenge is, that Fox will, again, sell a lot of DVDs, which to me is the best revenge because it's about respect. I respect this and I want you to do too.

It's not thumb in my nose anymore, that's not how I operate. Believe me, there are a plenty of people in my career that I wanted to thumb my nose at, I had a lot of disappointments but if you focus on that you will become unendurable bitter and really boring.

RG: Since Firefly was such a hit on DVD, are you hoping that the Serenity DVD will be just as popular?

JW: Oh yes. First meeting I ever had with the people at Universal, and there was a giant room full of people. I was explaining the universe of the movie and what I was going to do with it.

They were saying: "So, what are your thoughts about the DVD?"

I was like: "I was hoping it would come out in theatres".

That's just such a part of the package now, it's a huge source of revenue. So they were making DVD extras of me having that meeting, so it's inevitably part of it and I watched all the documentaries they put together and the pieces, I thought they were really nicely done. And of course I did my commentary where I praised myself for two hours.

RG: How did you know that with Firefly and Serenity you were discovering new territories, instead of visiting the same ones explored in Star Trek and Star Wars?

JW: You have these big bench marks that influence everything. I saw Star Wars ten times in theatre. I was not a huge Star Trek fan, but I still saw all of the movies. Blade Runner, Mad Max, any of the movies that created templates that changed science fiction, they are going to be in your head. And very specifically in this case people have likened Serenity to the movies we're talking about. This is not something that I can pretend is irrelevant...

RG: Mel is like Han Solo...

JW: Absolutely, to me it's definitely a precursor, even a father to this movie in many ways. But everybody has their own personal statement and their own personal aesthetic. Mine is possibly a little bleaker and grittier [laughs] than George's although he did get kind of depressing there in that last one. But nobody slowly burns to death in mine, so, I guess I'm the jaunty one.

But you take what you love and you make it your own. If you bring a personal point of view to your film then it will be something fresh, and if you don't, then you shouldn't be making it anyway.

RG: You mentioned that you pitched a Batman movie. What was your take on it?

JW: It was different. And that's the problem, when I create something I do fall in love with it. Like I'm still upset for not getting to film... it was just a pitch and all I had was an outline, but there were a couple of scenes in there that made me well up when I think about them because I thought they were so wonderful.

So imagine how I felt about something that actually existed with actors and a world that was already there; I could live in it and feel it. And when that thing was taken away, I don't deal with these things very well. I'm not in the business of making up stories that I can't tell anymore.

When you work in Hollywood as a writer you do it all the time. I sold big scripts for lots of money that nobody has ever seen because they were never made into movies. I did rewrites where I got into the heart of the film, really found the centre of what the film meant and really brought something in it that they didn't use. It's very dilapidating, it's very exhausting, it's lucrative but it's sort of soul deadening.

That was my career for a while. I did Buffy, the show, because it was mine, I could actually start telling the stories and people would listen to what I had to say. And that did rather more than I expected.

Serenity is the first chance I've ever had just to put myself completely on film, and as you can see I made myself much prettier.

RG: You are also a successful comic book writer, have you tried pitching your idea to DC Comics for a Batman comic book?

JW: Well, it's a little more complicated than that but yeah, pretty much I could... but it would have to be a great Batman story [laughs]. But the world of comic books has been very welcoming, which was unexpected because I didn't realise that they even knew who I was, until they found out what I did. That's another place where I can feel like I can walk into that world and do things that I like to do.

RG: What's the status of Wonder Woman, you're attached to that, right?

JW: Correct. The status is [pretends to write on a typewriter]... it's weird because I write on computer so I don't know why do I make that sound.

But there's no production start date, that's part of the reason why I took the gig. They just said "get it right" or "at least get it written". Once they see a script then we'll have an idea. They'll be like "uh, yeah, fast track" or "hmm, back to the digging sound".

RG: Do you think that, as with Superman, you need an actor who doesn't have that much recognition, or does it need to be somebody famous?

JW: I think that the first one is true. I think it's easier if you have a relative unknown that people see her for the first time and go: "OK, that's Wonder Woman" instead of that's so-and-so's interpretation of Wonder Woman.

I'm not going to rule somebody out just because they're famous. If I finish it and go: "Oh, my god, this is perfect for so-and-so" then it's perfect for her. But I would imagine that it would end up being somebody unknown because I couldn't name any particular so-and-so.

RG: How will you tackle a Wonder Woman movie because the character can be very lame if it's not well written...

JW: Oh, yeah, believe me when I say that. That's a path on a very long ledge. Despite my love of B-movies I'm not in the business for cheesy, and when it comes to powerful women I think I can work it.

