Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains Joss Whedon's new television show, Dollhouse, follows a group of young women and men who have volunteered to have their personalities and memories erased.
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Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains

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Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains

Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest Joss Whedon created TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," its spin-off "Angel," and the sci-fi series "Firefly." That last series was treated so poorly by the Fox network that Whedon left TV for a while and made a movie spin-off of "Firefly" called "Serenity."

But now he's back, and back at Fox, with his first television series in five years. It's called "Dollhouse," and it stars Eliza Dushku, who had a recurring role as Faith, a renegade vampire slayer, on both "Buffy" and "Angel." In "Dollhouse," which premieres Friday night, she plays Echo, a woman who's coerced into having her memories and personality erased, then replaced over and over again with a series of new memories. Like the other men and women she lives with, Echo is hired out to rich clients to fulfill their needs and fantasies, becoming a different person for each mission.

All is going fine until the constant rebooting of her memory begins to show signs of malfunction and starts to leave lingering traces. In other words, Echo starts to experience echoes. In this scene from "Dollhouse," Echo has just had her memories wiped after a mission involving a weekend love affair with a client. Topher, the scientist who erases and implants all the dolls, and Echo's handler, Boyd, are discussing Echo's mood.

(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")

Mr. HARRY LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) Everything go all right with the wipe?

Mr. FRAN KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Why don't you just ask Echo? Oh, that's right. Because she can't remember. Ha, ha, ha. Of course it went all right. Imprint's gone, the new moon has made her virgin again. Is there some reason it shouldn't have? Something happen during the engagement?

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) I think she finally met the right guy.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Ha ha. You're so jaded. That's such a - middle age. She had fun, right?

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) She thought so.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, man friend. We gave two people the perfect weekend together. We're great humanitarians.

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) We'd spend our lives in jail if anyone ever found this place.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) We're all so misunderstood, which great humanitarians often are. Look at Echo. Not a care in the world. She's living the dream.

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) Whose dream?

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Who's next?

DAVIES: It may sound like a silly fantasy premise, but, warns our TV critic David Bianculli, so did "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and that turned out to be one of the best and smartest TV shows of the modern era.

David spoke with Joss Whedon last week not only about "Dollhouse," but about Whedon's most recent project before returning to TV, the Internet musical series "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." That's another project that, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," had a ridiculous-sounding title, yet made many TV critics' end-of-the-year top ten lists, even though it was never actually on television. David spoke to Joss Whedon last week.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Joss Whedon, welcome back to Fresh Air.

Mr. JOSS WHEDON (Writer/Producer/Director, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly," "Dollhouse"): Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: It's hard to believe - I mean, for me, anyway - that it's been five years since you've had a series on network TV. Why so long, and what's changed the most since the end of "Angel" and "Firefly" and the start of "Dollhouse"?

WHEDON: So long because of "Firefly," mostly. That was such a heartbreaking experience, I really just - my brain stopped thinking in terms of television shows for a while. And then, by the time I even could consider, you know, coming up with a concept for a TV show, I was working on movies, and then ultimately, I, you know, when this happened, it happened by accident. I hadn't intended to make a TV show. But in my talk with Eliza I realized that I had an idea. Fox appeared to like it, and all of a sudden there I was - and then we had the strike, so that set us back another two-thirds of a year. So it's just been - it's been one of those journeys where I haven't really been in control of it.

As for what's different, you know, I think the pressure on the networks is a little heavier, and I think, you know, the attempt to just sort of get into the modern has led to a certain, you know, a sort of deconstruction of the whole thing of, you know, more act breaks and webisodes and just, you know, trying to milk as much out of every episode - behind the scenes, director's cut. There's this mandate to create more than just a television show that just didn't exist when I was making TV just five years ago.

BIANCULLI: Am I alone in thinking that the real job is to make the best programming, to start with?

