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Joss WhedonJoss Whedon & Neil Gaiman - About Pop Culture - Time.com Interview Part 1
Monday 26 September 2005, by Webmaster
Interview: Neil Gaiman and Joss Wedon
Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman may well be the two most interesting people creating popular culture right now. Whedon is the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and he wrote and directed the science fiction film Serenity, which opens Sept. 30th. Gaiman created the instant-classic comic book Sandman, and he’s the author of the new novel Anansi Boys, out this month. He has a new movie, Mirrormask, which also opens Sept. 30. They chatted on the phone together-chaperoned by TIME’s Lev Grossman-about their work, their fans, their Klingon bodyguards and, of course, Timecop.
TIME: Joss, this is Lev from Time magazine. You’re also in the virtual presence of Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman: I’m not virtual. I’m here.
TIME: Sorry. You’re virtual, Joss. Neil’s real.
Joss Wedon: Okay. I wondered.
TIME: I’m glad we settled that.
JW: Nice to meet you.
NG: You, too. Lev was just asking whether we’d met, and I was explaining that once you get to a certain sort of level, there are 80,000 people who want to meet you, and you’re being moved from place to place by people who want to make sure who we meet.
JW: Yes. I’ve been sixteen steps behind Kevin Smith for four years. I’ve never seen him.
TIME: I think there’s actually a law that you guys can’t be in the same room at the same time. It’s like the President and the Vice President, or something.
JW: Like the two Ron Silvers in Timecop.
TIME: That’s exactly the simile I was looking for. So you guys both have movies coming out on September 30th.
NG: It will be National Geek Day.
TIME: Serenity has a bit of an unconventional story behind it. Joss, do you want to run it down for us real quick?
JW: Real quick, I did the show Firefly, which had a gloriously short career. I just loved the show and the people and the world too much to walk away when they cancelled it, so I hunted about for someone to agree with me and then, rather shockingly, found Universal Studios agreed with me to the tune of a great deal more money than I had ever expected to have to work with. What everybody said was dead in the water suddenly became-maybe not for them, but for me-a rather major motion picture.
TIME: Are you nervous? You’ve got 11 days before it opens.
JW: Something like that. I don’t count. I’m not aware of the opening day. I’m not going to be hiding in the bathtub.
TIME: What do you do?
JW: I stockpile canned goods and hide in the basement.
NG: Lucky bastard. I’m going to be signing books out in public.
JW: That gives you great legitimacy. You can say, ’well, I write books. I’m above all this.’
TIME: You could write a book, Joss.
JW: Yes, but not in the next eleven days. I could write a blog.
TIME: Neil, you’re a big blogger these days, right?
NG: I’ve been blogging since February of 2001. When I started blogging, it was dinosaur blog. It was me and a handful of tyrannosaurs. We’d be writing blog entries like, ’the tyrannosaurus is getting grumpy.’
These days there are 1.2 million people reading it. It’s very, very weird. We have this enormous readership, as a result of which now I feel absolutely far too terrified and guilty to stop. I’d love to stop my blog at this point, but there’s this idea that there will be 1.2 million people’s worth of pissed-off-ness that I hadn’t written anything today.
JW: That’s the problem with doing anything. Everybody expects you to keep doing it, no matter what.
NG: For me, it’s always that Mary Poppins thing. I’ll do it until the wind changes. The joy of doing Sandman was doing a comic and telling people, no, it has an end, at a time when nobody thought you could actually get to the end and stop doing a comic that people were still buying just because you’d finished. Probably of all the things I did in Sandman, that was the most unusual and the oddest. That I stopped while we were outselling everybody, because it was done. What everybody wants is more of what they had last time that they liked.
JW: Every other question I get is about the Buffy-verse.
NG: Except the trouble is, as a creator...I saw a lovely analogy recently. Somebody said that writers are like otters. And otters are really hard to train. Dolphins are easy to train. They do a trick, you give them a fish, they do the trick again, you give them a fish. They will keep doing that trick until the end of time. Otters, if they do a trick and you give them a fish, the next time they’ll do a better trick or a different trick because they’d already done that one. And writers tend to be otters. Most of us get pretty bored doing the same trick. We’ve done it, so let’s do something different.
TIME: Joss, you’re someone who insisted on doing the same thing again. Was that a tough decision? I’m sure you had a zillion offers on the table once Buffy ended.
JW: Well, it wasn’t a question of doing the same thing again as finally finishing the thing that I’d started. There are definitely times when you go through every permutation of an idea and then you go, well, that’s over. And that was lovely, thank you. I’ll have my fish. With Serenity, I felt like we had just gotten started. The story hadn’t been told yet. That’s what put the fire in me. When I actually had the whole thing filmed and cast and ready to go, and then it wasn’t finished, it made me a little bit insane.
