Sci Fi Tracker: Q and A with Dollhouse’s Joss Whedon

by | March 19, 2009 at 6:11 PM | Dollhouse, Interviews, TV News

It’s true that Dollhouse‘s bodacious Barbies have not yet won over an epic viewing audience, nor too many critics….and yes, creator Joss Whedon’s widely-publicized struggles to reach a creative compromise with Fox executives are probably not wholly unrelated to the sluggish start for the series. But Whedonites may yet take heart – yesterday, Whedon fielded queries from the press and addressed why both his detractors and supporters ought to pipe down and watch the next few episodes before nailing a “Condemned!” sign to the front door of his doll-laden dreamhouse.

Following are highlights from the Q&A session:

One thing that the Whedonites keep coming back to regarding Dollhouse is they’re still looking for the wit or the humor, for the winks, for the snappy dialogue. Is that something that Dollhouse is necessarily going to have?

J. Whedon: There is humor in the show. There’s a lot in the episode after “Man on the Street.” But the fact of the matter is this is not a comedy. If there is a typical Whedon show, this is not it. It’s not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were. There’s definitely funny stuff coming up. There’s always moments of funny, but it doesn’t build like a comedy. It wasn’t designed to be a comedy. It’s not going to play that instrument. You have to do different things at different times. If people are feeling like it’s too serious, then either their expectation has to be changed, or we need to lighten up a little. But I don’t think they’re ever going to see the same sort of long, six page runs of just pure humor. This is not that show. You can’t turn it into pop culture referential fun house.

One of the things I hear from people who may have been a little bit reluctant to get into the show is what they call “the ick factor” of the premise. And Adelle tries to argue in that episode that most of the dolls are there voluntarily and they’re doing a good service for them by wiping out these other memories. But knowing that [involuntary slavery] is possible for at least one of the dolls, does that continue to make the show uncomfortable, maybe?

J. Whedon: I don’t know, maybe. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not going to lie. But for me, it’s part of what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with people who have power and are abusing it, and people who don’t and are trying to regain it. And in some instances, we want to show the dollhouse, and in the instance of November, I think he is providing a service or in the instance of as we’ll find out, Victor might be providing a service that somebody is looking for. And then in other instances, that is going to be abused and the ick factor gets very high. It seems to get high with Sierra quite a bit, I’m sorry to say, poor girl. She really gets put through it. But it’s not something we feel that we can shy away from without being a little hypocritical. Yes, I better stop.

Could you talk about the process of building up and hyping this particular episode [Friday's upcoming 'Man on the Street'], and whether you think there might have been some negative side effect to all the interviews you did where you emphasized that episode six was the one where you wanted people to really get hooked?

J. Whedon: You know, there may have been a negative side to it because we may have said, “The first five episodes are crap,” which I don’t believe. But……. there’s also the negativity of somebody saying, “Well, now he’s blaming the network for the other episodes.” We did our best to try and figure out how to put the show over with a new paradigm under the gun while we were in production or occasionally out of production. And then what happened with “Man on the Street,” it just came to me as a concept really quickly. I pitched it to the network and for the first time, there was a real simpatico. They went, “Oh, yes, we get that,” and it was a very simple thing.

And then I wrote it faster than anything I’d every written. It just poured out of me. It was like all of that brewing that we’ve been doing became the soup of that episode and so it really was a game changer for us on set and in production. The staff and the cast read it and a lot of tumblers fell into place. That’s how we felt about the episode.

There may be a negativity associated with hyping it, but for all of us episodes, like episode eight and a lot of the following episodes, really work on the model of “Man on the Street” more than anything else. So it was a big moment for us. It was a moment that we felt like we found a level and we were really proud of it. So I figure that other people may feel differently, but we walked away from shooting that episode going, okay, we just added a layer and we feel pretty excited about it.

Following up on that, could you talk about what the tumbler was that clicked, what the other layer was that you feel like you found?

