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Playing with Dolls: Talking to "Dollhouse" Creator Joss Whedon

One of the most eagerly anticipated series of the year involves mind-wiped dolls who are imprinted with various personalities, skills, and flaws.

And, no, I'm not talking about the latest iteration of Bravo's Real Housewives franchise but rather the sci-fi action series Dollhouse, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon, which launches Friday, February 13th.

Just don't expect any song-and-dance routines along with the high-flying stunts and motorcycle chases. "No, I’m not planning a Dollhouse musical just yet," said writer/executive producer Joss Whedon.

But before we tackle what Joss had to say about FOX's Dollhouse, I am sure many of you are curious to know if there is any update about the rumored big-screen version of Buffy. "Yes," said Whedon. "There is not going to be one... I think that’s pretty much it. Nobody has ever broached the subject from the studio side. I think everybody is busy working, so I think that it probably won’t happen. That’s my guess. The landscape changes constantly, but until somebody who has millions and billions of dollars asks me that question, the answer is pretty much the same."

(Note to Buffy fans hoping for a miraculous feature film return of the Slayer: don't hold your collective breath.)

Meanwhile, Whedon had quite a lot to say about his latest small-screen venture, Dollhouse, so let's dive in and see what he had to say about its rather, uh, unconventional development process, its Friday night timeslot, and what viewers should expect to find when they enter this Dollhouse.

Given the frequent rumblings in the press about the difficult development process for Dollhouse, which found the network scrapping the original pilot in favor of a new series opener, how does Joss compare Dollhouse's birth to that of his other series?

"I think this show definitely went through a tougher process, tough in a different way than the other shows," said Whedon. "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."

"The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways," continued Whedon, "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."

So whose idea was it to do another pilot? "It was my idea to do a new pilot," admitted Whedon, "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."

Given the challenges he encountered in the development process, does he now feel that he found the show?

"I would say emphatically yes," said Whedon. "We had all of the elements, the characters, none of which were changed really, and none of the regular characters, and the premise, the concept, the way we were able to explore what makes us human, all of that is in there. As the season progresses, it ends up going exactly where I had hoped it would go before all of this happened, so I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network. And the last few episodes that we just completed shooting got all of us extraordinarily excited."

So then is Whedon satisfied with the way the show turned out versus his original vision?

"There are things I miss from my original vision, and there are things that I think are better the way it is," admitted Whedon. "Ultimately, the show ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go. There are elements of intrigue and high stake suspense that have been added, but I don’t think they hurt the show at all, and it really goes where we planned to have it go. The idea was always to have a mythology that was counterbalanced by a standalone aspect that every episode would be self-contained, and that the mythology would play out, but you would feel a sense of resolve, be that an engagement, or some other aspect every week."

"The mandate to go ahead and just really make the first several episodes pure standalone engagements is tough," he continued. "It’s more work for a staff to drum up that enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week. That’s just difficult, but we knew that was part of the show going in, that every week, we were not only going to have to create a new world and care about it, but that she was actually going to have to join the guest cast, because she would be a new person. So it’s a challenge, but it’s one that we knew going in we were going to have to tackle, and I think we’re getting better at it. It is definitely a different skill."

As for that Friday night timeslot, Whedon thinks it's actually a Very Good Thing at the end of the day.

"Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don’t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided," said Whedon. "It’s about growing a fan base, both for Dollhouse and Terminator. I think Terminator is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with Dollhouse, so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that’s just too cool."

"Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but not so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight," he continued. "I’ve always worked best under the radar. Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and the Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen."

So does he have any words of calm to offer fans who might be, shall we say, concerned about the perceived doom and gloom surrounding the series?

"Usually, words of calm in these situations lead to panic," Whedon joked. "If you say there’s nothing to panic about, somebody says, he said the word panic. Basically, we found the show. My concern isn’t whether the show gets saved. It’s whether these fans who are panicking about it love it. They may get over their panic. They may see it and go, you know, actually, we’re okay. The network should do what they think is right. Ultimately, the support is very sweet, and the fact that people care and they want to see the show get a chance. That’s important to me too, because it really is a show that finds itself as it goes along, but, at the end of the day, my biggest concern is that I give them something worth panicking over."