Somebody said to me: "Come on, let's face it. You have two things on your resume: 'wonder' and 'woman'" So, I understand her. I wasn't sure if I did at first when Joel Silver came to me. It was like: "Wait a minute, this lady is talking to me. She's not cheesy at all". Trust me.

RG: You had to change her costume, right?

JW: Some of it, but she is still going to be Wonder Woman, she's not going to be Trinity (laughs).

RG: How do you deal with the fact that you have such a huge cult following?

JW: It's a burden. The only thing I don't like about 'cult following' is the name 'cult following' because it tends to make people think: "Well, I'm not interested in that, it's exclusive".

Ultimately I'd like to have a giant following (laughs). But my fans are not like scary, 'culty', let's keep everybody else out from the club house people, they're very inclusive, very sweet, altruistic, attractive and normal and they have lives - unlike me. So it's just a huge compliment to me, it just means that they respond to my work and that's exactly what I'm trying to do.

RG: One of the benefits of sci-fi is that you can deal with issues of today but since it's 500 or 5000 years in the future, people don't think that you are talking directly to them, when you are. Can you talk about some of the themes that reflect the world today?

JW: Some of it is a little more reflective of issues than I had intended. Obviously, politically it has a lot to do with more or less benevolent superpowers over reaching themselves, and people who think that their way of thinking should be everybody's. And how dangerous that is.

It's about the idea that no matter how much we want to be better, the fact that we are hopelessly flawed is possibly our only hope. In order to be free people have to be good and bad, right and wrong, that we all live in a grey area and people who don't, who see things in black and white, are the most dangerous people on the planet.

RG: Why are you so attracted to strong women as characters. Is it a James Cameron thing?

JW: James Cameron is a guru to me. He made the only truly textured, strong female heroes, not the only ones, but some of the most important, when I was coming up, and I learned a lot from him. But George Romero was doing more or less the same thing, not as heralded but definitely as strong.

I love the old movies, the really old movies before people decided that women were supposed to be weak. I'm talking about Rosalind Russell and His Girl Friday or Janet Gaynor and Seventh Heaven taking a bullwhip to her older sister, there was a toughness that was just expected of people that disappeared.

The worst thing that ever happened to women in movies is Marilyn Monroe. The weak, helpless, pathetic, annoying woman. And our continued cultural obsession with her depressed me my whole life. I like strong women, I was raised by one, I'm married to one, I surround myself with them. They're interesting, they're fun , they're sexy but they aren't represented enough. I think the question really shouldn't be 'why am I so attracted to strong women?', the question should be 'why isn't everybody?'

RG: Both your father and grandfather were part of very important TV shows of their generation, how much did that affect you by osmosis?

JW: A lot of it is osmosis. My style is very much like my father's. Because I didn't want to write for TV, I was: "No, no, no. Film! Entertainment is not television, bah". Then I realised that there was some beautiful work to be done on television. Their sensibility was so much part of who I was, that when it came time to make my way in television, the tone and the structure and where that stuff comes from... is particularly from my father.

But my mother, who is a teacher, spent an enormous time writing novels that were never published. When I think about wanting to be a writer, what I think of is the sound of her typewriter and when she was done writing for the day, I would sneak and start writing my novels which were even less published than hers because I never got past page 12.

RG: What was your first success?

JW: My first success was getting my first job, at 24 on Roseanne. I was working in a video store on Friday and on Monday I went to work on what was then the number one sitcom, and I thought the most ground breaking show about a family that was on TV.

RG: You survived, emotionally?

JW: No, my corpse is scattered, among many others, on the killing fields of Roseanne. But not actually by Roseanne, we got along fine. It was just a chaotic situation, everybody else having to deal with her, and they didn't know how to deal with me, so I quit. Because there was no place for me there. But that was the beginning. Although the video store owner did tell me that he was thinking about me for management so maybe I went the wrong way.

RG: Your giant following was really rooting for you to take on X-Men, what happened there?

JW: I love my giant following, but giants are not to be trusted. My elves following, they are really gnomes who guide me. It was a scheduling issue more than anything. I was positive that it was the right idea for me, but on paper I write the X-Men comic. The X-Men was a huge influence. It could be a lot of fun, and they didn't really have a script so it could be a lot of fun.

Wonder Woman I didn't really love the show or the comics, but you do break it down, and you're talking about doing the third in a franchise which is unfortunately really locked into a lot of dates and things. There were just so many perimeters, scheduling was never going to work as opposed to Wonder Woman.

RG: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Emma Carter at New Media Maze

Serenity is released to own and rent on DVD and UMD from Universal Pictures UK on the 27 February 2006

Order this DVD for £13.99 (RRP: £19.99) by clicking here
Order this UMD for £14.99 (RRP: £19.99) by clicking here

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