J. Whedon: I think it was doing an episode that somebody who had never seen the show could walk in on, because it explains very clearly the premise. In fact, it’s kind of about explaining the premise and at the same time really getting under the skin of the dollhouse and of Paul’s character and of what’s going on with everybody and the workings of the place and coming at it sideways rather than just showing an engagement and flipping in some information around that engagement. This was one where we really got to look at the cogs of the clock, and that’s what gave it such momentum for us.

I’ve a question about Paul Ballard, who really blossoms [in the next few episodes]. Are we going to learn, or did I totally miss, why and how he came to be so obsessed with Caroline and the Dollhouse. Is that something we would learn in season one?

J. Whedon We don’t really go back into his story in the first season, the first of so many seasons that there will inevitably be. We feel like there’s a thorn in his side and we feel that we can push it further and twist it and possibly hit a vital organ. His obsession with Echo is rather than circling back to find its origin, we want to just make it really challenge him and make it as hard for him as possible to explain himself – why he’s doing what he’s doing.

You had mentioned on the last call that episode six is where things start coming back to what you had envisioned the series to be in the first place. I think you also had mentioned that the original pilot came at things most sideways and then the reconceived pilot was a little more head on. It seems like the show is getting better by doing the sideways thing rather than the head on thing. I’m just wondering how much of that was you finding the show, and how much of that was the network relenting and letting you get it to the place that you wanted?

J. Whedon: I think it was both…….it definitely contains elements that were pitched or developed by people at the network in terms of the motivations of the dollhouse and the feel of the politics of the thing and what’s going on – the thriller aspect. It was not, “Oh Dave, shut up and now I’ll do it my way.It’s very much full of the stuff that they were pitching. But it also is, storytelling wise, much more how I had envisioned coming at it. My original pilot was deliberately obtuse, and you had to come along and stay with it and figure it out.

This [Man on the Street episode], we go right up front: Here’s the situation – it’s a myth. This guy is looking for it, and all that stuff. We lay it out as simply as we did in the first five, but because we get to get inside the dollhouse more and have the events there take on much more resonance, it has got what I had hoped to bring to the other episodes. So I felt like it was really finding the code to a show that I can do my best work [and] that the network still really can get behind. It was a meeting of the minds.

With the character Boyd, he definitely seems more sympathetic and moralistic of the characters who work for the Dollhouse. We did see the flashback when he actually started working there. But I’m curious if we’ll learn a little more about why is he working there because it seems that in some ways, it’s hard to understand why he does the job in the first place.

J. Whedon: It is hard, and we keep asking the question. I will tell you without reservation that in this season, we don’t answer it.

Is it something you thought about, though, as far as plotting this through the back story?

J. Whedon: Yes, it’s way before we had it cast or even written, I had a feeling…… I knew what had happened with Boyd. There was a line from an episode that was…..it ultimately even filmed, but was tossed…..where he talks to Saunders, “None of us in here were next in line for pope. Everybody has a reason,” and rolling out how people came to this place is part of something we wanted to do. A little bit later on, when we had people invested in the characters enough to be asking just as you have, but we still have to wait on that. We’ll see.

I’ve seen a lot of fans speculate online whether any of the people we know as staff members could possibly be dolls. Obviously, you can’t tell us yes or no, but is that something you’ve thought about yourself about if the employees of a place like this would all be purely there?

J. Whedon: Yes, we talked about that and the different possibilities that we could tweak and the pasts that people have. How many layers of unreality can you have in somebody’s identity and to an extent, we get very excited. We have to pull ourselves back and say, if we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us. Now we’re not invested in anybody. So we’ve talked about it, but we’ve been very restrained with the concept, because you have to have some touchstone of reality, even in this world.

The scene with Patton Oswalt in Friday’s episode – was that an attempt to address the ick factor directly where he’s asked, “But then you slept with her?” and he says, “Well, yes, it’s a fantasy”? I think the resistance that a lot of viewers have been feeling has been that they get the part about the sleeping with people, but they’re not exactly sure why you’d hire a midwife or a safe cracker or whatever. Do you really think you’ve made that argument yet, or are you still working on it?

