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Jose Molina - "Firefly" Tv Series - Ugo.com Interview

Tuesday 25 May 2010, by Webmaster

Were you one of the lucky winners of our Joss Whedon Day prize pack? Then you managed to snag a shiny new copy of “Firefly: Still Flying,” a collection of stories and essays by the cult show’s former writers. Don’t get tetchy, though – the book hits stores this week and we chatted with Jose Molina, writer of one of the stories in the collection, and two of the thirteen Firefly episodes that ever saw air. Oh, and just how he managed to get Nathan Fillion butt nekkid:

UGO: Let’s talk about Firefly – how’d you get hooked up with the show in the first place?

Jose Molina: As I’ve said before: "The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Jose, was to write for Firefly."

Also, I’d known Joss and Tim for a few years — ever since I was Howard Gordon’s assistant in 1997. Howard consulted on Buffy and Angel and Tim worked on Strange World and Angel, so we were friendly. My agent submitted me to Firefly, and I didn’t initially get the job. I had an offer to go work on Enterprise, which was really tempting because I’d known Brannon Braga since 1993 and had been a huge Trek fan for years. We were in the middle of negotiations with Enterprise when I got a call from Tim going "if you haven’t taken that job, give me a day before you do." The next day, he called and invited me to join the staff of Firefly, no negotiations or interviews necessary. So... basically... Tim is the Lady of the Lake.

Passing up a chance to write on Star Trek — which I love and was actually my first industry job — on DS9 — was a tough, tough call. But when I read the scene in "Train Job" where Mal kicks the guy into the engine I was like "I won’t get a chance to do THAT on ANY other show!" At that point, it was a no-brainer.

UGO: ...And then you wrote two episodes, which given there were only 13 ever produced, is a pretty significant amount – can you tell us about your contributions?

JM: I think my favorite contribution to the show is the airlock scene in "Ariel."

I had to write the script really, really fast and I knew I had that monster scene to tackle when I got close to the end. I wrote most of the script over a weekend and sent what I had to Joss and Tim on Sunday night so that they could get started prepping it and rewriting (if necessary) on Monday morning while I finished the last half of act four. (If I remember correctly, we prepped for two or three days off the outline alone.) I woke up on Monday morning to the most awesome answering machine message ever, which was Tim telling me how much he and Joss liked what they’d read... and could I please fucking finish now.

So I got up, wrote up to the moment where Mal bonks Jayne on the head with a wrench, and then went to take a shower so that I could think about the big finale scene and go to work without reeking like a dead fish. The whole exchange between Mal and Jayne occurred to me in the shower, and I literally ran out into my office and typed as fast as I could while dripping all over my desk. Then I went back and finished my shower. That scene is one of my favorite moments I’ve written to date.

I made plenty of other contributions to the show — including "Trash," of course — but that one’s probably the most significant thing for me.

UGO: What a great transition! Thank you! Let’s talk about putting together your other episode, “Trash”.

JM: We were in deep doggie-do by the time "Trash" came around. Creatively and from a production standpoint. Because of the lateness of the additional script order and the amount of time we’d had to spend on the last couple of scripts, there was really no time to be precious on what that episode would be.

The network didn’t really seem to like the show, they were pissed at how "westerny" it was and how weird it was, and we needed to give them something that we liked and that would maybe get them excited about the different kinds of show we could do. They’d liked "Ariel," they’d liked "Our Mrs. Reynolds," so one day Joss and Tim came into the bullpen and said "Alright, here’s the plan — we’re doing ’Our Mrs. Ariel’ — Saffron comes on board with a plan for a heist that can make the crew a shitload of money. Nobody trusts her, but they need the money so they give her a bunch of shit and go along with her idea." It seems like a mercenary idea, but a) we were trying to save the show, and b) I think it’s a really fun episode and I stand behind it 100%

The episode may not be one of our high-points, but I think it’s a great encapsulation of all the things we were trying to show the network we could be. We could do cool, action-heavy sci-fi with the floaty islands of Bellerophon and Jayne and everybody stunting it out on the hull of Serenity. We could do great Moonlighting-style banter with Saffron and Mal. We could do big mythology without being boring and complicated — the "I can kill you with my brain" scene was written by Joss and is one of my favorite scenes in the script. And we could embrace OUR brand of sci-fi — the kind where the greatest treasure in the ’verse is an old piece of junk gun. And we could strip Nathan Fillion naked and actually have it be part of the plot. What more do you want?

We followed that, by the way, with one of my favorite episodes — "The Message" — where we showed that the show was capable of incredibly powerful drama immediately on the tails of a light caper. "The Message" was the last script we wrote and the last episode we shot. I still look at that final scene where they bury Jonathan Woodward and it’s snowing and everybody’s choked up and it just seems like the perfect wrap-up to the show.

UGO: Was it the same situation when you were doing “Ariel”?

JM: We were in SLIGHT doggie-do when we did "Ariel." Time was definitely getting short. We’d been working on breaking the story for a while, but we were desperately in need of senior writer/producer resources.

