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INT: Joss Whedon

09.30.2005
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When his sci-fi/western hybrid "Firefly" crashed and burned on the small screen (it lasted a mere 11 episodes before Fox cancelled it), Joss Whedon didn’t waste any time wallowing in self-pity. Buoyed by a small, boisterous group of fans known as “Browncoats”, Whedon went to studios to pitch a feature film based on the failed series. Universal eventually took that bait and SERENITY was born. Will the film share the same fate as "Firefly"? Not if those pesky Browncoats have anything to say about it.

Joss stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week for a press conference to promote the film. Here are some excerpts.

Joss Whedon

So how nervous are you about this movie?

Starting with the hard stuff huh? (laughs) How nervous am I?  I’m actually pretty calm. I am being medicated right now…to keep me that way. I got really nervous when I realized ultimately I have absolutely no idea how this movie is gonna do. I believe that if people see it, they will like it, and that is sort of my first job, and I feel like that was more or less accomplished. But I have no idea if they actually will see it, and if they don’t see it, how can they like it? So I panicked, and I freaked out publicly – I’m proud of that – and then I sort of realized it’s out of my hands. I will do everything in my power to try and get people to see it, but there’s only so much within my power. And if they don’t, or if they – gee, how can I put this – hate it, then that’s just what’s gonna happen. There’s nothing I can really do about it. I believe in the film. I loved making it, I love what we came up with, and I’m really proud of all my actors, so that’s gonna have to sustain me.

What is it that makes the Firefly/Serenity dialogue snap like it does?

Well, part of it was just getting to invent the language, which came from a lot of influences because the movie has that sort of genre-mix feeling, and era mix. And once I had, it reads like kind of poetry to me. It makes it very easy to write. It kind of rolls off the tongue in a way that nothing I’ve ever written before does. But in terms of advice, or my dark secrets, the most important thing to me is finding everybody’s voice very specifically, and I build shows and movies on what I refer to as “The Golden Girls Model,” which is very simply everybody’s gotta come from a different place, so that everybody’s reaction to something is different and equally valid and equally fun. And never having anybody say anything that isn’t their point of view, that isn’t their perspective, that’s where the humor comes from.

Jimmy’s perspective on the situation is gonna be very different than anybody else’s, and when he speaks, that’s what makes it funny, but at the same time, that’s what makes it valid. If a line is just a set-up for somebody else to be funny, it’s disingenuous to the character and to the actor portraying him. That’s the biggest thing for me is that everybody – and that includes “second thug from left” – has perspective that they bring with them to the piece. And they all don’t have to be eloquent about it, in a sort of obnoxious, proto-Tarantino way of everybody-speaks-volumes kind of thing. I think he’s done that very well, but I’ve seen the bad version.

But just respecting everybody, and knowing that the whole point of the thing, the whole point of any dialogue, is that it’s two people with completely different points of view trying to find a space in the middle. That’s where the conflict comes from, that’s where the humor comes from, that’s where the humanity comes from. That’s the biggest thing for me when I’m writing, and I think it’s also what makes people respond to all the characters, is that they’re all very present all the time.

What was the challenge for you to fit everybody into this two-hour movie?

Obviously, the TV show, you need a bunch of peeps if you want to create internal conflict and it’s not just a “problem of the week” kind of show. And then, when I was given the opportunity to make a movie of this, all of a sudden I had nine characters, and that’s a lot of people to put in a movie. But ultimately what it gave me was the chance to have kind of a Platoon feeling, sort of the band as this great, big group of people that you can focus on who you want to. Obviously, on a show, you’re gonna give everybody equal time to an extent. And you’re gonna make sure that everybody’s sort of…in a film, you have to say, “Well, okay, Mal is really the hero. He’s the guy we have to be watching.” We come to him through River; she’s kind of his proxy. And it’s kind of about how she affects him, and how they help each other. That doesn’t mean however that anybody is expendable.

