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Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon - "Serenity" Movie - Scifi.com Interview

By Patrick Lee

Wednesday 28 September 2005, by Webmaster

The cast and creator of the canceled TV series Firefly manage to find Serenity on the big screen

When last we saw the ragtag crew of the transport ship Serenity, they were on the run from the sinister Alliance, trying to avoid the cannibalistic Reavers and hugging the outer rim just trying to eke out a living in the wake of the galactic civil war. That’s when everything went horribly wrong: Fox pulled the plug on Joss Whedon’s SF western show Firefly in 2002, after it aired only 11 of 14 produced episodes.

But then something wonderful happened. Firefly debuted on DVD, and the show’s rabid if cultish fans, called the "Browncoats," snapped them up like flapjacks. This caught the attention of Universal Pictures, which commissioned Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to write and direct a movie version, his feature-film directorial debut. In Serenity, Whedon brings back the entire original cast: Nathan Fillion (as Capt. Mal Reynolds), Sean Maher (as ship’s doctor Simon Tam), Adam Baldwin (as the mercenary Jayne), Gina Torres (as Reynolds’ kick-ass second-in-command, Zoe), Alan Tudyk (as Zoe’s pilot husband, Wash), Jewel Staite (as lovable ship’s mechanic Kaylee), Morena Baccarin (as the sophisticated courtesan Inara), Summer Glau (as the mysterious River Tam) and Ron Glass (as the monkish Shepherd Book). The film also introduces the Operative, an assassin, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

With Serenity about to fly again, Science Fiction Weekly took a moment to speak with Whedon and the cast about their unusual journey. Serenity opens Sept. 30. (Universal is owned by NBC Universal, which also owns Science Fiction Weekly.)

Joss Whedon, how nervous are you about this movie opening?

Whedon: Oh, wow. Starting with the hard stuff. ... I’m actually pretty calm. I am being medicated right now steadily to keep me that way. I got really nervous when I realized ultimately I have absolutely no idea how this movie is going to do. I believe that if people see it they will like it, and that is sort of my first job, and I feel like that was more or less accomplished. But I have no idea if they actually will see it, and if they don’t see it, how can they like it? ... So I panicked and I freaked out. Publicly. Proud of that. ... Then I sort of realized, it’s out of my hands. I will do everything in my power to try and get people to see it, but there’s only so much that’s in my power. And if that they don’t [see it], ... or if they-how can I put this?-hate it, then that’s just what’s going to happen. There’s nothing I really can do about it. I believe in the film. I loved making it. I love what we came up with. I love everyone. I’m really proud of all my actors. So that’s going to have to sustain me. You know, that’s me now. Talk to me on the morning of the 30th, when I’m hiding in the bathtub with a hat on.

You have a great cast of characters for a TV show. In a feature film, in two hours or less, what were the challenges for you?

Whedon: The challenge was to get everybody in there. Yeah, you know, obviously the TV show you need a bunch of peeps if you want to create internal conflict, and it’s not just a sort of problem-of-the-week kind of show. And then, you know, when I was given the opportunity to make a movie of this, yes, then all of a sudden I had nine characters, and that’s a lot of people to put in a movie. But ultimately what it gave me was the chance to have a ... kind of a platoon feeling. Sort of the band as this great big group of people that you can focus on who you want to. Obviously, on a show you’re going to give everybody equal time to an extent, and you’re going to make sure that everybody is serviced. In a film you have to say, "OK, well, Mal is really the hero. He’s the guy we have to be watching." We come to him through River. She’s kind of his proxy, and it’s kind of about how she affects him and how they help each other. That doesn’t mean, however, that anybody is expendable. You make sure that everybody’s perspective brings something different to the movie, and everybody’s physicality and their actions and what they’re useful for. A lot of movies, I think, center around one character, and then there’s maybe two others that are defined, and then everybody else kind of fades into the distance. And for some films that’s very useful. But because I wanted the sort of chaotic, sort of everything-is-happening-at-once feeling of being on that ship and being in this world, having a large cast was useful, because they all bring so much texture to it. Hopefully it isn’t confusing, but it means that it’s very lively and it’s very lived-in.

Do you have ideas for the sequel, should it actually happen?

