Joss Whedon and Tim Minear take fans through every episode of the short-lived series now available on DVD.
For the 2002-2003 television season, the Fox network had had an internal debate over renewing James Cameron’s Dark Angel for a third season, or picking up Joss Whedon’s new science fiction series, Firefly. Ultimately they chose the latter, but more or less gave up on it before it even hit the airwaves, most notably by rejecting the show’s two-hour pilot and demanding that Whedon and co-executive producer Tim Minear write and create an episode that could serve as the first episode. This was not a good first step and, indeed, it felt as though to a large degree the network had abandoned the show even before it made it to the air.
Now the complete series is being issued on DVD in a box set available on December 9th, and to herald its arrival, both Whedon and Minear have agreed to discuss the making of each episode with CFQ. Their views will be presented each week day beginning today until the show reaches stores.
For those unfamiliar with Firefly, the show’s official DVD description is as follows: “Five hundred years in the future, there is a whole new frontier, and the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity is eager to stake a claim on the action. They’ll take any job, legal or illegal, to keep fuel in the tanks and food on the table. But things get a bit more complicated after they take on a passenger wanted by the new totalitarian Alliance regime. Now they find themselves on the run, desperate to steer clear of Alliance ships and the flesh-eating Reavers who live on the fringes of space.”
CFQ: Looking at the fact that you’ve got this box set of Firefly coming out, is there a certain sense of vindication on your part?
JOSS WHEDON: Big sense of vindication. Not just because there are episodes that nobody in the States got to say, but it represented someone in the Newscorp Corporation saying that we had something worth selling. And it came from, I’m told, the foreign markets just sort of going, “Well, where is it?” Fox said, “Well, we sort of cancelled it.” And they’re like, “Yeah, but where is it?” The fact that that desire is out there is a huge thing, but it’s also the fact that anyone can now pick it up and see what it was we were doing, when so people got the chance when we were actually doing it. So it’s enormous vindication and surprising.
TIM MINEAR: We actually got an “A” in Entertainment Weekly. Now does that provide vindication? Let’s put it this way: I finally agree with one of their reviews. Their feeling was that it was smart, cool and that the extras were really nice, and that there were three unaired episodes, which would be like “crack to the Firefly fans.” As a DVD enthusiast, I’d buy it.
CFQ: It seems to me that the following for the show really seems to have been growing since the cancellation.
JOSS WHEDON: Even on the Internet its following has increased since after it was cancelled, which is....bittersweet. Last week it was particularly gratifying when they got it over in England and I got to see posts from people watching it for the first time, and in the right order on a regular schedule.
CFQ: I don’t think you can really blame the audience. I think Fox bungled this one.
JOSS WHEDON: I don’t blame the audience. According to reporters, some people liked it and some people hated. I don’t know who actually hated it. I’m sure there are people who did because it didn’t work for them, but it was never a question of people hating it, it was a question of nobody seeing it. The fan base was as devoted as Buffy’s was after three years in the space of 11 episodes. It was sort of amazing. It didn’t surprise me that much, because I loved the idea for the show, but when we were putting the show together and making it, I felt it was extraordinary in a way that I had never felt about anything I’d done. More than any single thing. The cast jelled. The show, creatively, just looked and felt the way I wanted it to. It didn’t feel like it was the first year. It felt like we had found our footing from day one, and I’d just never been with a bunch - both cast and crew - who made me feel that this was meant to be in such a strong way. In truth, it’s not as easy a sell a concept as Buffy - young girl fights vampires. Boom! You get it. Now you get it everywhere. This was a little different, but to me it was the most grown-up, fulfilling and best experience I’ve ever had. That’s why I’m desperately trying to keep it going.
TIM MINEAR: It didn’t surprise me, in a way, that the show didn’t find an audience by the time we started airing. First of all, it was the weirdest thing on TV, in many respects. Is it a space show? Is it a western? Is it a Civil War show? Is it a comedy? Well, no, it’s a Joss Whedon show, so the answer is yes to all of those things. But when Fox refused to air the pilot, I knew we were screwed.
CFQ: What are the odds of a movie version? I know there was the whole announcement that Universal was going to make a movie....
JOSS WHEDON: That was a little premature as there is no green light. I can’t play the odds, I can’t really count the odds. They’re not bad. The interest is genuine. It’s up to me to turn out a script that’s worth making, which is what I’m busily trying to do. I’m dealing with good, smart people, which is both good and bad. It’s good because of the interest they’ve shown, but it’s bad because I can’t pull one over on them. So it’s really up to me to see if that works and I should know soon.
CFQ: It’s fairly unusual for a studio like Fox to relinquish the rights for another studio to pick it up.
