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Joss Whedon - About "Serenity" Movie - The CulturePulp Q&A Part 2

Sunday 25 September 2005, by Webmaster

Q. Possibly the first time we’ve seen that many things fold into themselves in a movie in a while.

A. It was a lot. But it was twofold: It was a way to include a great deal of exposition without becoming the most boring film ever. My other idea was to have Anthony Hopkins talk for 25 minutes at the beginning.... But Oliver Stone stole it from me. But the other thing is, it worked because what I’m basically doing is a story about Mal as told by River. So where we start is in River’s mind — and River’s mind is completely fractured. So to tell something that is constantly re-adjusting — that is constantly pulling the rug out from under you — is to basically experience the world the way she’s experiencing it. When we go to Serenity, it’s very deliberate that it’s an endlessly long take. For one thing, you get to see all the characters, the whole ship and the way they interact — and to do it in a one-er feels very fluid. But it’s also to stop that disassociative River mind, and to put you in Mal’s and Serenity’s space — which is, no matter how much you protest about being a villain, a completely safe and understandable space. So it was a deliberate contrast to what had come before, to do that long take. And it made perfect sense to me, because I already knew what that ship looked like and where everybody in the ship would be and how they worked and how they’d interact. It actually came very quickly.

Q. Well, and there’s that wonderful handoff moment where Mal says, "Do you know your part in this?" and River replies, "Do you?"

A. You know, that was the only re-shoot we did. There is that bunch of crates in the back of the cargo bay — and I remembered that bunch of crates in the back of the cargo bay when I said, "I need half a day; I know what’s missing from the movie. Um, besides excitement and coherence." And it’s the handoff. I was like, "I thought the one-er would be the handoff, but it’s not." I thought people would know to identify with Mal — but there are so many people and so much going on, that nobody understands. This is something we were getting showing it to audiences who hadn’t seen ["Firefly"]: Nobody understands that this is the guy they’re supposed to watch, and by the time they figure it out, we’re too far into the movie. So I said, "Give me those crates." And they literally piled them — Jack Green was shooting "40-Year-Old Virgin," so this is basically Jack’s year —

Q. Yeah, no kidding.

A. — so we basically brought the crates onto the set of "40-Year-Old Virgin" on a Sunday, piled them all up, and we shot that and a couple of little inserts and things. And "Do you know your purpose?" "Do you?" was basically my way of telling the audience, "River is watching this guy — so you should, too." And it completely changed the way people felt about everything that went after: They had their eye on Mal. And it made things flow a lot better.

Q. There are other little handoffs like that in the movie that I think only fans of the TV show might get. One of the ones I’ve seen discussed online, which I love, is the handoff of the Blue Sun liquor bottle from Jayne to Simon.

A. Mm-hm.

Q. Given their relationship, it’s a big moment.

A. That was a scene where, you know, Mal gives his St. Crispian’s Day speech, God bless ’im — and I originally wrote a scene where everyone chimes in and says, "I’m in." And I just thought, "If Jayne says he’s in, there’s no way nobody else isn’t in."

Q. Right. If he’s in, everybody is.

A. But then, when I was shooting it, I was like, "Because he and Simon..." And that’s more in the series than it is in the film that the two of them combat, but they’re still total opposites: Simon is the total idealist and Jayne is the total pragmatist and completely selfish. If there were an angel and a devil sitting on Mal’s shoulders, that’s what they’d look like. It’s maybe the hoariest thing in the movie, but by God, it says what needs to be said: You pass the bottle to Simon, and they’re a team.

Q. It’s no hoarier than having Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singin’ a song together in "Rio Bravo" —

A. — with Walter Brennan —

Q. With Walter Brennan. You know, and that worked.

A. Some dulcet pipes in that number.


Q. You’ve also done an absolutely smashing job of ignoring the massive amounts of bootleg "Firefly" fan merchandise. I’m thinking specifically of BlueSunShirts.com....

A. I’m a Deadhead, and where I come from, bootlegging’s a good thing.

Q. If the movie’s a hit, and more official merchandise starts coming out, do you think there’s going to be a crackdown?

A. I have no idea. I never have a piece of merchandising; I haven’t reached a place in the Hollywood DNA chain where I can actually ask for that. So it’s not like I’m losing money. But even if I was? You know, I’m doin’ fine. I have a job. I’m doing just fine. And the fact that people are making this stuff? You can call it "bootlegging" or you can call it "free advertising."

Q. Let’s hope they keep calling it the latter.

A. You can also call it "the fact that people are taking it to their hearts." It’s no different than fan fiction or any of these online communities. It’s important to them and they wear it — and that makes me proud. And I don’t give a good goddamn who’s makin’ money off it.

