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Joss Whedon - About "Serenity" Movie - The CulturePulp Q&A Part 1

Sunday 25 September 2005, by Webmaster

As promised to readers of the Sunday, Sept. 25 Oregonian: Here’s the nearly complete, 9,500-word transcript of my 67-minute interview with "Buffy," "Angel," "Firefly" and "Serenity" creator Joss Whedon.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon always wanted to write and direct feature films — but even he admits that "Serenity" was a strange choice for his big-screen debut.

"A lot of people told me that — repeatedly," he says, "because [’Serenity’’s] a story and not a premise movie — like ’Oh! He sees dead people!’ or ’He’s old and he looks like Tom Hanks now!’"

It’s true: "Serenity," which opens Friday, Sept. 30, is hard to sum up in pithy sentences. But let’s give it a shot:

In broad strokes, the film tells the story of space pirate Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) — a cynical, Han Solo-style mercenary whose thieving days are interrupted when the government sends an assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to kill the psychic on his crew (Summer Glau) after she mentally eavesdrops on some alarming state secrets.

There are chases. There is banter. Things explode.

But try to describe "Serenity" in greater detail, and things get complicated in a hurry.

For starters, the movie’s actually a sequel to a cancelled TV show called "Firefly" — which Fox unceremoniously dumped in 2002, after airing 11 of 14 produced episodes out of order.

Whedon — in a move that hasn’t been seen since the Zuckers turned TV’s "Police Squad!" into the "Naked Gun" franchise — refused to take that cancellation lying down.

"I loved the characters," he says. "I loved the people who played them. And I just thought, ’Their story’s not told yet.’" So he convinced Universal to take a risk on a relatively low-budget ($40 million) film after a small but rabid group of fans calling themselves "Browncoats" snapped up somewhere north of 200,000 copies of a DVD set collecting the series.

It’s easy to see why "Firefly" became a cult fixation: Its universe is richly textured in a way you don’t see much in mainstream sci-fi. Set 500 years hence — in a new solar system mankind is colonizing, frontier-style — the film juggles a large, diverse crew that includes Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin and Ron Glass. And it mixes culture and language in some unexpected ways: Our heroes bicker in Old West cowboy-speak and curse in Chinese, and every set-piece and costume-scrap is a crazy mash-up of East/West motifs.

Whedon helps sell all this by shooting "Serenity" in a naturalistic, handheld style, with the considerable help of Clint Eastwood cinematographer Jack Green. (In the book "Serenity: The Official Visual Companion," Whedon describes the look of one fight scene as "Robert Altman’s ’The Matrix’"; this is, incredibly, a fairly accurate assessment.)

We talked with Whedon for over an hour about "Serenity," "Firefly," rabid fans, the personal politics of his solar system, the "Serenity" mix tape, bizarro marketing strategies, the joys of studio non-interference and quality bootlegging, the dangers of becoming a cult icon, why touring a spaceship in a single take is a really good idea, and much, much, much more. A slightly edited transcript follows the jump.

Click the "Read More" link directly below to check out the whole interview!


M.E. RUSSELL: So if you were going to pitch "Firefly"’s basic premise in terms that a novice would understand, how would you put it? The popular take seems to be that it’s Han Solo’s story — if Greedo still shot first.

JOSS WHEDON: Which I believe I, myself, said.

Q. Well, there you go.

A. Or if Han had come into the bar five minutes later and never met that old man. But you asked how I would pitch "Firefly," which is different from "Serenity." So which one am I pitching?

Q. I’m sorry — "Serenity" is the one we’d want to talk about.

A. I mean, of course, some people are thinking of both.... But if I was going to pitch "Serenity," I’d say it’s a space adventure that involves the lowliest of people in the most mundane of circumstances getting caught up in something giant and epic — without lasers, aliens, or force-fields to protect them.

Q. It strikes me that any one "Firefly" character, taken alone, would be a premise character. But you have nine of them interacting.

