Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dollhouse: Joss Whedon Q&A

In addition to my review of "Dollhouse," I interviewed creator Joss Whedon about all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that have led up to the show's Friday night premiere...

I got a chance to watch episodes two and four today. One of the things that struck me, taking those into account with the new premiere -- in three out of these first four episodes, they're about the mission going terribly awry, and in at least two of them, they go awry because there's something wrong with the imprint process. I'm wondering why you decided to go to that territory this early in the series.

Part of that is that the episodes got sort of re-shfufled, and part of it is, it's a good way to explain the process, to really highlight it is to have it go wrong. We're trying to create a balance between having something exciting that's Dollhouse-specific happen without making the Dollhouse the most inefficient, most incompetent place in the world. To see those three back to back you might go, (Bugs Bunny/Edward G. Robinson voice) "Sayyy....wait a minute..." But there's always going to be the question of, "Is what she's doing a function of us not being ready, or her being too self-aware, or is somebody messing with us?" There's always going to be some kind of ghosts in the machine.

Just to play devil's advocate for a second, it's a concept that you need the audience to buy into, that this would be something that people would want to buy, as opposed to getting the world's best safecracker or whatever. Having it blow up in their faces this many times early on -- do you worry about it getting in the way of people buying into the concept?

Well, what you're watching is not the first three, but, uh, my answer is, "Gee, I hope not!" But the question is a fair one.

You said the episode order had been re-jiggered a little bit. Much has been written by you and by others about the shelving of the original pilot and other things. Can you talk about the decision behind why these are the episodes leading off?

The bow-hunting episode came second, because -- what, are you kidding? Fox was like, "Bow-hunting? 'Most Dangerous Game'? You had me at helloooo!" It had the kind of adventure and excitement that they absolutely wanted to see in the show. That had originally been episode eight. Obviously, we changed some things to make it work better as a second episode, but some of those decisions came through that way. And some of them was just, "Which script is ready to shoot?" There was a certain amount of chaos. But tracking everything, it does all fall together in a way that makes sense. It shouldn't feel too random when people see it. And we always look at the first bunch as a series of pilots. What we want to make clear is there is a certain thing we do, and there is a certain thing that happens that is trouble, which is basically Echo. The most important thing about the dollhouse is that this girl is not a doll.

Well, one of the things that's always stood out to me about your shows is the ability to balance -- I don't want to say "procedural," but these episodic storylines with the larger arcs. Has that proven to be particularly challenging on this show?

It's been the hardest, because you're not just finding a guest star that you have to create a world around that you care about in the space of a few minutes, but you also are asking Eliza to play a guest star that you create a world around and have to care about in a few minutes. Every episode is a pilot for her, because she's always playing somebody new. So it has been particularly challenging.

At the same time, having her in all of these worlds, you there's always that slight x-factor of her own self-awareness, or whatever aspect it is we play. So it's rewarding once you figure it out, but it's absolutely been the hardest part. That, for me, is always the hardest part. The stuff about between the characters who run the place, seeing them change week to week -- that's the stuff that's easiest and exciting. But creating the procedural aspect of it, that's not a given talent for me. That's something I have to exercise and learn from books.

The show's basically an anthology, or at least her missions give you an anthological element. Obviously, you knew that would be the way it worked when you went into it.

That's the way we wanted it, but at the same time, over the second half of the season, we're going to be seeing more about how the place works and the people who work it. Obviously, like the bow-hunting episode has a good bit of backstory, so we understand her relationship with her handler... but then it also contains the big A-story of, "Oh, he's coming to get me!"

Can you talk about the anthological things -- is this giving you an opportunity, whether you've been good at it or not, whether you have to read up on it or not -- has it been fun to be able to do an adventure show, or a heist show, or whatever, within the confines of what you usually do?

It is fun. It's hard. It is hard work. I have enormous respect for the people who run through this kind of thing every week. Making things look easy has been the hardest part of all. It's an exhausting thing, but once you've got it, once you're in the world and it's falling together, it's very exciting. And it's nice to be exercising different muscles, playing different genres. We have an episode later in the season where she's in the body of a woman who's died and is trying to figure out who killed her. That's a classic sort of tale, and getting to play that is completely different from what we're doing in these (early) episodes. Once you've found that, yeah, it's a lot of fun.

