What follows is the first in a series of one-on-one interviews conducted during the 2009 FOX Midseason Press Junket. We'll post each as they relate to that week's premieres. In this case though, we're hard pressed to sit on a chat with "Dollhouse" creator Joss Whedon.
Brian Ford Sullivan: Having done films with "Serenity" and the internet with "Dr. Horrible," what's the draw for you in going back to television?
Joss Whedon: Well, there are two different dreams - and one of them is to do something, you know, epic in scope and large like a TV show where you can spend years examining the lives of these characters with the microscope of my love. And there's movies where I don't know how else to say this - the shit is big. [Laughs.] And that's not nothing. There's a reason for that. And then there's the internet where my id can just explode and I plan as soon as humanly possible to get back to that because that to me is very exciting. I am ultimately agnostic about medium. I love telling stories. I love radio, I mean narrative radio... the old shows... "Mystery Theatre" with E.G. Marshall... and so wherever the next story is is where I go.
And "Dollhouse," it just sort of happened [over] lunch with Eliza [Dushku]. I had been pursuing what had ultimately become the internet model, and at that time I was thinking about DVDs. It was just, how do I do stuff outside the system on the cheap and just get some stories out there. I developed "Wonder Woman" to no avail. I developed "Goners" to no avail. I was getting tired of not telling stories. So I was interested in pursuing that. Then I went to lunch [with Eliza], I came back and I was like, "I think I'm doing a show for FOX. Because I think this is gonna happen now." It was just very organic, you just have to be ready for the next thing, to know what it is, to not turn your nose up at it because you had a different plan.
Brian Ford Sullivan: In terms of "Dollhouse" itself, I know you shot a new pilot - was there a specific change in the concept of the show you were looking to do?
Joss Whedon: It was more... in the emphasis and the feel of the show and the way it rolled out. The things that the network clearly wanted to... shooting a new pilot was my idea. Because the network, they were looking for something specific. I thought I delivered it because they were very excited about the script. They weren't as excited about the show so we talked about why and why and why and I figured out what they wanted. We talked about those things and it was obvious they wanted more of an action feel than a noir feel. What I had done was very sort of dark and moody. And they wanted a show, a first episode that absolutely laid out the structure of the show, which is - Echo is at the Dollhouse, she is imprinted for an engagement, she goes on the engagement, she comes back from the engagement into the Dollhouse. This is how it works.
They wanted, the first thing I wrote was sort of laying out how that would happen... in the next episode. They were like, "No, we want it to happen in [this] episode so people get it from that." And then, you know, upping the action and deciding to roll out... change certain events that ultimately made it so that I just junked the other pilot. This won't be the second episode because this isn't what the network wants, this isn't the kind of show they want. This is something you could do two years in when everybody's familiar with it and you don't have to explain it. I always hold to the premise that the first six episodes are the first six pilots. You have to be able to come in and just go, "Oh, okay. So that's the premise and here it is delivered in this fashion." And I did get a little turned around. There was times when I was like, wait a minute, are the things that I care about still in the show? [Laughs.] Because some things that I was interested in - the more twisted elements of the human psyche and some of the more quieter aspects of it, kind of got shunned to the side.
But I realized, you know, I may have said this before - you don't pitch "Buffy" with "The Body." You earn that. You pitch it with the premise and then you get to all the stuff that you're really doing it for. So, you know, I had fun with the episodes once I figured out sort of how I was doing it. The fun with the episodes, the only trouble has been trying to figure out what actually happened because we had a bunch of stuff everybody assumed that we threw out and then we had to start shooting everything out of sequence. Everything. So literally every script comes with a memo to the actors - "this is what you have gone through" or "this is before you went through that" - because it just got, it was one of those snowball effects of scheduling. So it's getting complicated but ultimately I feel like it rolls out pretty nicely and as the show progresses it really starts to become something more than the sum of its parts. I like the premise, I'm interested in the premise. But it's the people behind the premise that are ultimately the heart of the show.
Brian Ford Sullivan: So what are these dark and twisted elements of the human psyche that you spoke about?
Joss Whedon: Well, you know, there was sort of this celebration of human perversion. It was kind of part of it because ultimately some of their engagements are sexual in nature. That's been very much downplayed because it makes some people uncomfortable. My mandate was to make some people uncomfortable - unfortunately some of those people run the network. [Laughs.] Or are the bosses of the people that run the network. So, it's something that you, again, you have to earn. Once you have people's trust you can start to... that's not to say there isn't some controversial stuff. There's some very borderline stuff about what they are doing, about how evil it is and I think ultimately some people may be kind of shocked by the show even though it doesn't present itself as a very shocking thing. It presents itself as sort of a straight ahead - with its own twist - thrilling drama.
But at the same time there are elements of it that if you look at it and go, "Well that's terrible! That's an affront to humanity!" or "That's something that I always assumed was terrible but seems fine." or "That's something that I would think was heroic that's being done that's sort of terrible!" [Laughs.] And I want all of those things to be playing all the time so that people, while they are completely invested in the characters - we hope - they're still questioning their own investment. Should I be rooting for this person? I don't know! And I'm lucky because I have an amazing cast - people like Olivia Williams. She plays the woman who runs the Dollhouse or as she herself has said, "I'm British, of course I'm a villain!" And it's so easy to play it as a villainous part and Olivia Williams is enormously sympathetic and has a great sadness so that every time she does something actually terrible, she makes you feel sorry for her. And every time she does something surprising decent, she'll do it in a very snarky fashion. And [her performance] sort of embodies that duality... sorry, that was a really long answer. [Laughs.]
Brian Ford Sullivan: And lastly, everyone knows that you have a large online following. Is it challenging managing expectations when people know it's a Joss Whedon show?
Joss Whedon: There are certain things about expectations that I've learned in the last couple of years. You know, I've publically blogged about issues once or twice. That kind of makes you frightened. These people are being hired for sex. So what about all of my stuff about human trafficking and my involvement with Equality Now? What right do I have to be irresponsible in the stories that I write or push the boundaries? How much do I have to adhere to what I say as a person in my work? I think it's something I've worried about my whole life but as I become more public, it becomes more of an issue for me. The expectations of people about, oh, time slot, oh, the reshooting - let's just let everybody see behind the curtain, that's how society works now - I just sort of tune that out.
But once you yourself take a stand on something, you can't help but feel like everything you do will be judged by that. And the essential part of being a storyteller is being the dark guy, is being the enemy. Not becoming a bad guy in a "Bad Boys 2" kind of way where you're just evil. [Laughs.] But you have to access that part of yourself that's unlovely. And once you've set yourself up as a public figure, it's almost like politics. It's almost harder to do. And that's something I sort of have to just shut down in the brain. If somebody's offended, I probably got them thinking. And that's probably good. If everybody's offended, I may have fucked up. [Laughs.]