WHEDON: I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've tried to explain that. When people said, you can do, you know, a cool engagement in a two-minute webisode, and I would say, that then robs us of a fifty-minute episode of a cool engagement. You know, these ideas don't come fast. It's actually a very hard show to break, and in any of these cases, anything we do beyond, you know, just getting out the thirteen hours - which is extraordinarily difficult and in our case increasingly difficult because they added about ten minutes of screen time by pulling out commercials - it's just - the tonnage is overwhelming for writers, and it can be very damaging if people don't respect the first part, which is the story. They would say, well, we want to drive viewers to the show, and I would say, but if there's no show, then when they get there they will turn their cars around and drive away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: So that I don't have to explain what's going on in "Dollhouse," could you, briefly?

WHEDON: "Dollhouse" is a show about a group of people, men and women, who have signed on to have their personalities and their memories erased for five years so that they can be imprinted with new personalities and for engagements with various people who are either very rich, very connected or very nefarious, and after which they will have no memory of what happened.

And so week to week, we follow one active, Echo, as she goes from engagement to engagement as completely different people, and as she in between those times begins to build a sort of awareness that she isn't sure who she is and that she may have been somebody and she'd like to know who.

BIANCULLI: You know, to me it almost seems like an actor's fantasy or an actor's metaphor, where each job you get to start completely over and have a whole new personality. Is that part of it?

WHEDON: Absolutely. And you know, when I pitched it to Eliza, it had to do with an actor's fantasy in the sense that I was basically saying, I think you're much more versatile as an actress than people give you credit for, and I'd like to see you do a lot of different things instead of, you know, just be earnest or tough every week, and you know, because I think she's got great comedy chops. I think she can play sophisticated, and she tends to play the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. I was just like, you know, I just like to see a lot of aspects of that personality in a show.

And then, when I came up with the idea, Eliza's reaction was, oh, my God, this is my life. Everybody's telling me who they want me to be while I'm trying to figure out who I am. And then, ultimately, that also ended up translating for me, as well, as a writer, and then ultimately for everybody in the sense of, you know, how do I behave when I'm around certain people, what part of myself do I sublimate, what part of myself comes from my culture telling me it's so and what part comes from true humanity, is there anything in there that is just purely me?

There's a third aspect to it, of course, which is the actor's nightmare, that is to say, that every episode for Eliza now is kind of a pilot episode because she's playing a different person all the time.

BIANCULLI: And I read this, but I don't necessarily believe what I read, so I'll ask you. Is it true that you went to some sort of feminist groups before you pitched the series, once you had it in mind, to make sure that you could get some guidance from a women's perspective?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I - it was sort of coincidental. I've had a relationship with the group Equality Now since its inception, and I was visiting the New York offices, which I hadn't been in, right after I had pitched the show. So I decided just off the cuff to sit everybody down and tell them what I was going to do because I figured I would never have a tougher room than that. And you know, and I think the reactions were mixed. Some people thought, well, there's a discussion going on there, and it's interesting and it's worthy. And some people thought, it just sounds like glorifying human trafficking, which is something they particularly fight against.

And so, you know, it was sort of a harbinger of what was to come, which was that this show is going to get some very mixed reactions, and I think it's going to make some people who - you know, who are fans of my political stance probably angry. Some others not, I think. But - but you know, the idea was to open a discussion, and I have a feeling now there may be some shouting during it.

BIANCULLI: So, the idea basically is that she as a person that has signed up on a five-year agreement to have her personality completely wiped and then re-entered by scientists at this Dollhouse group, who can basically make her be any person that they want until they re-wipe her, until as in your universe things go wrong. So, first of all, how do you protect that to make it a feminist tract rather than just a male fantasy?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, the first thing you do is you don't set out to make a feminist tract. That's not storytelling, that's polemics. And - but at the same time, you hope that whatever story you're telling is going to have enough of a feminist bent just by virtue of the kind of stories you like to tell that, you know, some virtue will come of it.

The fact of the matter is one of the reasons why I had an easy time studying gender and studying, you know, the murderous gaze and the male animal and misogyny and all those things is that, you know, objectification is that, you know, I am the enemy. I am that guy. I, you know - and so whereas a lot - for a lot of people, for a lot of women I was studying with it was like how do we, you know, we have to codify this, we have to figure it out. We have to, you know, read about it. I was just like, ah, I'm sitting right here. It's all in my head. I mean, I'm not proud of the fact that, you know, I might be having, you know, particularly not - if not misogynist then certainly objectifying thoughts. But I can certainly tell you, you know, how this operates without a manual.

