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"Serenity" and "Slither" Movies at Comic-Con

Saturday 20 August 2005, by Webmaster

Comics in Context #98: Far From Serenity

Asked about his early TV experience, Fillion told us that he learned acting from performing on soaps "and it works for any scene."

He gave us examples, asking "Did I leave the stove on?" and giving us a somber, deep, meaningful look. Then, "I did leave the storm on," for which he used the same look. And then, concluding the trilogy, "No, I turned the stove off," repeating the look yet again. "And it works for all of them," he told us.

Then Elizabeth Banks tested the theory, telling Fillion, "I slept with your brother," whereupon Fillion gave her the same deep, meaningful look. And this was all just like a warm-up for what he did in the Serenity presentation a little while later.

You may recognize the name Elizabeth Banks: she was the female lead in the movie Seabiscuit, played Betty Brant, wearing the authentically Ditkoesque hairstyle, in both Spider-Man movies, and soon will seemingly be in every other movie that comes out. She’s a new hot actress in Hollywood.

She’s also another example of the smallness of the world. Elizabeth Banks is a former student of an old classmate of mine from Columbia University who became a theater professor. Little did my old friend dream, back at Columbia when he was kidding me about my interest in comics, that someday he would have a protege who would act in Spider-Man movies and appear at the San Diego Comic Con. It’s as if she were my protege instead!

During the panel Banks was asked what it was like to work in the movie with a seven foot puppet representing a monster. Banks said that its tentacles were wrapped around her, and that Michael Rooker, playing the monster, "projected right through the mask." Telling us that the tentacles were on "my naked legs," Banks said matter-of-factly, "I was hot and turned on. He really worked me up into a lather." Somehow I doubt that my friend from Columbia ever expected Ms. Banks to play a scene like this, either.


Then it was time for the main event. In 2002 Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a new creation on the Fox network: Firefly, which he described as a Western transplanted into outer space. Though Fox pulled the series off the air without even showing all the completed episodes, Universal allowed Whedon to write and direct Serenity, a movie that serves as a continuation of the series and will premiere on September 30. (Moreover, the Sci-Fi Channel is currently running the original TV series on Friday nights.)

Entertainment Weekly (Aug. 19, 2005) called Joss Whedon a "cult-media prophet." AMC’s Sunday Morning Shootout (August 7, 2005) called him a "god of Comic-Con." Well, he’s a god who acts like the common people, then: he even carried a backpack onstage. He was even more casually dressed than he had been at the Eisners the previous night.

Whedon has often commented in interviews on how much he loves his Firefly/Serenity cast, and the great chemistry he has with them. We were about to see it for ourselves.

Looking out over the hordes in Hall H, Whedon said disappointedly, "I was hoping we could get a crowd."

Undeterred, Whedon proceeded to introduce his cast. "Let’s see, who do I like best?" Mulling it over, he decided, "Morena Baccarin." The actress who plays Inara, the Companion (or to be blunt, courtesan), walked out and seemed surprised by the huge applause she received. She hugged Whedon, who is a fortunate man.

Striking a more ominous note, Whedon asked, "Who do I want to punish most? Sean Maher," whereupon the actor who plays Serenity’s doctor, Simon, walked out, and the audience applauded him as they would the others.

"Who truly frightens me," Whedon asked, "more than Ron Glass?" presenting the veteran actor who plays Book, the "shepherd" (Firefly’s term for preacher).

Then Whedon asked us, "Who’s just a little bit gay?" and introduced the returning Nathan Fillion, who cupped his hand to his ear, prodding the audience to clap even more loudly.

Then Whedon asked, "Who am I truly sick of?" and, if I heard correctly, answered his own question with "The voluminous, verbose, ego-inflated Summer Glau." The first two adjectives were obviously untrue, and the third appeared false as well, but the actress who plays River seemed hurt by Whedon’s joke.

Acting more gentlemanly, Fillion held out a seat for her, and the audience collectively went "Awwww" at this unexpected demonstration that chivalry is not dead.

Becoming more cryptic, Whedon challenged us, "Who walks among us but is not of us? The goddess - Gina Torres," and the actress who plays Firefly’s Zoe and Angel’s Jasmine, came out. Fillion respectfully seated her as well.

"And last but not third," Whedon said with precision, "the delectable Adam Baldwin," who came out holding aloft the action figure of his character, Jayne (as we saw in close-up on the big screens), as if it were a religious icon.