You make sure that everybody’s perspective brings something different to the movie, and everybody’s physicality, and their actions, and what they’re useful for. You know, a lot of movies I think center around one character, and then there’s maybe two others that are defined, and then everybody else kind of fades into the distance, and for some films, that’s pretty useful. But because I wanted this sort of chaotic, everything-is-happening-at-once feeling of being on that ship and being in this world, having a large cast was useful, because they all bring so much texture to it. You think hopefully it isn’t confusing, but it means it’s very lively and it’s very lived-in.

Have you sketched out ideas for sequels?

You know, it’s very sweet to mention the word “sequel.” (laughs) Obviously, that’s the way my brain works; it continues to tell stories. I’ve written sequels in my head for movies that other people made, all the time. I had a great idea for The Fly 2, before they made The Fly 2, and I never told anybody about it, but it was really cool! So it’s inevitable with me that I do that, and of course I love this universe, and I love these people, and I would jump at the chance to do it again. But I couldn’t think about that while I was making it, because ultimately you have to make…everyone kept saying, “So, you making a trilogy?” And I’m like, “No, it’s a film.” “There’s no trilogy?” I’m like, “Just the one.”

And, you know, it’s a trilogy if you make two that are so good there’s a third, and that was how I feel I had to think about it. I had to sort of not think about where it came from, the series, and not think about where it may go, a franchise, and just say, “Make this one thing an experience worth having, and the rest will either fall into place or it won’t. But if you focus on that, you’re a dead man.” Now that I’ve finished this, I think about it all the time, but I don’t tell anybody that…except right now.

Can you talk about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as The Operative?

You know, Chiwetel is extraordinary, and I gave him a really tough job, because The Operative is…he’s actually self-proclaimed as very specifically undefined because he refuses to let himself be defined, and he doesn’t consider himself a person. He considers himself less than that. And I wanted to create a villain who was more of an antagonist than just a villain, because then if you don’t believe the perspective of a person, then they become just a plot device. And the idea of having somebody completely idealistic and dedicated to decency and nobility as my villain, and somebody who’s self-involved and cut-off and a criminal as my hero, then it’s basically what the film is about: if only our messy, repulsive humanity can save us from this deadly notion of perfection.

Chiwetel came in, and the reason particularly that I hired him was them big ol’ eyes. He’s just so soulful. He brings such a sense of decent disappointment at having to look out in the world and the people around him. And he doesn’t play anything arch at all. He’s all about…he understood completely what this guy was, and that he was a decent man who was actually a serial killer and doesn’t really understand himself that well.

How do you make the film accessible to people who haven’t seen Firefly?

Well, ultimately that’s certainly the hardest job I ever had. It’s a question of opening it up and then closing it down. Opening it up in the sense of we need a giant, epic story that is not the kind of thing these people usually get involved in on the TV series. It’s more mundane. We need a reason for this to be a movie and to be a big, for me anyway, budget movie, and a Universal film in particular. It had to be an action movie that has to work on a certain scale. And at the same time, that’s the opening. The closing comes in making sure that is accessible to everybody, that you explain everybody as much as you need to, that you explain the world as much as you need to, that you begin and you end, that you have an arc for the character as well as a plot that has a question and then an answer.

I actually said when pressed that the difference between TV and movies is that TV shows are a question and movies are an answer. And so in this, we had to have a definitive statement about freedom and humanity, and what we need, and what we should be allowed to have as people, which is all our flaws. And then I answer that. I put a period of hopefulness—an exclamation point—on that, as opposed to just sort of pursuing the question for years, which is the way a TV show would do it.

Firefly has been a TV show, a movie, a comic book. Do you have a preference?

They definitely all have different strengths. Firefly and Serenity are really two different animals, and that’s very deliberate on my part, because if they weren’t, I’m making a glorified episode of television and I’d have no business wasting Universal’s money. I spent the bulk of the writing and the bulk of the editing just trying to make it work for people who don’t know the series. But the movies give you a chance to do something that’s extraordinary, they can realize whatever insane vision you might have, and turn a ballerina into a martial arts star, which is always a good thing to do with your free time, if you can.