JOSS WHEDON: It was extremely gracious of them and unexpected. A lot of people were, like, “Nobody would do that.” I think they felt bad that it didn’t work out, however that may have happened, and didn’t want to get in the way of something they knew I was that passionate about, which I really, really appreciate. I do have a contract with them, and you could say this was smart business. People can do smart business in two ways, and one of them is the gracious way, which is as rare as it is beautiful.
CFQ: In putting together the DVDs, obviously you sat down and rewatched the entire run of the series again. Overall, what was your feeling in retrospect?
JOSS WHEDON: Overall, the more I watched, the angrier I got. I think some of the best stuff we’ve ever done is in that show. Seeing every episode, some are better than others, especially because you’re dealing with so many facets of creating a science fiction world on television. There’s budget, you can be a little uncertain about the chemistry of certain costumes or ideas or traditions. Some things register better than others. I see them and I think, “This is really cool.” I’m just a big fan geek as always. Every one of them has something in it that makes it really worthy, and that’s pretty much the goal in television. And a couple of them are classics. Actually, my favorite episode was not written or directed by me, which is annoying, but we’ll get to that.
THE FIREFLY EPISODE GUIDE “SERENITY”
DVD Plot Description: The crew of Serenity is eager to rid themselves of an easily traceable cargo they salvaged from a vessel adrift in space, totally unaware that a passenger has brought an even more dangerous cargo aboard.
JOSS WHEDON Q&A
CFQ: In turning to the episodes themselves, I’d like to get your feelings about them, beginning with the pilot, “Serenity.”
JOSS WHEDON: The infamous pilot. For me, the strength of the thing was in its pilotiness, which is different in being a two-hour pilot than any movie. You’re sort of introducing people to a world, asking a lot of questions that you’re not going to answer and setting everything up. I love the way it did that. It captured exactly what I was looking for and was the first time that I got to realize that all of my actors were extraordinary and embodied the people they were playing to a frightening extent. Everything was so easy, which should have been my first warning. Everything went so well. The director of photography, David Boyd, is an extraordinary guy who was thinking exactly along the lines that I was. When stuff was coming out too pretty, he swapped up the lenses for some old Panavision lenses so we could get ourselves some good flares. My whole mission statement was a sort of ‘70s Western kind of feel to it, which is very much a lot of TV shows nowadays with a lot of handheld and sloppiness. That was done to get away with the science fiction kind of pomp, the stately, sterile morality tales that I just thought were a little dull. I wanted to do something that felt very contemporary and the way we were able to experiment - some of the prettiest frames I’ve ever had the opportunity to make are in that show. And of course when we were working on the set, we were working over the tank they had dug for Alien Resurrection, so I felt like there was an exorcism of sorts going on.
CFQ: You brought up the handheld approach. Some of the shots in the pilot, where the camera would suddenly snap into focus to see a spaceship, reminded me a bit of September 11th and that footage taken from the street, when the photographer suddenly raises his camera and there’s the first jet that hit the Twin Towers.
JOSS WHEDON: That was the idea and the guys totally got it. It never felt like, “And now, an establishing shot. And now, the story. And now, the establishing shot.” It was always meant to look as dirty and found and, “Oh, there happened to be a camera there” as possible, while still controlling everything people are seeing very specifically but pretending that you’re not.
CFQ: I know for the sake of realism you didn’t want to have sound in space, but did that become a continuing criticism during production?
JOSS WHEDON: Most people were very excited because it had been so long since anybody had remembered that rule. There was one time when I looked at something and said, “Sound would have helped the clarity of this,” but apart from that you can really accomplish from music what you get with sound.
CFQ: Who was the last person to have done that, Kubrick with 2001?
JOSS WHEDON: I’m sure it was done between that and Star Wars, but if you were to look at bench posts, I think that would be the last major attempt.
TIM MINEAR Q&A
TIM MINEAR: I thought the pilot was incredible and complex. People are going into science fiction television, particularly anything with space ships, with certain preconceived notions because of Star Trek and everything else. You really needed those two hours to orient yourself to this Western future where there weren’t bumpy-headed aliens. There were nine characters that needed to be introduced and a whole sort of political backdrop that needed to be understood. It wasn’t all that complex, but you had to at least understand that Mal fought in a civil war and was on the losing side and that a large, totalitarian, Alliance government had taken over. You had to understand all of those things to understand the show. But Fox didn’t like it, and when I found out that they didn’t like the pilot, I kind of knew that we were doomed. If the network can’t embrace the DNA of the thing that they bought, they’re going to have a really hard time promoting it and selling it to the audience. So there was kind of a stink put on the show because people knew that they had taken the pilot out of rotation; that Joss had written and directed this two-hour expensive television pilot, and for some reason the network didn’t want to air it. And it’s not because it bashed Ronald Reagan [laughs]. They honestly didn’t think it was very good. So suddenly the show, before we ever shoot the first regular episode, is labeled as troubled. Then the problem was that they couldn’t look at this two hour pilot and imagine what an hour episode would look like, and they wanted a little more humor, more action, they wanted the captain to be a little more likable. They wanted us to pitch them some ideas. Joss and I joked, “We should write a script over the weekend to serve as an example of a one hour episode.”