Sensing his duty to smooth over hurt feelings, Whedon addressed Ms. Glau, "Summer, I want to apologize. I’m not really mad at Ron."

Then, as if it were the seventh day of creation, Joss rested, surveying his cast. "I was going to let them speak," he told us, "but I think I should just let them sit there and look pretty."

As we would soon learn, another cast member, Alan Tudyk, could not be present because he was working in New York. But as Whedon attempted to proceed with the panel, the other actors onstage started whispering to Whedon. We could not hear them, but Whedon realized he had made a faux pas: he had forgotten another member of the troupe.

Hastening to correct his error, Whedon announced "The person who is probably going to kick my ass in a few minutes - Jewel Staite."

Out came the actress who plays the sweet. lovable and gorgeous ship’s engineer Kaylee, wearing cutoff shorts and looking downright unforgettable. She also looked furious.

As the audience was convulsed with laughter, Whedon hobbled over to her on his knees to beg forgiveness. Finally, Staite’s real, feigned, or somewhere-in-between anger dissolved into a smile, and Whedon, still kneeling, hugged her around the waist. Then Whedon waddled back on his knees to the podium to resume the show.

Whedon explained that the remaining regular cast member, Alan Tudyk, could not be present "because he is too fancy - and is busy being in Spamalot" (though he had not yet joined the cast when I saw it last spring, as described in "Comics in Context" #82: "Idle’s of the King").

Rather than make a speech about the movie, Whedon started taking questions from the audience.

Here was the first: "How many special effects are in the movie?"

Whedon responded immediately, "Twelve."

Gina Torres protested, "You said we couldn’t be paid more because of the special effects."

Unperturbed, Whedon pointed out "That was before I replaced you with a CGI beagle." Turning back to us, Whedon asked, "How many beautiful women can I piss off in one day?" (You see, despite his fame, money, and talent, Joss Whedon is no different than us.)

A woman in the question line told Whedon "I was behind you in Borders yesterday" as they waited to get copies of the new Harry Potter book. (I was there, too, as I mentioned last week in "Comics in Context" #97: "The Eisners without Eisner".) She asked Whedon who his favorite Harry Potter character was.

Broadly smiling in mock embarrassment, Whedon said, "Hermione, of course."

(Wouldn’t it be nice if someone spots J. K. Rowling waiting in line to see Serenity on its opening day in Britain? Of course, she could afford to just buy the theater, if not Universal.)

The next questioner wanted to know the difference between doing Firefly as a television show and as a movie. Whedon seriously stated that the movie provided an "epic scale to do lots we couldn’t do on the TV show. There were many character threads that I wanted to pursue, that now I can’t. At least not yet. If we’re all very very good, and they let us make another one," he said, he will. "I took the overarching idea I had, that was going to be the first two years of the series, and made it the plot for the movie." But that meant he "had to jettison a lot," since they "wouldn’t let me make a six hour movie." Reverting to the familiar whimsical Whedon mode, he added, "Well, you can watch this three times."

As for how he personally coped with making the transition from television to film, Whedon said simply, "Nervous breakdown."

Then the cast responded to the same query. Morena Baccarin started off: "Better than you."

Whedon protested, "You were the one I was nice to."

Baccarin retorted, "I’m getting back for Jewel."

Adam Baldwin said that in the movie, "The biggest benefit we had was all the time for preparation."

Gina Torres instead offered, "I thought the catering was better, and I’m taller," and them added in explanation, "on a big screen."

As Whedon asked Nathan Fillion the same question, Torres began cracking up, as if anticipating what was to come. Fillion began, "There’s a story here" - turning to look into the camera - "that I’ll tell you."

Fillion continued, "The difference for me, coming from a TV background, you’re always saying, ’Are we taping?’ You can’t say that to Joss. He keeps saying" - Fillion shifted into a Whedon impression-"’It’s a movie. It’s a motion picture film.’ There’s the difference," Fillion declared.

The next questioner told Whedon, "You’ve really raised the bar for television." and asked, "How do you guys like the movie?" Fillion slowly stood up, clapping his hands emphatically, and was joined by Baldwin, doing the same. Dissatisfied that the audience didn’t get it, Fillion told us, "That was the slow building clap, people. Let’s try it again." Fillion restarted his slow building clap, and this time the audience joined in. "That’s better," he told us.

