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FireflyJoss Whedon - On The Set Of Serenity - Joblo.com Interview
Tuesday 9 November 2004, by Webmaster
With his latest project, SERENITY, prolific writer/director Joss Whedon looks to prove he can achieve success outside the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, Buffy isn’t exactly the easiest act to follow. Adored by both critics and audiences alike, the show became the WB Network’s centerpiece, made Sarah Michelle Gellar a star, and spawned a popular spin-off.
Whedon’s next project, the sci-fi/western hybrid "Firefly", didn’t fare as well, lasting only 11 episodes before Fox pulled the plug. When a defiant Whedon announced his intention to take Firefly to the big screen, even his most ardent fans couldn’t help but be skeptical about the show’s feature film prospects.
He found a believer in Universal. Encouraged by the show’s strong DVD sales, the studio wrested the rights from Fox, gave Whedon the greenlight and Serenity was born. The film follows the same basic storyline as the series: 500 years in the future, the crew of a small but nimble spaceship travels through the universe, transporting dangerous cargo and not asking questions.
Recently, Universal invited JoBlo.com down to their studio lot to visit the set of Serenity and meet with the filmmakers. The scene being shot was a brief fight sequence in which female lead River Tam (played by Summer Glau) sweeps the leg a la The Karate Kid, knocking some unfortunate fool on his ass. Following that was another brief fight sequence set inside a bar, in which Summer, this time aided by some fancy wire work, takes out a few more guys.
Though not featured in any of the day’s scenes, lead actor Nathan Fillion was on-hand in case Joss needed him for the occasional background shot. In the meantime, he demonstrated a skill that most working actors develop after spending many a month on a movie set: the ability to catch a nap amidst the noise and chaos.
In between camera setups, Whedon took a break to talk with us about his feature film directorial debut. Though tired and hoarse, he spoke at great length about his experience, providing glimpses of the trademark wit that distinguished his television work.
What are the challenges of adapting a TV series for the big screen?
It’s incredibly hard, building a story that doesn’t repeat or contradict what we’ve already done, that satisfies the fans and yet is really made for people who’ve never seen the show. There’s pitfalls everywhere. It’s the hardest story I’ve ever had to structure. Writing these people is the easiest thing in the world because I know them so well. The other thing is the TV show is built around slow development of character; movies are built around momentum. They’re very different things. So you have to sort of take things that you...you have to let some things drop and you have to speed some things up and you sort of have to know which ones are which.
Will you be providing some backstory for those who are unfamiliar with the series?
Yes, to an extent. It has a different way of telling the same story. We do River’s troubles with the Alliance and her integration into the group. We don’t repeat the first time they meet or anything like that, but we get the information in a new way. Again, like I said, that’s the trickiest part.
As a screenwriter, you’ve been known to have issues with the way directors have turned your words into film.
Well, after Alien Resurrection, I said, “The next person who ruins one of my scripts is going to be me.” And I think I’m doing a fine job of it. Actually, I think the director has on occasion could have used a little more imagination and the writer could have shut up occasionally. We fight, but we’re still getting along better than I usually do. (laughs) It’s been great, ‘cause unlike TV I have the time to really explore what it is I’m doing and go back and reassess every day. Every time you should a scene it affects 50 other scenes. It’s constantly shifting, hopefully not so much that it doesn’t know where it’s going.
What’s the most important thing you want to add to make this feel “cinematic”?
Money. (laughs) You know - scope, breadth, a sense that this is not a story either visually or even dramatically that we could have told in an hour on TV.
How does directing action sequences for film differ from doing them for TV?
It’s much less of a chore because you have more than half a day to do it. You can actually really set thing up and you can train, you can actually break things, and all kinds of things that we can’t afford to do on TV. That’s a big part of making it more cinematic, is letting the action have a lot more scope. It’s not just “Set up two cameras, what do ya got?” which unfortunately on the shows it ends up being a lot of the time.
What are the particular challenges of the action sequence you’re shooting today?
The particular challenges are just keeping it real. It’s a scene that can easily become over-the-top and I’m trying very hard to stay away from a Matrixy kind of aesthetic. So I don’t want anybody doing anything that people can’t do. I mean to an extent. Fighting is a little more precise, but I’m trying to dirty it up as much as possible so that it feels real. And that’s very hard to do. Your stuntmen have to be so precise about their timing; it’s very hard to say, “And now also you have to make it look really really ugly.” That’s the biggest challenge.