Q. Now, do you have a favorite piece of fan — I’m sorry, "free advertising"?

A. [laughs] A favorite.... You know, I have to admit, when I first saw the Blue Sun t-shirts, I thought they were pretty cool — because it didn’t announce itself, and I think it had a really good logo. And I hope if I ever get to make another one of these, I get to pay off some Blue Sun action, because that was one of the things in the movie that I was sad to drop. But a favorite? Um ... hard to say. The best thing I’ve ever seen a little off that beaten track was at a Browncoat booth — it was their raffle-drawing postcard for Equality Now. And it had a big picture of River — it was beautifully done — and it had pictures of Buffy and Zoe and Kitty Pryde, and even Wonder Woman and Fray, and all of these heroines I’d created. And I looked at it, and I swear to God, I got all misty: I was like, "Oh my God! It’s almost like my work means something!" And seeing that, and knowing that these people were raising money for Equality Now, which is really important to me, was gi-normous. I had the biggest rush imaginable when I saw that. And I picked up, like, 40 of those postcards.


Q. I have a friend who’s a big film-score geek, and I told him I was interviewing you. He told me you wax philosophic and rhapsodic about the score to this film for like three pages in the new companion book that just came out —

A. It’s actually five pages.

Q. Oh. Sorry.

A. No, I mean it was five pages when I typed it. That was written before we’d hired a composer. All those memos [in "Serenity: The Official Visual Companion"] were [written] before we made the movie; they were pre-production memos. I gave David Newman that memo; I also gave him a mix tape with everything on my iPod that might be useful.

Q. And this is actually what my score-geek friend wanted to know: What were those songs?

A. There were a couple of songs from Nickel Creek, whom I adore — I love them with a fiery vengeance. There was some movie stuff: "Angela’s Ashes," Elmer Bernstein’s theme from "Far from Heaven" — not because they were necessarily the right idiom, but because the themes were so incredibly indelible within the first 20 seconds, which is about as much time as I usually gave David. [laughs] They had to become indelible before there was too much going on for anybody to hear anything. I’m gonna forget a bunch of stuff. Definitely important was "For the Turnstiles" by Neil Young, off "Decade" — because it has this very sort of dampened banjo in it. And I played this for him particularly when we were going over it, just to say, "Look at how he’s taking all the reverb off of this, and making just as sort of personal as possible." And I referred to this — in a phrase that sort of came back to me over and over again in my discussions of scores — as follows: What Neil Young was saying in that song was, "Fuck all y’all — I’m on my back porch." You know, in the ’70s, when a lot of stuff was getting really symphonic ... he was going, "Fuck all y’all — I’m on my back porch."

Q. That actually sums up the sensibilities of a few "Firefly" characters.

A. Yeah. It really does. And that was definitely the big one. I’m actually looking for the CD itself.... I might have it in one sec.... I’ll see if I happen on it or if it’s too late.... [rummaging noises] Okay ... last chance ... everybody in the pool.... Bupkis. Oh, well. No joy.

Q. That’s okay. I think the fan base is going to have a lot to chew on just from what you told me.

A. Well, there was a lot of different stuff. I think there was the third movement of the Mendelssohn concerto that Sarah Chang played? It was either Mendelssohn or Sibelius — I’m don’t know which one I used. Because, you know, I love me some violins. Although, at the end of the day, it all became about cellos. The whole movie is CelloFest 2005. Be there! If I remember another, I’ll shout it out.

Q. Yeah, just shout it out randomly, while we’re talking about other stuff.

A. It happens every now and then. My brain works that way. I stop thinking about something and I remember.

Q. Musical Tourette’s. It will be good. Now, the plot —

A. Oh. I know one. It was "Poems" from "Pacific Overtures" by Stephen Sondheim.

Q. Oh, Sondheim. Of course.

A. Just because of the Asian thing and the simplicity of this entire song written in haiku.

Q. Mm-hm. Yeah, I’m a Sondheim fan myself.

A. Yeah. He’s my guy.

Q. I’m still dying to see someone make the great film of "Sweeney Todd" that needs to be made.

A. You know, they’re talking about it. But I don’t get to make it, so....


Q. Now, I’ve written about this elsewhere, and I wanted to ask you about it: The film’s plot feels more than a little like an overt metaphor for the story of the "Firefly" series itself: The crew has to get a message out, and they need the help of a guy — Mr. Universe, whom I’d argue is a stand in for the fans — who lives alone with his bank of computers. Was that in any way a conscious decision?

