Sure, TV mastermind Joss Whedon has created some of the most entertaining, thought-provoking and thrilling TV shows in recent history: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse have all transcended their ratings to engender die-hard followings, making Whedon a god among the Comic-Con set. But he's stimulated a lot more than viewers' minds—he's also done the term "boob tube" justice by introducing TV audiences to Eliza Dushku, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Summer Glau, Charisma Carpenter and Julie Benz, to name a smoking-hot few.
Regardless of why you watch, though, it's impossible to say a bad word about the man's track record. With the second season of Dollhouse premiering this Friday, and its star Eliza Dushku on the cover of our upcoming October/November issue (click here if you missed it!), we couldn't pass up the chance to talk with Joss about the show, comics, and his new movie. Check out the interview below...
Interview by Tim Leong
Complex What summer plans did you have scheduled before Dollhouse got picked up?
Joss Whedon: Play with my children. That was it. I was also writing some stuff—but the kind of writing that you see on book jackets, where you're in black and white, wearing a cardigan in your hundred-year-old office. Back-lit writing, not back-lot writing.
Complex: Now that you're shooting the new season of Dollhouse, what's the biggest difference between this year and last?
Joss Whedon: This year, we don't have to try to figure out what we are or what anybody wants. We did it very painstakingly and very publicly last year. It's still hard when we break a story because that's the nature of the business, but we all know the direction we're trying to go in and that the network and the studio are on board with that. So, things are a lot easier in that sense and a lot more exciting. We're working with a new crew, we're working on HD for the first time, so we're shooting faster and we're getting more dynamic footage and doing things we haven't had license to do on TV for a while. So we're back where I belong, which is kind of under the radar.
Complex: There was a lot of criticism from the first season that Eliza was the main focus of the show but less involved in the bigger action mystery toward the second half of the season. Is that something you're addressing this year?
Joss Whedon: We look at all the criticisms. And unfortunately, we can do nothing about the lack of nudity.
Complex: [Laughs.] Well, that's our job.
Joss Whedon: [Laughs.] Exactly. Basically, Echo is much more active than inactive. In this season she's much more focused on herself, on finding out who she was and who everybody was and has a general sense not just that something bad is happening here, but that she really has been all these different people and that every now and then they may come back. She's got a little bit of Alpha in her but without cutting up women so much. She still very much has a child-like understanding or mode of expression, but she is starting to build herself. Last season she was literally the Frankenstein monster going, "What am I? Oh my God, I exist?" now she's like "OK, I get it—I exist. What are you people doing and what have you done to me?" She's a little more focused that way. Which is of course more dangerous for her.
Complex: Do you think you take bigger chances in your projects because you have such a fiercely loyal fan base?
Joss Whedon: Well, again it has to do with being under the radar. The fan base kept us from being not cancelled, which was very thoughtful of them. But at the same time, I do know that they demand a certain amount of surprise, they demand the unexpected, and they demand to be challenged when they watch the show. Hopefully not confused, just challenged. They never want any of my shows to fall into a comfortable formula, which is just the greatest thing in the world for both the writers and the actors. To know that they're not every week going to go, "I'm the one who explains things," "And I'm the one who makes a wacky aside!" For them to know that their characters are going to change and go through hell and in some cases change very literally, and then they're more excited to be a part of it. The whole energy comes from this little band of rebels—I don't mean the people in the Dollhouse... but I sort of do.
Complex: Speaking of the writers, how have Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters affected the writers room so far this season?
Joss Whedon: They could not be a better fit. They're great story-breakers, they get the sensibility completely. They just turned in their first script, and it's lovely. We got so lucky because Liz [Craft] and Sarah [Fain] going over to Lie to Me was a bit unexpected for me. We were sort of going, "Well, what do we do? We're losing this amazing team of female writers," and they were like, "Oh, we have another amazing team of female writers handy!" It's been just a relief and so much fun. Michele can quote The Matrix way better than I can and use a little comedy and Strongbad emails. So really, I'm in heaven.
Complex: What can you tell me about [comic book artist] John Cassaday directing?
