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FireflyJoss Whedon - ’Serenity’ Movie - Chud.com Interview
By Fred Topel
Tuesday 28 December 2004, by Webmaster
Those of us journalists who have interviewed Joss Whedon several times over the years know that he’s always in a various state of disarray. Balancing several TV shows at a time, he often had bloodshot eyes, scraggly hair, half or full beards, one time even bandaged hands (he’d burned himself with lemon juice or something).
When we visited Whedon on the set of his first big budget film, Serenity, he was hoarse. But he hadn’t lost his voice due to stress on the film. He’d actually been fine until he put his family on a plane earlier that day, and he’d been hoarse ever since. He joked that his voice stayed on the plane with the wife and kids.
The set was rather closed and we only got a glimpse of the scene on the monitors. It was Summer Glau in a martial arts fight with some space dudes in a bar. Sometimes Glau would be replaced by a stunt double, and the action moved so fast that we couldn’t get a good look at the bad guys either. Then Joss showed up and made us laugh, so we were happy.
[Note: This set visit took place long before they delayed the release of the film, so that’s why we didn’t ask about that. In fact, note the question about opening before Star Wars and insert your own ironic comment.]
Q: Directors have to make 50 or more decisions a day. What are some of the decisions that you’ve had to make so far?
Joss: I don’t know if I should answer that. Right now I’m trying to decide whether or not to use this stunt, whether it looks realistic or not or whether it’s too fancy. That’s my next decision.
Q: Can you talk about adapting a TV and the challenges, appealing to fans and opening it up?
Joss: 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 is incredibly tricky. There are 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 let some things drop and you have to speed some things up and you sort of have to know which ones are which.
Q: Do you recreate the backstory?
Joss: 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.
Q: You’ve been known as a screenwriter to not be happy with the way directors have turned your words into film. Now how does the director side of you deal with the screenwriter side?
Joss: 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. It’s been great, because unlike TV I have the time to really explore what it is I’m doing and go back and reassess every day. But the piece is so fluid because it’s a domino effect. Every time you should a scene it affects 50 other scenes. It’s not like you have eight days, you know exactly what you need and you’re out and you go on to the next one. It’s constantly shifting, hopefully not so much that it doesn’t know where it’s going. If they call in the script doctor, I’m probably the first call they’ll make.
Q: We hear that a couple of your fans jumped off the tram and hid on the set. Hw do you feel about that kind of fan support?
Joss: Well you know, I do love support. There’s a fine a line between support and stalking and let’s all stay on the right side of that.
Q: What’s the most important thing you want to add to make this cinematic?
Joss: 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.
Q: More dirty stuff?
Joss: Actually, I hate to break this to you, but TV is a much better medium for dirty stuff. I can’t put my pornies on when we’re PG-13. And as you know, the FCC has cleared Buffy of any charges, even though those guys were clearly having sex for no reason on screen. I mean uh, it was, a metaphor. It’s actually not a particularly dirty movie.
Q: What about violence? More Action?
Joss: 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 and a lot more craft. 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.
Q: What are the particular challenges of today’s action sequence?
Joss: 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 and ungainly and lived in.” That’s the biggest challenge.
Q: What are some of the influences on the Western aspect of the show?
Joss: It’s weird because I just read a thing with M. Night where he said McCabe & Mrs. Miller was a big influence on 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.
Q: I know you had issues with how Fox marketed Firefly, so how involved are you with the marketing campaign for this?
Joss: 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.
Q: Has anybody surprised you on the set?
Joss: Well, part of why I’m here is that I knew how much they could bring. I knew that every one of them was going to be worthy of the big screen, have a presence that would fit it. And if I say somebody surprised me, they’ll probably be insulted. But if I’m gonna pick somebody, it’s gonna be Summer. She really stepped up to the plate. She’s not in the corner babbling all the time anymore. She’s got more to do and her presence is pretty luminous.
Q: How hard was it to get Universal to sign off on the film?
Joss: 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 a 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.
Q: How is your relationship with Fox?
Joss: My relationship with the film division, I haven’t really worked with them for 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’s been fine. I don’t really have a relationship besides the Television Production.
Q: Is film more or less stressful than TV?
Joss: 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 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.” And the thing I said before about it being fluid. You really are surprised by what you do in a way that you’re not so much with TV because even though I know these guys, even though we’ve been on Serenity, which are known quantities, I’m still surprised, more than I ever have been in TV. I’ll do pages and watch and go, “Boy, the first one was better than the one with all my notes in it. Remind myself not to tell him that.” It’ll surprise you. It talks back to you and it does that while you’re still making it. TV doesn’t do that until you’re done, which is what’s different about it.