Whedon asked how many in the audience had seen one of the numerous Serenity advance screenings. (Many had, and there have been sixty-six according to Entertainment Weekly, which also noted in its August 19 issue that they were only publicized on Firefly-related websites.) Morena Baccarin said, "The movie is awesome."

"Seriously," Fillion said, looking serious, "for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I have good news." He paused significantly. "I just saved a bunch of money on car insurance." As the audience laughed at the reference to Geico commercials, Fillion proudly declared, "Oh, yeah, I went there."

Even among the intelligent Whedon audience, there are, alas, people who ask questions that come off as somewhat odd. Such was the case with this Norwegian man who said he represented a group of Europeans who play a role-playing game based on Whedon’s Angel. This guy said that they thought Whedon was "the best thing" to happen to television "since aerosol cheese" and asked if there was anything he could say to them.

Puzzled, Whedon passed the buck: "Sean, what would you say to our role-playing Norwegian friends?"

Equally puzzled, Sean Maher answered, "I’m still thinking about aerosol cheese."

As you may have read, Joss Whedon has signed to write and direct a projected Wonder Woman movie.

The next questioner praised the African-American Gina Torres as a "multicultural actress" who played a "strong, independent woman." and then asked Whedon if he would make the "untraditional" choice of casting Torres as Wonder Woman. Torres giggled.

Whedon replied, "She and Morena have to fight to the death." Fillion objected that other actors present could play the part. Agreeing, Whedon revised his statement: "She, Morena and Adam have to fight to the death."

Since Whedon still didn’t get it, Fillion commented, "All I have to say is this. . . ." whereupon he stood up, began twirling around like Lynda Carter on the Wonder Woman TV show, and then cupped his hands over his chest to simulate breasts.

"I’m really starting to rethink my career choice," Whedon told us.

The next questioner brightened his spirits, asking Whedon, "Have you lost weight?"

"Ah, this is a fine man," Whedon declared, beaming happily.

The next questioner offered the kind of unusual question that inspires good answers: how did each actor think his character would die?

"My character would die in his bunk," replied Baldwin.

"With a smile," answered Torres. "With all her guns on. In Jayne’s bunk."

"I think Malcolm would die from some obvious disease misdiagnosed by the doctor," Fillion stated.

Less pessimistic, Glau said, "I think she’s going to outlive everybody."

Sean Maher said, "After they die," indicating Baldwin, Torres and Fillion, "Simon would crash the ship and kill those three," indicating the others.

Laughing, Staite said, "Kaylee would die in Simon’s arms. He would say, "I love you,’ and die,"

Appropriately for someone playing a courtesan, Maccarin stated, "I would die with a bang." Staite laughed and clapped.

Ron Glass disagreed, "We’re going to die in a group hug." Suddenly Hall H was filled with this loud honking noise, possibly some weird feedback from the sound system.

"That’s right," Whedon told us. "Today’s mystery word was ’group hug.’"

Glass finished, "In my ultimate fantasy Book is immortal and would never die."

Then Whedon introduced a clip from Serenity, and just before it started, a guy from the audience shouted, "Serenity Now!", the line popularized by George’s father in a Seinfeld episode. I had been considering using that as the title of this week’s column, but this guy provides further evidence that it’s already a cliche when referring to the Whedon’s movie.

The highlight of the clip was River launching into a tour de force of physical combat, Slayer-style, and when the clip was finished, the rest of the class applauded Summer Glau, who smiled.

Whedon returned to taking questions from the audience. One person wanted to know if there would be a cast commentary track for the Serenity DVD. Whedon said that he was trying to arrange it, but would have to "get a few drinks in them" so they could tell the real story of "the hell that we all lived." Whedon explained, "It’s a question of getting them all in a room," and noted, "Sometimes I might forget when one of them’s there."

The next questioner wanted to know how the "fan base" had "impacted your lives," saying "now you’re very famous."

I used to say that the paradox of the San Diego Con was that people, like Frank Miller, who were wildly popular inside the Con would go unrecognized once they stepped outside the Convention Center into the wider world beyond. With all the Hollywood guests at Comic-Con, that’s no longer true. The Firefly cast really isn’t that famous outside Hall H, but they do get recognized in the outside world from time to time.

Ron Glass started off, adopting a nonchalant tone, "I’ve had people liking me for such a long time."

