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Volume V No. 8/9

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Joss Whedon (standing)  directs Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Summer Glau on the set of Universal’s “Serenity.”Serenity Now!

An interview with Joss Whedon,
the renowned script doctor and
‘Toy Story’ scribe who created ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ – and makes his feature directorial debut with the sci-fi actioner ‘Serenity’

by Jim Kozak

"If we’d done this and we’d heard crickets chirping, it would have been very depressing,” admits “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon.

The veteran screenwriter is speaking of this summer’s “Can’t Stop The Signal” hit-and-run public screenings of “Serenity,” the almost-finished sci-fi actioner that marks his feature directorial debut. Whedon, in fact, is hurtling toward Riverside, Calif., for one of the 35 Signal screenings being held that evening in 35 cities throughout the United States and Canada.

The crickets’ odds of being heard are not the greatest. All 35 of the June 23 “Serenity” screenings sold out in the space of hours; some in minutes. Many of the tickets that disappeared from the Movietickets.com and Fandango websites quickly resurfaced on eBay, where scalpers began successfully hawking them for hundreds of dollars.

A 3rd-generation sitcom writer (his earliest post-college job was turning out teleplays for the Nielsen juggernaut “Roseanne”), Whedon immediately demonstrated a highly marketable faculty for resonant comic storytelling, one by turns edgy and disarming. He soon evolved into one of Hollywood’s most sought-after script doctors, earning alluring sums to cure expensive projects like “Speed” (1994), “Toy Story” (1995) and “Twister” (1996) – but was often denied screen credit for his considerable labors.

A 1997 return to television brought him markedly more control and recognition. Based on his much-admired feature screenplay (which had already been made into a less-admired 1992 movie directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui), the TV version of “Buffy” became one of the most critically acclaimed series in television history, and provided Whedon a means by which he could hone his filmmaking skills with an eye toward directing for the big screen.

While “Buffy” lasted seven seasons, a subsequent Whedon-created series, “Firefly,” aired only 10 episodes before Fox put the axe to it in 2002. Set centuries in the future – in a solar system far, far away – it followed the adventures of a Solo-esque interplanetary smuggler and raised scores of fascinating narrative questions Whedon never got to answer.

Universal’s decision to greenlight “Serenity,” the big-screen sequel to “Firefly,” was said to have been influenced by “Firefly’s” phenomenal post-cancellation DVD sales. An extraordinary 200,000 copies of the “Complete Series” were purchased in the first four months of its release. On July 6 of this year, more than 18 months after the DVD set’s release, it would rise (again) to the number-two spot on Amazon.com’s daily “top seller” list.

The finished version of “Serenity” is due in cinemas Sept. 30. In Focus interviewed Whedon on the occasion of his 41st birthday, as he journeyed from Universal City to the June 23 Signal screening of “Serenity” at Regal Entertainment Group’s Jurupa 14-plex.

I. Han SOLO &
Mal REYNOLDS

Whedon directs Fillion, who plays interplanetary smuggler Mal Reynolds.  There are no horses in “Serenity,” but the film does carry over many of the Western-evoking visual elements that distinguished “Firefly,” its television prequel.Happy birthday.
Thank you!

How did you celebrate? Was there a spaceship-shaped cake?
There was a cake. It was normal shape. We were scoring, so we got to hear a full orchestra play me “Happy Birthday.” It was pretty intensely cool.

Was it cooler than what you did for your birthday last year, when you were still shooting “Serenity”?
Yes. Last year we were shooting the vent shaft and the vault heist and they were both really cramped and there was a carrot cake involved. It wasn’t pretty.

Fans and the media have grown fond of comparing “Serenity’s” hero, Mal Reynolds, to “Star Wars’” Han Solo – and when SFX Magazine once asked you, “Which movie would you love to have written?” you replied, “Return of the Jedi”! Had you been given the reins of “Jedi,” where would you have driven it? Would you have given Captain Solo more to do? Would Leia not turn out to be Luke’s sister? Would the “another” Yoda spoke of late in “The Empire Strikes Back” turn out to be not-Leia?
Well, first of all, I believe that my actual answer was the movie that I would have liked to have made was actually “Revenge of the Jedi.” Because that’s what it was originally called.

An important distinction.
It really is. And when they changed it I was very worried. Of course they got their “Revenge” later on, but at the time I didn’t know that.

Everything you said was right on the money. The Millennium Falcon would not be piloted in the climactic scene by Lando Calrissian and a frog. It would have been Han, getting it done. The “other” to whom Yoda referred would of course have been a young, female, badass Jedi, because where else would I go with that? It would have not been revealed in the first five minutes that Darth Vader was going to be redeemed. And, yeah, there would have been a little less incest.

I could see you resolving the love triangle perhaps a little more dramatically.
Yes, I would have made it a little harder on everybody. Oh, and I would have had some extra lyrics for the Yub Yub song. And I think his father would have been James Earl Jones [who provided Vader’s voice], or at least Dave Prowse [who filled Vader’s armor].

This summer’s …
Wait, I have one more thing. In the trailer, it looked like Luke was going to go all bad. And I definitely would have explored that territory. It looked like his dad was going to win him over. He looked like he was allied with the Dark Side a little bit. And I realize that, now, again, after this latest “Revenge,” that’s old news. But at the time it was riveting and they didn’t play that out at all. That would have been a big deal.

Back to “Serenity,” aren’t all movies forged from the ashes of failed TV series destined for mammoth success? When you converse with the Universal executives, do “Star Trek” and “Police Squad!” [which spawned Paramount’s “Naked Gun” blockbusters] come up a lot?
“Star Trek” and “Police Squad!” do not come up.

