Firefly’Firefly’ hits big screen with ’Serenity’
By Ann Marie McQueen
Sunday 25 September 2005, by Webmaster
BEVERLY HILLS — Even more improbable than the story of a set of scrappy post-war survivors navigating a fantasy frontier world 500 years in the future is the one of the passionate band of real-world fans who saved them from oblivion.
Such is the legacy of the Browncoats, also known as lovers of a short-lived 2002 Fox television series Firefly.
Their tenacity — boosted by the show’s creator Joss Whedon — succeeded in achieving the near impossible in Hollywood: Reviving a failed TV series and navigating the dilapidated spaceship that was at its core into a feature film.
Serenity will sail again when it hits theatres this Friday.
Whedon could be considered a "geek guru" — after all, some of these Firefly fans dress up like characters from the show and are known to launch into impromptu renditions of the theme song — and he doesn’t flinch when the idea is suggested to him.
"I prefer nerd lama," he jokes.
Regardless of his fan base, Whedon clearly does not give up easily. When his 1992 original screenplay for a feature version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was altered too drastically for film, he adapted it for television and made it one of the most successful series of all time.
When Fox pulled the plug on Firefly after airing just 11 of 14 episodes, and other channels declined to pick it up, he took to the Internet to lobby for its DVD release.
The resulting sales almost a year later so impressed studio heads at Universal Pictures they agreed to develop a feature film based on the series.
Whedon, who earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story and is the Emmy-nominated creator of both Buffy and Angel, would both write the movie and make his feature directorial debut.
He’d also be free of those uneasy Fox executives who regularly breathed down his neck on the television set. And he would get a chance to finish — or at least start to finish — what he started when he conjured up Firefly after reading Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel The Killer Angels.
"I had this extraordinary world I helped create, with this cast I felt were the most extraordinary people I’d worked with, who were born to play these parts," says Whedon.
"I thought ’this is too exciting to let go of.’ "
The resulting story has Serenity’s eclectic crew of outcasts navigating a treacherous post-Earth world.
The Western-themed sci-fi series (Whedon says he could find no room for horses, which appeared in the TV series, in Serenity, but the characters still curse in Chinese) picks up in the film with the rescue of lethal and troubled teenager River Tam (played by Summer Glau) and the government’s resulting efforts to get her back.
The nine-member cast, most virtual unknowns, grew extraordinarily tight during their hours shooting Firefly and felt as passionate as Whedon about it.
As soon as it was cancelled, he vowed to revive the show and bring them all back. He proceeded to give the group regular updates and they stayed close, even gathering at Whedon’s home for weekend readings of Shakespeare.
In the meantime they would agonize over taking new parts should Whedon’s campaign work.
’A NICE SPLINTER’
Gina Torres, who plays the ship’s second-in-command Zoe, compared the ongoing uncertainty to a splinter, "a nice splinter but an annoying one."
Adam Baldwin, the cast’s most recognizable member for roles in My Bodyguard and Full Metal Jacket, never expected to play hulking mercenary Jayne again.
"We’ve had a long ride back from a cancellation of a short-lived television series to the release of a major motion picture from Universal studios," he says. "I don’t know if there’s any other story equivalent to that in Hollywood history."
Edmonton-born Nathan Fillion, who plays charismatic ship Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, found it hard to get comfortable in his spaceboots even when it was clear the project was a go.
"For me it was three weeks into filming before I could finally relax enough to believe it wasn’t going to be taken away from us," he said.
QUITE A COUP
Serenity, then, is quite a coup for the gracious group. They know it, and they know who to thank. Fillion says he first twigged that Firefly lovers were more dedicated than the average television viewer at the group’s first sci-fi convention in Blackpool, England.
"Man, these fans turned out," he says, picking his words carefully.
"They were excited in a really different kind of excited way. Not weird, not gooey."
"Watching (the film) with them is really this incredible experience," says Sean Maher, who plays ship doctor Simon. "They are so familiar with the characters and the tone, you could hear a pin drop at some points in the movie."
Since Serenity was always going to be a hard movie to market, Universal leaned on that fan base to get word out.
Their buzz-building campaign included advertising dozens of screenings — as early as last spring — on Firefly fansites. And it appears to be working. Fans snapped up tickets for a 10-city showing in May, paying up to $300 US for them on eBay.
The cast faced lengthy standing ovations whenever they appeared with previews at comic book or sci-fi conventions. At a Sept. 8 screening in Ottawa, fans waited more than two hours in line and many were turned away.
If Whedon doesn’t mind being called a geek, he understandably defends such dedicated fans — who may or may not be able propel his $45-million movie from their orbit to the mainstream — from those who would pigeon-hole them as socially awkward or Internet-addicted.
And though Whedon is already thinking about a sequel, or possibly revisiting some new version of the television series ("you can’t stop the brain," he says), for now he’s just waiting and hoping Serenity will appeal to a bigger audience than those trusty Browncoats this weekend.
"It’s not an in-joke, it’s not only for people who have seen the series," he says.
"I worked very hard to make sure anyone who’s never seen the series could understand and enjoy the movie."
Starring Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres