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FireflyJoss Whedon - About Writing - Nowplayingmag.com Interview Part 1
By Scott Collura
Thursday 15 September 2005, by Webmaster
Whedon on Serenity
Serenity, writer-director Joss Whedon’s feature film version of his short-lived TV series Firefly, hits theaters on September 30, and while Whedon is no stranger to ensemble casts - Serenity features nine main cast members - the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel says you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Take the case of the currently shooting X-Men 3, which Whedon was in the running for as helmer at one point.
“Honestly, I don’t even think I would have had [the character of] the Beast in my movie,” he says of the film, which would seem to feature a cast of thousands. “I think that if I was doing X-Men 3 I would be much more concerned with the nine famous and talented people they already have. I just made a movie trying to juggle a lot of characters. Adding more frightens me beyond measure.”
Yes, about that movie. Serenity takes place 500 years from now, when the human race has just overcome a galactic civil war. Nathan Fillion stars as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, leader of a band of outcasts and veterans of the war. When two new passengers join his ship, the Serenity, they bring with them unwanted attention: One of the newcomers, River Tam (Summer Glau), is a powerful telepath and fugitive from the militaristic ruling force known as the Universal Alliance - and they’ll do anything to retrieve her.
But that’s just a couple of the characters that are to be found in the film. As Whedon explains, he did his best to give all of his ensemble players as much attention as he could in Serenity, despite moving from a multi-episode TV series to a two-hour movie.
“It’s very hard and some people do have less screen time - I got to explore their relationships less than I would want to,” he says. “Ultimately, anybody who’s in the movie has got to have a perspective, at least be a person. And if they’re one of my many, many heroes, it’s not that hard [for me] to spread the love - especially because their voices are very different. The kind of joke that [the character] Book makes is different from the kind of joke that [the character] Jayne makes. I think every character in the movie has at least one opportunity to make everybody laugh, and it’s not that hard when you have an ensemble as talented and varied as these guys are.”
At the same time, Whedon acknowledges that the format of a film is different enough from that of a TV series that a new approach to the material was necessary. “Obviously you want to know where your focus should be. You want to say, ‘O.K. this is about maybe Mal’s journey,’ and everybody else is part of his crew,” he says. But Serenity isn’t what Whedon calls a “premise movie” either - the type of film where a filmmaker sets up a premise and then pays it off. Sort of like connect the dots with an $80 million dollar budget.
“A great premise movie is Die Hard, the premise being ‘I’m stuck in a building full of terrorists and I’ve got no shoes on,’” says Whedon. “The idea of Serenity is a little different. You could say, ‘Psychic girl on the run falls in with some rebels.’ But that’s not really the whole thing, because the movie changes - her place on the ship, what she needs and what she might do, and she’s doing what to whom... It’s more of a story that unfolds as opposed to, ‘Here’s the premise, now let’s knock them down one by one.’ Which makes it a harder thing to market, but hopefully more gratifying to watch because it does sort of zigzag.”
The writer-director says that had Firefly not been prematurely cancelled (12 episodes aired in the fall season of 2002 before Fox axed it), the show’s continuing story would have been developed much differently over several seasons of television. But in the realm of theatrical films it is imperative that the storyline get to the point and avoid much of the character indulgences that TV allows.
“Everything that somebody says [in the movies], it’s the first time they’ve said it, and every time the audience hears something in the movie, it’s the first time they’re hearing it,” says Whedon. “You have to absolutely get to the bullet points. In the movie you have to tell the story and get out.”
As a result, there’s been a lot of bits and pieces cut from Serenity that no doubt would have thrilled fans of the show but would have also left general audiences befuddled. And that’s been one of the challenges of this project - balancing between the needs of the diehard fans and the newcomers to the Serenity universe. Whedon freely admits that advance test screenings have helped him determine what works and what doesn’t work in the film.
“I’ve seen very graphically how to lose an audience, how to gain an audience, and how to keep an audience,” he laughs. “We did some tests and that was a hell of a thing. It was like opening out of town. I could feel the energy in a room dissipate during a scene, or I could feel people get excited. Or I could see people walk out. Ah! Any of those things will tell you something. You may get 15 different reasons [from test audiences] why a scene doesn’t work, and none of those reasons will be right, but if every single person is telling you for some stupid-sounding reason that a scene doesn’t work, probably the scene doesn’t work. None of them can put their finger on why.”
So perhaps a director’s cut or extended edition DVD awaits the Firefly fanatics after the theatrical run of Serenity is complete?
“It has always been my ambition to never have a director’s cut, that the best movie I can put out is the one I’m putting out,” says the filmmaker. “Even though I took things out, I did it for a reason. There’s an old saying amongst writers and directors: Kill your children. If it’s not working, pull them.”