Have there been any types of stories that you were surprised to learn you were good at, or that it was fun to work in?

Every show I've ever done has covered pretty much every genre, so it's hard to surprise myself at this point. I think, ultimately, things like "Gray Hour," heist stuff which I haven't done as much of, watching that work, and watching that fall together -- and that, ultimately, isn't about finding out I'm good at something, but remembering that Liz (Craft) and Sarah (Fain) are good at it -- that's the sort of thing I haven't done a lot of, and it is a lot of fun.

Well, when you say you've been doing some research, did you just mean that you need a higher level of verisimilitude for some of these worlds than you might have on "Buffy"?

Yeah, on "Buffy," it was, as (David) Greenwalt so perfectly put it, "Don't touch the phlebotinum in Jar C!" That's how it worked. Magic is a writer's best friend, and this is not that. But, what's exciting is finding out stuff about how the brain works and realizing anything is possible, and there's a reason for it. That stuff is exciting: that we're so close to science with our science fiction.

Getting back to what you said earlier about how the audience has to care about Eliza in whatever mode she's in in a given week, the one constant is her as Echo. But Echo, as we're reminded over and over, has very little personality to her. When she's Echo, do you expect the audience to care for her, or is Boyd (Echo's handler, played by Harry Lennix) or Topher (the computer genius who programs Echo's personalities, played by Fran Kranz) or one of the other characters supposed to be the one the audience latches onto?

I think, ultimately, their identification should shift more than they expect it to. Because the worst of them is, at times, going to be the person where the audience goes, "Oh, I've done that." Or, "I believe that." Or, "that's who I would be in the situation." But Echo is our chief identification figure and, yes, she is a bit of a blank slate -- but never as blank as they would like. It's not like we're writing monologues for Echo and she's learning and she's crying, but her extreme innocence, her extreme vulnerability, and yet the sense that there is something unquenchable beneath that -- I think that makes her really sympathetic as a character. I do think she's someone the audience can latch onto.

Having said that, she appears in an episode for as long as she needs to, and then we do our imprinting.

You've said that you were drawn to the idea out of your respect for Eliza's versatility, and she gets to show a lot of different colors in the episodes I've seen. But realistically, are there certain kinds of characters that she just can't play by virtue of age or gender or size or anything?

Obviously, she's always going to be a woman, and she's obviously always going to be (young), but, like I said, we do do an episode where she's an older person but in the body of (Eliza), and it's a lot of fun to see her physicality and her phrasings with that mind in her body. But, yeah, ultimately, there's a reason why there are several dolls: because people are looking for different things. There's limitations to what anybody can play, with the exception of one or two people. It's never about disguises. She can't put on a wig, because someone could pull it off. She has to be the person she says she is. That would limit anybody. But it's not like we're out of ideas for what she could be playing. The writers keep coming to me and going, "You know what would be great?" And I say, "Yes, that would be great. But we've shot all our episodes. We'd have to make more episodes to do that. Maybe we will."

The early episodes, you have to repeat the pilot over and over again. But what I noticed is that in the new first episode, there's quite a bit of explanation about why people would want to hire an active as opposed to getting a specialist, and there's less of that going forward. Do you think the premise is something you're better off not trying to explain too much?

Well, sometimes you want to hit it and sometimes you don't. Every now and then, we go, "Okay, is this something we absoultely need an active for?" And if it's not, it's something we need to talk about. And if it is, sometimes we need to explain why. We feel that out as we go. It's different for each engagement. But you've got to take a leap of faith, obviously, with any science fiction show -- and not just a leap of faith but a "Quantum Leap" of faith. Because that, as much as any other show, that was the model for this one. It's on a case-by-case, basically.

Well, this strikes me as "Quantum Leap" if Sam actually became each of those people instead of having to fake it.