Whedon: It’s very sweet to mention the word sequel. ...Obviously that’s the way my brain works. It continues to tell stories. ... It’s inevitable for me that I do that, and of course I love this universe. I love these people, and I would jump at the chance to do it again. But I couldn’t think about that while I was making it, because ultimately you have to make [the first one]. Everyone kept saying, "So, you’re making a trilogy?" "No, it’s a film." "So, a trilogy?" I’m like, "Just the one!" It’s a trilogy if you make two that are so good there’s a third. ... Now that I’ve finished it, and I was there to market it, I think about it all the time. But I don’t tell anybody that. Except just now.

Can you talk about some of the other challenges in opening this up from series to film and how to make it accessible for people who haven’t seen Firefly?

Whedon: Well, ultimately, you know, that’s certainly the hardest job I ever had. It’s a question of opening it up, and it’s a question of closing it down. ... Opening it up in the sense of we need a giant, epic story that is not the kind of thing these people usually get involved in in a TV series, which is more mundane. You need a reason for this to be a movie. ... The closing comes in making sure that it is accessible to everybody, that you explain everybody as much as you need to, that you explain the world as much as you need to. That you begin and you end, that you have an arc for the character, as well as a plot that has a question and then an answer. ... I’ve actually said once or twice that the difference between TV and movies is that TV shows are a question, and movies are an answer. And so in this we had to have a definitive statement about freedom and humanity and what we need and what we should be allowed to have as people, which is all our flaws. And then I answer that. I make a definitive statement. I put a period or, hopefully, an exclamation point on that, as opposed to just sort of pursing the question for years, which is what a TV show would do.

In the film you answer question that the series raised, like the Reavers and River. Were those the answers we were going to get if the TV show had lived?

Whedon: Very little has changed for the movie. Obviously, things were dropped, and ... most importantly, things were distilled into a fine two-hour liqueur instead of a more watered-down longer version. ... That was where I was going with the idea of River and her secret and the Reavers and theirs and how it all connected. I had planned to get there in a couple of years instead of a couple of hours. But apart from ... not being able to service all the subplots with all those different people, that is exactly where I was going with it. ... That was the easy part of structuring it and pitching it. This is where this series was building to, and I think if you took this as a separate story, it is an epic story and it has a great deal of meaning for today.

In a fight between River and Buffy, who wins?

Whedon: Wow. Nobody has ever asked me that, and I’m shocked. And ultimately, ... I can’t say. I’m going to have to watch. ... Because Buffy’s got the super strength, but River’s got all kinds of crazy training. She’s not a superhero in the same way, but she’s very focused. Its tough. It’s a smackdown. Be there.

Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Morena Baccarin, what was it like going back?

Fillion: Vindicating. Was it good for you?

Torres: It was good for me. Yeah, it was. It was déjà vu. I think we all sort of have different stories about sort of going onto the ship-well, the ship set. ... It was the same, but it was different. And it was bigger in some places and smaller in others, and it went up in other places. But there was definitely, redemption is a word that Adam Baldwin likes to use.

Baccarin: It felt like we hadn’t left, too. It just sort of felt like, it was a little different. It was a little like coming into your living room and your mom rearranged all the furniture, and things aren’t where they were, but you’re still home, and it felt like we picked up right where we left off, sort of.

Torres: Yeah, absolutely. And just seeing each other was great. Although we never really stopped seeing each other.

Fillion: Yeah, we never stopped seeing each other, but you know what actually was good was seeing ... the characters again. ... [To Torres and Baccarin] Seeing you guys in your outfits again, that was real [nice]. ... It was something for me. It was good.

How long was there between the show and the movie?

Fillion: Two years.

Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn’t be back on Serenity?

Torres: The day that we were canceled.

Fillion: Joss had that plan of ... finding another home. He said, "I’ll find another home." And I said, "That sounds great. That’s a really wonderful thing to say." [Mocks crying.] "It’s really dead, isn’t it? It’s dead." I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with Firefly the way I did, and I wasn’t prepared for Firefly to dump me the way it did. So I was really depressed. I was pretty sad. ... So I wasn’t prepared to kind of have that hope and say, "Maybe. Maybe."

Baccarin: Well, you don’t want to get crushed again.

How much did you guys have to practice or work out to get back into the characters and get back into the mind space you were in?

Baccarin: Well, I had a lot of sex.

Torres: God bless you.

Baccarin: I had to say it. It had to be [said]. There’s the whore thing. Now it’s done and over with.

Fillion: To get back into the characters? ... Certainly the TV series was a process. And, because we had time over, to learn the characters.

Baccarin: Maybe you had time.