J. Whedon: You know, we do work on it. Again, it’s one of those things where, because it makes sense to us on some levels, we look back and go, “Are they with us?” But we finished shooting it before any of it aired, so it’s a little dicey there. There were times we talked about why some of the engagements, it seemed a little bit like you could find somebody who might be that person. That a lot of the rich people have just become a status thing. But we never spent too much time with that, because we were never sure how much of an issue that was going to be. It’s the one thing that’s difficult about making a show when it’s not airing, is you don’t have that feedback yet and you don’t know what is the thing they need to hear? So it gets addressed, but probably not as much as people would like.

The Patton Oswalt thing was an attempt to address the humanity of it – the beauty of somebody who wants something with context as opposed to something that is purely sexual, and then have Paul Ballard just completely not be convinced by any of it, just again and again, just hit him with it to say “No, but that doesn’t matter…..,” to show the two completely opposing viewpoints and articulate both of them.

I read that you’re still intending to leave TV for online media exclusively.

J. Whedon: I never actually said that. The new media is very attractive to me. It’s an open field. There’s a lot of freedom and I’m very afraid that that freedom will be taken away before the artistic community has a foothold in it. So for reasons both artistic and political, I wish very much to pursue new media.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m never going to do television. Everybody knows I had a rough time getting Dollhouse up-to-speed, but that doesn’t mean I’m never going to do television. I love television, and I love it in a different way than I love the Internet in a different way that I love movies. It’s a kind of storytelling that is just – the scope and the breadth and the depth that you can get from a TV show is unlike anything else, and I love it.

I’m shooting a movie right now that really went from script to preproduction in a matter of weeks. I did Dr. Horrible in a matter of days. And…..the television process is a grind for me that I’m not as used to as I was, but that doesn’t mean that I’m turning my back on it as a medium. I adore it. And the people I’ve dealt with have been honorable and honest. It’s just getting a TV show off the ground is rough waters, no matter what. And sometimes you feel up for a swim and sometimes you don’t.

The problem is that we have two completing opposing models: regular television, which is made for a lot of money, has a lot of crews, employs a lot of people. You can make a good deal of money in that business, so can the networks and whatnot. And then there’s in the Internet, which is not that at all. It’s basically, although with Dr. Horrible we made money, we didn’t make the kind of money that would make a studio stand up and prick its little ears up. Nor were we paying people the kind of dollars where they can just do that for a living.

With things like Julio, all that means is that shows are going to be shown on the Internet probably instead of reaping reruns on television, which means no residuals for the artists, which means that there’s almost no money model on the Internet. They’re trying to bring them together, but nobody knows how they’re going to mix, how they’re going to meld, where they’re going to meet.

At some point it would be great if they met, if we could have fast, well made, but not slow moving productions on the Internet that employed enough people to keep the community in a good place, but at the same time, cut some of the fat out, so that everybody was able to do more work and still feel secure in their making a living. But right now that model doesn’t exist, and none of us have figured out. Believe me, we’ve been talking about it, how to mix the two.

I wanted to get back to the choice of engagements again because it seemed to me when I heard the idea, that obviously the big mark for the dollhouse is weird, weird sexual engagements. But the first five episodes only just touched on that very little and even then, it wasn’t nearly as dark as one would expect. I wondering if that was a choice because you’re on network TV, or if you just want to wait to get the show to that place later?

J. Whedon: There were two things. One is, yes, some people at the network definitely said, “Well, wait a minute. This idea that we’ve bought is illegal and very racy and frightens us.” There was definitely an element of “Should we tone this down?” that for me was frustrating, because of what I was telling them was dangerous ground and was meant to be.

That is not to say that the only thing I pitched them was Echo [having] sex. The idea was always that she would be doing a lot of different things. I had a structure that the first few episodes was supposed to take us into whereby the type of engagement would always be shifting. That she would be solving crimes, that she would be helping people. That she would be committing crimes, that sexuality was a big part of it and the most sort of edgy and possibly titillating part of it, but not in any way the only part of it.