And if the first episode seems a little tame, fans should wait for the second episode, written by Steven DeKnight (Angel), which is an outrageous take on the classic short-story "The Most Dangerous Game."

"Outrageous is always good," mused Whedon. "That episode was meant originally to be around episode five, or possibly even eight, and it was the network who said, excuse me, did you say bow hunting? That will come second please, because we already had the pilot working, so it kind of got bumped up further than, but you’re not the first person to say why didn’t you just open with that, and my answer would be I don’t know. I had the other idea first. Basically, I think its one aspect of it is the bigger than life adventure, but we have episodes that I think are equally insane and, in some ways even more beautiful. So if people watch episodes and wonder they should’ve opened with this, that means the episodes are getting better, and I’ll take an upward curve any day."

So is Dollhouse all darkness and doom or is there a lighthearted side to the series as well?

"There is a lot of fun and a lot of humor in it," he admitted. "What it doesn’t have is an inherent silliness that both Buffy and Firefly had, and even Angel, that was we could just take one step back that part of the fun was of deconstructing the genre we were in. This has to be a little bit more grounded in order for it to play, or it would become campy, and with vampires and spaceships and horses, we had more leeway to be a little less realistic in how we plotted things. But humor is a part of the show all over the place, because we have really funny actors, and these situations do become absurd, and besides, we would get really bored if we didn’t."

What concepts sparked the idea in Whedon's head for Dollhouse?

"I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what espouse 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?" mused Whedon. "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."

Given the self-contained storytelling element of Dollhouse, is it easy for viewers to jump in at any point?

"We absolutely made sure of that," said Whedon. "We always refer to the first seven episodes as the seven pilots. You can’t just shut down after episode one and it can’t be a train that’s left the station. So the first several episodes, the first five are all individual engagements where the premise is made clear and the cast of characters is made clear and relationships are made clear. Obviously there is some progression in those relationships, but there is nowhere where you have giant pieces of information missing, or where you have to sit through a three minute previously on in order to get to the show. We really care about that, and that was one place where we were completely on the same page as the network."

So what can viewers expect then from Season One of Dollhouse?

"We definitely start entwining things this season," said Whedon. "There’s a lot of payoff in this season. There are some things that we draw out and then some things that we payoff fairly heavily, so that people don’t get the feeling that they’re just going to tease me every week. Paul Ballard is going to be hunting the Dollhouse, and obviously, he’s going to be one step behind them for awhile, but then every now and then, he’s going to come up against them in a rather abrupt fashion, and he’s not going to be the reporter in The Hulk, always five feet behind, and this creepy naked guy [in the premiere episode] will be explained."

"Echo’s progression is a constant in the show, her search for herself, so that’s something that is being spun out episode by episode," he continued. "It’s just different little aspects. It’s like she takes a little memento away from every engagement, so that will be a constant. But we’re definitely laying in some threads, and there are definitely things that we are not explaining, but we kind of took some of the things we were going to hold for a few years and said hey, let’s just hit them in the head with a frying pan, because that will keep them excited, and it’s not like we lack for places to go."

Should viewers be looking for any familiar faces from the Whedonverse among the cast of Dollhouse?

"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," said Whedon. "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 [Amy Acker], 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."

Speaking of the cast of characters, should viewers be wondering if any of the other characters are in fact covert actives, as they can be imprinted without their knowlege?

"Not in the first season, although we’ve discussed a lot of permutations," said Whedon. "We’re pretty much laying out the situation a little bit simply at first. We’re going to twist the knife in some people, but more than any of the anchors, it’s the people running the place who have their own secrets that are going to be fun to pull away at."

And it should be instantaneously clear to viewers familiar with Whedon just with which character he most associates with.

"It’s not a shock to see a lot of Topher in myself, because he’s building people, and he’s amoral and fairly goofy," he said, "but I see a lot of myself in Adelle DeWitt too, and ultimately, in all of the characters. If you don’t, you’re usually doing it wrong. If just one person is your mouthpiece, then you’re going to have trouble writing a real conversation between two people, and the fact of the matter is the person who is my mouthpiece is definitely sketchy, which is good, because it makes me question everything I have to say, no matter how funny it is."