CFQ: But that’s exactly what you ended up doing, right?
TIM MINEAR: We ended up doing that because they asked us to and we were, like, “You’ve got to be joking; it’s impossible.” So we broke the story [for “The Train Job”] really fast where he wrote two acts and I wrote two acts, and we were up for two days and on Monday morning it was on their desk. Look, we were producing two television series out of that building [Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel], and it’s not the first time that we did an all-nighter to get a script written.
CFQ: But this was a new show. It’s not like you can say, “We’re doing an episode of Angel, let’s crank one out.” Now you have to introduce this show in a one-hour format.
TIM MINEAR: That’s true. It wasn’t easy and it was flawed because of that. But, if we hadn’t done it, they wouldn’t have picked up the show. We thought it was a given that they would pick up the show, that there wasn’t a question. Suddenly there was a question and then there was a big question, and then it was all about, “We have to do whatever we have to do to get this thing picked up so that we can start making episodes.” We did it, but it was a compromise from then on out to some degree.
CFQ: It what way?
TIM MINEAR: We skewed certain things to please the network, I think, which you do anyway, because they’re the people putting up the money. But the thing is, when you ask Joss Whedon to create a television show for you, it’s going to be in your best interest to just let him do his thing. It was interesting, because there were people in high places at that network who had worked with Joss before, and the more involved I was with Firefly, the more I came to understand that they had a fundamental misunderstanding about what it was that we did. They thought we were comedy writers.
CFQ: Are you serious?
TIM MINEAR: Yeah, they thought this thing was going to be kind of a wacky romp, which every once in a while it was, because that’s the way we write television. Sometimes things are gut-wrenching, sometimes they’re funny, or whatever. But they seemed to think that because of Buffy possibly, it would be a comedy. The fact that anyone would think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a comedy means....
CFQ: That they don’t watch their own shows, possibly?
TIM MINEAR: Definitely. A lot of people couldn’t get past the name Buffy the Vampire Slayer and they assumed it was some sort of campy, Scooby Doo thing and they never quite understood that it was, in fact, totally real, totally about the human experience and that more than making you laugh, it ripped your heart out and then danced on it. That’s what we wanted to do with Firefly. There were much, much darker places that we wanted to go with it, which we never quite got to. But at the end of the day, we got to make the show we wanted to make. Our biggest problem is that in certain factions of the network, they had written off Firefly very early on and we were sort of heading for a cliff and there was no way to avoid it. They just didn’t understand it. The fact is, though, I’m doing Wonderfalls for Fox right now, and they love it. It’s like working for a different network.
The thing that killed me about “Serenity” is that it’s so clearly great and the network just decided they didn’t like it. The network had certain notes and certain reasons for not liking it. Joss went out and shot additional footage. He added the battle footage at the beginning, for instance. He went through and found places to lighten things up, add jokes and tighten some areas that might have been a little flat. He answered every single criticism that the network may have had about that two-hour pilot, and they didn’t even look at it. That’s my understanding. Maybe somebody popped in a cassette at home or something, but my understanding is that they put it on a shelf, decided not to air it even after those changes were made. And those changes were made in the hopes that they take a fresh look at it and decide that it was worth airing first and would help support their new television series. From what we know, they never even looked at it. One important thing to keep in mind is that with the things that were changed, Joss didn’t feel he was compromising the show at all. He thought he was making it better, and he did.
THE TRAIN JOB
Official DVD Summary: Mal has second thoughts after discovering that two boxes of Alliance goods his crew has been hired to steal are full of badly-needed medical supplies headed for the mining town of Paradiso.
JOSS WHEDON Q&A
JOSS WHEDON: “The Train Job” is a funny little piece and generally tends to be discounted, though I like it a lot. The network said, “We don’t like the pilot, write another one.” It was Friday afternoon around 5:00 and they said, “You know how we wanted you to pitch us a story to give us an idea of what the show would be like? Actually, we want you to write a new pilot that’s one-hour long and it has to be on our desks before we get into work on Monday.” So Tim Minear and I looked at each other and said, “Okay.”