Never once?
“Star Trek” has come up, but not really as a phenomenon, because they felt the show had an enormous following, much bigger than the following that “Firefly” has. And it had years to sort of percolate, and grow even stronger. And nobody mentions “Police Squad!” I think because nobody remembers it.

So nobody’s banking on these precedents?
No, but you know, I just hope you’re right about that whole “mammoth success” thing.

This summer’s sold-out hit-and-run public screenings of an almost-finished “Serenity” – I count 65 such screenings so far – appear to be wholly unique in the annals of motion picture exhibition. Is it safe to say you’re encouraged that so many thousands have been willing to stay out till midnight on a school night for these?
I really am. If we’d done this and we’d heard crickets chirping, it would have been very depressing. At the end of the day I’m as worried about the marketing campaign as I would have been had we never done this, because it’s the people who don’t know what this is about that we need to reach out to. But, yeah, this has been an enormous boon, and it’s kept a fire underneath Universal and it’s just been exciting for everybody.

Is there anybody in particular we should credit for this idea?
Their head of marketing is Marc Schmuger and he’s a smart guy who knows his job. There’s a bunch of guys I deal with and they’re interested in trying something different because they’ve got something different on their hands. Not just the phenomenon, but the movie itself is not cut and dried for them as a marketing game. It’s not a simple film. The fact that they’re looking to do something odd and make a noise that way I think is actually kind of cool.

There are fewer horses and heads of cattle in “Serenity” than in the “Firefly” TV series. Do you suspect perhaps the series was somehow hobbled in the early going by its more overtly “Western” visual elements?
Yes and no. I think Fox was terrified of the Western concept. The fact that there are no horses in this movie is only by virtue of the fact I didn’t find a place for them. Not by virtue of the fact that I deliberately avoided them. Because the Western element is still a part of the story. It’s a frontier story. For example, I did look back at the series and say, “Okay, Mal being thrown through the holographic bar window is maybe a little jokey for the movie.” It’s a good shorthand for the series but I think for a movie you have to work through the logic just a hair more. But the ship scaring the horses that we used in the credits? The last image of the credits in “Firefly”? That works great. That to me is a timeless image that combines the two just fine. It just didn’t happen in this movie, ‘cause, well, a lot of things didn’t happen in this movie. Because I had two hours instead of seven seasons.

You did not set out to make the movie less “Western.”
No. I wasn’t looking to go less “Western.” In fact, I was thinking, “Can’t I find a place for a horse in this?” But the answer was no.

Whedon confers with Fillion and Morena Baccarin, who returns as space-hooker Inara Serra.The budget for “Serenity” is maybe a quarter the size of the one “Batman Begins” employed, yet four times the size of the two-hour “Firefly” pilot, which itself employed big sci-fi sets, big special effects, location shooting and horses. What does that $40 million “Serenity” movie budget buy you?
It definitely buys you a giant space battle. And a lot of very carefully shot, worked-out action, and a lot of bigger stunts. It buys you more scale. Some of what it buys you you wouldn’t notice because you basically have to make things denser and cooler and the visual effects have to be higher-resolution. Sets have to be more visibly thick material, because everything’s being turned up so big. So, to an extent, you get more bang for your buck on the small screen. So you have to compensate for that in a movie budget.

It buys you a great deal. It doesn’t buy you the movie we made. Basically knowing what we were going to shoot before we built it and having [veteran Clint Eastwood cinematographer] Jack Green light it as fast and as beautifully as he did is what bought us the movie we made, because it came out looking like we had a lot more money than we did. And, basically, it buys you a bunch of different worlds, ‘cause we had to build pretty much every one. Practically every scene in the movie takes place on a different world. So it bought you all of that and, of course, it brought back my ship.

Everyone, I believe, enjoys the Chinese cursing. [In the futuristic universe of “Firefly” and “Serenity,” everyone speaks both English and Chinese, but almost all of the cursing is in Chinese.] Is it true your wife speaks Chinese?
It is, although she’s lost some of it, to her chagrin. She did live in China for a while and teach English there, and is the person who educated me about China. Probably not the language I would have chosen, because you can say something that’s paragraphs long in like two syllables, so I kept having to write longer and longer curses, just so people could hear the Chinese. But it does make perfect sense. China is going to be the greatest world power on the planet within this decade.

Had you married someone else, might the “Serenity” characters be cursing in French or Japanese?
Y’know, it’s possible. I would have chosen Japanese myself.

The Japanese are a world power.
They are, and I love the language and the culture so much. But to be realistic about where we’re headed, China is the place. And since there is great love for it in my family I decided to go there.

Is it a certainty at this point that Shepherd Book [the mysterious preacher character who haunts both “Firefly” and “Serenity”] once did the bidding of evil men?
I would say. Yeah.

You think we’ll ever see that story?
I’m not ruling it out. Obviously, one doesn’t like to speak of sequels without carrying nine rabbits’ feet, crossing one’s self and knocking on wood, but that is a thread that is not lost to me.

In the TV show, there was no sound in space. Will space, as rumored, be noisier in the big-screen version?
Yes and no. We’ve kept space sound-free. But the climactic battle takes place just at the edge of the atmosphere of the satellite moon where Mr. Universe lives, and because it’s inside the ion cloud, we don’t actually see any stars. They’re inside this big cloud formation above the planet. And so, because of the way it was playing, it just started to be more and more apparent that we did need to have a battle going on in there, and we couldn’t just hear it when we cut inside the ships. So we sort of – I don’t want to say “cheated,” because that would sound too true – but since we’re not looking at the stars, since we’re close to atmosphere, let’s just turn this into a big loud scary battle so that we can experience what they’re experiencing. And in that sense there has been a slight shift.