Whedon also talked about his decision to give the day-to-day showrunning duties on Dollhouse to the writing team of Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, who most recently oversaw ABC's Women's Murder Club.

"You know, why anybody gets my sense of humor I never know, but I do know that when they do, I keep them as close as I possibly can," he said. "Liz and Sarah are the kind of people who are so solid and so sensible and so good at the day-to-day show running that you forget how good they are with the script until they turn it in and you go that’s right, you guys are really funny and very twisted. They’re the kind of writers who take all of their weirdness out on the script and it’s not out on me or the people they work with, and that’s what you look for in a showrunner. It was important for me also that the showrunners be female, because the subject matter is intense and delicate, and they are aware of that without being a slave to it."

So, given the birthing pains associated with Dollhouse, does Whedon feel that the craft of television-making has changed significantly since the days in which he developed Buffy back a the WB?

"You know, in many ways, it hasn’t changed at all," he mused. "We were held to mid-season on Buffy. There was a certain amount of birth pangs. We were re-shooting things for the first episode during the last episode. So I think part of this is either the same, or I just really haven’t learned anything about how to do it better. But I think the changes have really been that the media is constantly making new demands. There are six act breaks instead of four. [FOX] did remote free TV, which means fewer commercials, which is an exciting prospect, but it also means we’re shooting 15% to 20% more show per show on the same schedule as every other show, and that just really is beating the hell out of us. Also something that ultimately, because of the remote free TV, and because of our production issues, fell by the wayside, but these are the extras that people expect. There’s just more to it than going in there and telling your story. The marketing of the thing and the story itself are intertwined in ways that create opportunities, and in some ways that just really exhaust me."

What else did the loquacious Joss have to say?
  • Echo vs. Faith match-up: "Faith would win, unless of course Echo had been imprinted with Faith’s personality, [in which case] I’m going to call it a tie."
  • Will Joss explore the limitations of the Dollhouse's technology? "The Dollhouse is fairly strict about what they will use this technology for so no ninja armies just yet, but keep watching the skies."
  • Buffy Season Nine comic: "We definitely have a Season Nine in mind. We’re slogging our way through season eight. We’ve talked about doing more Serenity comics, and we’ve even talked to Dark Horse about a potential for some Cabin tie-ins."
  • No Dollhouse comic, however: "Dollhouse is very simply the least visually oriented of all of these in a genre way, and therefore, lends itself the least to being a comic, but comics are in my blood as much as any other medium."
  • More Dr. Horrible in the works? "We are definitely committed to the idea of Dr. Horrible reappearing somehow."
Lastly, just what does Whedon think of his leading lady, Eliza Dushku, given their long history together?

"She’s overcome her homely shyness over these years," Whedon joked. "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."

And, should Dollhouse be lucky enough to return for a second season, what topics would Whedon like to tackle after the initial batch of episodes?

"Well, the constant topic of identity is one," he said. "There are a couple of things that were originally on the slate that didn’t quite fit the venue and had to stand back. We had an episode about Rwandan boy soldiers that was really about how we imprint people now, how we literally brainwash people, and we’re contrasting that with the Dollhouse. There was an episode that was about perversion. It was about sexual shame and people’s inability to deal with real people that was, I thought, ultimately very heartfelt and very strange and very beautiful, but again, not to make the cut for the first 13. Those are some that would be coming up."

Dollhouse launches Friday, February 13th at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.


Anonymous said…
Excellent, in depth article! Thanks Jace.

Looking forward to catching a Whedon creation right from the get-go for the first time.
Anonymous said…
Awesome article. Thanks for putting in as much as you did and adding context to Joss' remarks. I'm still in the wait and see camp re: Dollhouse so I am curious to see that 1st ep on Friday. It sounds like JW put a lot of thought into this project though and rolled with the numerous punches from Fox. Let's hope the end result is worth it.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the great interview! I actually have some more confidence in Dollhouse after reading this. Sounds like it does get off to a shaky start but then finds its ground. I just hope it doesn't lose it's audience before then. But there have been so many rumors surrounding the show that it was nice hear Joss' thoughts on the process.

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