TV gives you the opportunity to explore things on a smaller level, which was very gratifying. It’s a different thing. I miss it. I miss Firefly because Serenity is not Firefly, which was deliberate. But the great thing was the TV show was deliberately small in the scope of the people within it, and then the movie is deliberately an epic filled with small people. And that’s the kind of story I like to tell, is the story of when people who have no business being in an epic get caught up in one. How do they react? Do they fold, or what do they do?

Were the answers provided in the movie about the Reavers, River’s powers, etc. the answers we were going to get to if the series had gone on, or did you change things around?

Those had all been changed for the movie. Obviously, things were dropped, and obviously and most importantly, things were distilled into a fine, two-hour liquer instead of a watered-down, longer version. Yes, that was where I was going with the idea of River, and her secret, and the Reavers, and theirs, and how it all connected. I had planned to get there in a couple of years instead of a couple of hours, but not being able to fiddle with all these subplots with all these different people, that is exactly where I was going with it. That was a huge part of structuring it, and pitching it was, “This is where the series was building to.” And I think if you pitched it as a separate story, it is an epic story and it has a great deal of meaning for today.

Do you ever take any suggestions from fans for character development or dialogue?

Legally speaking, no. (laughs) They seldom will actually pitch things at me. I use them as a barometer of what it is they respond to, who it is they’re responding to. And then I will find with this character, let’s find out what’s inside this character and makes them tick, and really open them up and see what they do. Stuff like that. Generally speaking, also because the series is not ongoing, people aren’t like, “Well, you can do this, you can do that.” There’s a movie. If they haven’t seen it, they’re not gonna tell me what to do, and if they have seen it, some of them may criticize some of the things I did. But generally speaking, they’re just going to have fun.

What does Serenity have to say about spirituality?

I think we all have different takes on it, and we all have things to say about spirituality. I think their films use more deliberate religious iconography because they’re coming from that mythic place in a way that I would say Buffy did, but Firefly/Serenity don’t. Again, to come back to the idea of the question and the answer: in Firefly, there was a conflict between Mal and the Shepherd that was deliberate, which was that Mal is an atheist and he is beyond that kind of faith. He doesn’t trust people, he doesn’t really think of anything as a greater good. Even though he has a moral code himself, he really can’t admit or understand it. Shepherd Book is really clear on his faith, and there was a conflict between the two of them that was supposed to be ongoing throughout the series.

Obviously, the movie would be more about answers. I had one definitive statement to make, which was simply the power of belief, the power of something greater than yourself does not necessarily have to mean religion. And Shepherd Book himself says that. He doesn’t say, “Find God.” He says, “Find your way.” Shepherd Book obviously believes in God. He believes that God is a part of what’s going on. Mal doesn’t, but Shepherd isn’t judging him for that. He’s saying, “The point is not whether or not you believe what I believe. The point is that you don’t believe anything, and it’s killing you, and it’s tearing your crew apart, and it’s making you do stupid things.” And the word “belief” comes into the film a lot for that reason. It’s the simple act of subsuming yourself to the idea of something that is…believing there is something worth structuring your life around that will direct your moral decisions and sometimes make you make the harder decision. But is it important what that belief is? No.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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2:18PM on 10/01/2005

Please, Joss a trilogy!!

Yes, yes! A Trilogy! I want a trilogy of these films! I want three movies of the browncoats kicking butt, baby!
Yes, yes! A Trilogy! I want a trilogy of these films! I want three movies of the browncoats kicking butt, baby!
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1:08AM on 10/01/2005
I WILL SO SEE THIS FILM MAYBE 3 TIMES BEFORE IT GOES OUT ON DVD! LONG LIVE THE BROWNCOATS!!!
I WILL SO SEE THIS FILM MAYBE 3 TIMES BEFORE IT GOES OUT ON DVD! LONG LIVE THE BROWNCOATS!!!
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