Sci Fi Tracker: Q & A With Dollhouse’s Joss Whedon

by | February 9, 2009 at 4:13 PM | General

‘Tis truly the Week of Whedon in cyberspace! In a round-table conference call, Joss Whedon recently talked to reporters about why fans “may get over their panic” regarding the Dollhouse pre-premiere frenzy, how the outrageous bow-hunting episode got bumped up to episode #2 in the line-up, and whether we can expect to be treated to more of the musical stylings of Dr. Horrible in the near future………..

Read on:

Could you talk a little bit about the process of finding this show through the rewritten pilot, and then the early episodes, and then talk about how it differed from finding your earlier shows?

Whedon: I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows. Probably most similar to Angel in the sense of what we had in our minds about what Angel was ultimately was different than what the network did. Our version was a little darker, and in this instance, it wasn’t so much a question of reworking what the show was as it was a question of reworking how we get into it. There were definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show, but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in and the mandate was very much once they had seen the pilot.

They made some noise about this before. I don’t want to say that they just thought it up out of the blue, but the mandate “was give us not just the world of the show, but the structure of the show.” The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways, and they said let the audience see an engagement so that they understand that every week she’s going to go to a different place and be a different person and that they have that sense of structure.

That part was simple enough. It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn’t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more.

But there was some real questioning about what exactly we wanted to get at in terms of the humanity and what they do and why people hire them and there’s a sexual aspect to it that makes some people nervous. Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous. It’s to make them identify with people they don’t like and get into situations that they don’t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well.

So we’re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.

Do you feel like you’ve found the show now, or is it still just an ongoing process?

Whedon: Well, it’s always an ongoing process to an extent, but I would say emphatically yes. We had all of the elements, the characters, none of which were changed really, and none of the regular characters, and the premise, the concept, the way we were able to explore what makes us human, all of that is in there.

As the season progresses, it ends up going exactly where I had hoped it would go before all of this happened, so I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network. And the last few episodes that we just completed shooting got all of us extraordinarily excited.

What do you have to say maybe to the fans who are already in a panic and have formed these save Dollhouse campaigns long before the story even ends, maybe even starting last summer? Do you have words of calming for them, or anything like that? What do you say to people who are already worried about the show before it airs?

Whedon: Usually, words of calm in these situations lead to panic. If you say there’s nothing to panic about, somebody says, he said the word “Panic”!! Basically, we found the show. My concern isn’t whether the show gets saved. It’s whether these fans who are panicking about it love it. They may get over their panic. They may see it and go, you know, actually, we’re okay. The network should do what they think is right. Ultimately, the support is very sweet, and the fact that people care and they want to see the show get a chance. That’s important to me too, because it really is a show that finds itself as it goes along, but, at the end of the day, my biggest concern is that I give them something worth panicking over.

With a show like Buffy, you had some episodes and you did some things that really stood out in people’s minds like having a musical episode, having an episode where no one speaks. Do you have some of those ideas for Dollhouse where you want to try something different than maybe hasn’t been done in TV before, or things like that that are in your mind right now for this show?

Whedon: Most of the things I think have been done at some point, and we don’t think it’s done for their own sakes, but one of the exciting things about the show, one of the reasons why we’re excited to have more runs at it is that you can really come at these stories from a lot of different perspectives; from the perspective of a client, from the perspective, as we do in episode six, from the man on the street, from the perspective of obviously Echo or any of the dolls or the people who are running it.

There’s always a different way into the story, and since there is a basic structure of an engagement where somebody comes in, says what they want, and they build that personality and the engagement takes place, there is a lot of fun that can be had with how you come at those stories.

But I don’t have anything specific in mind, and no, I’m not planning a Dollhouse musical just yet.

I found the second episode so outrageous, I think anyone who sees it will be hooked. I couldn’t believe you did a most dangerous game on TV in the second episode, so why did you not want to start with something that outrageous, and how many more of those sort of hooks of an outrageous concept can we expect?

Whedon: Outrageous is always good. That episode was meant originally to be around episode five, or possibly even eight, and it was the network who said, excuse me, did you say bow hunting? That will come second please, because we already had the pilot working, so it kind of got bumped up further than, but you’re not the first person to say why didn’t you just open with that, and my answer would be I don’t know. I had the other idea first.

Basically, I think its one aspect of it is the bigger than life adventure, but we have episodes that I think are equally insane and, in some ways even more beautiful. So if people watch episodes and wonder they should’ve opened with this, that means the episodes are getting better, and I’ll take an upward curve any day.

It’s not even the action aspect of it. It’s finding out they will hire people out to be hunted and killed.