Well, you certainly had sound in the “atmo,” as the characters call it, on the series.
We’re calling inside the ion cloud “atmo,” even though it’s a little unclear to me, because there’s actually science involved.

What do you hear about “Serenity” perhaps moving to late summer?
I’ve not actually heard. It could be released late summer, although I’ve looked at the weekends and I’ve sort of tried to work the schedule myself and figure out what’s best. I guess I saw something about it on the Internet, but that source hasn’t talked to me.

So nothing has trickled down to you via official channels?
Sometimes it takes a good deal of trickling to get to me. Sometimes I’m right in the loop and sometimes I don’t know there’s a loop.

II. Winding
TOY STORY

On the “Toy Story” DVD commentary, I think you’re mentioned only once, as the guy who contributed the line, “Wind the frog!” How late in the process came your involvement in that project? Was it just a dialogue polish, or did you shape the story as well?
It was [“Toy Story” director] John Lasseter’s concept. I had been working at Disney and I was staying at my farm in New York in the summer and they called and said, “We have this other project, ‘Toy Story,’ which we think is going to be a go, we think it’s the next movie. Can we send you the script? Because it needs to be rewritten.”

Which Disney project were you working on when you got the “Toy Story” call?
I was working on, let’s see, it was either “Marco Polo” … First they wanted to do “Journey to the Center of the Earth” meets “The Man Who Would Be King,” which eventually became “Atlantis,” which is why I’m credited on it. Because I was the first writer on it, even though I had not a shred in it.

Then they said, “No, wait, we want to do ‘My Fair Lady’ with Marco Polo.” Which I not only wrote a script for, I actually wrote the lyrics for three songs that [veteran stage composer] Robert Lindsey Nassif wrote the music to.

So you were already working on other Disney cartoon projects.
Yes.

And then you got the “Toy Story” call.
And they sent me the script and it was a shambles, but the story that Lasseter had come up with was, you know, the toys are alive and they conflict. The concept was gold. It was just right there. And that’s the dream job for a script doctor: a great structure with a script that doesn’t work. A script that’s pretty good? Where you can’t really figure out what’s wrong, because there’s something structural that’s hard to put your finger on? Death. But a good structure that just needs a new body on it is the best. So I was thrilled.

I went up to Pixar [the Northern California-based animation studio which produced “Toy Story”], and stayed there for weeks and wrote for, I think, four months before it got greenlit, and completely overhauled the script. There was some very basic things in there that stayed in there. The characters were pretty much in place except for the dinosaur, which was mine. I took out a lot of extraneous stuff, including the neighbor giving the kid a bad haircut before he leaves. There was a whole lot of extraneous stuff.

And then there was finding the voices. We were still casting. Ironically, Disney put the kibosh on the person they wanted for Buzz Lightyear because he wasn’t famous enough, so we couldn’t use Jim Carrey. But they had Tom Hanks in place. It was basically finding the voices and sitting with them while they came up with the gags and going over the boards and working with Jeffrey Katzenberg. It was a great, great process because you’re sitting around with a bunch of animators who are basically drawing caricatures of each other, getting Sharpie headaches and making a lot of jokes, and they’re the sweetest bunch of guys.

As you were writing “Toy Story,” did you have any sense that you were involved in launching what would become one of the most lucrative new big-screen genres of all time?
I think the thing that’s important to remember about it is simply that digital animation was starting to happen, but everyone was using it for the same thing, which was, [Whedon affects a shaky hippie voice] “To blow your mind – by putting the camera through a keyhole and into the ass of a fly and through the stars.” Nobody could control themselves.

But John Lasseter was like, “We’re telling a story. We’re making a cell-animation film. We’ll never think of it as anything else. We’ll never place CGI just to show what it can do, just to play tricks. This isn’t a 3D movie. This is a story.” Everything was very old-school in that sense. That’s what made it stand out and that’s what spawned the generation of movies that came after it. It was simply, “Oh! We already know how to do this; we’ve just got a slightly new medium to do it in.”

“Toy Story” (1995): Whedon takes pride in having steered the groundbreaking feature away from the “old man humor” he associates with earlier animated Disney projects.Did you have any influence on the decision to break with Disney tradition and not have the characters sing?
They knew they didn’t want to, and I knew they shouldn’t. I joined Disney because I wanted to write musicals, because I wanted to do what [“Little Mermaid”-“Aladdin” lyricist] Howard Ashman did. That sort of movie fell by the wayside while I was there. I watched as the musical numbers became more and more beautifully animated and more and more disposable musically. The animated musical died with Howard Ashman.

“Toy Story” was a different animal. This was never meant to be a musical. These characters were not the kind that would sing and dance. It just didn’t have that feeling.


So you spent four months on “Toy Story”?
I spent about four months on it before we got the green light. When we got the green light and the script was approved and they were putting it together, I walked away, started doing other things, then came back a couple months later.

They had shut the movie down. I went up to Pixar, and they actually said, “Listen, we’re having to shut down for a while because we’re having story problems. Many of you are going to be laid off, and Joss is here to fix the script.” And then I was just like, “Why are you pointing at me? What’s going on? This is horrible!” I think this was “Black Monday.” I don’t know if it was a Monday. I think it was a Monday. But it was definitely referred to as “Black.”

So we sort of went back into the trenches and made sure we had everything we needed and nothing we didn’t. And then, you know, as is always the case with animation, I spent another couple of months on it and then it got reworked somewhat from there. I think one of the last things that was added – certainly it was after my time, and it’s the thing I most wish I could take credit for – was the crane-worshippers.

