Joss Whedon Interview
Exclusive interview by Michael Patrick Sullivan, contributing editor
Joss Whedon is one busy guy. This month
sees the release of not only the fifth season of his cult-favorite
Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, but also the only
season of his critically acclaimed, sci-fi western,
Firefly. He did have time enough to sit down with
us, however, to discuss his shows, how little time he has, merchandising, and
what else this famous producer has in store for fans coming up.
"I have this series and I have this son and between the two of them, one of them is always crying," Joss Whedon started our discussion, referring to his only show currently on the air, Angel, and his nearly one-year-old child. "That's not true," he clarified. "My son hardly ever cries, but the series. That's another story.
There are only twenty-four hours in a day, and raising a child certainly eats into that. "I have been spending an enormous amount of time with this tiny boy that I'm in love with. that's my son by the way. I don't want that to come out wrong."
Some of his time must, of course, go to professional pursuits. "I am working on a script for a Firefly movie, so that takes up some of my time," Whedon said. "Angel is my first priority because it's happening. That also takes up a lot of my time."
Whedon went on to explain, "It a question of finalizing the scripts and finalizing the cuts [on Angel]. I now have a staff who can take all of those processes a long way, particularly the scripts and the cuts. They come out very well before I even lay a hand on them."
"It's breaking the stories that takes up most of the time," Whedon continued. "It always is, it always has been. It's the hardest thing to do. To find the concept. Find the structure. Once that's done, my writers are great, they're great producers, and my cast is stalwart and true. I know that nine times out of ten it's going to be really close to home. Making up the story, that's always the hardest part."
And that hard part will continue for some time to come as the show, which had to work hard to get a half-season order for the fall, has been picked up for the rest of its season. The news of the renewal came as a bit of a surprise to the staff, not because they expected to get the axe, but because they thought they'd already had the full 22 episode order.
Whedon related that "the network called up and said 'We piggybacked you on the deal for another show,' I'm like 'Okay, so what you're saying to my writers is that they weren't picked up when they thought they were and now that they are it was because of something that has nothing to do with them. Okay. Great. Stop calling."
Whedon attributes Angel's continued life to the "vagaries of network finance" and improved ratings. The show Angel was dealt in tandem with is not another Whedon production. That does not rule out that possibility in the future. "I always have various projects that I cannot speak about because they exist only in my head, but you'd be amazed how much time they take up and sometimes they actually become something," said Whedon. "Eventually." He continued, "I do not have anything in the pipeline right now. I have some ideas but the cancellation of Firefly was a real body blow, probably much more than I'll ever tell to an interviewer."
And that is the reason why the DVD release of Firefly is so important to Whedon. "I loved that show and I think it was one of the greatest things I've ever done. It wasn't like they were saying 'just tweak this' and 'just tweak that.' It was over before it began."
Firefly's cancellation seems to be something of a theme in Whedon's life. "Most of the shows I loved have been cancelled. For months I bought TV Guide and looked for the next Ben Stiller Show." Whedon calls it a "Your Show of Shows for our generation," harkening back to the Sid Caesar comedy program popular in the early fifties.
Even with the DVD release of Firefly, the aforementioned Ben Stiller Show, and programs like the late Family Guy, Whedon doesn't think networks are learning not to be slow to promote and quick to cancel new shows. "I think that it is a particularly twitchy time, but I also think there will always be shows the networks don't get." Whedon also puts some of the blame on show creators, saying that producers have to meet the wants and needs of the network. "My only hope is that one day, I'll understand what it is the networks want."
Whedon seems to achieved that to some degree and is relieved that, thanks to renewal, no one will show up to the set of Angel and say "stop filming that now," but one day that phrase may well be spoken, and possibly by Whedon himself.
"It could happen," said Whedon. "I did that on Buffy. I was definitely done after seven years. A lot of people attribute that to [Sarah Michelle Gellar], but after seven years I was burnt out. I was just really worn down as we came into the seventh season. Of course we tried hard to make it great, but seven years is a long time and I was tired. Now were in the fifth year of Angel and I'm in a situation where we've gotten to the hundredth episode and I feel like the show has...found it's place in the world."