CFQ: That was the full force of the response, huh?
JOSS WHEDON: Well, in two days we wrote “The Train Job,” which had the extraordinarily difficult and ultimately self-defeating task of trying to introduce nine people who have already met to an audience without making it sound really, really hokey. As a result, a lot got lost on people and the resonance of the relationships disappeared. In the pilot, we really let things sit and take their own time a little bit. That was sort of a mission statement for the show, because it wasn’t originally going to be as action-oriented as it ended up being. I told Fox I didn’t really think we could afford that. That’s why we were doing a drama in space and why we have so many people, with some action and, obviously, humor. And they were, like, “Okay, so when you say drama, do action.” So “The Train Job” just didn’t have the time necessary to make you care about all of these people. You just sort of saw them go by in a flash and hoped you picked up who they were and what they did. But I still think the episode was extremely fun and funny and has a really cool floating train in it.
CFQ: And a great ending in which Mal kicks the guy into the ship’s engine.
JOSS WHEDON: Yes, and that also represents a sea change based on notes. I never would have killed somebody in a gag. The reason I do it in the pilot is that it follows a lot of soul-searching about what they’re going to do with this guy, then the moment comes and Mal decides a decision has to be made and he shoots the guy. In “The Train Job,” I did it as a joke and was saying, “Okay, we’re going to be killing folk.” The studio said, “We want a larger than life villain,” so I gave them one and then I kicked him into the engine. It was just a joke on all of those conventions and it was really fun and beautifully rendered.
CFQ: Come to think of it, I remember watching an earlier cut of the pilot, “Serenity,” that did not have the big action/war opening. Was that another network “requirement”?
JOSS WHEDON: That was a circumstance where their notes very much jibed with my own. I looked at the beginning I had shot and was, like, “Okay, I’m depressed. This is bringing me down.” Originally the idea was that we saw a sort of defeated Mal and it wasn’t until late in the two-hour episode that we really learned who he used to be and how he got to be the guy that he is. The network came back with, “No, no, no, no. We want to love him from the first moment,” and I had felt, “Well, I need to open with a bang. It is TV and you do want to keep them in the seats,” so I sort of switched the idea to let’s see him before and after. Before he’s a God-fearing, hope-giving great leader, and we get to see the moment of his disillusion as opposed to the audience hearing about it. So our thoughts were pretty in sync and we went out to the Valley and got ourselves our action on. I don’t consider that as something that destroyed the show; it was something that was my idea.
CFQ: The truth is, not every network note is going to be pointless.
JOSS WHEDON: Yeah, I know, but that’s something you have to learn and always remember. You can’t just close your ears like some show runners do.
TIM MINEAR Q&A
TIM MINEAR: I would say that the most compromised episode of any of them was “Train Job,” and it’s not like we’re ashamed of that. If that came in as the second or third episode after the pilot and was kind of a light-hearted heist episode, people would have loved it. A lot of people liked it fine and a lot of people like it more now that they’ve seen the rest of the series, but coming into the series with that episode was awkward and it confused people. By the way, if it was the second or third episode after the pilot, you wouldn’t have a first act where everyone was going, “Hello, my name is...” You wouldn’t need that.
CFQ: I understand how and why “The Train Job” came together the way that it did, but what’s your feeling about the episode?
TIM MINEAR: I actually like the episode. It will never be my favorite episode, but I like it plenty. Actually, I probably like it more than a lot of people, because now that the pain of that weekend is over and the fond memory of being punch drunk with exhaustion and going up to Joss and saying, “I don’t want to write the action scenes. Can’t I take some action scenes from one of my Angel scripts and change the names?” And he was all for that, because we both hate writing action scenes.
“BUSHWACKED” Official DVD Summary: After encountering a booby-trapped spacecraft carrying the lone crewmember of a horrific Reaver attack, Serenity is boarded by an Alliance Commander looking for Simon and River.
JOSS WHEDON Q&A
JOSS WHEDON: First of all, the episode scared the shit out of me. Minear, of course, who creates such a beautiful frame, particularly that shot of River as she wanders into the ship like she’s in a fairy story. Love all that. The thing I remember about that is that I have always been extremely strict with my actors about dialogue. To the very comma. I will go nuts on them. But when we got to the basketball scene in this episode, we had a bunch of scripted stuff. I was saying to Tim, “You are going to turn the cameras on them and let them play for a while, right?” Tim is, like, “Yeah, totally.” And we ended up throwing out all of the scripted stuff and only using the improv stuff while they were playing. All of that was just them having a great time, which they really were. We let Alan go on and on in the interrogation scene, and we used some of that stuff. That kind of looseness and trust and freedom is a new thing for me. I’m a very controlling filmmaker. That’s just an example of the way we liked to make the show and how much that set was a creative place. That’s a huge deal for me. It’s not that we used anything that was out of character, but they never were out of character. They were making us laugh. Of course we didn’t tell the cameramen what they were going to do, because we didn’t know. So the reason it felt so real and had such joy at the beginning is because it is. The other thing I remember about that episode is that they, for some reason, felt the need to have real food on the set, so we had rotted beans in that kitchen set on the other ship. Sorry, but no art is worth that.
