Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Press tour bonus: Joss Whedon talks 'Dollhouse'

Okay, I lied. One final press tour-related blog entry. (Yeah, like you can sleep easily the night before a big trip.)

One of today's set visits was to "Dollhouse," and last night, one of the Fox publicists sent us a link to a Joss Whedon-written blog entry explaining that -- as happened with "Firefly," also by Whedon, also for Fox -- the original "Dollhouse" pilot was going to air later in the season rather than as the first episode. It's a very funny, very thorough explanation -- Joss is both very funny and very thorough in general -- and I strongly suggest you go take a gander at it, and then after the jump I'll add some additional information and some excerpts from the one-on-one interview I did with Joss after the set visit.

Again, I remember the scheduling idiocy with "Firefly," but the two situations don't sound the same. They sound almost opposite, in fact, as the episode switcheroo on "Firefly" made the show almost incompreshensible, where this one is designed to make the strange world make more sense. So I'm willing to trust Joss on this one and see what happens.

The set for "Dollhouse" -- and, in cse you didn't know, the show stars Eliza Dushku as a woman employed by an underground, highly illegal group that wipes her memory and personality and routinely replaces it with other personas so she can perform various services for extremely wealthy clients -- was just as amazing at first glance as the "Serenity" set was when we toured it back in summer of '02.

After Joss and Eliza showed the place off, they sat down for a brief press conference. Joss explained that the show was inspired by a career pep talk he gave her last summer where he tried to tell her all the different kinds of parts she could play, and she talked about how directors and producers usually think they know what's best for her and try to impose their idea of her screen persona onto her. And Joss insisted, again, that the new pilot situation isn't really analagous to "Firefly."

When that was done, I stuck around to do a quick solo interview. I'll be saving a good chunk of it for much closer to when the show debuts in January, but here are the timeliest excerpts, about both the scheduling situation and some of the broad strokes of what we can expect from the series:

It was funny reading your blog entry -- not just because the jokes were good, but because you were basically able to predict every single reaction the fans were going to have, we were going to have, to this. You really don't need any of us anymore, do you? You can do this on your own.

And I really asked myself the tough questions.

I knew that if this came out without me explaining it, that it would cause panic in certain circles or just give the show this air of, (whiny Gilbert Gottfried voice), 'Oh, it's not doing well. It's not so good. They're not behind it!' Everyone would turn into Gilbert Gottfried, I don't know why. When the fact is, this is the same process every show I've done has gone through. This one's just under a microscope. If some people were like, 'Joss is trying to comfort us but I'm not that comforted,' then my response is, 'That's okay. I'm not saying everything is perfect. If everything was perfect, this wouldn't happen.' But even if eerything is perfect, that doesn't mean the show's going to go. Doesn't mean America's going to tune in. You can't predict that. What you can do is work with your partners, and I have the same partners on the production end, very different partners on the network end. But the same network, and you have to find the middle ground.

I had to let people know so it didn't become this... scandale!

It sounds like this is the opposite of what happened with "Firefly," where they wanted to get rid of the episode that would explain what the hell was going on.

It's, I think, only similar in that they wanted an episode that would show what people are going to get every week. That's a similar mandate to what happened with "The Train Job." (the episode that ran first instead of the pilot) But the problem with "The Train Job" was that it was coming off a two-hour episode where nine people had just met for the first time. So it had more exposition than it had shots. I still think it's a good episode, dammit!

Whereas with this, they're already in the process. Nobody saw this coming except me. I'm the one who said, 'If you try to force what you have into what they want and it pleases neither of you, then it will not please America.' Just doesn't happen. So rather than shift all that, I thought if we put all the introduction before this one, that'll work better. And then a lot of what I put into this episode (the pilot) will have more resonance because we'll have spent an episode with the characters, who are interacting pretty intensely in that episode. It's a boon for the audience.

Stylistically, tonally, visually, how will this compare to your previous shows?

I've got the same crew I had on "Angel," and this shares some of the noir elements that Angel had. There's a dark suspsnese element to it. At the same time, we want to use LA, and I'm pleased to say she can go out during the day, unlike the guy on "Angel." I want it to have a very sort of lovely, glamorous, kind of exciting, lush feel to it.

I'm curious about the extent the imprint -- the means by which Dushku's handlers give her these new personas -- can change her. Can it give her abilities, or is it just her personality?

It can give you abilities. Not superhuman abilities, but muscle memory is part of a package. You could be conditioned to be a pianist, an assassin, to be great at anything. Just not inhuman.

And you could do anything to Eliza's personality that you wanted, right? You could make her think she was a guy if you wanted -- not that, even as I ask that, I could imagine anybody wanting to make that request.

I suppose. Nobody has come in to request or pitched that story yet. She might be a guy jumping over a shark, I'm not sure.

You know why I'm really bummed? They canceled "Shark," so I never had a chance to use the phrase, "Man, that show really swam under the Fonz."

