…Joss Whedon, Creator
Many hearts (mine included) skip a beat at the mere mention of the name “Joss Whedon.” An Emmy and Academy Award nominee, Whedon is one of Hollywood’s top talents, scripting several hit films and creating one of television’s most critically praised shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After the cult success of Buffy, other mediums of entertainment were Whedonized. He is an accomplished composer, the creator behind several Dark Horse Comics graphic novels, and even the mastermind of the Internet sensation Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It seems everything he touches turns to geeky-fan gold. TheTwoCents had a chance to sit down with Mr. Whedon to chat about his next adventure: Dollhouse.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of Dollhouse? What got you thinking about these characters in this world?
JW: Well, there’s already the famous story of lunch with Eliza (Dushku) where we were talking about what kind of stuff she should play and I thought she should play lots of different things, and then the show happened.
Beyond that, there has also been I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what is our own, what’s socialized, can people actually change, what do we expect from each other, how much do we use each other and manipulate each other, and what would we do if we had this kind of power over each other? And in this, our increasingly virtual world, self-definition has become a very amorphous concept, so it just felt what was on my mind. I don’t mean it felt timely like I was trolling the papers looking for something timely. It’s just been something I think about a lot.
As for the characters, they sell out by necessity. I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn’t want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting, or she would burn out. So it was the question of really just doing the math. You’re going to need the handler, you’re going to need somebody running the place, you’re going to need the programmer, and then realizing what all of those different perspectives would give us, even before we had the astonishing cast, started to make the show really live.
And (Eliza) has overcome her homely shyness over these years. Eliza is, apart from being, in my opinion, as great a star as I have ever known, she has a genuinely powerful electric and luminous quality that I’ve rarely seen. She’s also a really solid person. She’s a good friend. She’s a feminist. She’s an activist. She’s interested in the people around her. She has a lot of different things going on, and I’ve watched her over the years, as a friend, try to take control of her career, and try to get the roles that weren’t available to her, and protect the ethos and the message of what it was that she was doing, and I respect that enormously. Being part of that progression is, for me, one of the greatest benefits of this show.
Q: Can you talk a little about your process of creating this show, through the rewritten pilot, and then the early episodes, and then talk about how it differed from finding your earlier shows?
JW: I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows. Probably most similar to Angel in the sense of what we had in our minds about what Angel was ultimately was different than what the network did. Our version was a little darker, and in this instance, it wasn’t so much a question of reworking what the show was as it was a question of reworking how we get into it. There were definitely some differences of opinion about what was going on and what we were going to stress in the show, but mostly it was about how do we bring the audience in and the mandate was very much once they had seen the pilot.
They made some noise about this before. I don’t want to say that they just thought it up out of the blue, but the mandate “was give us not just the world of the show, but the structure of the show.” The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways, and they said let the audience see an engagement so that they understand that every week she’s going to go to a different place and be a different person and that they have that sense of structure.
That part was simple enough. It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn’t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more.
But there was some real questioning about what exactly we wanted to get at in terms of the humanity and what they do and why people hire them and there’s a sexual aspect to it that makes some people nervous. Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous. It’s to make them identify with people they don’t like and get into situations that they don’t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well.
So we’re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.
Q: Besides Eliza, there are some other Whedon alumni in your cast (including Amy Acker), can you talk a little bit about your other cast members?
JW: You know, the basic mandate for me was to find new people, because I had Eliza and I didn’t want to feel like it was going to be “Faith” or just a reunion for my pals or anything like that, and I found some not only amazing new actors, but amazing new friends. But then, eventually, a person has to wake up and smell the “Acker” and realize you just have to cast anything that you can with her, so that happened.
Apart from that, we’ve put on some old faces in some guest roles, but not too often, and sometimes, we’ve been very much behind the eight ball in terms of production and when you know somebody can do something right and you don’t have time to go and find somebody else who can, you hire them. But apart from Amy and Eliza, it’s a new crowd.
The other dolls, obviously we start out focusing on Echo, but the friends that she makes, in particular, Sierra, all have their own stories, their own reasons for being there, and their own reaction to things. As her friendships are formed more, we get to spend more time with the other dolls, and we get real tastes of how easy they have it, and how hard they do, how controlled their lives are, and then how out of control they can get, because they have no skills for dealing with the world.
I can’t really go into specifics, but we pretty much get to start putting everybody through the ringer long about halfway through. It starts to get complicated for all of them.
Q: The Fox promo site call the Echo chamber, it features Eliza Dushku, she’s nude, looking very sexually available in the tagline get to know Echo intimately. Do you fully support this type of promo, and could you explain a little either way?
JW: Nice. Finally something that’s slightly more awful than me saying wake up and smell the “Acker.” I absolutely think that the question is valid and my answer is a little bit vague. I do support it. I saw the photo shoot, and I mostly support it because Eliza was very comfortable with it and very pleased with the photos. She’s very comfortable with her body.
The premise of the show involves these men and women being hired and obviously, some of that has to do with sex. This is something that was in the premise from the start. It came from my conversation with Eliza. We wanted to talk about it, she mentioned herself, wanted to talk about sexuality in whatever show she was doing, not just by virtue of her being all hot, but by really examining human sexuality and how it drives us and why it’s important to us.
And the idea of objectification versus identification, these are all things that I’ve been working on all the time. I didn’t actually know that tagline was in there. I just heard oh, they released those photos, so I didn’t know that, and it brings up what is ultimately the touchiest issue of this show, which is are we actually making a comment about the way people use each other that is useful and interesting and textured, or are we just putting her in a series of hot outfits and paying lip service to the idea of asking the questions.
And I think there are going to be things that people react to different. I think some things will offend some people, some things will not. There are things in it that I’m not positive I support, and some of the things that bother me don’t bother any of the other writers, and that’s something that I’ve been a little bit afraid of, but I haven’t shied away from, because part of the point is to look at these gray areas and to see what of this is unique in us, what is it we need from each other, how much do we objectify each other, how much do we use each other, both men and women, and what is actually virtuous.
One of the problems I ran into early on, and this was the only real dissonance between me and the network was they didn’t really want to deal with those issues having bought the show. They didn’t want to deal with the idea of what they are now clearly marketing, but the sexy side of it. It’s a classic network problem. You want to evoke this, but then they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to be specific about it, so we’ve struggled with that. We’ve struggled with making sure that the show doesn’t, by virtue of playing it safe, become offensive, because the idea of this show was never to play it safe. The idea of this show was always to be in your face about it.
So the answer to your question is kind of both. It is just a standard scantily clad babe come-on, and it is ultimately a deconstruction of same, but not so much that I would say it’s just done ironically and therefore, I am blameless for it. We are absolutely saying Eliza is a sexual creature, and people desire her for that reason.
The idea is to get the audience to look at their own desire, and to figure out what of it is acceptable, and what of it is kind of creepy. In order to do that, we go to a creepy place sometimes, and I will be very interested to see if people find it empowering or the other things. I may have crossed the line. Let’s find out.
Q: Finally, who would win if Faith fought Echo?
JW: Faith would win, unless of course Echo had been imprinted with Faith’s personality, which is I’m going to call it a tie.
Don’t forget to tune in for the premiere of Dollhouse tonight, February 13th at 9:00 p.m. EST, immediately following the return of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on FOX. And visit TheTwoCents next Friday for an interview with Dollhouse star and producer, Eliza Dushku.