The writer/Director talks about creating his world and the characters in Serenity
MovieWeb recently had the pleasure of attending a roundtable discussion with the revered Joss Whedon. Creator of such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”, Whedon seems to be soaking in the rays of vindication for his film Serenity. Based upon his highly acclaimed, but short lived (it was canceled during it’s first season) TV show “Firefly,” the film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family - squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.
When Mal takes on two new passengers-a young doctor and his unstable, telepathic sister-he gets much more than he bargained for. The pair are fugitives from the coalition dominating the universe, who will stop at nothing to reclaim the girl. The crew that was once used to skimming the outskirts of the galaxy unnoticed find themselves caught between the unstoppable military force of the Universal Alliance and the horrific, cannibalistic fury of the Reavers, savages who roam the very edge of space. Hunted by vastly different enemies, they begin to discover that the greatest danger to them may be on board Serenity herself.
While advance screenings among hardcore fans, the newly initiated and the press have been overwhelmingly positive, Whedon seemed to project an aura of quiet confidence during this roundtable talk. After having seen his vision die in TV Land and then be resurrected for the big screen, he seems to know all too well that sadly, the vindication that really matters will have to come at the box office when Serenity opens September 30th, 2005.
So how nervous are you about this movie opening?
Joss Whedon: Wow, starting with the hard stuff. How nervous am I? I’m actually pretty calm. I am being medicated right now..., steadily, to keep me that way. I’m not really nervous. When I realized, ultimately I have no idea how this movie is going to do. I believe if people see it they will like it, and that is sort of my first job. I feel like that was more or less accomplished. 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 did everything in my power to try and get people to see it, but there’s only so much that’s in my power. And if they don’t, or if they just hate it... that’s just what’s gonna happen. There’s nothing I can do about it. I believe in the film. I loved making it. I loved what we came up with. I’m really proud of all my actors. That’s gonna have to sustain. That’s me now..., talk to me on the morning of the 30th, when I’m hiding in the bathtub with a hat on.
What is it that makes the Serenity and “Firefly” dialogue snap like it does?
Joss Whedon: Well, part of it was just getting to invent the language. Which came from a lot of different influences, because the movie has this sort of “genre mixed” feeling. Once I had that, it reads like poetry. It makes it very easy to write and kind of rolls off the tongue like nothing I’ve written before does. In terms of advice? Or, my dark secrets...? The most important thing for me is finding everybody’s voice very specifically. I build shows and movies on what I refer to as “The Golden Girls” model. Which is very simply, everybody’s got to come from a different place so that everybody’s reaction to something is different and equally valid and equally fun. Never having anybody say anything that isn’t the next thing they’d say. That isn’t their point of view. That isn’t their perspective. That’s where the humor comes from. Jayne’s perspective on a situation is going to be very different than everybody else's, and that makes it funny.
But at the same time, that’s what makes it valid. If a line is just a setup for somebody else to be funny, it’s disingenuous to the character and to the actor portraying them. That’s the biggest thing for me, that everybody, and that includes “2nd Thug from Left,” has a perspective that they bring with them to the piece. They don’t all have to be eloquent about it, in a sort of obnoxious, proto-Tarantino way..., everybody speaks volumes kind of thing. Not that..., I think he’s done that very well, but I’ve seen the bad version. 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, I think, and that’s also what makes people respond to all the characters as that they’re all very present all the time.
What was the challenge of adapting a TV show like “Firefly” to the big screen?
Joss Whedon: The challenge was to get everybody in there! Obviously, the TV show you need a bunch of beats if you want to create internal conflict, and it’s not just a certain problem of the week kind of show. When I was given the opportunity to make a movie of this, yes, all of the sudden I had 9 characters, and that’s a lot of people to put in a movie. Ultimately, what it gave me was the chance to have kind of a platoon feeling. The band as this great big group of people who you can focus on who you want to, obviously, on a show you’re going to give everybody equal time to an extent. You’re going to make sure that everybody’s serviced. In film, you have to say, “Well, 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 effects 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. A lot of movies, I think, center around one character and then there’s maybe two others defined and then everybody else kind of fades into the distance. For some films that’s pretty useful. But, because I wanted the sort of chaotic, sort of everything is happening at once feeling of being on that ship, and being in this world, having a larger cast is useful because they all bring so much texture to it. Hopefully, it isn’t confusing but it moves and it’s very lively and it’s very lived in.
Could you mention any possible ideas for a sequel?
Joss Whedon: It’s very sweet to mention the word sequel. 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, I never told anybody about it. It was really cool. So, it’s inevitable that I would do that. I love this universe, I love these people and I would jump at the chance to do it again. I couldn’t think about that while I was making it. Everyone kept saying, “So you’re making a trilogy?” “No, it’s a film.” “So a trilogy?” I’m like, “Just the one!” And it’s a trilogy if you make two that are so good there’s a third. And that was sort of the only thing I could think about. I had to sort of not think about where it came from, the series, and not think about where it may go; the franchise. Just say, make this one thing an experience worth having and the rest let it fall into place on it’s own. If you focus on it you’re a dead man. Now that I’ve finished, and I’m starting to market it, I think about it all the time. But, I don’t tell anybody that except just now.
Can you talk about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance?
Joss Whedon: Chiwetel is extraordinary and I gave him a really tough job because, The Operative is self proclaimed and very specifically undefined, because he refuses to let himself be defined. He doesn’t consider himself a person, he considers himself less than that. I wanted to create a villain who was more of an antagonist than just a villain. Again, if you don’t believe the perspective of the person, then they become just a plot device. The idea of having somebody completely idealistic and dedicated to decency and nobility, as my villain, then somebody who’s self involved and cut off and a criminal as my hero, is kind of, basically, what my film is about. It’s only our messy, repulsive humanity that can save us from the deadly notion of perfection.
