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Joss Whedon finds "Serenity" satisfaction

Joshua Klein

Saturday 24 December 2005, by Webmaster

Joss Whedon is best known as a fantasist, crafting brilliant metaphors out of supernatural conflict in his already much-missed series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" and doctoring scripts on "Toy Story." But when it comes to Hollywood, Whedon remains just shy of a cynical realist, a position that stems in part from bad experiences working on such films as "Alien: Resurrection" and "X-Men."

"A Hollywood screenwriter can spend their entire life just being filled with rage," says the ever-sardonic Whedon, "and ultimately all you’re left with is rage."

Still, it would be an understatement to say Whedon was disappointed with the premature cancellation of his sci-fi series "Firefly," which Whedon recently resurrected as the big-screen "Serenity" (Universal, 2005, 1:59, PG-13, $29.98), also his big-screen bow as director.

"Everybody told me there was nothing I could do," Whedon says. "There was a lot of despair, and there was a lot of embarrassment, because I had said to these actors: `This works, and it’ll go.’ But it doesn’t matter sometimes if it works. Sometimes they bury you anyway, even if you’re not dead. So I marched off in my complete unreality."

Meanwhile, "Firefly" started to sell pretty well on DVD, and although its home video success wasn’t directly responsible for the rise of "Serenity," Whedon admits it helped embolden him and support the project.

"Universal commissioned the script and had the deal made long before the DVDs came out," he says. "But the DVDs did come out a few weeks before the official green-light meeting, so it certainly didn’t hurt. I’m sure it bolstered their confidence."

These days, however, the surprise success of a particular DVD can also bring with it new expectations.

"As DVDs become a viable revenue source, there are more opportunities and there are more pressures," Whedon says. "They go hand in hand. Any chance you get to do something that might make money you’re going to have somebody who is going to want to get their hand in it as well and make sure it does. The problem with Hollywood is that a lot of people who are trying to do that are not the people who know how to tell stories, and that’s not going to change with the new media. There’s still going to be plenty of people in Hollywood who don’t need to be there.

"I was very lucky in the work I’ve done on TV, and particularly with `Serenity’ I had probably the smallest amount of meddling that a person can hope to have—and in the case of Universal, useful meddling that actually helped make the movie better. I don’t expect that to happen again."

The box office returns of "Serenity" have been modest at best. In the end, however, Whedon the storyteller felt immensely satisfied by the fan response—both new and old—to what he pulled off creatively with "Serenity," taking the cast and concept of a show few saw and making it appealing to both newcomers and its vocal cult of supporters.

"For people who have seen the TV show, the movie is great payoff," Whedon says. "For people who haven’t, it’s fun to get to know these characters and then find out there’s a huge back story 15 hours long—an interesting flashback sequence called `the series’—all about these people you’ve just fallen in love with. It’s the response from people who hadn’t seen the series that was probably the most gratifying aspect of all of this."

Best of the week

"The Simpsons: Complete Seventh Season" (Fox, 1989, 8:16, NR, $49.98): Still hovering at or around its creative peak, the seventh season of "The Simpsons" captures the usual incisive hilarity from America’s favorite yellow family. Best of all, it maintains the high standards of its predecessors with extras and commentaries galore, plus the option of purchasing it in either the collectible Marge head format or as a standard, boring but so-much-easier-to-manage package.

"Gallipoli" (Paramount, 1981, 1:51, PG, $14.98): One of Peter Weir’s last Australian productions before heading to Hollywood, the moving horrors-of-war film "Gallipoli" (which features a young Mel Gibson) gets a well-timed reissue. As per his preferences, Weir doesn’t provide commentary, but he and his principals (including Gibson) do appear in a fine, informative documentary.

Dud of the week

"The Brothers Grimm" (Buena Vista, 2005, 1:59, PG-13, $29.99): Not one of director Terry Gilliam’s finer moments, the failure of "The Brothers Grimm" has been blamed (by Gilliam himself) largely on the interference of the film’s studio funders. But Gilliam is on his best behavior on his commentary track, disappointing from a man renowned for dishing the dirt after he’s been wronged.