Joss Whedon: He's going to fuck up so much... No, this is an example like the HD, like the ways we're breaking stories, like the casting—it's us having a different philosophy. My philosophy of every show has been 'get me the guy who points the camera at the story and that's it.' I found that didn't really serve me as well in the past. We had some amazing directors, but I also had some directors I really liked who just sort of pointed the camera at the story and then the story didn't really happen. It needs a visceral element to it, it needs a visual kick. So the DP [Director of Photography] we hired, Lisa Wiegand, hasn't [directed photography] on a show, she's done some independent movies but she was the second camera man on 24, and the team from 24 shot [the 13th Dollhouse episode] "Epitaph One" and Rodney Charters the DP [Director of Photography] recommended her and the studio was a little hesitant. Our producer/director David Soloman and I both said, "we really would like her; we think she can get it done. Lets take a chance." Now we're getting staggering looking footage in half the time. I have the same feeling about Cassaday; he's a storyteller. I gave him shorter scripts than any other artist I've worked with because he has an extraordinary visual sense and it very much matches my own. Now directing is such alchemy, it's so easy to fail. And I've seen people who are great at their jobs because everybody has a go. Editors, DPs, actors, craft services guy, everybody wants to try it out but it is such a diffuse but necessary set of skills that you never know which one this person might lack. It's a risk that in the old days I never would have taken, I was too busy going "I'm hanging on for dear life." With Cassaday, I know he can tell a story, I know him as a person, his sensibility, the way he is with other people and I just feel that this step is logical for him, it's something he's been pursuing for a while. We're now in position to take this risk, because we have so many good people he knows he's in a comfort zone. He's got Soloman watching set, none of us are directing around the time that he is so that we could be there for his prep. And that's just very exciting for me because he has a visual sense that goes beyond most of the people that I work with. The only problem we have is he wants to storyboard his episode, and I'm like, "You do know that it's a script that will be late, right?"
Complex: [Laughs.] I'm sure he's used to that.
Joss Whedon: Well, I'm used to it, but nobody who directs for me is. We're trying to do better this year, honestly. I don't think he's going to get his storyboard time, unless he draws really fast.
Complex: Are you guys producing web content this year for the show too?
Joss Whedon: We're not. Just because they're not really looking to spend extra money on the show. The network has dropped their licensing dramatically, it's the studio who has really picked up the slack to make this happen. Ironically, we actually have what would be fabulous web content, which is the whole 2019 storyline from "Epitaph One." Whereas last year, it was like "I don't think we have anything for the Web." When they added 10 minutes to every episode, they gave it up. This year I'm like, "We have some great ideas for the Internet!" and they're like, "Yeah... no."
Complex: I guess that just translates to DVD specials.
Joss Whedon: Well, the DVD people have come and gone, "Can you give us another free bonus episode?" [Laughs.] They would love it if we could just hand them one, but what we are doing is pursuing the 2019 storyline in the show sporadically. Not so much that it takes over, but enough that it informs where we're going. I have some delightful surprises in store, and I got to shoot some of it myself for the first episode, which was delightful, because why should Soloman have all the fun?
Complex: I know "Epitaph One" was kind of meant as a send-off in case you got cancelled. Are you approaching this season the same way? I know you cant really worry about whether you'll get cancelled or not but...
Joss Whedon: I've always approached every season that way. Firefly was the one time I really got the rug pulled out from under me. But every season of Buffy, except that time I got a two-year pickup from UPN, we ended the show as though we were not coming back. Or with the thought that if we did not come back, we would be satisfied—that's why I never ended with a cliffhanger. Then we got a bigger pick up on Buffy and I ended with a cliffhanger and went, "No wonder our first episodes are always so crappy, cliff hangers are awesome!"
Complex: What did you learn from Dr. Horrible that's helping you make the next one?