When I pitched, you always do it: it’s a blank meets blank. Mine was “It’s Alias meets Quantum Leap.Like I thought of her more than anything as kind of life coach, as a kind of the person you absolutely need in your life at a certain moment who will either change you or comfort you or take your life to the level that you want it to be. And that could be something nice, evil, sexual. It could be any number of things. It was never just meant to be the one. The one sort of took over because it’s the one that frightens people the most and also obviously interests them the most.

So, yes, I think we ended up not going there as much as we would have in the first few episodes, because we were still in that dialog with some of the people at the network. You end up doing a disservice if you just sort of gloss over it and never hit it head on.

Having said that, I still have no problem with the idea that somebody very rich and very far off in the mountains would hire the perfect midwife because the birth of my child, you don’t want a thinker.

I’ve been becoming more and more interested in the Boyd/Echo relationship. It seems like it’s of an interesting mirror to the Giles/Buffy relationship in that, Echo intrinsically trusts Boyd, where Buffy was constantly railing against the boundaries and the parameters that Giles set up. Are we going to see more of that? Is Boyd going to become, as he becomes more and more attached to Echo, is he going to become something of her life coach?

J. Whedon: You know, what he has the opportunity to do with her is going to shift. It’s definitely very much that same kind of de facto father figure. He definitely cares about her more than his job requires, but at the same time, he doesn’t have the same opportunities in these first 13 to really do anything to help her in that same sense. Their relationship is also going to have to shift a little in the ways that I’m not going to describe. But for us on the staff, that was sort of the bedrock place of no matter what happens with these guys, we know that he wants to protect her and it’s the only truly safe place in the dollhouse is his paternal feeling toward Echo.

Now that we know there are actually 20 dollhouses our there, this season are we going to cut away to any of them? Like a doll makes a phone call to her counterpart somewhere, anything like that?

J. Whedon: We do get to see one of the higher ups, and we talk about the other dollhouses. We didn’t want to do a Italian Wolfram and Hart gag, where we just use the same set and fill it with Italians. No, it’s one of my favorite things he ever did, but that’s because Angel was a lot sillier. So as the economy started to take a toll on our budget – that and the fact that we’ve thrown out our pilot, we hunkered down. So, no, you will not see Dollhouse Tokyo in this season, but, boy, I’d like to.

This goes back to what someone else was asking before about how we’re going to be left wondering if any of the employees are actually dolls themselves. Is that going to prevent us from seeing what Topher does outside of the dollhouse? Is he ever outside of the dollhouse, or do we just assume he lives there? Does he have a girlfriend that he goes to the movies with? Are you handcuffed, as far as showing that stuff?

J. Whedon: We’re not handcuffed. It’s just that at this point, we’re still interested in how they relate to our actives, and particularly Eliza. So we don’t spend a lot of time with people in their outside lives, although we do spend some. We will learn a little something about the private lives of some of our employees, but something we’re threading in lightly. That’s really something you would come to later in a season.

Our first 13 are basically, just take the baseball bat and keep on hitting and then later on if you have people hooked, those threads are easier to weave in because people, they’re more invested. But at this point, we’re just swinging for the bleacher emotionally in the second half, and so some things we will get to show because it will give us insights into the characters, but not everybody has an apartment set there.

Just wondering if you’re going to be switching anybody out on the show, any other [Whedon alumns]?

J. Whedon: Well, I did mention that Felicia Day was going to appear in an episode, and that’s pretty much it for Buffy. Most of them are, I’m happy to say, working, but I do like to see the gang, but we have to establish to reality of this world before we can bring in somebody without it being too jarring. Although we have one episode with a guy who looks a lot like Nick Brendan, and his character’s name is Nicholas, and that was a terrible idea. We should have never named him Nicholas because every time I see his footage, I go, “Hey, wait a minute……oh, I’m confused.”

Dollhouse airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. Pacific/Eastern time on FOX. And you can catch past episodes right here on Fancast.