TIME: Let’s talk about your respective fan bases. A lot of them self-identify as kind of on the geeky side.
NG: I think the fan base is literate. You need to be reasonably bright to get the jokes and to really follow what’s going on. That, by definition, is going to exclude a lot of people who will then get rather irritated at us for being pretentious and silly and putting in things they didn’t quite get. But it’s also going to mean that some of the people who do get the stuff will probably be fairly bright.
JW: Especially, I think, living in any fantasy or science fiction world means really understanding what you’re seeing and reading really densely on a level that a lot of people don’t bother to read. So yes, I think it’s kind of the same thing.
But I also think there’s a bit of misconception with that. Everybody who labels themselves a nerd isn’t some giant person locked in a cubbyhole who’s never seen the opposite sex. Especially with the way the Internet is now, I think that definition is getting a little more diffuse.
NG: I know that our fan bases overlap enough to be able to say fairly confidently that the joy of signing for me, and the joy of signing for Joss, is you can’t tell who’s your fan any more. When I started doing Sandman, I could look at a line of people lined up to get my autograph, and I knew who was my fan and who was somebody’s mum there to get a signature. It doesn’t work that way anymore. People say, well, there’s the Goths or whatever, and you always do get a few beautiful Goths and people always remember them, but they may be one of a hundred in a line. Mostly they’re people. They’re us. That’s what they look like.
JW: They’re a lot more attractive than I am, actually, which kind of disturbs and upsets me.
TIME: When I was growing up, only the geeky and socially marginal people were into stuff like Spiderman and JRR Tolkien. But in the last five years they’ve become the biggest entertainment phenomena around. How did it get so nerds are suddenly driving popular culture?
JW: I do think you can definitely see indications that Hollywood has woken up to the market, to the idea of this community as a way to put out their product. But fantasy movies have always been huge. It’s not like Star Wars -which came out when I was eleven-was a tiny art house flick. So I’m always sort of curious at the marginalization of the people who adore them.
NG: I think also, the thing that’s odd is that we’re now living in a second-stage media world anyway. One of the reasons that both Joss and I can do some of the stuff that we’ve done over the years is because you’re working in a medium in which enough stuff has simply entered popular culture that it becomes part of the vocabulary that we can deal with. The materials of fantasy, of all different kinds of fantasy, the materials of SF, the materials of horror...it’s pop culture. It’s tattooed on the insides of our retinas. As a result, it’s something that’s very easy just to use as metaphor. You don’t have to explain to anybody what a vampire is. You don’t have to explain the rules. Everybody knows that. They know that by the time they’re five.
JW: We’re getting to a point where you don’t have to excuse them, either. Where popular culture as a concept is itself popular, so it isn’t as marginal if you say, oh, this has a fantastical element to it. People are okay with that. Part of that is the post-modern sort of we’re-in-the-know, everything-is-referencing-everything. Which can actually be annoying after a while. But part of it is also an understanding that what’s going on in society that is popular is maybe worth looking into.
NG: We’re also in a world right now in which mainstream fiction borrows from fantasy. A world in which Michael Chabon wins a Pulitzer with a book with a load of comics characters in it. I no longer know where the demarcation lines are. My stuff gets published in some countries as fiction and in some countries as fantasy. It’s just where they think it will do best in the bookshops.
TIME: One of the best novels I read this year was Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. They don’t come much more highbrow than Ishiguro, but this was set in an alternate universe where humans are being cloned and having their organs harvested. Not only can Ishiguro do that, he can do that and hardly anyone even remarks on it.
JW: It’s Remains of the Clone! It’s absolutely just his sensibility, with that one little twist that you have to call it science fiction or fantasy to an extent. Nobody would not consider it a serious classical novel.
TIME: I almost miss the stigma that used to attach to these things. Now everybody’s into Tolkien. And I feel a little like, hey, I’ve been into that stuff my whole life. And in fact, you used to beat me up for it.
JW: I miss a little of that element, the danger of, oh, I’m holding this science fiction magazine that’s got this great cover. There a little bit of something just on the edge that I’m doing this. That’s pretty much gone. Although when I walk into a restaurant with a stack of comic books, I still do get stared at a little bit.
NG: I always loved, most of all with doing comics, the fact that I knew I was in the gutter. I kind of miss that, even these days, whenever people come up and inform me, oh, you do graphic novels. No. I wrote comic books, for heaven’s sake. They’re creepy and I was down in the gutter and you despised me. ’No, no, we love you! We want to give you awards! You write graphic novels!’ We like it here in the gutter!
JW: We’ve been co-opted by the man.