Joss Whedon: Basically that you can do anything. If you pool your resources, and in my case all of your connections after 20 years in the business—actually, God help me, 21—and just give up the idea that you're going to act like a normal person or sleep, if you want it hard enough and do it well enough, it happens. I think a lot of really talented people either sort of get crushed under the wheel of the movie studio system or desperately try and get their next gig in TV. I understand why, because we've all got to put food on the table and the brass ring is out there, we'd all like to be making the Emmy-winning shows and the blockbusters and all that, but at the same time you could be doing stuff yourself. I wish more people would take the extraordinary talent they have and just let their id go because that's what we discovered. We discovered that the sillier we got, the more people believed that we were speaking from our hearts.
Complex: I don't want to ask about plots or anything like that but do you think you'll be working under the same constraints as you made Dr. Horrible since that was kind of built out of the strike and all that?
Joss Whedon: Sadly we don't have a pleasant strike... but we're building the story based on... [Ed.—Whedon suddenly takes a phone call from his wife. Hmmm, convenient.]
Complex: How long do you see the Season Eight Buffy comic playing out?
Joss Whedon: Well, 40 issues was always the goal, and that's how we're playing it. We're around issue 30 now, we've got about 10 to go, five of which I have to write, so I have to get on that. Then we'll pause for breath and then we'll start Season Nine.
Complex: So Season Nine is a definite lock?
Joss Whedon: Yeah, unless Dark Horse suddenly doesn't want it. I have had for a long time a conception for Season Nine that is very different from Season Eight. It may not run as long, because 40 issues sounds great until you realize that it's four or five years.
Complex: Can you give me an embarrassing Eliza anecdote?
Joss Whedon: I don't know, nothing embarrasses Eliza. That's kind of why I love working with her. Apart from finally conquering her fear of wearing her hair in an up-do. Literally, I've had her doing Kung-Fu, speaking Spanish, swing dancing, comedy, drama, horror, naked, anything—no problem—but put her hair up and she freaks. For some reason the back of her neck should not be exposed, but she's OK with it now, and she's really proud of that. She's really grown as an actress with the back of her neck.
Complex: She was telling me about your crazy dancing.
Joss Whedon: My crazy dancing?
Complex: Your crazy dancing.
Joss Whedon: I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about. Nobody has ever called me "Crazy Legs," and I'm going on record with that. Um, yeah, I like to dance. And Eliza likes to make fun of me when I do.
Complex: Do you have a go-to dance move?
Joss Whedon: I do not. I don't even know what any dance moves are called.
Complex: Would you ever go on Dancing With the Stars?
Joss Whedon: I never would in a hundred gazillion years. I do not care to make a spectacle of myself. Unless I'm at Comic-Con.
Complex: Are there any guest stars you want to tease?
Joss Whedon: Well we have Alexis Denisof, Jamie Bamber, Michael Hogan. Last year we were very cagey about it because we didn't want to mix too many of our old friends in it because we wanted it to be a new... "Oh, nobody's watching? Come on, get in here! It's fun!" And Felicia Day is in it of course, because she was in "Epitaph One." It's not just a way to reconnect with people that I love and make our hardcore fans really happy—it's a time-saver.
Complex: Is Michael Hogan still going to have an eyepatch?
Joss Whedon: No, but he's going to have braces and a retainer. It will be very sexy.
Complex: About Cabin in the Woods, can you talk about your decision not to say anything about it?
Joss Whedon: Oh, it was very simple. The movie has a plot. There's premise movies and plot movies. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a premise movie. There's nothing to give away; it is what it is. We don't want people to know—beyond the fact that it's thrilling horror—what goes on until they see it.
Complex: Speaking of the Buffy movie, what are your thoughts on the idea to bring it back without you?
Joss Whedon: You know, I don't give it thought. The people who own the rights are making a business decision, and that's their business.
Complex: And you have a lot of other comic-projects that are related to you with the Shepherd Book comic, the Dr. Horrible comic and the Cabin in the Woods comic tie-in.
Joss Whedon: Yeah, it happens. They keep asking for a Dollhouse comic and I tell them that when they can draw Eliza the way she looks in real life we can do one. Other than that, it's not really worth it. The other ones, they all lend themselves to it and they're all different genres. Dr. Horrible is funny hero stuff. Cabin in the Woods, not so funny—more like classic monster, EC horror stuff. And Buffy is pretty much straight-up superhero stuff.