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
Read the uncut, web-only version
"If we’d done this
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
(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
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 &
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?
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
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
I could see you resolving that love triangle a little more
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.
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.
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.
The budget for “Serenity” is maybe a quarter
the size of the one “Batman Begins” employed,
yet four times the size of the 2-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.
Is it a certainty at this
point that Shepherd Book [the mysterious preacher character
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.
As you were writing “Toy Story,” did
you have any sense that you were involved in launching
become one of the most lucrative new big-screen genres of
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.”
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.
How much time altogether did you end up investing in the
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
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.
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,
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
You own a “Speed” poster
on which your writing credit remains.
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
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
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.
IV. The Agony of
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?
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
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 Resurection’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.
V. WONDER WOMAN:
Flight and Height
I understand you’ve not yet written a word of the “Wonder
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
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.
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
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.
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. TV, WITH
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 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.
“Numbers.” “Cold Case.” “Veronica
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.