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Joss Whedon - "Speed" Movie - Graham Yost Avclub.com Interview

Monday 15 April 2013, by Webmaster

Full House (1991)—writer

AVC: How long were you on Full House?

GY: I was on Full House for nine and a half weeks. I was hired on a probationary period of 10 weeks, and I quit four days before I was going to be fired. It’s funny, I’ve run into Dennis Rinsler, who was one of the showrunners there with Marc Warren, and they have never confirmed for me that I was going to be fired, but I certainly felt like I was going to be fired.

AVC: Why did you feel like you were going to be fired?

GY: I just didn’t fit. I was told that I was hired because they wanted edge, and a show like that really didn’t want edge. It was a big room, and it was competitive, and it was hard to get stuff in. I just felt like I was completely not the right fit. Although I really liked everyone in the room, it just didn’t feel like a good fit. So I quit, and then happily Speed sold a couple days later. So I knew that I was going to have a job, and then I went on to Powers That Be. Powers That Be was a really small room, and Charlotte Brown was just so wonderful. I was like, “Okay, I’ve found a home. This is where I fit. If I’m doing half-hour, this is the kind of show I want to work on.”

AVC: Now that you’re a showrunner, what have you learned from that experience about what to do if someone just isn’t fitting in?

GY: You just take them out back and shoot them. It’s okay. No. You take a look at the end of the season. Who really gets the show and for whom is it a greater struggle? And you make decisions then. We’ve been very fortunate on Justified, had a strong staff right from the beginning. That said, it has changed, Fred Golan and I have made changes as we go. It’s our plan to pretty much stand pat from here on in. It feels like we’ve really got that Elmore Leonard-ish voice with Raylan and Boyd and the type of stories that we do. But it’s hard to figure that out staffing in the first season.

Speed (1994)—writer AVC: Where did that idea come from?

GY: If you check into my IMDB, you see my father mentioned. My dad had a show on television in Toronto for 25 years—actually it went on for another 13 [after he retired] and is just wrapping up this season—called Saturday Night At The Movies, and it was all about movies. So I grew up in a house where we talked about movies all the time. At times I would say, “Dad, can you think of any films, any story, that maybe wasn’t done well but was a great idea?” And he would noodle on that and give me ideas, but he did tell me he’d heard about a Kurosawa script about a train that couldn’t slow down or it would blow up. He told me that in the mid-’80s, and then I remember Runaway Train [Konchalovsky, 1985] coming out, and I saw the credits, and it said “screenplay by someone someone and Akira Kurosawa” and I thought, “Oh, that’s it.” I went to see it, and it was a really fun movie, but it wasn’t that there were explosives. My dad would take an idea and, as he would put it, re-direct it in his head. I think he was right. In Runaway Train, they just can’t get to the brakes because the train is all frozen, and it’s going through Alaska. I came out of that movie thinking, “Man, that would have been better if it was explosives, and it would have been better if it was a bus.” That was where it came from.

AVC: Just listening to the timeline, it sounds like it sold in 1989, ’90 and then it didn’t come out until 1994. Is that how you remember it?

GY: It sold in the summer of ’91. I did Hey Dude for ’89 and ’90. And [I was] looking for work after Hey Dude went down. That’s when I wrote spec half-hours. I wrote a spec Roseanne and a spec Murphy Brown and got an agent. I already had an agent, but I didn’t really have a TV agent. She got me on Full House, and in that time, before I went on staff at Full House, that’s when I wrote the first draft of Speed. It sold that August. Then I went on Powers That Be, because I was told, and it was true, that it took about a year to hammer out the contract and write the first draft. Originally it was for Paramount, and I turned that draft in the fall of ’92. So it moved along.

Television moves much faster, but for features… It sold in the summer of ’91. Draft in ’92. Paramount put it in turnaround in the fall of ’92. Fox picked it up. Started doing more drafts for them into ’93. Then they green-lit it early in ’93. Hired a director, Jan de Bont, moved forward. Then I was kicked off for a draft and brought back for a draft. Then kicked off again. Thank God they brought in Joss Whedon. He did a great job. Then it shot in the fall of ’93 and moved quickly through post-production. They were going to release it in August of ’94, and they saw what they had and how audiences were responding to it, so they moved it up to June.

AVC: Every time I’ve heard you talk about this movie you’ve mentioned that Joss Whedon did such a great job on it. A lot of writers are not anxious to share credit like that. What prompts you to do that?

GY: Listen, it was a weird thing, so when it came to writing credits, I lobbied to get full credit because I felt that getting the big rock rolling is the hardest thing in a movie. But I always felt that Joss deserved some credit. Back in the old days, there was a credit like “additional dialogue by” or “additional writing by,” and the WGA, for good reason, forced the studios to abandon that credit, because they really wanted to encourage the studios to stay with the first writer. Of course, the studios are not going to stay with the first writer if they want more writing done, so you end up in this odd position with the WGA where there are no additional writing credits. But people can petition to get their name on that to get some kind of credit. The arbitration panel agreed with me, and it caused a bit of bad blood between Joss and myself for a couple days. Then we saw each other at this big party, which was unheard of, and I don’t think any studio does it anymore. They had a big barbecue on the Fox lot while we waited for the results, as it were, to see how the film was doing. We talked again, and we buried the hatchet. It was fine. But there’s still a part of me that really thinks Joss always deserves credit on that. But by the WGA rules, I deserve the sole credit. That’s just the way it went. But there’s still a little part of me that’s like, “Ehh.” So I mention Joss.