He was doing something particular. He existed at an important moment in someone's life, and every week had a different feel to it. And that, I loved. That, for all the "Alias" comparisons, and guns and this and that, that is the point of an active: they are the thing a person needs then, whatever it may be.

People have been bringing up "Alias," and there's an assumption that you'll come in and Eliza will have a gun in each hand. And in the premiere, you deliberately have her play a character who is all brains and not brawn.

Yes. It would be easy to say, "Now... she's imprinted with ninja skills. And this week... imprinted with ninja skills! And next week... a different ninja! Tonight, on 'Ninja Skills!'" So you have to make it clear that that's not what everybody needs all the time.

Well, Boyd does ask in the second episode why they don't all have default ninja skills, and I guess that's a question the fanboys were going to be asking. You get to circumvent that a little.

You've got to think like a fanboy, especially in the world of hard fans.

A friend of mine who read a version of the original pilot script that leaked online says that it felt more like the start of a 13-hour movie, whereas the final version of the pilot seems very much like the start of a TV series.

I think that's fair. I think that's why it was redone. The mandate from the network was very much, "Give me a standalone where the audience knows what the structure of the show is, and where it ends so the audience wants to come back next week, but not just because you put out a carrot and they know they're going to be chasing that carrot for six years." And I agree with that. Some of the best stuff we're doing with the show is arc stuff, but at the same time, if the adventure of the week isn't compelling, and it's just a string of compelling scenes where nothing is resolved -- that kind of television frustrates me enormously. I'd say we want to do both. We want people to feel like they can watch it when they want to, week to week, or they can watch a 13-hour movie.

Well, I'm not going to ask you if you know already what the smoke monster is, but how much of a long-term plan do you have? The Tahmoh (Penikett) character, for instance, I'm sure there's a way he can work long-term, but I'm not seeing it, because I'm not you.

When I presented the show to the network, I presented a five-year plan. And I'll tell you right now, Tahmoh is not going to be the reporter from the Hulk, showing up one step after they're done for five years. He gets his feet wet pretty early on. Things are going to get very strange and very ugly for everybody as soon as I can make it that way. Because, ultimately, the premise has in it something easy to understand -- she becomes somebody different -- what's going on around her can change as much as we like, so it doesn't get static.

Overall, how would you compare the experience of making this season to having done "Firefly" or even the first years of "Buffy" or "Angel"?

All of them were hard. This has been less hard in some ways and harder in others. And a lot of that has to do with context. We're coming off the strike, I'm a father now, so there are certain things that make it harder for me to engage in the process. And because this show is a complicated show tonally, when things were shifting, I had to be very careful to look at the ground under my feet to be sure where I was. A show like "Firefly," I knew exactly what I was doing. The problem was, nobody else did, except the people making it.

In this case, I feel much more like I'm in it with the network. We all know the kind of feeling we want to have about the show, even if we're struggling how we come at it. I sometimes have been in a very dark place, but I always felt like I was being dealt with honestly. Which meant I didn't have anybody to blame if it didn't work, which meant I was in a very dark place.

Because the obvious fanboy narrative is, "Poor Joss, being martyred by the evil Fox executives once again."

Well, just print the legend! Let's not debunk that one! "Henry Fonda did a great job in 'Fort Apache'! What are you talking about?" The fact of the matter is, there is an element of having the rug pulled out from under you, and an element of "This is how it always works, and a good showrunner is a collaborator." If the show doesn't work, they gave me all the support, all the money, the ideas of how the show should present itself. None of them interfered with the basic premise of the show, or I would have walked away. If it doesn't work, I would be very happy for everybody to blame the studio as much as possible, but that's not what I'm going to be thinking when I'm lying in bed at night, going, "Oops!"

So you feel like the finished product is the show that you wanted to make? Or, at least, a show that you're happy to have featuring the Joss Whedon name?

The changes that we made ultimately ended up taking us exactly where we wanted to go. When we get to the second half of the season, all of the episodes are, with one exception, are episodes we had already thought up. The season closers are what we intended to do. I feel like we have an amazing cast, the best first-year staff I can remember having. I feel like we pulled it off, we did something I'm really proud of. As always, it took a while to figure out. I still haven't figure out "Angel," though. I still haven't figured out what the show was supposed to be about.

