When I first reach Joss Whedon — the director, writer, and producer who is perhaps best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — at his office at Fox Studios in Los Angeles, it's about 9 am his time, and it sounds as if I'd caught him before his coffee had kicked in. But as soon as we start discussing his new psychodrama series Dollhouse, the specifics of how the Firefly cancellation broke his heart, and the "dance on hot coals" that comes with writing for a character with a fluid identity, the morning's woes seem to disappear.
Whedon (left) on the set of Dollhouse with Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, and Eliza Dushku.
InDollhouse, your heroine, Echo, regularly takes on new personas and then has all of her character traits wiped. Do you feel that the premise of the show is something that's been brewing in the zeitgeist?
If it hasn't, I'm probably in horrible shape. That's sort of the point. The things that interest me are an amalgam of the things happening around me, and the things I've been enjoying. Everyone had a different theory of what the show was, and everyone is always right, because you're taking from the things you care about. Everything is about identity. Identity is very interesting to me, because I think it's a lot more amorphous than people give it credit for. Tolstoy was saying this in Resurrection: "Human beings are like rivers: the water is one and the same in all of them, but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others." And I believe that's the case, that we're all completely changeable. We're all made up of influences we could not control but that are innate within us. Who we are and what we are is a thread that's always going to be popular, but it will always find different voices.
Did you worry that it might be a bit difficult for your audience to root for a character who, by virtue of the show's conceit, has a constantly shifting personality?
It makes it harder for us to write for Echo, so I do think it's harder to root for Echo. It's a very tricky thing. It makes it easy because you're interested in what she's doing next. Every week we come in going, "Where is the part where they understand it's truly her, and how much will they care about the part that's been manufactured?" That's part of the dance on hot coals.
Strong, smart, female characters who are trying to find themselves are obviously important to you. But Echo seems nothing like Buffy — except for the ass-kicking abilities.
If you're going to study strength, you have to study weakness. Here's a person who is at the mercy of the people around her, but she developed the concept of identity and emancipation with a brain that's not supposed to do these things. It's about finding a voice in the most deafening silence. Sometimes she's enormously strong, and we can see that. At the same time, the person inside the Dollhouse is so insouciant. Some people said, "This isn't what you do!" But I wanted to be able to look at it from that angle.
Didn't you say you'd never work with Fox again afterFirefly's cancellation?
There are people who were involved in Firefly with whom I will never work again. I left the Fox deal after Firefly because I didn't have any ideas for TV shows. I was heartbroken about Firefly in a very classical sense. I left in the last year of the deal — which meant that I gave them a bunch of money. It wasn't so much giving them the finger, it was just, "I can't help you right now." The people on the network side are long gone, and it's a different situation. I have, ironically, run into some of the same problems that I ran into last time, and cursed myself for a fool. But it's never simple. If you go in thinking it's going to be, you're going to fail.
Was the Firefly heartbreak sort of like recovering from a really crappy break-up? Do you ever worry you're in for another round of hell?
It's not like a break-up. It's like a death. A break-up makes you feel bad about yourself. A death means the world is dimmed, because something that you loved is gone and will never return. I think a break-up is underestimating what I feel every day about Firefly. Hopefully, had it gone on, it would have become insufferable. I like to think about it that way.
We need to know: what are your plans for Dr. Horrible's Sing-AlongBlog, and will there ever be a sequel to Serenity?
I keep waiting for someone to call me and say, "My God, that Serenity DVD has made so much money, why don't you make another one?" Till they do, I can't. So, no joy there. For Dr. Horrible, we definitely want to pursue it, and we're just figuring out the time frame and the venue. I'm happy to say all my writers and actors are currently working. That makes it very hard, which is a good thing.