The little 3-eyed aliens.
I think I spent more time explaining that I didn’t come up with that than anything else.

How much time altogether did you end up investing in the project?
More than six months. It was not a polish; it was a rewrite and with animation you’re writing with every visual. Every shot is up on a board somewhere, so you’re writing in great detail. It’s a very fluid and complicated process.

Can you point to a specific “Toy” contribution of which you’re particularly proud?
I think the thing that I can point at and say, “This I am proud of,” is really the voice and the sensibility of the characters, keeping them from being that sort of old-school Disney – what my wife would refer to as “old-man humor.” Getting a little more voice and a little more edge into the jokes and into the bits, and just helping the structure, seeing it through.

The whole thing with the mutant toys, as we referred to them, forming the skateboard thing to bring them out, that came after Mattel rejected my Barbie-as-Sarah-Connor rescue scene.

I remember them talking about that on the DVD. Were you invited to participate on the DVD at all?
Uh, no. [Laughter.]

Didn’t get the phone call?
No, I didn’t. Somehow Pixar has managed to scrape by without me. I thought “Toy Story 2” was actually beautiful and wonderfully realized and I didn’t have anything to do with that. I definitely feel I played a part in “Toy Story,” a substantial one, but it is John Lasseter’s movie.


III. The Agony
of RESURRECTION

I thought your original screenplay for “Alien: Resurrection” was brilliant – with its epic final battle on Earth, for Earth – and vastly more engrossing than what ultimately made its way to the screen. I have to assume there were budgetary issues, because I can’t imagine another reason anyone would tinker with it.
Well, let me ask you something. This ending that took place on Earth. What happened in it? Where did it take place?

“Alien: Resurrection” (1997): Whedon was dismayed when plans to move the aliens to Earth  were scrapped.It took place in a forest …
Yes. Oh wow. That’s the first one. There were five. And it was always either “the director had a vision” or they had a budget issue. And as a script doctor I’ve been called in more than a few times, and the issue is always the same: “We want you to make the third act more exciting and cheaper.” And my response inevitably is, “The problem with the third act is the first two acts.” This response is never listened to. I usually walk away having gotten one or two jokes into a script and made some money and feeling like I am just bereft of life. It’s horrible. The exceptions were “Toy Story” and “Speed,” where they actually let me do something.
In the case of “Alien: Resurrection,” they decided to spend their money in other places than going to Earth. And I just kept saying, “The reason people are here is we’re going to do the thing we’ve never done; we’re gonna go to Earth.” But there were a lot of things that we hadn’t done that we ended up not doing because of a singular lack of vision.

But rather than go into all of the reasons why “Alien: Resurrection” is disappointing to me, I will tell you that, yes, I wrote five endings. The first one was in the forest with the flying threshing machine. The second one was in a futuristic junkyard. The third one was in a maternity ward.

And the fourth one was in the desert. Now at this point this had become about money, and I said, “You know, the desert looks like Mars. That’s not Earth; that’s not going to give people that juice.” But I still wrote them the best ending I could that took place in the desert. And then finally they said, “Y’knowww, we just don’t think we need to go to Earth.” So I just gave them dialogue and stuff, but I don’t remember writing, “A withered, granny-lookin’ Pumkinhead-kinda-thing makes out with Ripley.” Pretty sure that stage direction never existed in any of my drafts.

Given that you’ve described your experience on “Alien: Resurrection” as something of a personal Vietnam, is there irony to the fact that your feature directorial debut also centers on a crew of in-over-their-heads space-criminals?
Somebody pointed that out to me, the similarity between Serenity and the Betty [“Alien Ressurection’s” spaceship], and it just stopped me in my tracks. I was like, “Yes, my pony did its trick again!” I really never thought of it until somebody pointed it out to me. But the irony goes further than I could have imagined because we shot it on the same stages at Fox where they shot “Alien: Resurrection.” In fact, Serenity was built over the pit that they dug for “Alien: Resurrection” for the underwater sequence.

The history of “Alien: Resurrection” is fairly twisted also because I wrote a 30-page treatment for a different movie. They wanted to do a movie with a clone of Newt [the little girl from “Aliens”] as their heroine. Because I’d done some action movies and I’d done “Buffy,” they said, “Well, he can write teenage girls and he can write action, so let’s give him a shot.” The franchise was pretty much dead, and I wrote the treatment and they said, “This is really exciting. We want to get back in this business. But we want Ripley. So throw this out.” That one was probably my favorite; I think it was a better-structured story than the one I ultimately wrote.

You’ve created with “Firefly” and “Serenity” another universe in which the spaceships do not travel faster than light, while “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica” and virtually every other major spacefaring franchise utilizes faster-than-light travel. Does this betray perhaps a particular fondness for the “Alien” franchise, which also eschewed FTL?
Very much so, and I think the roots of it go eons beyond. The science fiction that I love, generally speaking, was very sort of specific. What I loved about spaceships was the idea that they might break. The idea of being in one. The idea of the grittier, realistic, hard-science kind of space that was actually creepy to be in. That’s why “Alien” just blew me away. I was like, “These are people who don’t even like each other. There’s no structure here. They killed the handsome guy. I can’t figure this out.” It was just a scary place to be. The most important line in “Star Wars,” to me, is the moment Luke looks at the Millennium Falcon, the most beautiful ship I’ve ever seen, and says, “What a piece of junk!”