Whedon: Well, they didn’t actually mean to hire her out, to be honest with you. Somebody said well how come things go wrong with the Dollhouse? That’s a question I’ve gotten. It’s like so that we can have a show. Obviously, something is going to go wrong, or strangely right in every episode.

I know you’ve talked about the more earnest nature of the show and the Joss-y humor, but I just wanted to follow-up and ask why you felt this should be a more earnest show, because it seems like with the concept, there would be plenty of opportunities to have fun with it too.

Whedon: There is a lot of fun and a lot of humor in it. What it doesn’t have is an inherent silliness that both Buffy and Firefly had, and even Angel, that was we could just take one step back that part of the fun was of deconstructing the genre we were in. This has to be a little bit more grounded in order for it to play, or it would become campy, and with vampires and spaceships and horses, we had more leeway to be a little less realistic in how we plotted things.

But humor is a part of the show all over the place, because we have really funny actors, and these situations do become absurd, and besides, we would get really bored if we didn’t.

Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the show? What got you thinking about these characters in this world?

Whedon: Well, there’s already the famous story of lunch with Eliza where we were talking about what kind of stuff she should play and I thought she should play lots of different things, and then the show happened.

Beyond that, there has also been I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what enounce is our own, what’s socialized, can people actually change, what do we expect from each other, how much do we use each other and manipulate each other, and what would we do if we had this kind of power over each other? And in this, our increasingly virtual world, self-definition has become a very amorphous concept, so it just felt what was on my mind. I don’t mean it felt timely like I was trolling the papers looking for something timely. It’s just been something I think about a lot.

As for the characters, they sell out by necessity. I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn’t want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting, or she would burn out. So it was the question of really just doing the math. You’re going to need the handler, you’re going to need somebody running the place, you’re going to need the programmer, and then realizing what all of those different perspectives would give us, even before we had the astonishing cast, started to make the show really live.

What do you like about Eliza? Why was she the right actress to build this around?

Whedon: She’s overcome her homely shyness over these years. Eliza is, apart from being, in my opinion, as great a star as I have ever known, she has a genuinely powerful electric and luminous quality that I’ve rarely seen. She’s also a really solid person. She’s a good friend. She’s a feminist. She’s an activist. She’s interested in the people around her. She has a lot of different things going on, and I’ve watched her over the years, as a friend, try to take control of her career, and try to get the roles that weren’t available to her, and protect the ethos and the message of what it was that she was doing, and I respect that enormously. Being part of that progression is, for me, one of the greatest benefits of this show.

Given the pressures and drawbacks of being a creative person working within television, what keeps you going? What inspires you?

Whedon: You know, the thing that keeps me going, chardonnay. I shouldn’t have said that. Honestly though, actually that kind of slows me down. Ultimately, it’s two things. It’s the story and it’s the people I’m working with. I’ve gotten pretty good at putting together a group of people, both in the writing and in the acting fields who are not just really gifted and delightful to learn from and to watch, but are just good people to be around. And creating an environment that is fun and safe and creative is difficult and enormously important, and a lot of shows obviously don’t feel the same way, and a lot of stars don’t feel the same way.

But I have had both good luck and the good sense to make sure the people I’m around are the people you want to spend your time with, and when those people come to you with ideas, or bring you something you didn’t expect and really know what they’re doing, it snowballs and an idea gets bounced around between all of the people who are helping create it and it just gets bigger and better.

Ultimately, it comes from the world itself. It comes from the world you’ve created. If you’ve really created a world and not just a character, then it’s constantly going to be screaming its awesome variations at you. And when you’re surrounded by a group of people who are hearing that scream as well, then you go on, despite being really tired some of the time.

I was wondering, what are some of the topics that you would like to address in future episodes that you haven’t tackled before?

Whedon: Well, the constant topic of identity is one. There are a couple of things that were originally on the slate that didn’t quite fit the venue and had to stand back. We had an episode about Rwandan boy soilders that was really about how we imprint people now, how we literally brainwash people, and we’re contrasting that with the Dollhouse.

There was episode that was about perversion. It was about sexual shame and people’s inability to deal with real people that was, I thought, ultimately very heartfelt and very strange and very beautiful, but again, not to make the cut for the first 13. Those are some that would be coming up.

I noticed that Topher made a comment referring to Adam and Eve and I wonder how much you’ll explore theology in your exploration of what it means to be human.

Whedon: I will explore it only in so much as people will tend to use it as a metaphor for the way they talk. As an atheist, I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time with it unless there is a point about the way religion interacts with our humanity that I think needs to be made. But the Garden of Eden stuff, you can’t stop that. It keeps coming up, because this is the mythos that I was brought up with, and it’s very powerful in this place. But I would say that I’m more interested in the philosophy than the theology of the thing.

