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FireflyFirefly - "Serenity" Movie - From Buffy to blockbuster of the year
Saturday 1 October 2005, by Webmaster
He took television to new heights with Buffy. Now writer-director Joss Whedon has done the same for the blockbuster, with his first, spectacular feature film. SF Said meets him
’I adore movies," says Joss Whedon. "Big summer action movies in particular, back when they were good. I want to make movies that you need to see again and again, like I did when I was a kid. Whedon instucting an actor on set Joss Whedon on set with Summer Glau, who plays River Tam
"The weekend Star Wars came out, I saw it three times, and the next Monday at school, the Tarzan club was disbanded and the Star Wars club was born."
Serenity clubs might well be springing up around the country after the science-fiction film’s release next week, for though it’s Whedon’s first feature as a director, it achieves his ambition in grand style. It’s the most entertaining film you’ll see all year - a reminder of a time when studio blockbusters could be special experiences.
As filmmaking, it’s big, bold and spectacular, yet built on a human scale, with complex characters and relationships. It’s bursting with action and adventure, but underpinned by serious ideas. It’s also very, very funny, because Whedon is one of the sharpest writers of banter at work in the world today.
None of this will be news to his fans, for though he’s a first-time film director at the age of 41, Whedon has been making television with all those trademark qualities for a decade now. He’s the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of recent times, and the second highest-selling series in DVD history. Before that, he was a top Hollywood screenwriter, working on scripts for such films as Toy Story, Speed and Alien: Resurrection.
"I was very successful as a script doctor," he says. "I had written some movies that were getting made. But when I told people that I wanted to direct, nobody would even consider me. I basically used Buffy as film school, so I could have enough experience under my belt so that the next time I said ’I mean to direct’, nobody would laugh." Bringing his love of cinema into the arena of television, he gave Buffy and its spin-off series Angel a sense of scale and a subversive intelligence that was almost unprecedented on the small screen. Buffy was built around the metaphor of high school as a horror movie, but Whedon inverted the old horror cliché where the girl inevitably gets killed by monsters, and made her a heroic, iconic warrior.
There are episodes of Buffy that work dazzling riffs on cinematic forms - the largely silent Hush; the musical episode Once More, With Feeling - but it’s the cumulative emotional power of the show, over its seven seasons, that is most astonishing.
As a constantly developing, multi-stranded narrative, with characters who change and develop and go through every kind of experience imaginable, it stands comparison with anything the medium has produced.
"I wrote movies every week, that’s what I did," says Whedon. "It was about finding that moment that is so good, so romantic, so heroic, so exciting - and I literally had producers telling me, ’You have too much visual information.’ Because most television is radio with faces. But I kept pushing against it, so the show resonated, and felt bigger than it was."
With his next series, Firefly, Whedon moved from high-school horror to science-fiction western. This show would become the basis for Serenity, which picks up the same characters at a later point in their story.
Set in the aftermath of a galactic civil war, won by a military superpower called the Alliance, it follows the adventures of a spaceship crew led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former rebel officer turned petty thief and smuggler - a man not a million light years from Han Solo of Star Wars.
On board are larger-than-life characters including a shamelessly non-PC strongman called Jayne (Adam Baldwin), an interstellar geisha girl named Inara (Morena Baccarin), and a brilliant psychic assassin called River (Summer Glau), who knows a secret about the Alliance which holds the key to the future of the universe.
"The idea behind the show," says Whedon, "was to take nine people and say, ’Nine people look out into the blackness of space, and see nine different things.’ But science fiction opens you up to every element of history that you want, because the future is just the past in a blender. So I could take anything from the human experience I’ve read about or felt or seen. Like, what is it like after a war? It doesn’t matter which war or which country - what is it like for the people who lost?"
Though inspired by the past and set in the future, Firefly and Serenity have a very timely real-world relevance, given the state of America’s foreign policy involvements.
"It’s a little more timely than I’d hoped," he sighs. "The thing is, I do believe that when you try and force happiness on people, you find out that their version of happiness may not be yours.
"People keep calling the Alliance ’the evil empire’, and I’m like, ’Actually, it’s not an evil empire, it’s the most enlightened society in the galaxy - but they’re making the mistake any big power makes, which is to assume that their version of enlightenment should be spread everywhere, and that they can justly govern people who are beyond their reach, or living on their own terms, be they somewhat strange or archaic or even barbaric.
"And just dropping yourself into the middle of that and saying, ’OK, we’re in charge of you now, be happy!’ ain’t gonna swing." ’Serenity is everything we want from a blockbuster movie, and more’
Whedon originally intended Firefly to run for seven seasons, like Buffy. But after only a dozen episodes of its first season - just as it was getting into its stride - the Fox network cancelled it. Undaunted, encouraged by massive DVD sales and fan demand for more, he talked a major studio into financing a feature film based on the series - and finally got to realise his dream of directing a movie.
It’s an outcome strangely reminiscent of the original Star Trek: a television show that was prematurely cancelled by a network, became a massive cult, and was then reborn on the big screen.
At Serenity’s world première, at the Edinburgh Film Festival this August, Whedon and his cast were greeted with rapturous standing ovations. Tickets to the screenings sold out the moment they were announced. Some fans paid hundreds of pounds on eBay to be there; some had travelled from the other side of the world.
They were not disappointed. After a wretched summer of studio offerings, Serenity delivered the goods. It is everything we want from a blockbuster movie, and more.
It’s been a long, strange journey for Joss Whedon. But now he’s made a film that is finding its way into the popular imagination, just like the films he loved when he was young.
# ’Serenity’ opens on Friday.