Q: At ComicCon you said that it would be hard to take Firefly back to the small screen. Do you feel that you would have a hard time going back?
Joss: 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 are the smaller moments, the long protracted interaction, the things that make TV really fascinating, watching people change over the years. I’ve waited my whole life to make movies, but movies don’t do that. I could either write novels that are way too long or make TV. And I can’t write novels that are long.
Q: Do you see Serenity as a stand-alone project or part of a trilogy?
Joss: 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. Particularly, Adam Baldwin wants to wear a kilt. And we just didn’t find a place. He told me too late. And so we decided we have to make a sequel so Adam Baldwin could wear a kilt. And I know a lot of fans will be disappointed by his non-kilt wearing, but I promise that if he does, I will stand him over a subway grate. 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 going to 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 seven 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.
Q: What do you think of changing the title?
Joss: First of all, it’s really a better title for the movie. It’s what the movie is about. It’s ironic, obviously, because there’s some violence, but it’s about that concept and what that means. Firefly meant we were the underdog. Serenity means what those people are searching for. And to the fans, it says this is the movie you know and to the nonfans it’s just a word. It’s not Firefly: The Movie...Of the Series... That you Didn’t Watch. Putting Firefly in it would have just been confusing.
Q: Are you looking forward to post?
Joss: I love post production.
Q: How FX heavy is this?
Joss: It’s less effects heavy than most of your big summer movies. We don’t have that kind of money. And that’s not the kind of movie that I want to make. I’ve got these people and it’s about their lives and a lot of the time, they’re doing the work for me. However, like the show, we’ve got Zoic doing the special effects and they tend to make things look like they cost about twice as much as they did.
Q: Are they integrated?
Joss: That was something that Loni Peristere and I talked about from the very start was let’s not do these long scenes and then cut to “here’s the digital effect. And now back to our scene.” It’s like the seamless integration is very much a part of it but I shoot as much practically as I can. We have a hovercraft chase that’s as much as you can possibly shoot practically. Because digital feels very airless to me. I don’t believe that it’s happening, especially in close-ups and especially when you have Summer Glau’s hair. A green screen is going to feel like exactly that. Our budgetary constraints and my aesthetics kind of went hand in hand.
Q: How do you feel coming out a month before Star Wars?
Joss: It’s exactly where I want to be. We call it the Matrix slot, as opposed to the death slot which is what the show had. It’s a spring movie. It was always a spring movie. I can’t compete with the $200 million movies and nor do I want to. It’s not that movie. It’s a smaller film. It’s like the crew itself, it’s a little run and gun, it’s a little bit underdog and it’s very funny to say that given our budget, but given our budget compared to the budgets of your giant blockbusters, we are kind of an underdog. I’m sure somebody else can answer that question, and will and I’m sure somebody already has and has posted them. Do you have a computer? But it’s that time when people are getting ready, they got that anticipation, they’re excited to get into the summer and be disappointed over and over. I mean, and see the big movies, but it’s not going to be swamped by them. So I’m just absolutely thrilled. To me, it’s another huge vote of confidence from the studio.
Q: How will you react if you’re one of the films that disappoints?
Joss: Then, I will crawl into a fetal position and stay there for a good month or so. I am one of those fans. That, I believe, if I’ve had success has been the key to it. Because I think the way they do. And I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that the funny parts are funny, the scary parts are scary and the exciting parts are exciting and it all gels and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. We could fail. I’m not going to come out and say, “I’ve reinvented film. Citizen Kane? Bah. This is a real film.” I’m just trying to make a good movie that actually means something and that is entertaining enough for people not to realize that. I’m perfectly well aware that I can fail. Every time I go into the editing room and look at the footage, I go, “Oh, look at that failure. Cover it up, will you? Cut to something that’s less fail-y.” How will I react? I’ll be devastated, but I believe, as I always have, that if I respond to what’s there, others will too.
Q: What do you start with when you create a universe?
Joss: Well, I mean, when I was growing up, the things that I loved, comic books, the Dune series, even the James Clavell books, they were all interconnected. The thing about them that I loved was you stepped into another world, so when I create something, everything has to have so much history to it, and the relationships have to be so romantic and amplified and over the top that it leads to people bringing themselves into it and the way Star Wars just felt completely like that world existed and I walked into it, when you’re creating anything, that fanboy part of you needs that, needs that history. You can’t just go, “He looks good in that outfit and we have a movie star.” It has to have all of that behind it and it doesn’t always work, but whatever I‘m coming to, wherever it’s coming from, this came from something that was very not iconic. It was about little people, about little moments. Now it’s a big epic movie and so the question becomes well, are there icons inside those people? And the answer is there always were. Because you’re feeding off the same mythos that you grew up with, that everybody else grew up with and it works its way into whatever you’re doing. And is there an adolescent girl with superpowers? Well, apparently, I can’t seem to write anything without one. Not superpowers in a magical sense, but like I said, River’s not just babbling anymore.