Adam Baldwin may play the Serenity crew’s hot-tempered loose cannon (like an early version of Wolverine), but in person he came across as earnest, open, and generous with praise for other people. That included the audience, whom he now thanked. Baldwin observed that "the fan base has been so important to getting us back on the air." He said, "We wouldn’t be sitting here without you guys," and told us, "You’re all a part of it."

Next Jewel Staite tried to answer, but kept laughing, causing the other cast members to laugh as well. "It’s cool, it’s weird," she said. She explained that somebody recognized her a few days before as she was buying a toothbrush. "That’s really cool."

Sean Maher said he had moved four times to get away from the fans, and then, as Summer Glau burst into laughter, told us, "I’m kidding." He too thanked the fans and said, "You guys are why the movie was made."

Summer Glau continued this theme, telling the audience, "you’ve made so much possible for us." She said, "Thanks again for making it possible for me to do what I want to do."

Fans tend to think that their favorite actors would get a steady supply of work and can pick and choose what projects to do next, but that is not necessarily true. I expect that these actors really were grateful that audience support for Firefly made it possible for them to get movie roles in Serenity. Moreover, creative artists like to know that they’ve found an appreciative audience. In a television series or movie, one does not hear any applause; at a convention appearance, one does.

Taking a less serious approach to the subject, Gina Torres stated that "The most significant thing for me is that I don’t have to pay late fees at Blockbuster any more."

Then Nathan Fillion reminisced about how Firefly had changed his life, in his own characteristic way; "I was passionate about my work. Not any more. We all had close ties back then. Not anymore. We had ties that could not be broken, except by the passing of time." Torres laughed and nodded agreement. Fillion continued, "Like a rock," as if invoking the concept of erosion. "A broken time rock." He turned to address his cast mates: "And you are very special to me, my broken time-rock people."

It was like a spoken aria; Whedon should set it to music.

Fillion gazed over at Jewel Staite, who was laughing away. "She’s an easy mark," he commented. "Look at her."

In space, the ads for Alien once told us, no one can hear you scream, but in the Star Wars movies George Lucas exercises his dramatic license and gives us big loud explosions in space. So the next questioner wanted to know how Whedon would address the subject in the Serenity movie.

"In the blackness of space, there will be no sound," stated Whedon. "At the very edge of the blackness of space, there will be some sound. On planets," he concluded, "there will be lots of talking."

It is a natural temptation to assume that an actor’s screen persona reflects his or her real personality. The final questioner wanted to know how much of themselves the actors saw in their characters.

Morena Baccarin noted that "Inara is beautiful, graceful, totally smart. . . ."

Jewel Staite interrupted, "Nothing like Morena."

Then Staite said, "I’m obviously nothing like Kaylee at all. Maybe I have a sicker sense of humor," to which Ron Glass exclaimed "No!" in mock shock.

Staite noted about Kaylee, "She’s very sweet," but "I can be mean sometimes." Baccarin agreed, "Yeah."

Sean Maher said that after three years the "lines" between the "characters and actors" can get "blurred." Referring to Glau’s character River, Maher said, "I always like to say I love my sister," whereupon Summer Glau twinkled happily.

Glau said that playing River "was one of my very best jobs." She self-deprecatingly confided, "Playing River, I’m surprised how natural it feels for me, except the smart part. I feel really safe and comfortable."

Again, Adam Baldwin provided a surprise by describing his hard-edged character in vulnerable terms: "I think Jayne to me represents a man alone searching for family. He puts up a tough exterior to stand strong against the world and is desperate on the inside to find some sort of connection with a family that he’s lost or is far away. That mirrors my life in some ways that I try to draw upon."

Baldwin also declared that "Joss Whedon’s my hero for getting this thing made again, " and the cast applauded.

Gina Torres remarked that "Zoe doesn’t get to express her feminine side a lot," whereas "Gina’s a big girl; I’d love to see Zoe in a dress."

Whedon said only, "Sequel."

Then Fillion posed the question. "What would Malcolm Reynolds do? " He continued with mock pomposity, "I have, in my real life, taken what I call ’The Malcolm Moment’" - here Torres looked a little distressed, as if wondering just what he was going to say - "and seen when things aren’t going the way I want them to go, and" - making a fist - "I think it’s either a fight or a pass."

In a sharp change of tone from this facetiousness, Baldwin said, "I hope I speak for the rest of us here: Nathan carried us. Thank you for being a great leader," and Torres applauded.