Do you want to go so far as to say that you like the “Alien” movies better than the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” movies?
I like “Star Wars” and “Alien.” I think “Star Wars” and “Alien,” those were the two that formed me the most. The “Star Trek” movies I’ve enjoyed. I’ve never been a Trekker. I’ve taken them for what they’re worth but I don’t think they’re on a par with those other two.


IV. Loss
of SPEED

You’re said to have written most of the dialogue in “Speed,” and created some of the characters. I’m guessing most of your fans can easily recognize your voice in the dialogue, but which were your characters? Did you create Gigantor, for example?
The movie was pretty much cast, in fact it was cast. It was a week before they started shooting when I came in. So I didn’t create Gigantor; I did, however, call him that. I had to explain to Keanu what that meant because he had never seen “Gigantor.” The only character I tremendously changed was Alan Ruck, who was cast as “the asshole.” I’m using quote marks. He was cast as that guy you hate. And he was very artificial. He was a lawyer. He was on the phone and he was a bad guy and he died. And I think Alan Ruck is a great comedian and a great actor so I was like, “Why don’t we just make him a tourist? A guy, just a nice, totally out-of-his-depth guy?”

Because part of what I did on “Speed” was pare down what they had created, which was kind of artificial. The whole thing about “[The Keanu Reeves character is] a maverick hotshot.” I was sort of like, “Well, no, what if he’s not? He thinks a little bit laterally for a cop. What if he’s just the polite guy trying not to get anybody killed?” Part of that came from Keanu.

It’s surprising that you were brought in so late in the process.
Yeah, they brought in Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald to produce it uncredited. I had a relationship with Jorge Saralegui for a long time; he encouraged me to write “Suspension,” the spec that sort of made my bones, and had brought me on to “Alien” and “Speed” and was a huge benefactor and collaborator when he was at Fox. Jorge brought me to Walter and Laurie and we just got along famously.

Did your contribution deal mostly with the second act, on the bus, or did you have a lot to do with the first and third as well?
It was dialogue straight through. There were a couple of plot things just to make connections.

Yes? Which?
I don’t even know if I can remember, but killing his partner was one of them. How they found certain clues that helped them find him. Why they went to the subway and stuff like that. I said, “I think I have a better gag than ‘It hits an airplane and it explodes.’” But they were like, “We bought the airplane. It hits the airplane and explodes. Just get us there.” And it was all about finding the emotional reality of the characters and getting them from A to B in a realistic fashion.

“Speed” (1996): Whedon is proud also of the extensive work he did on the bus-bound blockbuster, though the Writers Guild of America ultimately stripped him of all on-screen credit.You own a “Speed” poster on which your writing credit remains.
I do.

Was it a misprint? Was a teaser poster issued before the Writers Guild arbitrated that credit away?
It was “the” poster. And they put it out and then the arbitration happened kind of late. And so they pulled it and changed it.

So there are maybe a lot of those floating around out there somewhere?
I don’t know if they were actually up or if this was just the final mock-up. I just know that I have a copy of it. The arbitration was a great sticking point with me. I’ve always just disagreed with the WGA’s policy that says you can write every line of dialogue for a movie – and they literally say this – and not deserve credit on it. Because I think that makes no sense of any kind. Writers get very protective of themselves. They’re worried that some producer will want to add a line so he can put his name on it. But what they can do is throw writers at it forever without putting their names on it because of this rule. So I actually don’t think it works for writers. It certainly didn’t work for me.

Graham Yost [who received the sole screenplay credit for “Speed”] has always been very polite to me and very sweet but he did say to me, “You would have done the same thing.” And all I could say to him at the time was, “Well, I guess we don’t know if that’s true.” Because I’d never been in his situation. Then more than a year later John Lasseter called me and said, “I want to give all the animators who worked on the story credit on ‘Toy Story.’” And I said, “Sure.” And there are entire episodes of “Buffy” that I have written every word of that my name is not on. Which is gratifying to me because it means I finally have an answer to that. Which is, “No, I wouldn’t.”


V. WONDER WOMAN:
Flight and Height

The teaser poster for the “Wonder Woman” feature Whedon will write and direct.  “I do not believe she will be flying,” he predicts.  “She might jump.  There could be some hopping.”  I understand you’ve not yet written a word of the “Wonder Woman” screenplay.
Not too many words.

Did you tell Warner Bros. you weren’t keen to deal with it until “Serenity” enters release?
Not release. It’s not that I haven’t been working on it.

You have been working on it?
The way I work, I’m like a vulture. I circle and circle and then I dive. I usually don’t actually write anything until I know exactly how it’s going to turn out. I don’t “let the computer take me away.” I’m an absolute Nazi about structure. I make outlines. I make charts and graphs with colors.

You’ve done that for “Wonder Woman”?
Not for “Wonder Woman,” because I’m still working out the plot. But I’m finding the moments that matter; I’m finding the things that make the story really resonate; the things that I just can’t wait to film. I have great big questions to answer, but I’m in that beautiful, free-form poetical place where you just get to think up moments and see if they fit in your movie. And that’s almost more fun than anything. And that work, which is a vital part of what got me interested in doing the job in the first place, is being done.

But I do have to see “Serenity” through. I’ll be finished with the movie within a month but I have to make sure it gets taken care of all the way through release. I have, in the past, found that I was able to do more than one thing at a time.

Will Diana be able to fly under her own power, or will an invisible plane be involved?
I do not believe she will be flying. I think we have a guy who flies. I don’t see her flying. She might jump. There could be some hopping. And there may in fact be an invisible plane. But if there is, it will be because it came out really cool. And I have theories about how to make that work.