Torres: We had seven months of just learning each other and falling in love and falling into these people and getting to know each other. ... But by the time we got back, ... these relationships were already established, and I know for me it was just getting into those damn pants.

Baccarin: Exactly. It wasn’t the gun?

Torres: [Smiles.] No, no, that old friend, no.

Are you all signed for another movie or two more?

Baccarin: Two more.

Torres: Two more.

Fillion: You are? This is awkward.

Can you say more about what the plight of each character in the movie is?

Baccarin: Well, each character has their own, it seems.

Torres: I think, unlike the Matrix and the Star Wars trilogies, where you have a very heightened reality, and black and white is very clear, and the lines are very definitively drawn, and you ... fall into it because ... you want to aspire to the grandness of these heroes ... we’re just regular people in extraordinary circumstances. And that, in turn ... can be more inspiring, because you think, "Well, [if] these people, as jacked up as they are in these circumstances, with all their issues and unpreparedness, can meet these ... tasks and actually survive them and learn something from them and get past it and live another day, then I can, too." And, as Morena said, ... each character goes about it differently. And so ... there’s always an opportunity for you to see yourself in whoever you see yourself [in] and how they come to these tasks and get past them.

Fillion: You’re right. These are nobodies. These are nobodies. I don’t have very much in common with Jedi knights, but I have a great deal in common with nobodies.

Summer Glau, how much choreography and training was there for the fight scenes, and did your dance background help you?

Glau: It did help me, because I was used to training every day, you know? Going to the gym and working out all day and doing lots of different types of training. But really it’s completely different muscle memory. I had to completely retrain my body. It took months. ... Three months, all day, every day.

Adam Baldwin: And it worked. And it worked.

Adam, what T-shirt are you wearing there?

Baldwin: Oh, this is one that the fans gave me down at DragonCon in Atlanta. "Let’s Be Bad Guys."

What was the biggest difference between the TV show and the movie?

Jewel Staite: I think it was the time factor. We had so much more time on the movie than we did on the series. We could do a three-page scene all day long if we wanted to, which was nice. You know, when you’re doing series work, you have 12 hours and then that’s it. And in those 12 hours, you have about eight or nine pages to shoot. And yeah. On the movie I just felt like we had all this rehearsal time. We could stop. We could talk the characters. We could talk about the vibe of the scene, what we were going for.

Baldwin: We had two weeks of rehearsal time before we started filming, and I think we focused a lot on the main dialogue scenes early on. But we also focused on that "Mule" [hovercraft] chase scene, because we had two weeks of exterior work on location that we had to get in those two weeks to stay on budget and on time. And the weather cooperated, and we were able to get all that stuff in. And I feel that once we got to the studio, the controlled atmosphere on the soundstages, we were home free. ... It felt like we were back workshopping our little TV show ... on the gigantic Universal soundstages.

Staite: It was very strange.

Sean Maher: Yeah, I agree, I think time was a big thing. We had obviously a lot more time to tell the story than we did when we were shooting the series. But to me it just felt so similar to the show, everything just felt a little more spectacular. It just felt a little grander, and there was a wonderful feeling of redemption to sort of come back with these people. It was this great reunion, and so it was a wonderful energy on the set.

Staite: And a sense of closure, too. ... Because when we got canceled, it all happened very quickly. And I’m from Canada, from Vancouver, so I packed up and went home. And I felt like there was no closure whatsoever. So when we ... were greenlit to do the movie, and we saw each other again and we were able to play these characters one more time, it just felt nice. It felt very gratifying.

Baldwin: I think an important aspect of that, though, is that we felt, and I think the fan base felt, that we were kind of under the gun from the get-go. Our ratings were low. Everyone kind of knew our ratings were low, and we needed to figure out some way to push them up. We never did. We got canceled. But the cancellation all happened really quick. It’s like, "OK, you’re done. Go home." But Joss immediately asked for ... the rights to Firefly to make it somewhere else and try to sell it to other TV networks. They didn’t bite. And over time, he was able to ultimately get Universal’s and [executive] Mary Parent’s attention, and they agreed to make the film. But Joss never gave up. Joss never stopped, quote-unquote, "planning for the future." And so while it was very hard for all of us, and devastating emotionally, I don’t know about you guys, but I never felt that Joss gave up. And I always kind of felt that this is where we would end up until he said, "You know, I can’t do it anymore." And he never did. So while we miss our show, you’re right that we have closure. Whatever happens to the movie. We do, and we can move forward, whether we’re a hit and get to make two more, or come what may.