It also became a big thing at the time. There was a thing in Time magazine about how he had done a big rewrite on the script, and it was just kind of, “You know what? I’m not going to dodge it, I’m just going to embrace it.” It’s just that Speed is the biggest credit, right? But I could tell you stories about Broken Arrow and William Wisher doing work on that. Hard Rain, my joke is, “Well the problem is, no one else did writing on that, so maybe that’s why it didn’t…” There’s part of me that wishes that Joss had done a pass on that one. I’ve rewritten other people’s movies and have gotten credit and haven’t gotten credit. It’s part of the job in 20th- and 21st-century screenwriting.

Boomtown (2002-2003)—creator/writer AVC: It always seemed like NBC wanted it to be not what it was. Is that an accurate assessment?

GY: I’m of two minds about Boomtown in that regard: One is that NBC was the only place that would put that on the air. They were coming from a position of great strength, so they were willing to take a chance. They had kind of put out to the community, “If you’re thinking of taking something to HBO, bring it here first.” Boomtown was perhaps, in retrospect, better suited for HBO or FX. But at that time, HBO had The Wire, and FX had The Shield. So NBC was really the only place for it, and they embraced the Rashomon structure and were excited by that, but then when the ratings weren’t spectacular, what happens is everyone questions everything. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that.” And the doubt becomes corrosive.

So when we were lobbying for a second season, we were told straightforwardly that… there was one particular episode toward the end of the first season where Fearless, played by Mykelti Williamson, has to deal with the past of having been molested as a child, and we were basically told, “You can’t do any more episodes like that.” To this day, I don’t know if that was the right decision. I do feel like that was one of the best episodes we ever did. I’m extraordinarily proud of that. But you want to keep going, you want to work with those actors, those writers, that crew. You want to take a shot, and you’re hoping you will succeed, but we didn’t. So there’s a part of me that regrets the abbreviated second season, but there’s also a part of me that’s like, “Eh. We gave it a shot.”

AVC: Do you have elaborate ideas of what might have happened in that show?

GY: I didn’t really know where it was going. I really enjoyed being in that world and telling these stories from different points of view. Even though we kind of abandoned that in the second season, we didn’t really. We just stopped putting up the card saying that it was in someone’s point of view. I was honestly just enjoying it story by story, where it was going to go.

I think with Justified, we spend more time trying to imagine the whole season before we start writing than we did on Boomtown. And Boomtown was lightly serialized; it had arcs for the characters, but it was also each episode was more of a standalone.

The Americans (2013)—executive producer AVC: What’s the extent of your role there?

GY: Everything that you like about the show is all due to me. [Laughs.] No, it’s due to Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields] and the cast. I’d worked with Joe on a pilot for FX, a script, a few years before, and he’s such a spectacular writer. I don’t know that he’d ever written a script before, and it was just right out of the box, he was a great writer. That was pretty cool.

What I do is, they’re at the point now where they are so under the gun they don’t do outlines anymore; they’re just jamming out first drafts. But earlier on in the season, I’d read an outline, then I’d read the drafts, and I’d just talk to them about it. And watch cuts and talk to them about it. They would also call me and just sort of run notions by me. Much to their credit, they’d sometimes listen to me, and to their greater credit, sometimes they would completely ignore me. Which you have to do and figure out the show yourself. They’ve really done a great job. Like Justified, not every episode is their best, but the ones that are great are really so strong. It’s so much fun to watch. I do think I’ve got one of the best jobs in television, which is that I get to read scripts and see cuts before anyone else does.

AVC: Is there some script or some pilot that you were never able to sell or that you sold and it never went forward that you particularly regret didn’t happen?

GY: I guess there’s two. One was, I wrote a feature script for 20th Century Fox on the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and my research got so in depth that I really was unable to corral it down to a two-hour movie. That was a very powerful experience, working on that. I don’t know if it’s my best writing, but it was a great experience.

Then the other thing is, I worked with Fred Golan and Chris Brancato on a miniseries about 9/11 for NBC. They ran out of money. They couldn’t afford to do it, and we were in competition with an ABC thing [a competing September 11 project]. Ours would have been somewhat different, but that was a very powerful experience, meeting family members of people who had perished and talking to people who were on the commission. To a great extent, I think that we dodged a bullet by not actually producing it, because I think that no matter what and no matter who and no matter how you did it… but I said, “Hey, we got paid for eight months to research the single most important world event of our time.” I hope that remains the case. I hope there’s nothing worse in the future in our lifetimes.