CFQ: Tim Minear wrote and directed this episode. How difficult was it for you to let go of your baby and let someone else take control?
JOSS WHEDON: I didn’t direct the first Buffy, though I directed parts of it. The executive producer is responsible for everything, but he doesn’t have to create anything. He just is responsible for it. If it’s good, good, he was doing his job. Sometimes that means letting other people do their job and that sometimes means telling them how. There’s not a story in that show that I didn’t break significantly, but if there’s any single person in the universe that I trust, it’s Tim Minear. He really is as talented a writer and director as I’ve known, and was with me from pretty much the start. He was somebody I felt that I could - and I had to because I had two other shows and was determined to keep the quality up on them - turn to and walk away when I had to. I didn’t get to be there when they shot the basketball scene, I’m sorry to say, because I was back on Buffy. Sometimes things happened on Firefly that I didn’t approve of. You fix those with reshoots and edits the best you can, but the problems always came from outside. Tim was never outside, he was always in the heart of the thing.
CFQ: I was heartbroken when he left Angel.
JOSS WHEDON: It was not something that I wanted to do, to take him off of Angel, but I was convinced, and I think rightly, that if I didn’t have him on Firefly, I would never be able to leave because I wouldn’t have that lieutenant, and then Buffy and Angel would have suffered enormously. Ultimately I felt it was something that I wanted to do and something that Tim, though he never asked for it and never would have, very much wanted, becausehe loved Firefly the way that I did.
TIM MINEAR Q&A
CFQ:Let’sleave“The Train Job” behind and move on to “Bushwacked.”
TIM MINEAR: That was the first one that I wrote by myself and directed. The Reavers, who made their non-appearance in the pilot, were fascinating to me. Again, in the first couple of episodes we felt as though we had to constantly reintroduce everything, because we didn’t have the luxury of the two-hour pilot to explain things to people. This was a way for me to do several things things: to introduce the crew again and what their relationships were to one another; to introduce the barbarians on our show, which were the Reavers, and the closest thing to an alien life form on Firefly, though, of course, they’re really human; and to introduce the Alliance. So, really, the story is about how our crew on Serenity makes their own civilization out there in space. The question is, what is civilization? They’re stuck between these two extremes; this behemoth bureaucracy, which is the Alliance, and this completely savage, lawless group known as the Reavers. The two extremes of civilization and barbarity. And our people have found kind of a medium place where they don’t go too far in either extreme, because either extreme is mass murder. That’s really what that story was about. I just had a great a time making that episode.
There’s a sequence in there that’s one of my favorite things that I’ve done, which is the interrogation sequence. It’s all intercut and it was a way for me to, again, let the audience know who these people are. The interrogation is a great device to use, because somebody is there literally asking questions. It all builds up to the question I was asking in that part of the story, which is where Simon and River are hiding. Everyone is being interrogated and the commander of this Alliance ship is asking where this brother and sister are and we see these people tearing Serenity apart. The camera pulls out through the top of the ship and we see them in space suits, hanging on to the edge of the ship and the camera just keeps pulling back until they’re tiny and Serenity is tiny and we see a dock at the bottom of this tremendously large Alliance cruiser. That was three elements and Loni Paris [visual effects supervisor] totally deserved his Emmy to help me create this shot which you just don’t see on television.
CFQ: After having been involved with Angel for so long, was it strange to be on a different set, directing a different group of actors or was it more freeing?
TIM MINEAR: It was freeing. It was fantastic. I thought it was going to be incredibly daunting to sit down and try to write these nine new voices, but I think I got the hang of it right away. It was incredibly easy for some reason. As far as directing, that was really freeing, though the directing was as different as the writing was. Angel is slicker in a way; it’s a lot of cranes and dollies and not a lot of hand-held stuff. It’s a beautiful style that I love, but this time I got to come in, everything was hand-held and I jumped the line and got to go all over the place with the camera in a way I never really could on Angel with zooms and things that you haven’t seen since the ‘70s.
COMING TOMORROW: “SHINDIG” & “SAFE”