You’ve said there will be “no star-spangled panties” like the ones Lynda Carter wore in the old TV series. Are you ruling out star-spangled miniskirts?
Not exactly. The look that she’s sporting in DC Comics right now is closer to where I’d have her than the TV series, or the old look. The color scheme and the silhouette have to remain because they’re her. But the American flag is not what she’s going to be wearing.

So you’re not ruling out minis?
No. She’s still going to look like Wonder Woman. She’s not going to look like Trinity. She’s going to look like Wonder Woman, but she’s just not going to be hokey.

In the teaser poster the eagle remains on her chestplate.
The eagle is OK with me. Because it’s not like we invented them. It’s a lot less to swallow than the fact that Jor-El wears a big “S.” That bugged me.

As you go about casting Diana, do you set a height requirement? How important is it that the Amazon princess be tall?
It’s important. I’m looking for somebody statuesque, regal, beautiful, who can really act and do a lot of stunts with no elbow or knee pads. I’m asking a lot. So if I happen to find all those qualities in somebody who does not quite meet my height requirement, I will be casting some really short love interest. The height is definitely a part of the package. But the most important part? No. And the fact of the matter is, a woman stands as tall as she makes you think she is. For example, I always thought [“Buffy” writer-producer] Marti Noxon was four inches taller than she actually was. I just found that out last week.

“Wonder Woman” producer Joel Silver prides himself on his casting acumen. Has he yet offered any suggestions?
No. You know, we talked specifically about that. And the idea was always, “Write the part, and then we’ll figure it out.”

You’ve also talked about her being very young. Are you thinking college-age? Teen-ager?
I’d say that’s a pretty flexible thing because it’s her first time setting foot in the world of men. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she has to be a teen-ager. So, yes, they are thinking of a young woman. They’re thinking, I expect, of something franchise-able.

Will it be appropriate to describe the “Wonder Woman” movie as a fish-out-of-water tale?
I would say very much so.

Will this be one of the key ways it distinguishes itself from other superhero movies?
Yes, I think so. Ultimately, structurally, yes, that’s a big distinguishing factor, but I think there will be other elements that are specific to her. But then again, I haven’t seen the new “Batman” and I haven’t seen the script for “Supes” [Warner Bros.’ upcoming “Superman Returns” feature].

Will Diana contend with a print-derived supervillain?
At this point I’m looking at creating something a little different. I don’t think her rogues gallery necessarily offers me what I need. But that’s not a final decision, that’s just my instinct.


VI. COMIC BOOKS and COMIC-BOOK MOVIES

Fans continue to wonder achingly what a Joss Whedon X-Men movie would look like.
I wrote an X-Men movie. I wrote a huge overhaul of the first one. It was based on their structure. It was not used.

It was the same thing: They brought me in for the third act. I said, “The problem starts on page one. Let’s talk about the whole movie.” While adhering to the structure they had. That’s the fun of being a script doctor. And it’s actually what prepares you for being an executive producer in terms of script. You’re constantly re-writing. It’s like, “What does this mean? How does it come together? What’s it all about?”

My frustration over “X-Men,” which I think I was a little ungentlemanly about, came as much in the process of my not being informed that my rewrite had been thrown out as it was about the movie itself.

But, basically, I think I had gone a little bit more towards the comic. I had the Danger Room, which was, “Very nice. Lovely. Can’t afford it.” The Danger Room played a big part in it. And it also ended with Jean Grey sort of holding back and holding back and then doing something extraordinarily powerful, and in the last scene she was dressed like Phoenix. It was fun to do, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t used. And the first movie had a lot going for it. It had a lot of integrity, and a lot of love and a lot of cool stuff but I was disheartened.

Look, I’m going to have trouble watching “Batman Begins” because I pitched a Batman movie to them that I fell so in love with that I couldn’t get it out of my head. And, no matter what, I’m just going to be going, “Oh, that one scene. Oh, I just wish … Oh!” Even if I love every frame, you just don’t get over stuff like that.

I don’t recall ever hearing about you pitching a Batman movie.
It was right when they first starting talking about making another “Batman” movie, and there was no director attached. And I can tell you exactly when I pitched it because – funny little story – my agent said, “You know, I wouldn’t call you. I know you don’t want to do other people’s stuff, but it’s Batman, and I figured I’d mention it. They want to do something.” I’m like, “Well, I guess you’d have to ‘Year-One’ it because, I mean, you can’t go any further in the direction they’ve gone.” He’s like, “Well, y’know, whatever.” I’m like, “Y’know, I’m not going to think about it.” And then I talked to my wife, and she’s like, “Dude.” And she doesn’t even like comic books. She was like, “No. Are you kidding? It’s Batman!”

And, you know, I started to think about it and I did come up with an origin movie and I just got completely overwhelmed by how much I loved the idea. I was just like, “Oh my God! This is really … I’m going in to pitch! What the hell!” And I was clearly not on the same wavelength as the people I was pitching to. I was talking about personal epiphanies and they were talking about an ’05 slot. So the meeting was just kind of a non-starter. I was talking about a smaller film, they were really looking for a big franchise thing. So I got in my car and headed back to the office and I literally said to myself, “How many more times do I need to be told that the machine doesn’t care. The machine is not aware of what is in your heart as a storyteller.” I got back to the office and they cancelled “Firefly.” So I was like, “Oh! So, uh, just once more. OK!” That was not a happy day.
But, again, I don’t want to be speaking ill of the X-Men people or of Warner Bros., because they had a perfectly valid agenda that I just wasn’t really aware of.