What are some of the influences on the Western aspect of the show?
It’s weird because I just read a thing with M. Night where he said McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a big influence on the The Village and I’m like, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller is influencing a lot of really weird films.” That was a big one. Ulzana’s Raid was a huge influence. And The Searchers too, both because they’re so uncompromising.
I know you had issues with how Fox marketed Firefly, so how involved are you with the marketing campaign for this?
Very involved. We’ve worked together only on the little ComicCon thing we did, but I’ve met with all of their divisions and everybody here wants to be on the same page. They’re incredibly supportive. Companies talk about “synergy” and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and he’s actually kind of angry about it. And these guys have really sort of worked as a holistic whole, which is really nice. So, I think that should work out better.
How hard was it to get Universal to sign off on this film?
I’ve gotta tell you - I’d like to brag about how well I sold it, but Mary Parent and Universal liked Firefly and the words she used was, “This is a no-brainer.” She has been supportive of this project since before I’d made up the story. And although it’s taken a lot out of me to get it to where it is...it’s been a real struggle, the support they’ve shown has been constant.
Any truth to the rumors that you might be directing X-Men 3? How is your relationship with Fox?
Nobody has approached me about the X-Men franchise. My relationship with the film division...I haven’t really worked with them in a long while. My relationship with the network? Not so great. But my deal is with the Television Production...so we’ve had a good relationship for years. We did Buffy, Angel and Firefly together, and that seems fine. I don’t really have a relationship besides the Television Production...
Is film more stressful than television?
Well, it’s been as stressful. I thought it would be less stressful. I thought I’d be golfing in between takes and writing sonnets. Two things have not worked in my favor. One is, although I don’t have three shows to run - and believe me, nothing will ever be as hard as that was - the movie takes up your attention in a way that three shows do. All of the creative energy that you’re usually pouring into telling 20 - 40 stories a year, you’re pouring into one. And you find you need it. You wake up in the middle of the night and you go, “His pants are too baggy!” And it’s important. You have to watch everything so carefully because every mistake you make is gonna be forty feet high. Whenever you think, “Well, maybe that’s good enough,” I say to myself, “Cinerama Dome.”
What’s the status of the Buffy animated series?
A presentation is being made. It hasn’t been bought anyway, but it’s still in the creating stages. So it’s still possible...
At ComicCon you said that it would be difficult to take Firefly back to the small screen. Do you feel that you would have a hard time going back to television in general? And you like to maybe direct the X-Men franchise if it was offered to you?
Would I like to make an X-Men movie? That’d be bitchin’. You know I actually really like those actors and really like those characters and I think there’s a lot that could be done (with them). But I’m not setting my sights on that. I have my sights set on exactly one thing, which is this. I am totally prepared to go back to TV. Not 24/7 as I did in the first years of Buffy, but now I’ve learned enough about surrounding yourself with the right people and delegating that I can actually run a show without ruining my life. TV is a medium that I love in a very different way than I love movies. The things that I can’t do in this movie, the smaller moments, the long protracted interaction, watching people change over the years. I’ve waited my whole life to make movies, but movies don’t do that.
What is the status of The Buffyverse TV movie?
We haven’t really heard anything. Obviously there’s been a regime change at the WB. The fans are interested. I’m interested. I don’t think either Sarah or David would want to do it, but I think there’s 10 other characters I could name who would be totally worthy of movies, and I’m just waiting for somebody to say yay or nay.
Would you write or direct them?
I would certainly be involved. I would never let one of those stories be told without overseeing things.
Do you intend for Serenity to be a stand-alone project? Or part of a trilogy?
I look at it as a stand-alone. You can’t help but - especially because it comes from the series - think about all the things you want to do. But everybody says, “Is this going to be a trilogy?” They don’t even say, “Is there gonna be a sequel?” It’s trilogy - they go straight to trilogy. And “Are you gonna shoot the second and third back-to-back?” Umm, movie might suck. Let’s start at point A. I think of this as an absolute one-shot. Could it sustain more stories? Well, obviously I designed their world and these characters in this ensemble to sustain ten years’ worth. So yeah, there could be more. We’d love to do more. We have to make this one good enough to deserve that. That is the only thing that I’m thinking about.