A. Well, that’s kind of the point. And that’s part of what makes it difficult to sell and balance — and what makes it worth doing. What I started out with was these characters, because I had done the show "Firefly," and I loved these guys — I loved the characters, I loved the people who played them, I loved the way they played them. And I just thought, "These people, their story’s not told yet. They’re ready for it to be told on a much grander scale than perhaps anybody had anticipated." And that is a strange way to come at trying to build a film. It’s not the way I usually do it. Usually it is about a premise, and I build a character from that. But I knew this universe was exciting and fresh and textured and very real to me, and I had these people — and I knew that they were in a world of trouble, in terms of where I was going with the series. I did know that I had something that was worthy of a movie. An easily told movie? Not necessarily. But a movie that would have more than just a premise. It would really get into their lives and tell the big, epic story — with the big chases and the big trouble and the fights and all the glory that we go to the movies for. But at the same time, it would be about the people in it — as opposed to the things you can accomplish with CGI.

Q. Speaking of which, I saw the film last night [Sept. 1] in a screening that wasn’t an all-Browncoat screening. And it played very well. Which, as a big fan of the "Firefly" TV series, I was a bit concerned about. And I have to salute the climactic space battle in its final form: A lot of newbies — people who’d never seen the show — were saying that it was thrilling in a way that certain "Star Wars" dogfights haven’t been in a long time.

A. That’s very impressive, considering how beautifully done those dogfights are. So much money! The money! All that money! I think our dogfight works because you get a sense of their situation, which is: They’re really little and they have no guns!

Q. Well the way it’s storyboarded and assembled to have a documentary feel is also fascinating — there’s a "shaky-cam" look to the effects that "Firefly" sort of pioneered.

A. Well, it looked like that for a reason. "Buffy" was made because there was a character I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing. And "Firefly" was made because I was missing something in televised science fiction, and also in the movies: a gritty realism that wasn’t an "Alien" ripoff. The template I was working from was "NYPD Blue" — it was "you are there." It was, "We just happened to have a camera, and then this happened." Obviously, these were larger-than-life stories, and obviously [in "Serenity"] there was some arch and manipulative camera work, because much the way Mal realizes he’s a hero, the movie realizes, "I’m a movie!" But we always tried to keep that presence: We’re there, the cameraman might fall over, everyone might die, and none of us is safe.


Q. "Firefly" and "Serenity"’s political and cultural underpinnings are unusually well thought-out. You’ve obviously developed a whole system of planets, a Sino-American political system, a mix of languages. How long did the concept fester in your head before you started writing?

A. It festered for a while. It was probably two or three years after I came up with the idea that I made the TV show, a year-and-a-half doing that, and then a couple of years to write the movie. So it’s had time to bake. And people are always like, "They’re fighting an evil empire!" And I’m like, "Well, it’s not really an evil empire." The trick was always to create something that was complex enough that you could bring some debate to it — that it wasn’t black-and-white. It wasn’t, "If we hit this porthole in the Death Star, everything will be fine!" It was messier than that, and the messiest thing is that the government is basically benign. It’s the most advanced culturally....

Q. And [the government-sponsored assassin] The Operative has an honorable point of view — in his way.

A. Oh, he totally does. Mal is somebody that I knew, as I created him, I would not get along with. I don’t think we have the same politics. But that’s sort of the point. I mean, if the movie’s about anything, it’s about the right to be wrong. It’s about the messiness of people. And if you try to eradicate that, you eradicate them.

Q. And on a sheer love-of-language level, it’s about the clash of dialects. Several of the characters speak in an old-timey-Western-paperback patois. Why did you choose to make the connections between the Old West and the future so overt?

A. Because that’s where it came from. It came from my love of frontier stories — in the movies and in actual, historical frontier stories. And also because if you are Han Solo — if you are living hand-to-mouth — you’re dealing with a very classic frontier paradigm, which is that life is really hard out here. The law is, at best, obtuse and often useless — and occasionally dangerous. And the lack of law is troublesome, too. And you learn to make your own, and work on your own terms, in order to survive. Right now, we live in an age of extraordinary convenience — where you can have an entire group of friends and social gatherings and all your food and all your movies without ever leaving the house. And so I’m more and more fascinated by the physical — by people who "make their own fun," as it were. As David Mamet so perfectly put it, "Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it ain’t fun — it’s entertainment."