I actually saw the episode where the Elgin marbles were in play and I noticed it was written by Craft and Fain, who I understood are going to be the acting show runner on this. Can you talk a little about what they bring to the table, and why they seem to get your sense of humor so well?

Whedon: You know, why anybody gets my sense of humor I never know, but I do know that when they do, I keep them as close as I possibly can. Liz and Sarah are the kind of people who are so solid and so sensible and so good at the day-to-day show running that you forget how good they are with the script until they turn it in and you go that’s right, you guys are really funny and very twisted. They’re the kind of writers who take all of their weirdness out on the script and it’s not out on me or the people they work with, and that’s what you look for in a show runner.

It was important for me also that the show runners be female, because the subject matter is intense and delicate, and they are aware of that without being a slave to it.

I wanted to ask your reaction to the Friday night time slot and what challenges or maybe even opportunities you see there.

Whedon: Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don’t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided. It’s about growing a fan base, both for Dollhouse and Terminator. I think Terminator is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with Dollhouse, so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that’s just too cool.

Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but not so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight. I’ve always worked best under the radar. Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and the Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen.

You can take from this a little bit, but besides Eliza, there are a lot of other Whedon alumni in your cast, and can you just talk a little bit about your other cast members?

Whedon: You know, the basic mandate for me was to find new people, because I had Eliza and I didn’t want to feel like it was going to be “Faith” or just a reunion for my pals or anything like that, and I found some not only amazing new actors, but amazing new friends. But then, eventually, a person has to wake up and smell the “Acker” and realize you just have to cast anything that you can with her, so that happened.

Apart from that, we’ve put on some old faces in some guest roles, but not too often, and sometimes, we’ve been very much behind the eight ball in terms of production and when you know somebody can do something right and you don’t have time to go and find somebody else who can, you hire them. But apart from Amy and Eliza, it’s a new crowd.

In reading the original pilot script, it really seemed like the basis for a highly serialized show, and I’m wondering what the challenges were involved in taking your original vision and transposing a more self-contained style of storytelling onto it, and if you were satisfied with the way the show turned out versus your original vision.

Whedon: There are things I miss from my original vision, and there are things that I think are better the way it is. Ultimately, the show ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go. There are elements of intrigue and high stake suspense that have been added, but I don’t think they hurt the show at all, and it really goes where we planned to have it go.

The idea was always to have a mythology that was counterbalanced by a standalone aspect that every episode would be self-contained, and that the mythology would play out, but you would feel a sense of resolve, be that an engagement, or some other aspect every week.

The mandate to go ahead and just really make the first several episodes pure standalone engagements is tough. It’s more work for a staff to drum up that enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week. That’s just difficult, but we knew that was part of the show going in, that every week, we were not only going to have to create a new world and care about it, but that she was actually going to have to join the guest cast, because she would be a new person.

So it’s a challenge, but it’s one that we knew going in we were going to have to tackle, and I think we’re getting better at it. It is definitely a different skill.

Just to follow-up, actives aren’t aware of their personality imprints, so I’m wondering if we should be looking at any other characters in the cast as possible covert active.

Whedon: Not in the first season, although we’ve discussed a lot of permutations. We’re pretty much laying out the situation a little bit simply at first. We’re going to twist the knife in some people, but more than any of the anchors, it’s the people running the place who have their own secrets that are going to be fun to pull away at.

As a writer creating characters, do you identify a lot with Echo’s programmer?

Whedon: I do. It’s not a shock to see a lot of Topher in myself, because he’s building people, and he’s amoral and fairly goofy, but I see a lot of myself in Adelle DeWitt too, and ultimately, in all of the characters. If you don’t, you’re usually doing it wrong. If just one person is your mouthpiece, then you’re going to have trouble writing a real conversation between two people, and the fact of the matter is the person who is my mouthpiece is definitely sketchy, which is good, because it makes me question everything I have to say, no matter how funny it is.

You’ve gone through the process of launching this show several times now, so how has the process changed for you since you launched Buffy?

Whedon: You know, in many ways, it hasn’t changed at all. We were held to mid-season on Buffy. There was a certain amount of birth pangs. We were re-shooting things for the first episode during the last episode. So I think part of this is either the same, or I just really haven’t learned anything about how to do it better.

But I think the changes have really been that the media is constantly making new demands. There are six act breaks instead of four. They did remote free TV, which means fewer commercials, which is an exciting prospect, but it also means we’re shooting 15% to 20% more show per show on the same schedule as every other show, and that just really is beating the hell out of us.