Joss was prepping and then directing "Spin the Bottle" for Angel. Tim was in post-production on "Out of Gas." Ben was on the set of "Jaynestown."

So it was me, Brett Matthews and Cheryl Cain for most of that break... which was a pretty frustrating process. I remember finishing a version of the story and pitching it to Joss while Brett and Cheryl watched with their fingers crossed and all I can remember is how I couldn’t catch my breath because I was trying to pitch so fast. Joss patiently waited for me to catch my breath and then basically went "I like a lot of this... but the story isn’t about anything." In other words, we were back to square one.

We came back the next day and were trying to figure out what the heart of the story was. We had the heist, we had the Blue Gloves, we had tons of tension... but it didn’t mean anything. When we came up with the idea of Jayne being the one who calls the Alliance, Brett and I literally high-fived. It was brilliant! It was obvious! We had our heart!

I ran into my office and called Tim and he thought for a moment before saying "it’s not bad... what else do you have?" I was like "but— brilliant— obvious— heart," but he wasn’t impressed. We went home with our tails between our legs again that night. Then, miraculously, the next day the "Jayne betrays them" idea took root and we were off to the races.

With that new engine in place, we knew what we had to do. In another day or two — including a night on the Angel set while Joss was directing — we had the story broken. Ben and I wrote the outline in the wee hours of that night, and I started writing the next day.

UGO: Trash was the second Saffron episode – do you feel like you discovered Christina Hendricks? I mean, you’re pretty much responsible for her rise to fame, right?

JM: Um... no.

If anyone can claim responsibility for Christina’s discovery, it’s Joss, who cast her in "Our Mrs. Reynolds." I can remember watching dailies of that episode, though, and going "holy shit — she’s hot, she’s talented, she’s different than your typical stick actress — when are we bringing her back?"

As you can imagine, I wasn’t the only one, and we actually kept talking about ways of doing just that until the day we heard the "Our Mrs. Ariel" idea. Then there was a point during the filming — we were up in the middle of the desert in Lancaster shooting the barren landscape scenes — and I remember having a long conversation with Christina about truly deep and meaningful. The weather, I believe it was. (Nerds sometimes get tongue-tied around beautiful actresses.) And she was cool and funny... and laughed at all my jokes. At that point, I was like "can we make her a regular?"

I think if the show had gone a few years, she would’ve become Firefly’s version of "Q" from Next Generation. A couple of times a season, she would’ve showed up, wreaked havoc, then gone on her merry way with a bunch of money stolen from our pockets. I always thought she’d make a great foil for Inara. The two of them were great in the few scenes they had together.

UGO: “Trash” starts – and ends – with naked Nathan Fillion. How’d you convince him to do that? Did you just write it in the script and say, “here ya go!”

JM: Nathan was always whining about how hot his outfit was and how his space suit made him claustrophobic and couldn’t he wear less clothes, so we just figured "hey — payback."

That’s a total lie.

I’m not sure where the idea sprang from, but I know it came from Joss. I’m guessing it was either a bet between those guys, or a transparent ploy from Joss to keep the ladies glued to the set from the first frame of the show. It’s probably a combination of the two.

One of the funniest stories from that shoot comes from when we were doing the final scene of the show — the one where Mal goes back into the ship as Zoe and Wash stare at him. The master shot of the scene features Mal walking away from camera — so all you see is his ass until he gets to the top of the ramp and turns around to face the desert — which, at that point, was a sound stage. Nathan wanted to pull a practical joke on Joss and the crew, and he enlisted me to help him. I was all too happy to help. If you see the dailies — and it’s probably in a gag reel somewhere — you’ll see that on the first take Nathan walks up the ramp buck naked, then turns around to reveal the only thing covering his twig and berries: a head-shot of Joss (which I got for him) taped over his naughty bits.

UGO: Okay, enough about the nakedness for now... More seriously, if the show had continued, did you have episodes in mind – or that were planned out for you to do?

JM: For myself specifically, no. I had some ideas — and Brett and I came up with one together that we loved but will never get to do — but nothing solid. We knew where the season was going. The movie "Serenity" is basically what the Season One finale was meant to be. Joss had made that clear to us from the get-go. We had a few ideas in the hopper. There was one that was actually outlined by Ben Edlund called "Blue Sun Rising" that we wanted to do. There was Book’s backstory, which would’ve probably been in the next batch of episodes. There was a really sad Christmas episode where the Reavers... let’s just say they ruin the day. There was the real reason for Inara’s departure... Which I nudge against slightly in "Take the Sky." We knew what we wanted the show to be. We just didn’t get the opportunity to do it.

UGO: So tell us about “Firefly: Still Flying”... How’d the book come together?

JM: I’d contributed to the first two volumes that Titan did as the "Official Companion," and one day last September I got an email from Cath Trechman asking if I’d be interested in writing some short fiction for this new book. I thought about it for a couple of days, then said "thanks, but no thanks." This was right as I was starting filming on my first episode of Castle. After a single day on set — and a couple of conversations about the old days with Nathan — an idea started forming in my head. (I won’t spoil the story if you hadn’t read it, but I basically pictured Mal in a very different setting and wondered how that would play out.)