Whedon is ready, though, for the curtain to fall on Angel at the end of any given season (for whatever reason). "With Angel, we do as we have always done on Buffy where the season ender will either have a lot of closure or a huge amount of open-sure," providing a fitting end to both season and show.
Though Buffy the Vampire Slayer has ended, her merchandise lives on, and Whedon has his favorites. "There is my variant red-pants Willow [action figure]. There's the chess set, that's available in England, that uses the Buffy characters. Xander's the pawn. So I'm thinking, yeah, Xander's the pawn, but there's 16 of him!"
"I do love the cards," he continued. "Every year they hit me up to sign some and I agree. They send me like 2000 cards and I think 'what have i gotten myself into...?'"
While fatigue may set in after the first couple of dozen, Whedon makes certain that each autograph is more than just an inky squiggle. "I feel that if you have an autograph, you should be able to show it to someone and not have to tell them that that X may or may not be Joss Whedon's signature."
Whedon doesn't generally have input on most of the merchandising. "There is so much product, you have to give up control. I don't read the books. Not because I don't want to, I just don't have the time. In the very beginning we set down some guidelines [for the books and comics]. Things like 'no cheesecake.' That was about the extent of it."
If Whedon did have more input, one piece of merchandising that might exist, but doesn't, is a CD of composer Christophe Beck's work on the series.
"We've tried to get one since the Emmy (referring to Beck's win for Best Dramatic Underscore for the second season episode "Becoming Pt. 1"). "It took us seven years to get out two collections of songs...and we've been able to sneak some stuff on there." Whedon explained that mainstream interest (or rather lack thereof) in scoring work makes it "unbelievably difficult" to get a project of that sort off the ground. "There ain't no justice," he said.
Some unexpected merchandising input came when Whedon was asked to provide some voice work for the recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer video game "Chaos Bleeds" "There'd be these parts where it would say something like 'Something to say while killing Tara,' or 'Something to say while killing Willow.' It was very weird. These are supposed to be my friends. I tried to get in the spirit of it."
One very popular piece of ancillary merchandise that Whedon had extensive input into was the recent Dark Horse miniseries Fray, which told the tale of a future slayer. As one might expect from someone with a the extensive time drains that Whedon experiences, the typical monthly schedule of a comic book was not to be maintained.
"That's very embarrassing. There was a year between issues." Whedon said. "Firefly sort of popped up. I wasn't going to do a show for that season." Fox apparently had other plans. "All of the sudden, I had three shows on the air."
"Meanwhile the artist (Karl Moline) got a job at CrossGen Comics," Whedon continues. "They said 'You can finish Fray,' but it was kinda only on the weekends. It is much to my lasting shame that it took so long."
That shame will, no doubt, fade with the passage of time and the release of Fray collected in both trade paperback and hardcover form. Whedon's comics work continues with the forthcoming first issue of Tales of the Vampires, based on Buffy lore.
With so much of Whedon's time accounted for, there simply isn't room for some things. "I don't watch TV," said the television producer. "It's not because of any prejudice against television. It just that you can either watch TV or you can make TV. Between having my son and the show to make, TV just fell out of my life."
"I hear [TV] is really good," he jokes. "There's this reality thing they have now that I hear is really terrific."
As to what television he enjoyed in the days before he became a father, Whedon remarked "the last thing I watched religiously was, the first season of The West Wing."
It stands to reason that Whedon would follow the work of Aaron Sorkin, a master of dialogue, as Whedon is widely regarded as being as skilled in that area. Whedon's dialogue is very distinctive and has its roots in how Whedon himself talks.
"I use 'uber.' I would say that the dialogue on Buffy and Angel is somewhat more stylized than that of me and my friends, but not much more. On Firefly, I found myself talking the way I started writing on that show. I'm probably a bit more formal than my shows because of my education," Whedon said, referring partly to time spent in an English boarding school. "But I can mangle the English language."