Then, finally turning serious himself, Whedon made a closing speech. "When you write a character and somebody plays them for a number of years, you find the actor and the character start to mesh. [On Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer] Willow got sexier. Giles got hipper. You start to draw from them as you’re writing the character. In this case this happened so fast and so completely that I never think about the characters. I think about the actors and the things they’re doing to play the characters. For me the characters do not exist without these people. There is no difference in my mind."

Whedon concluded, "This is a crew, this is a family, and they will always be these people." He told us that "one of the reasons" he had to continue doing this saga was "not because I thought they were good at playing these parts, but because I think they were born to play these parts."

At that Fillion started another slow, building clap, the audience enthusiastically joined in, and the panel came to its end.


It was now around 3:30 PM. Now I had to make a gamble. Since I wanted to see the panel about Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong that was scheduled for 5:15 in Hall H, the safest course of action was to remain where I was and not risk going through the line again.

However, just as on my last visit to Comic-Con, the Joss Whedon panel overlapped with a panel featuring the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (see "Comics in Context" #8: "San Diego 2003: "Gaiman, Groening and Bradbury"). Last time I left the Bradbury panel early to get to the Whedon panel; this time the Bradbury panel had begun at 3 and I hoped to come in late and see the rest of it.

In 2003 Mark Evanier was the moderator of a panel including Bradbury and his contemporaries Famous Monsters of Filmland founder Forrest J. Ackerman, and longtime DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz (see "Comics in Context" #32: "The Living Legend"). Since then, Julie Schwartz had passed away, and this year’s panel, held in Room 20, consisted of Bradbury, Ackerman, and the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, with Sam Weller, the author of a new Bradbury biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, as moderator.

Once I had emerged from the darkness of hall H into the Southern California sunshine, I was amazed to see that the waiting line had lengthened considerably: it now stretched down the block before looping beside the Convention Center. But it was too late to change my mind, even had I wanted to, and I made the long trek upstairs and down to Room 20, last night’s site of the Eisner Awards. It was 3:40 PM when I entered the hall.

Unfortunately, I found this panel much less interesting than the one on 2003, perhaps due to the difference in interviewers. But there was one anecdote that I heard at the panel that I particularly liked.

First, I wish to mention a review by Andrew Leonard of Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles in The New York Times Sunday Book Review (July 24, 2005): though basically sympathetic to Bradbury, and admiring of his courage during the blacklist period of the 1950s, Leonard nonetheless refers to the young Bradbury as "Geeky beyond belief, raised on Buck Rogers and Edgar Rice Burroughs, he’s a fast-talking hustler, passionate about life, crazy about writing." So it seems to me that the following anecdote may be relevant to my discussion of geek-baiting in last week’s column.

Just before Bradbury took his brave stand against blacklisting, he had been in Ireland working on the screenplay of the 1956 movie Moby Dick, directed by John Huston.

At the panel, Weller asked Bradbury about his experience working with Huston on Moby Dick. Weller pointed out to us after Bradbury told his anecdote that Bradbury "loved his films before he met him.," but that meeting Huston "changed" his attitude towards him.

Beginning his anecdote, Bradbury said, "John was a great tease. He loved to scare me if he could." When Bradbury was riding in Huston’s car, Huston would "put it up to 80 miles per hour," Bradbury then did a surprisingly good impression of Huston’s distinctive voice, saying with feigned innocence: "Oh, look, Ray - It’s going so fast." Not amused, Bradbury got out of the car and called Huston, "You son of a bitch."

Then "one day in Killarney," Bradbury was showing Huston the Moby Dick script, and the macho Huston starting baiting him again. "You hear that? Why don’t you go out and see?" Bradbury recounted that Huston told him, "It’s a banshee howling for our souls, Ray. Don’t be yellow. Go and bring the banshee in." But Bradbury didn’t.

Instead, Bradbury said he later wrote a story about a banshee, put Huston in the story, "and killed the son of a bitch." One could tell from, the way Bradbury raised his voice at the finish of the tale that he still took satisfaction in this bit of vengeance, and so did the audience, who applauded.

Other than this story, I wasn’t finding this panel as interesting as I’d hoped, and I was still concerned about the line for the Kong panel. So I left the Bradbury/Harryhausen/Ackerman panel early and made the trek back down to Hall H.

Just how long had the queue grown in the last half hour? Would I be able to get in before the Kong panel started? To learn that answer, and the saga of my last twenty-four hours at this year’s Comic-Con, tune in next week, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Website. The most spectacular is yet to come!