IGN Grabs Chat with Joss Whedon

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IGN caught up with Joss Whedon at the Fox Up Fronts recently, and he talks about Dollhouse, Eliza Dushku, Amy Acker, and Fox’s new “Remote Free” plan. Check it out (but beware of spoilers)!

May 27, 2008 – At FOX’s recent Upfront event in New York, we had the chance to speak to Joss Whedon about his upcoming highly anticipated TV series, Dollhouse. The show stars Eliza Dushku as Echo, one of a group of “Dolls” or “Actives,” a highly illegal and underground group who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new personas. Whedon came up with the idea for the show while having lunch with Dushku, which was one of the first topics he discussed during our conversation.

Whedon also talked more about what the Dolls do; where the show might go, and working with Dushku and Dollhouse stars Tahmoh Penikett (Battlestar Galactica) and Amy Acker (Angel). We also chatted about Dollhouse debuting midseason next January, where it will be paired with 24, and how it is part of a new FOX campaign — along with J.J. Abrams Fringe — called “Remote-Free TV”, which will find the show airing with far less commercials than a typical network series.

Make sure to also check out our other articles on what Joss Whedon had to say about the possibility of more Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his online project Doctor Horrible.

Question: Is it accurate to say Eliza convinced you to come back to TV?

Whedon: Well, when we had lunch she was asking “Who should I talk to? Where is it safe? How can I make sure I’m protected and make quality television that deals with the things that I’m interested in?” I was mentioning some writers and talking about, “I can talk to so and so…” She asked, “Don’t you want to do it?” And she’s really cute! But I was like, “No, I really don’t. But think about how I can help you with it.” And then I came up with the idea and thought, “Ahh! My precious, my precious!” And when I came up with the idea, there was no convincing. I was done. Then, I still was only going to write [the pilot] and then make a movie and oversee it. FOX heard the idea and said, “Make seven [episodes],” like in a heartbeat. They said, “Make seven of them.” And that vote of confidence and that show of support I haven’t seen a lot of in the movie industry.

Question: Would you say TV is still the kinder medium to writers?

Whedon: Yes it is. It absolutely is. I love movies though, I do. They’re part of my DNA.

Question: Do you have this close a friendship with a lot of the actors you’ve worked with, or do you think you and Eliza have something very specific?

Whedon: You know, it’s different with everyone. Eliza and I aren’t as close as some, like Aly [Hannigan] and Amy [Acker]. They’re in my life day to day. I’m really close with Alexis Denisof. Eliza and I have seldom been in the same place for very long and I’m an old married guy and she’s a lot younger and bubblier. But we started this tradition, and it started years ago, where I got frustrated with all these crappy horror movies she was making like Wrong Turn and Soul Survivor… That last one broke me. I literally said, “Eliza, let’s have tea. I’d like to talk to you.” And I said, “I love you. I think you have something that no other actor that I’ve worked with has. What the f**k are you making these movies for? Why are you doing this to me? You’re killing me. I just think you’re better than this.” And that was when she was really struggling with her agency and her identity and not really knowing what she wanted, but she knew she wanted to. And it kind of became a tradition with us over the years. I saw her in New York doing a play off-Broadway and we sat until 2:00 in the morning talking about, “There’s this opportunity, and I’m trying to develop this.” I could see that she was taking it further. And this lunch was just one of those [situations]. We always checked in with each other with this, ‘Same time next year’ relationship. We hardly get to see each other and when we do, I adore her and I’m pretty sure she’s fairly okay with me.

Question: Your fans are very protective of you. Some of them heard “midseason” and there was a bit of, “The sky is falling! FOX is going to screw him again!” What do you say to those concerns?

Whedon: Well, you know, I get it. I understand that and I feel bad because I want to be able to explain, without sounding like an apologist, that it doesn’t work the way it used to. The winter is prime time for FOX. Firefly came out in the fall, had to fight baseball, and lost. FOX has always been incredibly supportive of [Dollhouse], and they also said, “Well, you haven’t finished it. These guys [at Fringe] have finished theirs.” And we were gunning for winter. We were like, “We hope we get January, because we want American Idol time, not baseball time.” Not to say that they’re not supporting Fringe, it’s just that either one works for different reasons. I like the idea of making my episodes before they go out – it’s how we did Buffy and it worked great for us. But yeah, for some people it has the stink of midseason, when in fact the whole concept of the season is deteriorating. So we’re going up with the premiere of 24.

Question: I know you’re a big Battlestar fan. Was it great for you to get to work with Tahmoh Penikett?

Whedon: I’m gonna go out on a limb here and tell the truth – I’ve had a man-crush on Tahmoh since the first episode of Battlestar.

Question: From the moment he stayed behind on Caprica?

Whedon: I had a feeling about him. I just had a feeling about him. I know, he gave up his seat to Baltar! Not bright, but cute! But no, he just has a presence. Tim Minear watched the dailies and he said, “I can’t believe you found this guy. This guy is so hard to find. A leading man that has a real soulfulness and a real unique quality” and I just felt that from Battlestar, and he brought it completely [to Dollhouse]. When I spoke to him, he was the first person to mention Never Let Me Go, the novel, just from hearing the premise of Dollhouse. The beautiful sadness of that novel so suffuses what we’re trying to do, and it was so beautiful when he brought it up that I just knew this guy [was right]. And it follows my rule with Nathan [Fillion]. Hire a Canadian! They’re gentlemen and they’re very tall.