Q. Thank you. I still think "State and Main" is one of Mamet’s best movies.

A. I really do.... I mean, you can look at the people in "Serenity" as people who are living in a Third-World country — because other people with the best of intentions are trying to, uh, "help" them, but they’re kind of out of reach, or nobody knows how the system works well enough to do any good. The frontier, to me, was fascinating because it is so extreme. And at some point, almost everyone is confronted with that kind of extremity. And it’s extraordinary how it changes us. It’s what makes disaster movies fascinating to me — because they take people like us and say, "Whoa! Well! Who comes up to the mark? How do you change? Who’s in charge? How does the system — how does, you know, society — dissolve when the walls are not existentially but literally broken down?" And obviously, you don’t want a disaster to happen to anybody. But this movie is about people ... who are used to a certain level of peril and extremity in their lives that most people in this country aren’t. Or weren’t.

Q. Getting back to the question of language: I was wondering how the hell you found actors who make all that old-timey dialogue seem effortless. Because that’s a hell of a coup.

A. It is. And with Nathan, he got so completely comfortable with it that we actually had to have him talk slower, because he could rattle it off so fast, people couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

Q. And when he posts to the message boards on the fan-sites, he kind of writes that way, too.

A. He gets a little Mal on.... The dialogue is built out of a number of things: my own desire to make up silly slang, because I love the liquidness of language.... It’s largely Western. It’s also Elizabethan. There’s some Indian stuff. There’s some turn-of-the-century Pennsylvania Dutch. Irish.... There’s absolutely anything that fits. But I think [the cast] will all band together and kill me because of the Chinese. And there’s some John Wayne — which is different than just "Western." Nobody talked like John Wayne; John had his own thing that was so lyrical. The way he talked and the way he moved were both way too graceful for a man who was supposed to be that tough.

Q. [laughs] I know.

A. Then again, his name was Marion.

Q. Hey, John Ford cast him in a movie where he went to Ireland.

A. Yeah. He had an extraordinary individualism. And that’s in there, too. See, with Nathan, I just got incredibly lucky, and for everyone else, it just works in different ways. When you start to work with actors, you start to write to their different strengths — you start to know what’s going to trip them up and what’s going to play to their different strengths.


Q. I’d like to go out of my way to praise Adam Baldwin’s work in the film. I really expect him to get some more work out of this; he knocked every single line out of the park.

A. Adam is quite large to be a secret weapon. [laughs] He really is. It’s great fun to take someone like Summer, who’s never done a film — except for a small bit — and really get to show her to people. It’s just as much fun with a guy who’s been working for 20 years. Because he’s so funny, and so vital. His love of that role, and what he brings to it.... Yeah, he does. He knocks every single line straight out of the park. Adam really is bigger than life.

Q. Now, I know his political views may not be your own. And one of the things that strikes me about the show is that, in terms of both gender and personal politics, "Firefly" and "Serenity" have one of the more diverse fan bases I’ve ever seen. The show’s been written up in progressive and conservative journals....

A. Yeah. I would say about the movie that it is very political, but it’s not partisan. And I think the curse, right now, of the politics of our nation is that a line has been drawn down the middle of our country — and that’s not actually how the human mind works.

Q. Well, the problems are hugely complicated infrastructural problems, and we’re trying to solve them with bloodsport. David Foster Wallace said that.

A. Yeah. It’s not useful. The political statement that "Serenity" makes is very blatant — but it can be embraced by someone who’s extremely conservative or someone who’s extremely liberal. That’s not the point. The point is: It’s a personal statement. What "Serenity" and "Firefly" were both about is how politics affect people personally. And the personal politics are the only politics that really interest me. I’m not going to make this big, didactic polemic — I’m just going to say, "When there are shifts in a planet, those tiny little guys are the ones who are affected. So let’s hang out with them — not the Federation heads or the Jedi Council."

Q. [laughs] Right.

A. And with the show, the idea was to have as many points of view as possible. The reason I made the Alliance a generally benign, enlightened society was so that I could engage these people in a debate about it. Now, in the film, obviously, there’s more chasing and guns than debating —

Q. Plus explosions —

A. You know, people don’t love a great debate flick.

Q. And when people try and make them, and critics praise them as great "message movies," no one goes to see them.

A. Yeah. Including myself. But if you let the points of view exist, then it does the work for you. In the show, that was always the idea: Nine different people see the same thing and have nine different reactions to it, based on who they are and where they’ve been. And that’s what made for the drama. And, uh, most of the comedy.

