FireflySerenity Set Visit
Tuesday 9 November 2004, by Webmaster
IGN visits the set of the Firefly movie.
November 08, 2004 - When a series is cancelled after a season, it is seldom heard from again, much less in feature film form. Serenity is that rare beast. After a difficult and brief 14 episode run on Fox, Firefly (the title of the show) was given the axe, albeit prematurely in the opinions of a small but very loyal fan base. Those fans rallied together with online petitions and calls to the network. Although the show was dead, Whedon realized there was still a possibility of continuing the life of the world and characters he had created. Whedon was still very passionate to tell their story.
So now, only a few years after the show signed off of television, the feature film is in production. The rights to the Firefly characters have been transferred from Fox to Universal, where they are very excited about the prospect of building a franchise from the western-influenced science fiction world imagined by Whedon. Whedon himself couldn’t be more pleased. After all, I can’t think of too many times when a show that barely lasted a season turned into a feature.
Written and directed by Whedon and produced by Barry Mendel (Rushmore, The Sixth Sense), Serenity features the majority of the show’s cast reprising their roles for the feature: Nathan Fillion as Mal, Gina Torres as Zoe, Adam Baldwin as Jayne, Alan Tudyk as Wash, Jewel Staite as Kaylee, Morena Baccarin as Inara, Summer Glau as River, Sean Maher as Simon and Ron Glass as Book. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays The Operative and Shohreh Aghdashloo (the Oscar-nominated actress from House of Sand and Fog) makes a brief appearance.
Near the end of the production on the Universal lot in Universal City, California, IGN FilmForce was among a select group invited onto the Serenity set to check out the production and even board the grand "Serenity" ship itself. We spoke with two of the film’s stars, Summer Glau and Nathan Fillion, as well as a man we all know well, the director of Serenity and creator of the enormously successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series, Joss Whedon.
The first scene we looked in on was an action sequence in which Glau is battling a few baddies in a bar. The sequence involves some wirework for high flying kicks and baddies getting knocked through the air. Also in the scene is a strange looking female character with blue hair. I never did get her name. Off to the side and joining later in the scene is the captain of the ship itself, Nathan Fillion, better known to fans of the show as Mal.
Serenity’s Summer Glau
Glau steps aside from the action for a few moments to talk to us about the scene. "It’s my stunt double is doing a sweep for me, because they hurt my knees too bad. There are some stunt guys in there and actually Nathan, who plays Mal and Adam are also in that scene." When asked who she is fighting in the scene, Glau is secretive: [She smiles] "I cannot disclose that."
Fillion on the scene we are watching: "I’m tucked away in the corner. Jane and I are doing a deal with Rafael and Jan over here. This is Rafael of the twins and, we’re tucked away in the corner doing a deal when River flips out. So, any time that camera’s going to turn around and maybe take a look at the corner we’re in. That’s when they call Chemille to tap and wake me up and I come over there and act shocked."
After watching some more of the scenes played out, Whedon joins us for a few moments before being called back to set. We ask him what big decisions he’s had to make as helmer on this day. Whedon smiles, "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."
It’s now time to tour the great ship itself before talking more with Glau, Fillion and Whedon. The ship is massive and impressive, although its full scope is hard to see in the world behind the scenes. Still partially under construction in some places, the ship looks similar to the one from the Firefly show, with renovations here and there. The ship and its components have been aged to give it a character that melds with the world Whedon imagined. We are told there are some subtle nods to the fans of the show within the ship, which those more perceptive viewers will surely pick up on.
Adapting a show into a film is never and easy task, and more often than not, it just doesn’t work. One advantage that usually exists is the fact that audiences are already familiar with the characters on screen before they enter the theater. This is not the case with Serenity. "It’s incredibly hard," says Whedon. "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. It’s incredible [and] there’s 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... 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."
he other trick is to give those that did watch the show a fresh perspective that isn’t the same old thing they already saw on the show. "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."
Summer Glau’s character is one of the most important parts to the film’s storyline. Whedon says that she was also the biggest surprise to him on set. In the year and a half since he last worked with her on the set of the show, he says that she has really matured: "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."
Glau was also unsure of how easily she could step back into the River character: "I was very nervous. I hadn’t played River for a year and a half and I was so close to her in the beginning and through the whole series. And then when I came in for my first read through with the entire cast, I was shaking and sweating and I was really scared. But then after the first few days, I felt like I’d never left... On the series, we were setting up all the characters. We were setting it up and we were going back into their past and trying to build each storyline for each character. And my character was just getting started. And now in the film you’re really going to see an explosion of what’s really going on with River."
Conversely, Fillion says that he was more than ready to jump back into the role he popularized in Serenity. He was just glad that he got the call to return to the part. "The series being cancelled was such a heartbreak," says Fillion. "I broke the cardinal rule of, ’Don’t fall in love with what you’re doing, because the rug can get yanked out from underneath you,’ and when it did, I was heartbroken. So, Josh really had it in his head that he was gonna get it made into a movie and, it’s a great dream and I really wanted it to happen, but I couldn’t fall in love with that idea again just to be heartbroken again. So, we go the green light, Josh wrote a script, everything was rolling. We started doing rehearsals, we actually started filming. I don’t think it had actually settled in for about three weeks into filming that we were actually making the movie."