Question: Was that book in your mind when you were coming up with Dollhouse?

Whedon: I’d read it, but I hadn’t thought about it when I was making Dollhouse. But then I went, “Oh, there are real parallels and real emotional kind of similarities.”

Question: Can you talk about Amy Acker’s character?

Whedon: Amy plays Dr. Claire Saunders. She works in the Dollhouse and she’s a very moral force and she’s very, very, very broken. She’s scarred. Something happened – she’s literally scarred. Something happened at the dollhouse awhile back and she was scarred and she just sort of lives there and her whole mission in life is to take care of them. Topher, the programmer, he programs them and has a very amoral kind of point of view, and she’s sort of his counterpoint.

Question: What exactly are the dolls used for? In the clips, one guy seems to be using Eliza for a date essentially, right?

Whedon: Well, they will. One of the things Eliza first talked to me about is the idea of sexuality being something she wanted to explore before I’d come up with a concept. And the idea of hiring what we refer to as “an active” – the dolls, basically – is that you get to have the perfect experience. And if we are going to stand here and say for as lot of people the perfect experience doesn’t involve sex, that would be disingenuous. So, there is an element of something about it that’s very romantic and there’s an element that’s very creepy. And the two things, what’s interesting to me, is that they’re joined. That need for that perfect moment – feeling love for somebody that’s simple and real and not something where they’re faking, because they’re not. She’ll fall in love with him. That’s how it works. Whether or not it has to do with sex, that’s how it works. That’s how she’s imprinted. But our need for something like that is sort of what’s worst about us and what’s best about us. What she ends up being in most cases is kind of a life coach; whether she’s coaching you through a criminal act or going into rehab, she’s the person you need to meet the most at that time and combining a very lofty sort of goal with what is considered by most people to be a very base part of us, sexuality, is what interests me, because there’s arguments for every side. There is arguments that that is degrading and there’s arguments that it’s uplifting and there’s arguments in different ways for both of those sides and that’s what we want to talk about.

Question: If you do six years of this show, do you know the end?

Whedon: I don’t know the end zone, because you’ve got to leave that up to the viewers to an extent, but I know the arenas. When I pitched the show, I said, “Here’s the pilot, here are the characters, here’s episode six and sort of what we do every week and here’s the first two years, second two years, third two years.” So yes, because the show has to progress. Especially a show like this, where while it’s a week to week show – she’ll go on a different engagement every week and it’ll have a complete story – like Buffy, ultimately what people will become invested in is the arcs of the characters. You cannot just hit reset. Somebody, I forget who and I apologize to them in advance, but somebody said, “Scully was pretty much like a doll that they imprinted and she kept forgetting that there might be monsters.” You can’t do that. You have to let them grow. So I said, “The first arc is this, the second arc is this, the third is this.” There’s room for change though, but they know I have a five year plan and that’s important.

Question: So people can hire the dolls for anything?

Whedon: As long as the doll is not in any danger. People are background checked and vetted very, very seriously and nobody who might harm a doll is allowed in.

Question: So this is a profitable operation?

Whedon: Yes. But where the money is going is something we haven’t talked about.

Question: The early impression was that it was more of a secret agent thing; like they were assassins. Is that part of it?

Whedon: Well, she’s not never gonna tote a piece, but that’s not what the show is. People thought it was like an Alias thing. The two things we have to disabuse people of is one, she’s not toting a gun every week. That’s not what it’s about. It’s a human drama with some action and there’s always suspense, because as she becomes self-aware, the dollhouse becomes kind of a dangerous place for her. So there’s always that friction. But it could be a romantic comedy one week. Eliza jokes that this is a cure for her ADHD. I say it’s a cure for mine.

Question: It had been four years since you directed Serenity. What was it like filming the pilot?

Whedon: Well, it’s been awhile, apart from shooting The Office. I also shot Dr. Horrible. I tell you what was different – shooting The Office and then shooting Dr. Horrible, I scouted locations that were really tiny and I forgot… I haven’t had a wall that flies since I can remember. So I was like, “You know, I probably should have scouted bigger locations! This is awkward.”

Question: What do you make of this whole “Remote-Free” concept? You have to do another few minutes of your show, and then afterwards, for repeats, presumably cut a few minutes.

Whedon: That’s a good point! They didn’t bring up the repeats. But you know, we’ve always had to cut out a couple of minutes of a show for repeats. That’s always been the way. But I don’t really deal with that that much. But they’ve also said, “We want longer versions for the DVD.” Ultimately, I tend to shoot long. Our shows tend to go long. Some come in short – it will happen. But generally they go long. So this just means a little less heartache in the editing room. But we also have to make sure that when we cut a show down to 40 minutes, you make it the best 40 minutes. So we’re not going to be like The Office and shoot way too much, but yeah, we’re going to have a production issue about shooting just a little bit more, because even if I love it at 46 minutes, there’s a chance it could be tighter. But I never want to vamp. You’re not gonna get a bloated first cut – you’re gonna get a 46 minute story.

Liz is a wife and mother of three from the Nashville area who likes being able to discuss her favorite TV shows with adults sometimes. She is addicted to the Sookie Stackhouse novels and was a huge fan of the HBO series based on the books, True Blood. Her other favorite shows include Chuck, Grimm, Pretty Little Liars, Blindspot, Heroes Reborn, The Goldbergs, Sleepy Hollow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, just to name a few. Contact her at