I actually asked Nathan if he had anything in his idea vault that he wanted to revisit — curious if he’d be tempted back into the ’verse by the thought of writing a story — and, although he didn’t, he referred me to Alan Tudyk, who’s had an idea in his head for years. I don’t know why Alan decided not to go for it, but if you’re reading this, Alan — write that story! It’s too damn funny not to write!

Anyway, after a couple more days working and talking with Nathan, I emailed Cath and went "I have an idea. I can’t NOT do this." Most of us — especially those who didn’t get to work on "Serenity" — never got any closure on the whole Firefly experience. The minute I started hearing Nathan’s voice in my head, I just had to do it. I remember pitching the notion to Nathan and he just kinda went "really?" I’m not sure he was too keen on what I had in mind. I asked him to read it when I finished it, though, and he said he loved it. (Then again, actors are really good liars, so who knows? I think he was telling the truth. He emailed it to Joss and the cast right there as we talked. Who knew Joss’ email was get_bent@needywriter.com?)

UGO: It must have been a bit strange to revisit this world after all this time, right?

JM: "Strange" isn’t really the word I’d use. It was a little scary because you don’t want to fuck up something that has endured for so long with so much affection from the fans. You don’t want to add something that isn’t worthwhile to the canon. It was a little daunting because I knew I’d have to channel Joss’ voice after 8 years of not doing it. But, honestly, it was crazy cool. Like I said, my experience with Firefly has been a bittersweet one — and the rug-pull we got at the end still pisses me off after all this time. So being able to go back and write about these characters, in this voice, with complete freedom... it was just awesome. Can we do it again, please?

UGO: Will you do it again, please? I mean, will we ever see the crew of Serenity in moving pictures form again?

JM: Realistically, I’d have to say no. It’s been too long. Most everybody is committed to other things. But here’s what’s crazy — every time I talk to someone from the Firefly days — cast or crew — they all want to go back and do it again. I would bet big money that if you approached Nathan, Gina, Adam, Morena, Jewel, Sean and Summer — and even Alan and Ron (playing the dearly departed) — they would all line up to play those characters again. It would take some serious magic to make everyone available and affordable, but I have no doubt about everyone’s desire to go back to the ’verse. The same goes for the creative side. Hell, four of us just went back there for a shiny penny and a lukewarm can of ginger ale. It’s ultimately up to Joss and the rights-holders. But I can’t imagine any TV network NOT wanting to re-launch this show. Then again, I make my living on imagination. Long story short: if Joss and Tim call, I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and go back to writing Firefly.

UGO: While you’re waiting for Firefly to get going again, though, you’ve written a few episodes of Castle. How is writing Castle’s dialogue different than Mal’s? Or is it all Nathan Fillion all the time?

JM: Yes. It’s all Nathan Fillion. Every episode should read "Written by Some Writer & Nathan Fillion." C’mon, people! Nathan always adds to his dialogue and makes it better, but he’s not inventing it from scratch!

Having said that, there’s no doubt that when Nathan inhabits a character, you find yourself tilting the character’s voice slightly towards his personality — just because he’s so goddamn funny and charming. If you read the original Firefly pilot, you’ll see that Mal is a nasty, crusty, angry old man... who also happens to have a very dark sense of humor. Nathan pulled off both sides of the character in the pilot, but the humorous side of him was so appealing that we just HAD to start writing towards it.

In terms of Castle vs. Mal... I actually found myself occasionally writing in Mal’s voice instead of Castle’s. Maybe because I knew Mal’s voice better, maybe because it’s more idiosyncratic, or maybe because I’m lazy. In terms of how they’re different — they’re VERY different. At 31, Mal has seen the darkest side of humanity; he’s been to war; he’s seen and caused death; he’s been forced to grow up and make life-altering decisions that usually went against what was easy or profitable. At 38, Castle is still an adolescent. He may be smart, but he’s not terribly wise or deep. By virtue of the show’s genre, Castle the character often has to become Basil Exposition (just as Beckett does), and it’s hard to find nuance and dimensionality when you’re saying "our vic took $500K out of his bank account the night before the murder." With Firefly information HAD to come with character. Look at the opening scene of "Ariel," and check out how much information you’re getting — all slanted with a character’s point-of-view.

UGO: All right, wrapping up... What’s next for you?

JM: I’ve recently joined the staff of SyFy’s upcoming new show Haven, which is loosely based on the Stephen King novel The Colorado Kid. We’ve just started getting footage from Nova Scotia, and it looks gorgeous — literally unlike anything on TV. The show has an X-Files/Twin Peaks vibe to it — there’s a supernatural angle to it every week, but the mythology and the relationships between the characters are what will hopefully keep you coming back. The basic premise is this: imagine a town where Carrie, Cujo and Charlie (from Firestarter) could all come to seek refuge from their curses/powers. That’s Haven. And it’s fuckin’ crazy up in this joint.

“Firefly: Still Flying” hits bookstores today . Haven premieres on SyFy on July 9th.