And so when I come at something, particularly this, this was always meant to be kind of a dark tale. And the idea of the feminist aspect of it is really very simply that it's about somebody with no power whatsoever gaining control of her own life. That's the arc of the character, and so we start her at zero, but the premise itself is very dicey. It's very controversial, and while I'm not out to court controversy, I'm not trying to shock people all the time, I do think that we have become complacent about what we consider to be morally good or morally corrupt, and I always want to challenge our assumptions.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Joss Whedon, creator of the new Fox series "Dollhouse." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: My guest is Joss Whedon, creator of the new Fox series "Dollhouse." But right now, I want to talk about the thing he did just before "Dollhouse." It wasn't even on TV. It was an Internet miniseries, mini-musical made for the Web called "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," and it made my top 10 TV shows of 2008, even though it wasn't even on television.

I'll tell you before I play any of this, Joss, that I absolutely adored it.


BIANCULLI: I mean, I just couldn't get enough of how much fun this was. Talk about how it began during the strike and how fast you got it together.

Mr. WHEDON: Well, it began before the strike in the sense of I'd had the title and the concept just as a possible, just podcast. I wanted to write songs. I really liked and related to this character and thought, well, I could just put up some songs, and you know, on a certain basis, just as a fun side project.

When the strike happened I thought, well, you know, you could do this visually with people who can actually act and sing. And then when all the deals I was trying to make with Silicon Valley were not panning out in any kind of a timely fashion, I realized, well, if I'm going to make something, if I'm going to prove that we can create mass entertainment without the studios, I'm going to have to do it myself. And if I'm going to do it myself, then by God, I'm going to do it with songs.

And it was a little late in the game. You know, I wish that it has been Christmas when I thought of this because of course by the time we filmed it, the strike was over. But we were having so much fun by that time with the concept and with what we'd done and the actors we had that we didn't care. All of the fun you had watching it, we had creating it, and I feel like that shows.

BIANCULLI: Well, this isn't the first time I've played this on Fresh Air, but here's a clip with Neil Patrick Harris. He stars as a wannabe supervillain who's obsessed with building a deadly Freeze Ray but also obsessed with a young woman he meets at the local laundromat. Here's Neil as Dr. Horrible singing about the girl he's loved from afar.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Dr. Horrible) (Singing) Laundry day. See you there. Underthings tumbling. Want to say, love your hair. Here I go mumbling. With my freeze ray I will stop the world. With my freeze ray I will find the time to find the words to tell you how, how you make...

BIANCULLI: Now that's just delightful.

Mr. WHEDON: That was actually the first song that I wrote, and I wrote that one before the strike - not all of it, but the basic template for it. And when I pitched the idea to the other writers, my two brothers and my future sister-in-law, I - that's what I played them and said, this is sort of how I feel, you know, he's going to sound. And their instinct was, I think this is how we open it. This should be the first number because it's kind of disarming.

BIANCULLI: Well, one of the things, if you get the DVD of "Dr. Horrible" as opposed to the download, that you have to watch it three times at least because of the extra material. You have the regular sort of DVD commentary that comes with this sort of thing, and that's very entertaining. But then - and I don't know how in the world you did this, much less why - but you have a special musical commentary, which I'm pretty sure is a first. Now, how did that idea come about?

Mr. WHEDON: That idea, that I'll probably regret forever, came about - or at least Jed will because he had to produce everything - that came about just, you know, from me saying, you know what would be fun? If we did a musical commentary, Commentary: The Musical.

And it took us about twice as long to write and produce as the actual film. It has to contain about twice as much music because you can't just sort of have people talking in a musical commentary because then it just sounds like a commentary. There's no visuals. And so it was fairly arduous.

