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
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
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 &
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
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
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 the love triangle perhaps a little
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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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;
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.
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
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
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
It was dialogue straight through. There were a couple of
plot things just to make connections.
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.
own a “Speed” poster on which your writing
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
Have you used anything in
Astonishing X-Men [the best-selling Marvel comic book Whedon
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
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
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
Weren’t you once approached by New Line about an “Iron
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
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
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
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
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.
think there’s a lot of confusion also about how
different a director’s role is on a TV set versus a
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
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
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.
“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.