Also something that ultimately, because of the remote free TV, and because of our production issues, fell by the wayside, but these are the extras that people expect. There’s just more to it than going in there and telling your story. The marketing of the thing and the story itself are intertwined in ways that create opportunities, and in some ways that just really exhaust me.

I was wondering: how will the audience connect with any of the actors? Are they supposed to be like empty vessels with new info each week?

Whedon: They’re supposed to be empty vessels and the constant struggle with Dollhouse is that they’re not quite, that Echo and Sierra have formed a kind of bond, and that Echo is clearly evolving in a way that they have not imprinted her to do.

The ideal is to create people that people can relate to, because they were so helpless and so innocent, and then let them have these latent senses of identity and of their surroundings, and create sympathies through that, as well as through the characters that they become.

Will there be a dark horse comic tie-in for this?

Whedon: There won’t. The science fiction of this is much more fiction than science. Ultimately, its actors acting differently, which is not something you need to see drawn. There is however, a CSI comic book, so I guess everything could be a comic book, but I don’t feel it lends itself in the same way that my other fictions have.

How easy will it be for new viewers to join after the first episode? How much of the show will be episodic and how much will be an overall season or series arc that they may miss if they don’t start watching from episode one?

Whedon: We absolutely made sure of that. We always refer to the first seven episodes as the seven pilots. You can’t just shut down after episode one and it can’t be a train that’s left the station. So the first several episodes, the first five are all individual engagements where the premise is made clear and the cast of characters is made clear and relationships are made clear. Obviously there is some progression in those relationships, but there is nowhere where you have giant pieces of information missing, or where you have to sit through a three minute previously on in order to get to the show. We really care about that, and that was one place where we were completely on the same page as the network.

Who would win if Faith fought Echo? I just had to ask that stupid question.

Whedon: Faith would win, unless of course Echo had been imprinted with Faith’s personality, which is I’m going to call it a tie.

There seem to be a couple of different mystery threads between Echo trying to figure out who she is and the FBI agent’s search and the big creepy naked guy at the end of the first episode. How connected are those, and, if they are connected, how long might it be before we see them start to intertwine?

Whedon: We definitely start entwining things this season. There’s a lot of payoff in this season. There are some things that we draw out and then some things that we payoff fairly heavily, so that people don’t get the feeling that they’re just going to tease me every week.

Paul Ballard is going to be hunting the Dollhouse, and obviously, he’s going to be one step behind them for awhile, but then every now and then, he’s going to come up against them in a rather abrupt fashion, and he’s not going to be the reporter in The Hulk, always five feet behind, and this creepy naked guy will be explained.

Echo’s progression is a constant in the show, her search for herself, so that’s something that is being spun out episode by episode. It’s just different little aspects. It’s like she takes a little memento away from every engagement, so that will be a constant.

But we’re definitely laying in some threads, and there are definitely things that we are not explaining, but we kind of took some of the things we were going to hold for a few years and said hey, let’s just hit them in the head with a frying pan, because that will keep them excited, and it’s not like we lack for places to go.

My question is, is there a limiting factor with this technology? Could you kidnap 100 people, plug them into the machine, and have an army of super ninjas an hour later? And are there tons of people just walking around with pre-programmed personalities that don’t know it that are permanent?

Whedon: Both of those things will probably happen in later seasons, because that would be cool, and what you can accomplish and what you can destroy with this technology is something that we’re going to be asking increasing towards the end of the season. But for the first season, we did keep the premise fairly simple, and the Dollhouse is fairly strict about what they will use this technology for, so no ninja armies just yet, but keep watching the skies.

You have a film coming out next year called Cabin in the Woods, and I was curious, you call it a game changer, and I was curious why you’re calling it that.

Whedon: And you sadly will remain curious until you see it. Ultimately, it’s my take on the classic horror movie, which means that it is a classic horror movie, but we also have something specific to say about it, and we have a different way of saying it than we’ve seen before.

I think after it, everyone will love it so much that there will be no more need for movies. That’s how it’s going to be.

That will be frightening.

Whedon: People will just want to watch that movie over and over again, and they won’t make other ones.

I know you already touched on not doing anything for a comic series for Dollhouse, but you seem to have so much success with them, at least amongst fans. Do you have any others in the works? Are you going to do a Buffy season nine maybe?

Whedon: We definitely have a season nine in mind. We’re slogging our way through season eight. We’ve talked about doing more Serenity comics, and we’ve even talked to Dark Horse about a potential for some Cabin tie-ins.