Lauren [Shuler Donner, who produces the “X-Men” movies] has always been a big supporter, and so has Avi [Arad, CEO of Marvel Studios], and we talked about “X3” but the schedule totally didn’t work out. But had I done an X-Men movie – and obviously it would have been “X3,” the first one I that I could have done – I just feel like I would have pared it down character-wise. They were talking about all the new characters they were going to bring out, and I was like, “I think you have all these great actors in your movie already. [laughs] Why don’t we, y’know, stick with them?’”

But “X3” was definitely a Phoenix story because I think Famke Janssen is really underrated as an actress anyway, and because it’s Phoenix, for Christ’s sake.

Have you used anything in Astonishing X-Men [the best-selling Marvel comic book Whedon has been writing] that you had originally been thinking about for the first “X-Men” movie?
Nothing from the movie script is even remotely connected to the comic book. I can’t really do that. I can’t really take something and then stick it somewhere else. If I could it would probably make life easier, cause I often think up chunks of stuff that I then can’t use. But the fact is you have to come at everything as if there had been nothing before and there will be nothing after.

I mean, if I’d had a great idea that was a great idea for a comic book for the X-Men as they were when Grant Morrison left them [Morrison was writing the comic-book adventures of Cyclops and Wolverine immediately prior to Whedon’s run] that happened to have been something I wrote for the movie that had been taken out, I might have considered it. But that wasn’t the case.

You’ve been critical of the first “X-Men” feature’s script. What did you perceive as its chief deficiencies?
Eh, I don’t feel like ragging on somebody else’s work. In private I’m just as catty as anybody, but that’s not something I would really do in an interview. The movie is never going to be satisfying to somebody who wrote a script that wasn’t used. Whether or not the script was better or worse, that person is always going to have a skewed perception of the movie.

Were you surprised at how well the first “X-Men” film was received?
I think I was a little surprised. But, like I said, it had an integrity to it, and it had some moments and it had a feel that was a little bit fresh. And superhero movies were notoriously bad, and it sort of stuck its head above the pack a bit.

Leaving aside for the moment “Wonder Woman” and “Batman” and “X-Men,” is there a comic-book franchise you’d be especially keen to bring to screen?
The only time I ever read a comic and said, “Jesus, that should be on the screen,” I found out that somebody else was already developing it, and it was “Global Frequency.” It should be a TV show. I adore it. [“Global Frequency” creator] Warren Ellis is like a God to me. I met him by chance years ago. I walk into [the Hollywood comic-shop] Golden Apple, which is not my usual store because I don’t live there. And he was there doing a signing and they’re like, “Oh, it’s so good you came out for this.” And I was like, “For what?” I had no idea he was even in the country. And he was so sweet because I was just about to start “Fray” [a Whedon-authored comic-book series set centuries after the events of “Buffy”], and I had never written a comic. And he said, “Well, have you seen any scripts?” And I was like, “Uh, they sent me an Alan Moore script.” He’s like, “Oh my God, you poor thing!” I’m like, “He does describe things … a lot.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, he’ll do three pages on one panel. I’ll send you a script and you can see how little you can get away with.”

I’d love to see a “Global Frequency” series come to be.
And I heard good things about the pilot and the script from a bunch of my comic-writer friends and my TV-slash-comic-writer friends. And I don’t know what happened. It just made perfect sense as a show.

Given how you seem to embrace ensembles, does Marvel’s “Avengers” project over at Paramount offer any particular appeal?
Y’know, the thing about the X-Men is they have a coherent core. The Avengers to me is tough. I wouldn’t approach The Avengers, I wouldn’t approach the Fantastic Four. The X-Men are all born of pain, and pain is where I hang my hat.

Weren’t you once approached by New Line about an “Iron Man” project?
Yes, well, is there anybody in more pain than [Iron Man alter-ego Tony] Stark? I wrote an entire treatment, pitched the thing, it was approved. I really enjoyed the people at New Line and then I suddenly – I was doing a lot of work on TV – and I suddenly went, “I can’t … develop … a script.”

You were too busy?
It wasn’t even that I was too busy, because I’m always busy. I just can’t be in development. And I loved the story and I felt very bad about having led them down the garden path because I was on it for a while, working the story out. And I just said, “You know what? I can’t just sort of write a script and have them spend eight years …” You know, I remember running into [“Seven” screenwriter] Andrew Kevin Walker eight years before “X-Men” came out. He said, “I’m writing the X-Men movie!” [Walker’s script was one of the many not used for “X-Men.” – Ed.] I just couldn’t go through that. And I didn’t have the power at that time not to, so I just backed away. But I really liked the story. I really like the character because he’s full of self-loathing – and that, my friend, I can write.

Did Tony still have shrapnel in his chest?
It wasn’t a shrapnel thing. It was just a weak heart that was not helped by his constant drinking.

So you’re still reading comic books at age 41?
Yes, at age 41 I go to a comic-book shop every Wednesday.

Anything besides “Global Frequency” you’d care to recommend?
“Runaways.” I picked up the first issue and every single one of them has been a gem. “Powers,” of course, I think everybody already knows about. I think “Plastic Man” doesn’t get the props that it should.

Kyle Baker’s version?
Yeah, that’s some funny stuff. That’s like some old-school Mad Magazine Will Elder stuff. I think it’s pretty great.

Any particular comic-shop people can find you in on a Wednesday?
Well, I live near Hi-De-Ho. I work near House of Secrets. And there’s a good pizza near Golden Apple, so it’s kind of a toss-up. The trouble with doing as much work as I do is I also have to send my assistant to the comic-book store; how lame am I?

I’m trying to think if there’s any other comics that I’m missing. And of course, that’s one of those questions; list questions always leave you terrified and blank.