Q. I’m a vague acquaintance of your colleague Brian Michael Bendis, who lives here in town — and one thing that strikes me about his work and yours is that you’re guys who aren’t ashamed about coding up all your messages in a genre structure.

A. Well, I have always been a fan of his. I love genre. I love fantasy. I love science fiction. I love horror. I love musicals. I love finding a different way to express what I want to say. And I think, ultimately, it works best for me — because otherwise, it would be boring and didactic and I wouldn’t know what the hell I was doing. Genre helps me with structure, and structure helps me get through the day.


Q. The show and film are also fascinating in that they have no aliens, or dorks in jumpsuits with prosthetics on their nose-ridges. Nor does the spaceship in any way resemble a flying Sheraton Hotel.

A. [laughs] The thing I love about science fiction — future stuff, particularly — is the sense of being there. It’s very important. And I’d seen a lot of shows with ships where they all tend to look like that —

Q. Nicely carpeted spaceships.

A. Exactly. That’s why there’s a toilet [on Serenity]. That’s why there are ladders. That’s why I’m obsessed with vertical space. I’m obsessed with the messiness of it. As much as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" are old, weird uncles of this movie — and one of them may be the father, but we haven’t gotten back the DNA test yet — "Alien," particularly the first one, also has significance. Because it gave a real sense of, "We live here. And this is where we eat, and this is where we sleep, and we climb up from here to here, and the vents run here." And that sense of the physical is another reason why I was doing the camerawork the way I did it — so you were not in that remove of, "AND NOW WE WILL ENACT THE DRAMA THAT EXISTS IN MY BIG JAR OF DRA-MA." It was, you know, "Everything here is beat-up and real and crappy, and you go up and you go down." Apart from the artificial gravity that one must inevitably have — because one doesn’t want to make a floaty movie — the textured reality is there. I want to be on that ship, and I never felt like I was on those other ships. They were big, giant Sheratons.

Q. And you don’t see a lot of science-fiction films lit by Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer.

A. You know, how cool is Jack Green?

Q. How did you explain this to him?

A. I didn’t really have to. He read the script; he got it; we talked; he got it. He knew there was a Western thing going on, but he also knew I wasn’t looking to ape the Western — I was just looking for something that felt real and cobbled together with a lot of different palates. And the thing about Jack is: He can actually do any damned thing. You ask Jack for a certain thing, and he’s got it in his repertoire. His druthers is to stay out of the way.

Q. He’s probably the secret weapon that allows Eastwood to deliver all his movies on-time and under-budget.

A. Certainly. He’s the reason we got to make a movie that looks — I think — a good deal more expensive than it was. He moves so fast, and he makes frames that I think are just as gorgeous as anything. But he doesn’t announce, "JACK GREEN IN THE HOUSE!" — either on set or on film. He stays out of the way, and then he gives you stuff like that Shepherd Book/Mal scene — which, with three lights, is one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen. He’s not afraid of blacks, and neither am I, and that’s a really important thing to me. He’s not afraid of losing things, of keeping it a little sloppy. At the same time, he’s very precise. And he moves faster than a lot of guys who are in TV. I can’t say enough about Jack. And he’s perfect for this because he’s got a Western background, but he’s done everything — and he’s not turning this into a big-hat pastiche. Because when you say "space Western," a lot of people are gonna go, "RUN!!! JUST RUNNN!!!" To me, it is that to an extent, but it’s more just a space adventure. I remember my father being very angry when people said that "Star Wars" was a Western. He’d say, "It’s not a Western! It’s a WWII flying-ace movie!"

Q. Mm-hm. It’s "The Dambusters."

A. And of course it’s a hundred different things — as is anything that feels new. But to me, it’s perfectly logical, because you’re out there in what is termed "the final frontier," and you’re in the same situation that people were in when the final frontier was California: "We’ve got exactly this much cured meat, we’ve got exactly this many bullets, and we have no idea where we’re heading." So it’s not so much a question of genre, it’s a question of the reality of the thing — and the fact that the Western was always an immigrant story, and you get to mish-mash all those cultures together. That’s how we made this country, and that’s how we’re going to make every country from now on. So Jack is perfect for all of that, because he understands it all — he makes it all real. You still get your sci-fi jollies, but none of it feels like, you know, like there’s a Theremin playing.