(We then talk for a while about some of the familiar tropes of the Whedon-verse, and in discussing one meta gag from the "Serenity" movie, he says it would be "too broad for 'Dollhouse," which leads to...)

So how would you describe the humor on this new show? I can't imagine you doing one without any humor at all.

It's just person humor. It's the reality of people interacting. It's less, 'Let's make fun of the structure of a scene' than just 'We are real people in a somewhat fantastical situation, and we're going to crack a few.' Cause we're never not. Humor keeps us alive. Humor and food. Don't forget food. You can go a week without laughing.


afoglia said...

Alan, do you have any idea how they're going to handle character development if two (or three if you count Dushku) of the main characters have their memories wiped every week? Sounds like it could get tedious.

I'm worried this is going to be too dark. Whedon is best with some humor. Too dark, and it'll be fourth season Angel or sixth season Buffy.

And no Dr. Horrible questions? For shame...

Alan Sepinwall said...

Anthony, I believe part of the point is that the memory wiping winds up not being as thorough as had been designed, so that's where the character growth, presumably, would come from.

And I had, like, seven minutes in which to ask a whole lotta questions about this one show. I'm sure Joss will have plenty to say on Dr. Horrible this weekend at Comic-Con.

dark tyler said...

If I'm getting this right, we're probably going to end up with a tone similar to season 5 of 'Angel', which was very dark thematically but more colorful in tone than one would expect, given the arc. So I'm actually OK with that.

But still, I wanna reproduce a bit from an interview he gave at the Vulture, on the same day he announced the 'Dollhouse' second pilot:

"Is that the new catchphrase?" It's a little throwaway thing that I wish I had thrown away. But you know what, it has the purity of being … well, pure, for one thing. Not having a ton of compromise involved. It's as if our ids wrote a musical.

Anonymous said...

I find myself really unenthused about Dollhouse, since the actors Joss falls in love with are almost always the ones I find most grating to watch, and Dushku's an almost comically terrible actress. At least he hasn't designed a series as a Tom Lenk showcase. Yet.

K J Gillenwater said...

Anonymous, I will agree with you about the Eliza Dushku as main character decision. I think she's not nearly a good enough actress to pull it off.

The main Dollhouse lady, the English actress, however, is fabulous in everything I've seen her in. So I have high hopes for her.

Tahmoh...well, he's not my favorite BSG actor. Ill be curious to see him in something new. However, the clip I saw with him and Eliza was pretty dull.

What I find interesting is that if this were any show but "Dollhouse," I think there would be a lot more doubt on this site and others about the show itself. As in, "must be in trouble if they're totally scrapping the pilot." But I don't seem to hear that anywhere on the 'net. Makes me wonder about the show...

Anonymous said...

yeah Joss is smart and funny! I really do hope that it doesn't go too dark, mix it up with a little humor and we got something worthwhile!

talk show spoof Video?

Mrglass said...

Can't. Wait. I just hope it gets a better timeslot than Monday 8pm (let's hope Fringe crashes and burns in the ratings).

Eliza Dushku is a better actress than Sarah Michelle Gellar, and the latter was good enough for 7 seasons of Buffy.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

"Eliza Dushku is a better actress than Sarah Michelle Gellar"

No, she isn't. Dushku is profoundly limited as an actress -- she has, at most, three line readings in her repertoire -- and pretty much lacks anything resembling charm or presence.

afoglia said...

Back to Dr. Horrible, I need to go on the record as immediately thinking Bad Horse was an actual horse as soon as I heard the name. I'm apparently the only one in the world who thought that.

Also, I thought "Is that the new catchphrase?" was funny, but it was mostly the delivery of it and Horrible's response.

David Hanlon said...

Hey Alan,

What was the meta-gag in Serenity?

Bobman said...

I like Dushku, I think she's all right. I haven't seen her in enough to pass as much judgment as some here, but I remember hearing her referred to as "what Jessica Alba would be if she could act."

Alan Sepinwall said...

What was the meta-gag in Serenity?

When the bad guy gives the big speech about how badly he's going to mess up Mal, and so Mal just draws his gun and shoots the guy.

Anonymous said...

loved the swam under the Fonz line so much I had to call up my brother and read it to him. he said, Alan, right?

It wasn't till I was reading thru it aloud (8favorite family activity) thatt i realized it was Joss.

you must be doing something right if people think you are as funny as Joss.

Anonymous said...

I'm smelling bomb here. How will they sustain this lame premise for 100 ep's?

Anonymous said...

Eliza's gotten better. Her initial run on Buffy was occasionally painful. Her post-coma stint on Angel showed someone desperately trying to get better. She was much better in the time-lapse series than I would've ever expected. I'll definitely give this show a shot, but I agree that I'm not certain Eliza can pull off completely different personalities week to week.

And, yes, Gellar is a much more versatile actor.