I feel like if people give it a chance, they're going to see some extraordinary stuff.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com

19 comments:

Rob Rogers said...

Nice interview, Alan. I really enjoyed it and like how you asked some tough, well thought-out questions.

I'm really hoping for this show to be good.

Robert said...

That last comment about Angel really gets to me as Season 5 was probably the highpoint of the Buffyverse, and much better than the parent show's final season. While the first season was a little rough in finding its footings (like all Whedon; including the first 10 minutes of Dr. Horrible), it became an excellent show about redemption and fighting against the odds.

Jenny said...

No interview with Joss on the topic of this show has managed to do much to abate my fears about this show and its eventual fate. This one was no different.

My opinion here might be coloured by the fact that I was very unimpressed with the final act of Dr. Horrible, so I'm wondering if Joss is off his game a bit lately.

Rob Rogers said...

@Jenny, yes, I kind of agree with you. But you know, I think I've decided I don't like ANY of Whedon's endings: Buffy, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible: He takes a very dark, "salt the earth" approach with characters I've grown attached to, and I end up wishing things had turned out very differently. And yes, @Robert, the beginnings can be rough, too.

But some of that middle stuff? Great, great television.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan, great interview and I will spread it around. It's always nice to see Joss just getting into the subject and not trying to be "Joss Whedon"

I have no more confidence in the show (LESS knowing that things are all out of order) surviving, but of course I'll watch it and I'm sure I'll love it like a good fangirl.

-EmeraldLiz

Bitsy said...

There's an article in this month's Rolling Stone where Whedon says he's never going to do another TV show, mostly because Fox screwed him over on Firefly and now this show.

Kensington said...

Instead of swearing off television, maybe Joss should just swear off doing television with FOX.

Now, maybe FOX is the only network that will give him the time of day, but maybe he should aim at something less conventional like AMC, Showtime or USA.

Craig Ranapia said...

He takes a very dark, "salt the earth" approach with characters I've grown attached to, and I end up wishing things had turned out very differently.

Going to pick a nit on that one, but I liked both the final series of 'Buffy' and the end of 'Angel'. (The line forms on my left and please don't mark the face.) Sorry, but if you're going to keep raising the stakes -- and the Big Bad doesn't get Bigger or Badder than the eternal personification of Absolute Evil, or a quixotic full-frontal assault on the 'Senior Partners' of Wolfram & Hart --, there comes a point where hitting the reset button with a rapid fire round of pop-cult savvy zingers not only doesn't work, but it's cheap and disrespectful to both the characters and the viewers.

Discuss.

Bitsy said...

Maybe he should, Kensington, but he's become so successful with Dr. Horrible. He says he wants to pursue the internet arena further, because he won't have to compromise his vision. I don't know, I just don't think AMC would go for Whedon's cult geek genre. USA, maybe, but it still seems somehow wrong. He's treating the internet like it's this new frontier that he wants to seize before the execs get to that, too.

Kel V Morris said...

The finale of Angel was great, I do love that one. But the finale of Buffy? Ugh. Lame, left-field revelations, aggressively stupid choices made by the heroes, which at least made the villains up their game by being more aggressively stupid, cheap pathos, cheap attempts at evoking nostalgia. See how awful it was? How many years has it been, and I can still go on about it for that long?

I don't think awful endings are a sign of Whedon off his game, I think that's how he rolls. I think Fox did him a huge favor canceling Firefly before he could kill it.

Joss the Martyr has been really bugging me, too. I'll gladly accept a development deal from Fox, they can give it any time slot they please, I won't complain.

I have enjoyed all of his stuff, on some level, but I'm not confident in Dollhouse at all.

Craig Ranapia said...

USA, maybe, but it still seems somehow wrong.

Considering USA cancelled 'The Dead Zone' (which I'll miss, but was creatively out of steam) and 'The 4400' (an under-rated effort, which shouldn't have been left dangling on one hell of a cliff-hanger), I wouldn't want to pitch any SF-related projects there for a while.