Dollhouse is very simply the least visually oriented of all of these in a genre way, and therefore, lends itself the least to being a comic, but comics are in my blood as much as any other medium.

Also, I know rumors have been circulating for what seems like decades on the possibility of a Buffy movie based on the TV series. Any updates on that?

Whedon: Yes. There is not going to be one. I think that’s pretty much it. Nobody has ever broached the subject from the studio side. I think everybody is busy working, so I think that it probably won’t happen. That’s my guess.

Oh, it’s just a guess though?

Whedon: What am I, in charge? I never know. The landscape changes constantly, but until somebody who has millions and billions of dollars asks me that question, the answer is pretty much the same.

Okay, and any more Dr. Horribles in the works?

Whedon: We’re working on the works. That’s another case of everybody being very busy, but we are definitely committed to the idea of Dr. Horrible reappearing somehow.

We’ve heard a lot about Echo so far. What can you tell us about the other dolls that are in the Dollhouse, and how much real character development are we going to get from them between assignments?

Whedon: The other dolls, obviously we start out focusing on Echo, but the friends that she makes, in particular, Sierra, all have their own stories, their own reasons for being there, and their own reaction to things. As her friendships are formed more, we get to spend more time with the other dolls, and we get real tastes of how easy they have it, and how hard they do, how controlled their lives are, and then how out of control they can get, because they have no skills for dealing with the world.

I can’t really go into specifics, but we pretty much get to start putting everybody through the ringer long about halfway through. It starts to get complicated for all of them.

The Fox promo site call the Echo chamber, it features Eliza Dushku, she’s nude, looking very sexually available in the tagline get to know Echo intimately. Our readers at Pinkraygun are interested to know if this is a standard hot babe come-on, or a sexual objectification show being set up for subversion. Do you fully support this type of promo, and could you explain a little either way?

Whedon: Nice. Finally something that’s slightly more awful than me saying wake up and smell the “Acker”. I absolutely think that the question is valid and my answer is a little bit vague. I do support it. I saw the photo shoot, and I mostly support it because Eliza was very comfortable with it and very pleased with the photos. She’s very comfortable with her body.

The premise of the show involves these men and women being hired and obviously, some of that has to do with sex. This is something that was in the premise from the start. It came from my conversation with Eliza. We wanted to talk about it, she mentioned herself, wanted to talk about sexuality in whatever show she was doing, not just by virtue of her being all hot, but by really examining human sexuality and how it drives us and why it’s important to us.

And the idea of objectification versus identification, these are all things that I’ve been working on all the time. I didn’t actually know that tagline was in there. I just heard oh, they released those photos, so I didn’t know that, and it brings up what is ultimately the touchiest issue of this show, which is are we actually making a comment about the way people use each other that is useful and interesting and textured, or are we just putting her in a series of hot outfits and paying lip service to the idea of asking the questions.

And I think there are going to be things that people react to different. I think some things will offend some people, some things will not. There are things in it that I’m not positive I support, and some of the things that bother me don’t bother any of the other writers, and that’s something that I’ve been a little bit afraid of, but I haven’t shied away from, because part of the point is to look at these gray areas and to see what of this is unique in us, what is it we need from each other, how much do we objectify each other, how much do we use each other, both men and women, and what is actually virtuous.

One of the problems I ran into early on, and this was the only real dissonance between me and the network was they didn’t really want to deal with those issues having bought the show. They didn’t want to deal with the idea of what they are now clearly marketing, but the sexy side of it. It’s a classic network problem. You want to evoke this, but then they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to be specific about it, so we’ve struggled with that. We’ve struggled with making sure that the show doesn’t, by virtue of playing it safe, become offensive, because the idea of this show was never to play it safe. The idea of this show was always to be in your face about it.

So the answer to your question is kind of both. It is just a standard scantily clad babe come-on, and it is ultimately a deconstruction of same, but not so much that I would say it’s just done ironically and therefore, I am blameless for it. We are absolutely saying Eliza is a sexual creature, and people desire her for that reason.

The idea is to get the audience to look at their own desire, and to figure out what of it is acceptable, and what of it is kind of creepy. In order to do that, we go to a creepy place sometimes, and I will be very interested to see if people find it empowering or the other things. I may have crossed the line. Let’s find out.

Do you have any closing remarks?

Whedon: I think that one was it, so thank you all very much. I hope you like it, I hope you stick with it, and ultimately, I’m really proud of it, however confused I may sound. It all falls together very beautifully for me and I can’t wait for people to see it.

Dollhouse premieres this Friday, February 13 at 9/8 c on Fox.