Serenity’s Nathan Fillion
The character of Mal clearly has some Han Solo influence, which Fillion doesn’t deny. "Absolutely. I look at Harrison Ford and say, ’I want to be as cool as Harrison Ford.’ There’s a lot of Harrison Ford in Mal... I just love the way Harrison Ford takes a beating. Like... Frantic was a great movie for him taking beatings, Bladerunner he took a lot of beatings, Witness he took a good beating, Indiana Jones takes great beating. Getting his ass kicked, flat out. When he gets cocked in the face, his legs go wobbly and you could tell he’s been punched, you know he’s been punched." (Laughs)
To Whedon’s surprise, the experience of directing a feature has been no less stress than the TV show. "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... I’m still surprised, more than I ever have been, I’ll do pages and watch and go, ’Boy, the first one was better than the one with all my notes in it.’ 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."
As the trend goes in Hollywood, talk is already brewing of a possible trilogy for this franchise. This may be a premature idea, since Serenity is still more than six months from release. "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... 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 gonna shoot the second and third back-to-back?’ Umm, [this] 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."
Even with the inevitable larger bankroll of a film production compared to a TV budget, Serenity is still relatively low budget by Hollywood standards. "It’s less effects heavy than most of your big summer movies," Whedon says. "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."
"The seamless integration [of the effects] 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."
Fillion and Glau, respectively, say that Whedon hasn’t let the title Feature Film Director go to his head. He’s still just as down to Earth and secure in his vision as he was with the show. Fillion on Whedon: "I would say, me personally, no different. Joss has told me he’s under a little more pressure but, you know what, I don’t see it. I think when we were doing the series, I saw him working on three series, and we didn’t see him near as often as we would have liked, because he’s great to have around. He’s a real warm presence on a set... He is very specific in what he wants, he’s very confident in his choices and it’s nice to have him around. He’s an excellent director and he’s a great friend to have around. When he’s directing you, if he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he has a way of presenting it to you that you don’t feel like you’re failing in some way. That you feel like you’re succeeding and actually hanging out with your friends and working towards something great... All of his passions are channeled towards this one thing. We constantly look around and are constantly taken aback by the fact that we’re actually making this movie."
Glau on Whedon: "Well, we have a bigger budget, which is fun. And we get to take more time with each scene. But really, the way that Joss shoots is so specific, we wondered how different it was going to be from the series, but he knows exactly what he wants. So when we come in to do a scene, we know it’s going to go really quickly. We just soak up any information that he has, any ideas that he has and we just go for it, just like we did in the series. So it’s really very similar, at least for me."
Fillion says that the other advantage of working on the feature film versus the show is the freedom to be more true to his character. "We don’t have a bunch of TV producers saying, ’Make him more likable and funny.’ I haven’t made any drastic changes or anything. I’ve noticed that my nose is a lot bigger on the screen. There’s times when, if you could put your arms up, that’s about how wide my nostrils are. I’ve always known I’ve had big nostrils, but now I can park a Buick in them." One of the other things Mal was known for on Firefly, besides being unlikable, was his consistently tight pants. Fillion laughs as the subject of his pants is brought up. "These ones are actually far more comfortable. I think it’s actually Sean Maher who’s taken on the title of the tightest pants. Dr. Tight Pants."
Bigger budget also means bigger action and bigger stunts. Glau says that the role of River is definitely a more physically demanding one this time around. "Well, when they first met with me to try and figure out what my physicality was, we experimented with some different things and what we ended up with was kind of a blend of Wushu Kung Fu and kickboxing. It’s kind of tailored to my abilities, because I was a ballet dancer before I started acting. And so looking at the way I moved and seeing what kind of body type I had, that was what they chose. I do a lot of wirework. So I get to do a lot of flipping and running up walls and it’s really exciting. I’m not a gymnast. I still don’t like being upside down. I don’t know what my legs are doing up there. It makes me nervous."
Fillion is still waiting for his biggest action scene. "The biggest stunt I do in the film hasn’t been done yet. It’s actually, I think they’re saving it for the final week of filming, strangely enough. Hmmm. They were kind enough to give me a couple of days off after one of the fight sequences and I was glad for it because I was stiff and sore for days. Barry Mendel actually, one of the producers, had a massage sent to the house... (Laughs)"
So where does Serenity take us that Firefly didn’t? "To Reaver territory," Fillion beams. "How bout that?" Fillion expects the Reavers to live up to the fans long anticipation. "I think so. They’re good. This is gonna be an enjoyable experience for fans... I think it’s gonna be very satisfying on a lot of levels. I think it’s gonna wrap up some things that were left hanging."
As I mentioned early, the Firefly audience was a small but very loyal one. For this reason, changing the title made perfect sense to Whedon: "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 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 non-fans it’s just a word. It’s not Firefly: The Movie... Of the Series... That you didn’t watch."
Serenity’s is firmly slated for release in April of 2005, just a few weeks shy of Star Wars: Episode III. Whedon and crew hope that the slot will get a boost from the eager sci-fi crowd. "It’s exactly where I want to be," Whedon says. "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... It’s a smaller film. It’s like the crew itself, its a little run and gun, it’s a little bit underdog... It’s that time when people are getting ready. They’ve got that anticipation, they’re excited to get into the summer and be disappointed over and over. (Laughs) 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."
Whedon sees himself, not only as the director, but as a fan. He knows and understands that making a great film is a tricky thing, and that fans like himself are let down more often than not. "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. This will be Citizen Kane? Bah. This is a real film!’ (Laughs) 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 [if the film doesn’t succeed]? I’ll be devastated, but I believe, as I always have, that if I respond to what’s there, others will too."
Serenity’s U.S. release is currently slated for April 22, 2005.