Chiwetel came in and the reason, particularly that I hired him, was them big, ole eyes. He’s just so soulful. He brings such a sense of decent, disappointment at how things have worked out in the world and the people around him. He doesn’t play anything harsh at all. He understood completely what this guy was. That he was a decent man who was actually a serial killer, and doesn’t really understand himself that well. There were times when we had to shoot it more than one way, because we were like, we don’t know how much we want to telegraph the aggression that is actually in this guy, that allows him to be so good at killing people. And how much we want to let him subsume himself and be quiet and decent, and when is the moment when he is going to take over? Like when he’s with Dr. Mathias. There’s a long time where he’s being sort of obsequious and just sort of, this is your space, this is your world, I’m just living in it. Then there’s the moment when he takes over and that is one we played with a lot. So he didn’t come off as having no energy, but at the same time he didn’t come off as a mustache twirler. I could never have written that, but Chiwetel is so incredibly sympathetic, he could play it, he has, he can play anything..., but he’s definitely the right person to play someone who’s full of belief.
How do make this film appeal to people who have never seen “Firefly”?
Joss Whedon: Ultimately, that’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s a question of opening it up and it’s a question of closing it down. Opening it up in the sense of, we need a giant epic story, that is not the kind of thing people usually get involved in a TV series. It’s more mundane. You need a reason for this to be a movie, a big, well for me anyway, a big budget movie. And a Universal Film in particular. An action movie that has to work on a certain scale. That’s the opening. The closing is making sure that it 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’ve often said that the difference between TV and movies, is that TV shows are a question and movies are an answer. In this we have 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 make a definitive statement. I put a period or hopefully an exclamation point on that, as opposed to just sort of pursuing the question for years which is what a TV show would do.
With “Firefly” having been a TV show, a film and now a comic book, do you have a preference out of the three?
Joss Whedon: They definitely all have different strengths. “Firefly” and Serenity really are two different animals, that’s very deliberate on my part. If they weren’t, I’m making a glorified episode of television, and I have no business wasting Universal’s money. I spent a bulk of the writing and the bulk of the editing, just trying to make it work for people who don’t know the series. The movies give you a chance to do something that extraordinary and let you realize whatever insane vision you might have; to 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 opportunities 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 greatest 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. That’s the kind of story I like to tell. The story of when people who have no business being in an epic, get caught up in one, how do they react?
The movie gives us answers to some questions we may have had about “Firefly,” are those answers we would have gotten had the show continued?
Joss Whedon: Very little was changed about the movie. Obviously and most importantly, things were distilled into a fine, two hour liqueur instead of a more watered down longer version. Yes, that was where I was going with the idea of River, and her secret and the Reavers and how it all connected. I planned to get there in a couple of years, instead of a couple of hours. Apart from not being able to service all the subplots, with all those different people, that is exactly where I was going with it. That was the easy part of structuring it and pitching it was, this is where this series was building to, and I think if you took this 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?
Joss Whedon: Legally speaking, no. They seldom will actually pitch things at me. I use them as a barometer of what it is they’re responding to, who it is they’re responding to. They’re not responding to this character, lets find out what’s in this character that makes them tick and open them up so that they do. Also, because the series is not ongoing, people
aren’t quite, “Oh you could do this? You could do that?” There’s the 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.
Is there something spiritual you were trying to bring across with this film?
Joss Whedon: I think we all have different takes on it and we all have things to say about spirituality. There are films that use a more deliberate, religious iconography because they come from that mythic place in a way that I would say “Buffy” did. But, “Firefly” and 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 faithless..., 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 very clear about his faith, and there was a conflict between the two of them that was supposed to be ongoing throughout the series.
Obviously, the movie being more about answers I had more of a statement to make, which was simply the power of belief. The power of something greater than yourself does not necessarily have to mean religion. Shepherd Book, himself, says that. He doesn’t say, “Find God.” He says, “Find your way.” Shepherd Book obviously believes in God, he believes God is 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.” 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 great. Believing that there is something worth structuring your life around. That will direct your moral decisions and sometimes make you make the harder decisions that is important. What that belief is is not.
Is Mal’s leadership style your leadership style?
Joss Whedon: Yes and no, I mean, to an extent my interest in Mal as a leader was built partially on my years running shows. Seeing that dynamic from a different point of view. What’s interesting to me about that concept is the remove, sort of monstrosity of somebody who does accept the responsibility of being a leader. Ultimately, when you are in the service of something greater, or even just when you’re in the position of having to make the decisions for everybody, you are removed from them. It’s interesting to me because it requires a toughness that is almost dehumanizing, and when he does take up the mantle that’s when he starts becoming really dangerous to an extent. Belief, The Operative embodies that too, is dangerous and a leader has to have that very strongly even if the only thing he’s trying to do is keep these people alive. Their welfare, even if it’s paramount to him, he’s still gonna do things that are either horrific or just incomprehensible to them. I do find that kind of fascinating. Hopefully my leadership style is a little less abrasive and for some reason less handsome.
Can you talk about Wonder Women at all?
Joss Whedon: Just briefly, I’m just writing it. I’m having the time of my life and no it’s not cast.
If River fights Buffy who wins?
Joss Whedon: Wow, nobody has ever asked me that and I’m shocked! Ultimately, I can’t say, I’m gonna have to watch. Buffy’s got the super strength but River’s got all kinds of crazy training. She’s not a superhero in the same way but she’s very focused. It’s tough. It’s a SmackDown. Be there!
Serenity cruises into theaters September 30th, 2005.
Dont't forget to also check out: Firefly: The Complete Series [4 Discs]