Day three at the New York Comic con, attending Joss Whedon’s panel for Dollhouse was quite the surreal experience. As the husband and I stood in the line at the Starbucks kiosk earlier that morning, ready to go to the Chuck panel, people were already lining up for their primo spots to catch this legendary entertainment genius. Considering Joss’ panel wasn’t due to start for three more hours, I knew the day would be all about the Whedon fans.
I was right too. By the time we worked our way to the very large Ign Theatre, with a half hour to spare, it was full. There were two seats available in the back, just in front of the view-obstructing concrete post. Those behind us ended up having to watch the panel on the big screen. There was a certain electricity in the theatre I hadn’t seen with any of the other panels thus far. It felt like we were waiting for the world’s biggest rock star to come out.
Eventually, Matt Roush was introduced as the moderator. Now I’m very thrilled, for I’ve been reading Matt Roush’s stuff for years in TV Guide. I love his common sense approach to TV criticism, and he’s definitely a big influence with my writing. Matt mentioned the new Friday night lineup on Fox, with Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles at 8pm and Dollhouse at 9pm. Then, he put in an additional plug for Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi Channel at 10pm. I found out why he mentioned that one a few minutes later.
Out came out Joss Whedon, greeted by a long standing ovation and thunderous roar from the crowd. Also introduced was Tahmoh Penikett of Battlestar Galactica, who plays Paul Ballard in Dollhouse. They got settled and Joss instantly went into what Dollhouse is all about, and of course praises for its star, Eliza Dushku. Tahmoh then talked about his character, who is the FBI agent assigned to find The Dollhouse.
A ten minute clip from the pilot was shown, and I’m really not sure a clip does this show much justice. It was okay, and involved a nice little action sequence with motorcycles and Eliza Dushku in the perfect skimpy dress. Other than watching women walk around the lobby of a big building like zombies at the end, I really didn’t get what the show was about. As Joss Whedon stressed multiple times in his panel, this is a show to get into gradually and will be something that slowly unfolds.
I’ll tell ya, as a fan of TV, hearing this man speak was an extraordinary experience. He’s funny, yet gives intelligent answers and words of wisdom that leave you in awe over his love of what he does. As usual, he had some extraordinary insights to share, not only about Dollhouse but the business in general, so below is all the great stuff the man had to share.
– The concept of Dollhouse came up after having lunch with Eliza Dushku. She had a deal with Fox, and he’s an “old friend.” The themes presented in the show have been interesting to him for a long time; the idea of recreation, identity, deconstructing the concepts of love, selfhood and humanity. To quote, “I’m a such bitter sad man and this is my bitter sad show. Welcome to it!”
– In talking about Tahmoh’s character, Paul Ballard, Joss didn’t want to keep him outside the story for long, but he will be for several episodes. He didn’t want to turn him into the reporter on the Incredible Hulk for five seasons.
– This is the most disturbing show he can remember doing, at least since season six of Buffy (big laughs). He went for something dark, taking the premise and unraveling the people within it. “The audience comes away as unclean as the people in the show, everybody is compromised.”
– The people in The Dollhouse have power, and “people who have power do all of one thing and that’s abuse it.” The character Topher, the programmer, Joss claims has a little bit of him inside him. “He creates characters and has no morals.”
– THIS is my most favorite answer ever, and will be using it for any TV show I see from now on. To quote Joss, “Someone asked me, ‘why do things go wrong in the Dollhouse every week, it seems like it’s not very well run.’ Then we wouldn’t have a show. Why do people get murdered around Angela Lansbury?”
– Another great sound bite came from explaining the process of constructing the show. “It was not unusually tough it was tough in an unusual way.” The process that goes into any show is difficult, but with this one in particular has been challenging. In finding out what the network was comfortable with he said, “I don’t know what the show is anymore. And it hasn’t even aired yet. Now, I never knew what Angel was either and we did fine for five years.” He called a “dark and scary Joss period.”
– There are 13 episodes, and the ending ends almost the way they intended. They last couple episodes were ones they dreamed of when they started the show, but they got to them in a different way. There will be growing pains, but what they get to is pretty amazing.