Q. Now, Marc Schmuger and his Universal marketing team have really been using your film to beta-test a new way of marketing movies. Obviously, they can afford to do these sorts of experiments on your film. I’d love to hear your take on the specifics of that.

A. To me, the whole thing is fairly impressive. On the one hand, it’s really nice, because I realized that they were saying, "The best thing we have to advertise your film is your film." And I thought, "Well, that’s better than, ’We have to hide it until it opens and then run like bunnies.’" But at the beginning, when they first talked about showing it to the fans in a number of preview screenings that was, you know, pretty big —

Q. I think it was 65, wasn’t it?

A. And that’s not including the festivals. I think it’ll end up having been shown about 75 times before it opens. I and a lot of people were a little scared: "What if we ring the dinner bell and the fans are all full?"

Q. Well, that and the movie heaps these Kobayashi Maru levels of abuse on the characters. I mean, fans are gonna go binary on that.

A. Some people might go, "Hey! Wait a minute! He took the sky! Where’s my sky?" But, at the end of the day, what they [Universal] were trying to do.... They felt the fans — based on their experience of seeing them see the movie — weren’t going to go, "Yawn! Well, we got our jollies and we’re going to move on." They wanted to build the momentum with the idea that, "Oh, this is really something. And the noise that you guys are making could be heard elsewhere." And that was the thing. The fan base has been very loyal — and, I think, unprecedentedly involved. But it was really about the people who have no idea what "Serenity" is — or who could give a rat’s ass — hearing these waves in the distance sort of heading towards them and going, "What is that?" And that was thinking two steps ahead of where I was thinking. And it seems to have worked. We’ve gotten some coverage in a lot of places that would not have given us the time of day. But it’s still hard. I mean, the job that they were given — to sell a movie with a title that sounds vaguely Buddhist; that doesn’t have an easily sellable premise; that doesn’t have a single bankable star, unless you’re a huge Alan Tudyk or Adam Baldwin fan like I am [laughs] — it was a hell of a thing for them to take on. And so they just said, "Well, we love it. They love it. Let’s work with ’love.’"

Q. [laughs] What a novel idea for a marketing department.

A. Oh, yeah. I tell you, I’ve been pretty impressed. And they were always looking for things to do that were different. You know, the little Internet River bits.

Q. Yes! How did you enjoy gurgling with a pen in your neck?

A. You know? Uh, good times. And I’ll be able to explain it all more when it’s done. But that came not from Universal saying, "We have a marketing idea"; that came from Universal going, "What’s weird? What’s fresh? What’s fun?" And me going, "I have a silly notion...." It was a chance to say, "We’re gonna throw everything up there. We’re just gonna keep coming at people from different angles." Because that’s kind of what the movie does, and that’s kind of what makes it interesting. So we’re just gonna keep spreading out the mythos that this thing is built upon, so that even if somebody has no idea who anybody is, they know there’s some body there — not something they missed, hopefully, but something that they can rely on — something that’s been thought out, something with some weight.


A. You said you’ve seen it with —

Q. I’ve seen it with the fans and the non-fans now.

A. You know, we spent a long time with this movie, in editing, getting it to a place where non-fans would be able to enjoy it. It was the hardest thing about it.

Q. I actually wanted to ask you about that. In the first 10 minutes of "Serenity," you manage to explain the entire premise of the show in three folding flashbacks and a long, single take that takes us on a tour of the entire ship and introduces all the characters. I just want to say: That must have been murderously hard to write.

A. Actually, not the hardest part. It was hard to structure. I sat down and said, "Now: I have to tell a story that I haven’t told before, and explain it to people and not contradict stuff." Yeah, the task that I put before myself is one I hope never to put before myself again. [laughs] But once I figured out what I wanted to do, it made such incredibly perfect logical sense to do a narration that turns out to be a lecture that turns out to be a dream that turns out to be a holographic flashback, you know?