A. It absolutely was not.

Q. Really.

A. But I read it, and I think I read it in your article — and I was like, "God damn! You’re right!"

Q. And that was a totally unconscious thing.

A. It was totally unconscious. I created Mr. Universe because I needed a place for the final battle — and getting the message out was a way to have a final victory that wasn’t, you know, "Hey, we blew up the bad guys! Yub-yub!"

Q. "Yub-yub!" [cackles]

A. Oh, believe me — we spoke much of "the Yub" in editing. But no — I wasn’t thinking of that at all. It’s funny, because recently I was talking about the last season of "Angel," and the non-cliffhanger that people gave me so much flak for. And I’d always said, "The whole point of the thing was that the fight wasn’t over yet." And then it occurred to me that you could do the same thing there [with "Angel"] and say, "Well, the circumstance of the thing was also a way of saying, ’The show isn’t over yet, fucker!’" But I never thought of that at the time. But it really lays itself out that way — as to say, "We’re not finished. We’ve got a lot to say. So we’re not going to finish saying it."

Q. Well, now, Tim Minear’s doing a Spike TV-movie, right?

A. That’s the hope. I haven’t put anything together yet; I’m just trying to line people up.

Q. I think Buffyverse fans are waiting with baited breath to find out exactly how that battle in "Angel"’s finale went. Will the TV movie tell us?

A. Uh, if there’s — I believe yes. You will finally find out what happened — who lived, who died, who lost one arm or two legs, who was supposed to be the Chosen One but went over to the Dark Side. All that stuff.

Q. Fantastic.

A. And I actually did find the CD. So let’s see what else is on here’s that’s of interest: Jill Sobule, some Hans Zimmer, Ian Ritchie, Tracy Chapman, some Indigo Girls — oh, and "God’s Song" by Randy Newman. And then it ends with "Black Peter" by the Grateful Dead. And so you’re thinking, "Hm, that’s some ’70s vibe there."

Q. [laughs] There is a strong ’70s vibe.

A. The early ’70s, too. And a lot of earthy girl-rock, because I’m me. But it is a very kind of homey and huge ’70s-Western influence. And to take a few really dense orchestral pieces and take something sort of down-homey — "I’m on my back porch!" — and put the two of them together was really sort of the mission statement for David. Which I think he accomplished in kind of an amazing way.

Q. Yeah, Newman pulled it off really well.

A. He really did. He can make with the pretty and with the eerie — and he can be as specific as the old school. I mean, so many of the new school [produce] that sort of Zimmer "wall of sound" — which is great for writing, because you just put it on and you emote for the entire track; it’s not a specific emotion, it’s just all very portentous. And David can write stuff that is as specific to the moment as the stuff that John Williams does, or some of the old-school composers — but without calling attention to himself.

Q. And he rolled in a lot of Eastern flavors without it sounding like yet another "Fifth Element" pastiche.

A. Exactly. And it’s tough. You’ve got to do the East without the tourist’s bazaar we’ve all visited.

Q. Right. Without the Putumayo vibe.

A. And you’ve got to do the West without sounding like "Sons of the Pioneers" or some dreadful pastiche. And there’s not a lot of precedent for mixing the two that fluidly — like, without just announcing it. The closest we came when looking for temp scores? "Shanghai Noon." And that was making a point of "This is the West! This is the East! This is the West! This is the East!" — where we were trying to say, "This is all just happening." But, because I’m obsessed with the frontier thing, all the instruments being the ones they can carry. That’s why I want to keep the mandolins and the guitar and the cello and the more sort of spare, old-fashioned instruments without falling into goofy-hood.


Q. Now, let’s suppose that "Serenity" finds its audience and there’s a chance to make another film or, God forbid, return to television. Would it be a prequel, as I heard Chris Buchanan hint at one of the fan screenings, or would it continue the story from where we left off?

A. I would tend to continue from where I left off. That doesn’t mean.... I think what Chris Buchanan was probably saying was that, you know, we would get everybody — and I obviously don’t want to get all spoiler-y —

Q. Right. I know.

A. But things that seemed irrevocable, uh, well, are — but the movie itself already has a bit of a flashback structure, and the show had it, as well. And I think there’s ways to weave in important character pieces without ruining the momentum of a sequel that would, in fact, pick up from where this left off. I’m not a prequel buff. I don’t want to see "Mal and Zoe: The Early Years" with William Katt and Tom Berenger. I mean, I do. But I’m more interested in the consequences of what has come. Because the audience has experienced it. And for me, the audience experience is the other experience — if the people in the movie aren’t going through what the audience is going through, then I’m doing something wrong. And the audience — assuming you have a sequel — has seen the first one. So they’ve lived through it. And if the characters haven’t, there’s a disassociation that I don’t think you can ever buy back.