– Dollhouse’s situation is an improvement over Firefly in that they’re airing the pilot first. Joss went on to say that this time the relationship with the network has been completely different in that they’ve been honest, supportive, they’ve explained what they don’t like, and it’s been a great collaborative process. By moving to Friday night, the pressure is off and they’re allowed to let the show to grow gradually. He’s also pleased the episodes will air in order this time, and that the network has committed to airing all the episodes. He’s also pleased with being paired with Terminator. It makes it an event night.
– Dollhouse is challenging for Eliza because every episode is a pilot. She has to rework who she is and what she does.
– He talked about how frightening making Dollhouse has been. He has what he calls a “pathetic in the needs for the audience’s love” but Dollhouse is so morally tricky that he’s expecting backlash and disappointment. He’s scared witless over how people are going to react to everything they’re doing. He’s also found that if he’s terrified he’s doing something good.
– Did he want to come back to TV? No, but he wasn’t against it. His head has been in movies lately. Matt asked if it’ll take another strike for him to do a sequel on Dr. Horrible. He found online different and a struggle, but loved working on the Internet intends on doing more Internet ventures as well as going on with Dr. Horrible. Such projects though will have to “wait until I have free time and it’s me.”
– He spoke of his love of Broadway, and when asked which Sondheim musical he’d direct he said Sweeney Todd. A few in the crowd shouted out the suggestion of Buffy The Musical. He feigned upset over not being able to crack Broadway, pulling line from 42nd Street.
– He’s worked in so many genres, is there one genre he hasn’t done he’d like to explore? He dreamed of making a Western, but after shooting an episode in the desert, he got over that. He then joked theme he’d like to explore is air conditioning. He wants to make a frilly costume drama. Elizabethan specifically with smoking dresses. Costume drama is the closest thing to SciFi from the way it interprets the world, plus the dresses.
– It seems Nathan Fillion said in a recent video he was working on Serenity 2 before coming back ten seconds later saying he was joking. The question was asked if Nathan could be a guest on Dollhouse and if Joss could punish him by killing him. Joss agreed, he’s got to stop doing that to people. “I think I speak for everybody here when I say Nathan’s a cock.”
– An animated version of Buffy? It’s something he’s dying to do and the technology is making that more possible. The animation he’s watching mostly these day is the Final Fantasy sequences cut to Evanescence on YouTube.
– Are there times where he second guessed himself about killing a character? “Always?” He joked. He explained it’s nothing he takes lightly and long process goes into it. For example in Buffy he told the actress that played Buffy’s mom she was getting killed off two years before it happened. He realizes of course that killing off characters generates “a mixed reaction.”
The Business In General
– Someone asked if he had any advice out there for aspiring writers who were about to be crushed by the world of ruthless networks and studios. “If you have something to make, make it.” His first six years were miserable because he was getting paid an enormous amount of money to write things that were not made or made poorly or weren’t used. It is a potentially soul crushing machine. The first crack he got at telling a story was late in his career. With current technology now anyone can make a film and potentially have millions of people see it. “It’s not going to make you a ton of money, but it’s a way better way to teach yourself about writing and storytelling than just throwing yourself under the wheels of what is becoming an increasingly unwielding machine.”
– A gushing fan asked what he thinks makes everyone work so well with him. She stated the fans know it’s because “he’s an unbelievable genius”, causing him the blush a little. He thinks he has one talent as a collaborator and that’s bringing out the best in the people he works with. An environment of trust is something he mandates. If it’s not a family-like environment, you don’t have the freedom to do the things he’s done. For example, they had a musical episode because one time everyone sat around the piano at his house and started singing. “There are two things to do, there’s the art, and there’s life you live while you’re making it and if you recognize them as equally important than the joy you take in each other is what you’re going to see on screen.”
– He mentioned that when his wife and he were watching Slumdog Millionaire, she noticed that locations are the new special effects. “The fact that they put something real on the screen is so much more exciting than this culture where we can put anything on the screen, and then we get Van Helsing.”
Thank you, oh thank you Mr. Whedon for getting me excited again about this medium. I’ve read so many stories lately of networks cutting back and the creative process being stunted, so to hear words like this from a seasoned veteran restores my hope for television and movies. There are people out there that care. Dollhouse premieres Friday, Feb. 13th at 9pm. There’s nothing else on at that time, so I’ll give it a try.