VII. TV, WITH
and WITHOUT WHEDON

Were you more invested in polishing up the early “Buffy” scripts than the early “Angel” scripts?
Yes. The early “Buffys,” I was writing half a script, a whole script, re-breaking stories. I was in it up to my eyeballs because we really didn’t have the staff put together yet. And I had [early “Angel” showrunner] David Greenwalt, thank God, or I would not be alive today.

Was it David who did most of the “Angel” polishing during its first three seasons?
We shared that. But what I would do with “Angel” was more break the story and then take a polish pass, as opposed to take the script and completely rework it. Because I had David at the helm, he could be the guy who had to do the all-night frantic version and I could just sort of help.

Does it surprise you that at least some fans hear a lot more of your voice in “Buffy’s” first five seasons than they do in the first four seasons of “Angel”?
We would try to do something a little bit different with “Angel.” People have the tendency to think that I either abandoned “Buffy” or didn’t do anything on “Angel,” and I was thickly in both of them. The difference was, once “Angel” started I couldn’t be on set. I was literally on set for three years on “Buffy.” And then all of the sudden I couldn’t be on either set that much.

Being on set is important for the writing?
It really is. Just because once you’ve written something you have to make sure it’s actually shot the way it’s written. Because with TV directors there’s a lot of hit-and-miss. You can get a terrible hack or you can get a really great guy who just missed one really important point.

Do you think that’s true of most TV series? Writers are typically on set to keep an eye on things?
Oh yeah. The executive producer is basically the director. What I learned from my film sets is that a director doesn’t have to create anything, but he is responsible for everything. And the same thing goes for executive producer on a TV series.

They teach you this in film school?
They taught me that about directors in movies. I learned it about executive producers in TV the old fashioned way. I had a TV director once say to me, “One of these days I’m going to stand over your shoulder and tell you what to do.” And I actually took him up to my office and said, “Let me explain this. It is my job is to stand over your shoulder and tell you what to do. It is not your job to stand over mine.”

When you visit the Internet, are you shocked how little fans know about this process?
Sometimes it’s a little dispiriting when you see, “Well, Joss had nothing to do with that.” Well, there’s nothing that goes on screen that I had nothing to do with.

I think there’s a lot of confusion also about how different a director’s role is on a TV set versus a feature set.
It’s a grueling medium. It’s a tough thing to do, to be an itinerate director. I was talking to David Semel, who was one of our best directors – he did a lot of great episodes – and he was going off to “Dawson’s Creek,” and I said, “That would be fun, to get away and do a completely different show where you’re handed this script,” and he said, “Y’know, you go onto a show where everybody’s been doing it for a couple of years, they all know each other, they all know how they like to play their part and what they want to do and how they like to be treated and they all know the drill and they have an executive producer that they answer to, and you’re going to go there every day and pretend that you’re going to tell them what to do and that they’re going to listen to you.” It’s tough.

I had directors who I conflicted with and I just flat-out thought they were not getting it done. I’ve had conflict. No regime is without it. But good work on my show always stayed on screen. If somebody wrote something, and it was right, I’d never change it, because I am too lazy. There are producers who need to control everything and I needed to control exactly what needed controlling, and if somebody could get it done I would walk away faster than you could see me. Like I was Bugs Bunny. There would just be smoke in the shape of where I was. Because that’s not what it was about. It was about, “Is the work being serviced?”

You’re obviously better at this than most. You’ve made a lot of really good shows.
Well, I had a lot of really good people. And I think part of running a show is having a vision for the show, and there’s a lot of different talents that you need. The tough thing about directing, and this goes for executive producing too, is nothing prepares you for it. I had editors who got a shot at directing. One fell on his face. One did brilliantly. I had cinematographers. I had actors. I had writers. Everybody wants a shot, and nobody is prepared. Because directing is almost like an alchemy. There’re so many different factors, so many different skills involved, the most important being communication and some visual sense.

Everybody who works for me did their best work because they knew everything that was good enough was going to get on screen. And that’s how I was able to do one show, and then two and then three at a time. Because I kept surrounding myself with smart people who knew they were in an environment where there really wasn’t any competition. There was just the story. And they all busted their butts to do their best work because they knew they were going to be honored for it.

Just not by the television academy.
No, the television academy would ignore them and in fact make fun of them.

When we spoke on the “Serenity” set last summer, you mentioned you weren’t watching any TV save “Law & Order: SVU,” and you’ve subsequently admitted to a fondness for “Without A Trace.” Will these inspire you, perhaps, to create your own TV police procedural?
I have no immediate plans to do a series right now. I do, however, have an idea for a procedural. I can’t believe that I do. But I’m not going to realize it for some time. Because I need to take things at a different speed for a while. I had a notion. I went, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just found a procedural.” That’s the last thing I ever thought I would make.

I’d guess you would start it as a procedural and turn it into something else.
That’s usually the way it is.

Have you added any other season-passes to your TiVo of late?
“House.” I adore “House.” I’ve loved Hugh Laurie forever, but I love that character. I actually choke up at the thought of how powerfully noble and beautiful his total misanthropy is. He touches something very special in me because he’s just so mean.

Anything else?
“Numbers.” “Cold Case.” “Veronica Mars.”

You watch “Veronica Mars”?
I’m a latecomer. We just started.

You know what they call “Veronica Mars”?
“The New Buffy.”

“The New Buffy” is what they call it.
Well, the pilot was pretty damn good. So, yeah, I just demanded the tapes so we could catch up.

Is there zero chance you’ll be pitching pilots for the 2006-2007 TV season?
Yeah, I’m not going to be pitching a pilot this season. I have other things. I’m very tired.
End of Article

 

 

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