'Burn Notice' (which I adore), 'Monk' (solid but getting tired), and 'Psych' (hate it), appear to be where USA's creative head is at. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as they say... :)

Anonymous said...

Ive said HBO for awhile, they've got True Blood cred (for whatever insane reason) and any Whedon project would likely be well received along with that. Plus they need ANYTHING right now.

Don't forget Joss gave up Wonder Woman. The man has a few flaws which could be his own undoing.

-EmeraldLiz

AndyW said...

Heyyyyy, I'll defend the Buffy ending. Yeah, plot-wise there were a bunch of holes, but the actual end of the ending, with Sunnydale reduced to a smoking crater? That was a terrific final image.

Ryan said...

I'll considering watching this show once it gets renewed. That is to say, probably never.

Number Five said...

Terrific interview...gave us lots to chew on.

It still seems like, though, that Fox wanted to make the show more episodic, remove the edges, etc, and while Whedon is willing to work within those constraints, he'd rather have made the show he originally wanted to make. It's their great paradox...Fox will order pilots and series that no other network will order, but they don't have the confidence to see them through and that hurts them.

As long as it's not terrible, I'm definitely willing to see what the back half is like, as it sounds like those episodes are closer to Whedon's original ideas.

mktgfembot said...

I always love Joss's interviews. He is just so real. And I think his character portrayals and overall story arcs are simply brilliant.

I have to say that in spite of some (normal) suspension of disbelief issues, Buffy was the greatest long term work I've ever seen. Almost every episode was so rich and complex with layers of realism and surrealism and vulnerability and courage that "everyman" can usually identify with in some way.

The only misstep I ever saw in Joss's work was Angel season 4. I don't know wtf happened, but it was really bad. The 5th season, particularly the last episode was superb. I find it strange that he still doesn't understand Angel... but to me that is some of the brilliance of his work - its so life like. Not some fairytale crap we are spoon-fed in 44 minutes or less that ties off in a neat little bow.

Dr. Horrible was fantastic. I hope to see more.

I don't like the concept of the Dollhouse... I don't like most cops/detective shows... but I will give it try. Eliza is incredible, and I can't wait to see her portrayal as Echo.

I wish Fox would have gone forward with Tru Calling because that was a great show. I still don't get why that was cancelled.

Anyhow, looks like a great cast and fantastic writing team for Dollhouse even though I am not too keen on the genre. I'll watch every episode no matter what. Joss rocks!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm just in a different space then you all, but I thought the last season of Buffy was one of the best (it had a big vision, and it went outside the Sunnydale universe in terms of acknowledging that there was more to a slayer universe than Buffy, Faith, and Giles). Not to mention, when it's your last season, you really can't get bigger evil than Evil. I thought Angel went off a cliff, and excused it because (if I have my timetables right), Whedon was putting all his energies into Firefly and Buffy at the time. Angel just got so...melodramatic in the pathetic sense...lots of sex and insertion of storylines where they didn't originally exist (that whole thing with Cordelia coming back with this sleeper demon in her thing was ridiculous). Anyway, I think Dollhouse could be interesting. I hate it when episodes are out of order but I guess we can always wait and see how the order turns out on the DVDs. Hopefully Fox will hold onto this show long enough for it to get a good run.

ribbie said...

"Firefly" was aired out of sequence in its initial run on FOX (was the pilot EVER broadcast?) and never recovered. I remember thinking at the time, "What the hell is this? Babylon 5 at the OK Corral?" When watched in sequence it was freakin' brilliant. It is a very bad sign to me that Fox is working their magic again with "Dollhouse". The fact that it is airing in the same Friday graveyard slot that Firefly was in doesn't exactly fill me with confidence either. I love Joss' work, but I don't think the Sarah Connor Chronicles or Dollhouse will be around very long. I hope I am wrong.

PS- I would take a season (or even an episode) of Buffy or Angel ANY day of the week compared to some of the junk that passes for action/drama on TV these days.

ilelp4ever said...

I think anything Joss does will be a sucess just because he did it. I love everything he has done and will always show my continued support.