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ON THE SET: ’Serenity’: So Not How Things Should Work

By Kate O’Hare

Thursday 24 February 2005, by Webmaster

See, when you write a movie and it turns out just the way you hoped it wouldn’t, you’re supposed to lick your wounds, cash the check and move on to writing another script that a director will again turn into something that embarrasses you when you hear it mentioned in the supermarket.

You’re absolutely not supposed to take that movie idea back and turn it into a little hit series/cultural phenomenon called "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

And when you pour your heart and soul into a series for FOX, get told your pilot is awful and then get canned after 11 episodes, you’re supposed to go write a police procedural or something that won’t tear your guts out if it gets the ax.

You’re really not supposed to take that failed TV series, move it to another studio altogether and turn it into a feature film. Not supposed to happen. Nope.

These are lessons that writer/producer/director Joss Whedon apparently has not learned.

Standing this past August on the set of "Serenity," the Universal Pictures film version of his 20th Century Fox series "Firefly," Whedon — an experienced screenwriter making his feature-film directing debut — is feeling pretty good.

"After ’Alien Resurrection,’" he says, "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. Actually, I think the director, on occasion, could use 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."

Set about 500 years in the future, in a raggedy world that’s a blend of space opera and horse opera, "Serenity" returns to the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, a knockabout bucket of bolts transporting cargo and passengers — with very few questions asked.

The entire cast from the TV series has returned, led by Nathan Fillion as Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, a disillusioned former soldier fleeing old demons, the megalithic coalition called The Alliance and roving brutal savages called Reavers (oft mentioned but not seen in the series, but they may make their debut in the movie).

As did the series, the movie centers on the mysterious River Tam (Summer Glau). Rescued from scientific experimentation by her physician brother, Simon (Sean Maher), River’s mental and physical powers are still evolving. The Alliance wants River back, and they’ve sent the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to get her.

"Serenity" is set for a Sept. 30 debut, delayed from an original April launch date.

"Firefly" did well on DVD for 20th Century Fox Home Video, but according to "Serenity" producer Barry Mendel ("The Sixth Sense," "The Life Aquatic"), that wasn’t the dealmaker for Universal.

"It was helpful," he says, "but Universal was already on board before the DVD came out. They were believers of Joss. They think of Joss as somebody who’s going to be making films for a long time. He’s a unique person with a voice. They also really loved the show. They loved the idea of doing the show as a movie. They thought the show could have been a lot more. They understood what went down between Joss and the network during the show.

"They went, ’This is a great movie property.’ It’s surprising for people to hear, but they believed in it since the beginning."

Asked how hard it was to wrest the rights from 20th Century Fox, Mendel says, "Medium. We approached them. At the end of the day, we had to pay them a certain amount of money. It wasn’t huge, but it was considerable.

"I think they relinquished the rights because they knew Joss was on a mission from God to make this movie. They weren’t going to be the people who went down in history as the people who were standing in the way of an artist, who’d been very good to them, doing what he wanted to do.

"Ultimately, to say whether it was the goodness of their souls or their concern about their reputations, that would be pure speculation on my part."

"I’d like to brag how well I sold it," Whedon says, "but [vice chairman, worldwide production] Mary Parent at Universal watched ’Firefly,’ and the words she used were ’This is a no-brainer.’"

One cancellation and a few business deals later, Whedon talks about his different relationships with FOX network and 20th Century Fox Studios.

"My relationship with the network is not so great, but my deal is with television production, and we’ve had a good relationship for years. We did ’Buffy’ and [its spin-off] ’Angel’ and ’Firefly’ together, and that’s been fine."

Although he’s in the movie business right now, Whedon — who has two young children —hasn’t completely shaken off television.

"I’m totally prepared to go back to TV," he says, "not 24/7 like in the first few 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 that I love movies. The things that I can’t do in this movie are things I mourn, the smaller moments, the protracted interactions, the things that make TV really fascinating, watching characters change over the years. I’ve waited my whole life to make movies, but movies don’t do that. "I tend to write novels that are way too long, and that’s TV."

Of course, while movies can’t duplicate the storytelling process of seven years of a TV series, there is the possibility of sequels.

As for "Serenity," Whedon says, "They don’t even say, ’Is there going to be a sequel?’ They go straight to trilogy, and they say, ’Are you going to shoot the second and third back-to-back?’ Um, movie might suck. Let’s start at Point A.

"I think of this as an absolute one-shot. Could it sustain more stories? Obviously, I designed their world and these characters and this ensemble to sustain seven years’ worth, so, yeah, there could be more.

"We’d love to do more, but we have to make this one good enough to deserve that. That is the only thing that I’m thinking about."

4 Forum messages

  • Awesome. Can’t wait to see it.
  • What a guy!
  • > ON THE SET: ’Serenity’: So Not How Things Should Work

    26 February 2005 20:17, by Anonymous
    I absolutely can’t wait! It’s funny how they (The TV execs) said that the pilot was awful. I played it on DVD one night for my mom when there was (oddly enough) nothing good to watch on TV. This woman hates everything! [She’s like that kid Mikey in the old cereal commercials—"He won’t eat it; he hates everything!"] She LOVED it!!! She’s been hooked ever since. She hasn’t seen a movie in well over a decade, and she can’t wait for the release of Serenity. Obviously, neither can I.
  • > ON THE SET: ’Serenity’: So Not How Things Should Work

    27 February 2005 20:47, by Anonymous
    Everyone I’ve ever shown the pilot to (many of them with doubts - "You want me to watch a two hour pilot for a cancelled show, and it’s a pilot that the network refused to air until after they’d cancelled the show? Umm....") have been immediately hooked on the show. I’ve probably created at least 20 new Firefly fans, people who’d never even heard of the series, just by sharing my DVDs. They’re all eagerly awaiting the film.