Q: Have you ever second guessed the whole no monster mandate?
Joss: Not ever, not for a second. Monsters and aliens are terrific fun and everyone used to look at me during the series and go, “Yeah, end of season two, first contact. You’re not getting through.” But people is people and people is what I’ve always been interested in. We got pretty lax with out demons over the years with Buffy because I was just way so much more interested in what was going on with the folk. And they’re a good springboard but I got spaceships. Spaceships are also a great springboard.
Q: Does Serenity go faster than light?
Joss: I don’t think so.
Q: Are the planets really close together?
Joss: They’re really close together. You’ve never seen a planet cluster like this one. It’s a little planet village. If you start asking my science questions I’m going to cry.
Q: Will we see the Reavers?
Q: When did you lose your voice?
Joss: Actually, this morning right after my family left. I was fine. I put them on a van to go to the cape and my voice went with them. I think it’s in my wife’s purse.
Q: What other filmmakers are you excited about?
Joss: Other filmmakers that I’m excited about... The Coen Brothers still continue to amaze me on a regular basis. I’ll watch anything David Fincher shoots and he’s one of the few nonwriting directors who really excites me.
Q: Wes Anderson?
Jos: Yes. I admire them. Of course, it’s like going into a record store and going, “What’s a band?” I can’t remember anybody who really jazzes me right now.
Q: What is your favorite movie?
Joss: An all time favorite movie? For a long time it was a dead heat between The Bad and the Beautiful and Once Upon a Time in the West, but at the end of the day, my favorite movie is still The Matrix. Despite everything that’s happened after.
Q: What filmmaker’s respect would you like to have?
Joss: Actually, the person that has plagued me has been Spielberg because I keep like seeing bits of Minority Report, Catch Me if you Can, whatever he’s doing and I’ll come in the next day and be a wreck. It’s like I’ll watch five minutes of it and like every shot was sexy, every shot was useful. I’m a hack. I’m nothing. Somebody kill me. Wait, I’ve rethought this whole scene and it’s going to be totally wrong now. I don’t look at his stuff anymore. He’s just bugging me. He’s someone I think everything he’s done is totally fascinating.
Q: Have you met him?
Joss: Yeah, actually, we worked together before on Speed and that was really enjoyable.
Q: How do you feel about people looking at your universes as a lifestyle?
Joss: Hey, I’ve been outside. There’s bugs. I’m in LA now, but there’s weather occasionally. We’re on cloud watch today, but yes, everybody should have a life but these shows are designed for exactly that. I never put on a costume the way Tim Minear did to go to conventions and stuff, but I also didn’t know they existed when I was little. These shows are designed to be in people’s lives, in their fiction, in their dreams, in their porn, in everything.
Q: Has anyone gone too far?
Joss: Nobody in my experience, but I’m not an actor. The great thing about being a writer is when somebody comes up to you, no matter how emotional or intense they might get, they’re talking about the work. They’re talking about what they feel. With an actor, there’s a fine line between is it something you need from me? Is it something not real? Are you responding to something I said that somebody else wrote so that doesn’t feel real? There’s differences and I’ve seen it with my friends. It can be very scary. Some people really blur the lines. But I never had a problem with that. When people come up to me, it’s like you’re both being fans together of the same thing, so that’s kind of lovely. I think the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten paid was in the first year of Buffy when a woman came up to me at ComicCon in line and said that Buffy was her favorite show, in full Klingon makeup.
Q: Are you working with the same technical crew like the wire guys from Buffy?
Joss: There are some people who have spilled over. By and large, it’s a new crew. There are some people who are new to the crew who I’ve worked with on Buffy and they just happened to roll around to this crew. There’s a few people, my AD is from Angel, my script supervisor is from Angel and Firefly. There’s my makeup person. There’s some people that came along with. The studio, because this is my first movie, they felt strongly that they wanted to differentiate, to get a bit of a new look and to surround me with veterans who’ve been doing this for a while. So by and large, it’s a new crew but it’s a new crew run by Jack Green, which means like stepping into a family reunion. Actually, it is a family reunion. The entire Green family is working on this movie. Two of his sons and one of his daughters is running cameras. But he runs, besides lighting, beautifully and so quickly that it is a little more like television than I had hoped. That’s the other reason why I don’t get to play golf is Jack Green keeps lighting too fast. But to work with the man who lit Unforgiven and have him treat you like you guys have grown up together makes everybody on set feel like an old friend.