Q. Absolutely. Now, I’m sure you’ve seen that shirt that says "Joss Whedon Is My Master Now" in a Star Wars font. So let’s say you are their master. What are your marching orders?

A. I’m thinking that I’d like them to sit ... and possibly roll over. This shirt’s just hilarious. My marching orders do not exist. If I start pretending that I am in charge of anybody, then madness will surely follow — or, perhaps I should say, make itself more visible. I would love to say, "Everybody run and tell everybody about the movie!" — but I think they get that I want them to do that. That’s already done. And I don’t want to say it ad nauseam, because I don’t think I am actually anybody’s "master." I am the fan that gets to have the most fun. I get to walk the set every day. I totally get to be there when the story’s broken. I get to do all of the fun bits. Every day is fan day for me. That’s who I am. I’m the fan that got the closest. And I don’t think about a master relationship.

Q. Well, and the danger with genre creators, particularly because they tend to develop very rabid fans, is that you get so into managing your fiefdom — and I’m certainly not talking about John Byrne at all — that you lose touch with whatever made what you were working on special to begin with.

A. Yeah. I mean, it’s the finest line you ever have to walk — because you spend your entire artistic life trying to get to a place where you have absolute control over your work and can say exactly what you’re trying to say the way you want to say it. And in order to do that, you have to get through so much oppression and nonsense and pain. But once you do it, you’re instantly in danger of becoming hermetically sealed and cut off from anyone around you. And so you have to walk this incredibly fine line where you get as much control as you possibly can and then always know that while you have it, you have to be in the world, listening to the people around you and learning from the experiences you’re having — and not just sort of swimming around in your power. And it’s hard. I mean, you see a lot of great artists who finally realize their dream and.... You know, I think it’s no coincidence that very often, when a person makes their most personal film — you know, the one they got in movies to make — it’s their worst. It’s like you have to serve a master of your own — and that’s the audience. And the way I work is through connection with the audience. The way I work is through the audience going, "That’s me! I’m doing that! I feel that!" And so if I lose that, then I’m useless. And I think at some point I may become useless, anyway: The things I have to say will no longer be things that people need to hear — either because I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish and created a new genre paradigm with characters — where people go, "Okay — now we accept the strong women, and the morals click, and you’re just sort of doing this over and over again." I might become the old guy. But I hope that if I do, I become the old guy who ... realizes it. [laughs]

Q. Well, you have a couple of different media you can retreat into if that happens. I mean, you may be the first director to have the latest issue of his comic book come out the same week as his feature-film debut.

A. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty cool. I ain’t lyin’.


Q. You did something very gutsy with "Serenity" — you actually tried to make, without apology, a movie that will satisfy fans and newbies. Most filmmakers in your situation will either dilute their film shamelessly or proudly (and sort of suicidally) declare that they don’t care about pleasing anyone but their core audience.

A. Well, if I didn’t care about pleasing anyone but their core audience.... First of all, Universal would have run like bunnies. [laughs] And wisely. I mean, the trick, the difficulty of the thing, was pleasing and honoring the fans. That was very important to me. But at the end of the day, if I’m not making a movie for everybody, then I don’t get it. I don’t like clubs with exclusive rooms, okay? They bother me. Exclusion bothers me on a very, very primal level. And if I’m making a movie that deliberately isn’t talking to anybody who walks into it, then "I’ve lost the mission, bro," as we used to say. So inevitably, what I’m trying to do is please and excite and delight people, and possibly make them think — but not so much that their heads hurt. I slip in something that makes them go, "Because I understand this experience, and I enjoyed it, and I identified with it, here are the things I’m trying to say or I’m interested in. Something more than a ride happened here. I felt like I went through something." That’s really important. But it’s gotta be for everybody, or it really just.... It’s like jazz. Jazz is really fun when it’s live. But I will never listen to jazz on my iPod or anything. Because jazz is really for musicians. I’m enough of a wannabe that I can go to a jazz club and listen to it and have a great time — but it’s music about music. It was the thing that I hated about the ’80s — when everything became movies about movies. In the ’70s and ’80s, movies were using, as their point of reference, movies. It’s one of the reasons that I was so in love with Peter Weir back in the day, because his movies evoked something very natural — they could evoke just this overwhelming sense of being lost inside of nature and water and wheat and whatever that he seemed to have a command of that nobody else had. And he was using film to do it. And everybody else — even Scorsese, whom I worship — seemed to be using film to talk about film. And that led to things like "New York, New York," which is one of my favorite movies — but it also led to a lot of self-referential bullshit, and a lot of loss of reality and humanity. Even "Star Wars" — the other day, I was talking about this — really was the first movie that I can think of where it was based entirely on existing movie structures. It was one step removed. It was a story about stories. And obviously, they all are, to an extent. But I feel like, to me, that’s kind of distancing; that’s not what I want to be doing. What I want to be doing is just using the medium to communicate.

Q. Well, you see that happening all the time in writing now. Tom Wolfe has gone off on the fact that he thinks people should leave their Graduate Writing Programs and do some reporting when they write their novels.

A. That makes sense. It’s tough. And it’s tough for me, too, because I’m known as Mr. Pop Culture Reference; at the same time, that’s the last person I want to be. It’s one reason that I created "Firefly" — so I no longer would be able to make any.

Q. [laughs] Right. You have to invent Fruity Oaty Bars.

A. Exactly. Which is probably the closest thing I have to a contemporary concept in the movie. And everybody does it. Shakespeare did it; there’s plenty of references we’re not getting. But the other stuff seems to outweigh that in his work, I’ve noticed. [laughs]


Q. Now, you’ve said you had at least 100 stories to tell with these characters. And I know you’ve said the film compressed two or three years of a "Firefly" story arc. But what are a couple of the cool side stories we never got to see?

A. I’m not gonna tell you! Because God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I might get a chance to tell some of them.... I have plenty of ideas as to which ones they might be. Some of them will never be told, because it’s too painful that I could never tell them, because they really belonged to the series. Some of them may find themselves being told in a sequel. So mum’s the word from me. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Q. Well, the "Serenity" comic resurrected what I presume was an idea for the TV series — where you brought back Agent Dobson from the pilot episode, and he’s got one eye and he’s psychotic.

A. Yeah. I would have done that on the series. I love Carlos [Jacott, who played Dobson in the TV episode].

Q. He’s always got this great look of wounded dignity to him.

A. He’s one of the guys I can always count on — and just about the funniest man on the planet.

Q. Now, that comic has been a surprise blockbuster.

A. It’s done well.

Q. I know it’s on its third order at my local comic-book shop.

A. I felt like it was kind of an event, and I worked really hard on the story, we got really good people working on it, and we got all the best artists in the business to do all these covers. I wanted it to be more than a comic — I wanted it to be a collector’s item. But then people were really happy about the story and the contents as well. Dark Horse told me they underestimated the first printing — but now, here we are with a third? That’s pretty sweet. If you think of the number of fans of the DVD, comic-book numbers are smaller. They work on a different scale. So I don’t think it’s totally shocking that we managed to make a splash — it’s very gratifying — but at the end of the day, comic books are a smaller pond. So we have become, if not a whale, then a shark.

Q. When Chris Buchanan was here for a "Serenity" preview screening, he seemed pretty gee-whiz about the whole production experience. In fact, he told a story about your stage being right next to the executive offices, and executives just walking by and saying, "Hey! Let us know if you need anything!"

A. Yeah.

Q. Did you ever feel like you were getting away with murder?

A. No. It felt like we were getting away with a movie — which, in this town.... You know, I’ve murdered lots of people, and really? Nobody cares. But trying to actually make a movie? People really get upset, and they want to get involved, and they want to mess it up. And not only did [Universal] not mess it up, but they were incredibly helpful. Like, when we were in the testing process, they had level heads, they had good ideas, they understood where the audience was not getting what we needed. And yes — when we were shooting, they were like, "We love your dailies. You’re making your days." They literally came by and said, "We’re just resting on our way to another movie." And I think they stopped by twice. As a youth, what I wanted to do with my life was make summer movies for a studio. In this case, I’m near my goal — I’m making early-fall movies for a studio. I want to make movies that please people, that are exciting, that are meaningful and visceral, and that studios can be proud of. I didn’t want to make highbrow think pieces. So all I’ve ever asked is that [the studios] let me do for them what I wanted — what I think will be best for them. So many times, I’ve run up against people who are like, "Well, we’ve got another agenda." And I’m like, "My agenda will make you richer! I want to reach more people with this thing that will be better!" And I don’t mean to sound like I’m all that, but I’ve dealt with some pretty amazingly stupid situations. And so for a studio to just go, "Yeah, we believe in your story, and you’re doing it for the budget; godspeed!" — shouldn’t be an amazing experience. But it sure was.