But right upfront, you know, the first song - I think the first song that was written for it was Marissa's song, Marissa and Jed's "Nobody's Asian in the Movies." So I knew we weren't actually going to be sitting down and trying to compose to the picture that often. We could just be unbelievably stupid sophomoric people and write a bunch of songs where we make fun of each other, and that's what we ended up doing.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, but you also did things that actually said something and deconstructed the process musically in a way that's to me surprisingly ambitious and funny while still being cleverly lyrical. I really - I was stunned by how funny the musical commentary of your funny musical was. So I'm going to put you on the spot and play something I didn't expect from that whole unexpected patch - you singing a song and singing about the whole idea of having to comment on a DVD and what that means.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" DVD Commentary)

Mr. WHEDON: I tried to warn you. The truth never helps anyone.

Unidentified Man: Joss, don't start.

Mr. WHEDON: (Singing) A caveman painted on a cave. It was a bison, was a fave. The other cave-people would rave. They didn't ask why. Why paint a bison if it's dead? When did you choose the color red? What was the process in your head? He told their story. What came before he didn't show. We're not supposed to.

Homer's Odyssey was swell. A bunch of guys that went through hell. He told the tale, but didn't tell the audience why. He didn't say, here's what it means. And here's a few deleted scenes. Charybdis tested well with teens. He's not the story. He's just a door we open if our lives need lifting.

But now we pick pick. Pick pick pick it apart. Open it up to find the Tick tick tick of a heart...

BIANCULLI: That was Joss Whedon, creator of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," actually singing along with his sing-along blog on an audio commentary musical track.

Mr. WHEDON: Yeah. You know, I mean we really did want the DVD to be its own experience. And this, we knew, was the one thing we could do that categorically, you know, was not on any other DVD and would make it something really special. It, you know, nearly broke us, but - and I do think it is ultimately fairly silly. But we really did, you know, we were dedicated to it, dedicated to making the DVD something - a special experience.

And I always want to get behind or inside everything I'm doing. You know, whenever I'm making a show or if it's a lecture or anything - a comic book, whatever it is, I always I feel like I want to dig underneath it and say, well, what's the point of this, of this medium, of this experience? Why did you sit down with me for an hour? Why did you do it? Why did I do it? Why did I write this?

And without becoming so self-reflective that it becomes pointless and it's all about breaking the fourth wall, you know, I want to be asking those questions. I don't just want to say, well, here's, you know, an Internet musical, here's a TV show, here's a commentary. I want to say, yes, OK, but you've seen that before. So you know, what is it? What does it mean? How does it feel? And obviously, this was a rather sophomoric attempt to do just that.

DAVIES: Joss Whedon, speaking with Fresh Air TV critic David Bianculli. David teaches at Rouen University. Whedon's new show, "Dollhouse," premiers on Fox tomorrow night. We'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. HARRIS: (As Dr. Horrible) (Singing) That's the plan. Rule the world. You and me. Any day. Love your hair.

Unidentified Woman: What?

Mr. HARRIS: (as Dr. Horrible) (Singing) No - I love the air. Anyway, with my freeze ray I would stop...

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, back with TV critic David Bianculli's interview with Joss Whedon. Whedon's new show, "Dollhouse," premieres on Fox tomorrow night. Whedon's also the creator of the shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," and "Firefly." Last year, with members of his family, he created the online musical "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," which appeared on many TV critics' best-of lists, even though it wasn't actually on TV.

BIANCULLI: You're supposed to be the first third-generation TV writer.

Mr. WHEDON: That I know of, yes.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, who keeps those stats, first of all?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I think I'm the one who just said, "I'm the first."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because nobody else was saying it. And I had never heard of it. And you know, my grandfather wrote radio before he wrote television. So, you know, it was really in our blood. So I just...

BIANCULLI: But your grandfather, John, wrote "The Dick Van Dyke Show," that's one of his credits. Your father, Tom, wrote "Golden Girls," and "Benson."

Mr. WHEDON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Is your dad still alive?

Mr. WHEDON: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And what does he think of your doing things for the Internet? What's that cross-generational conversation like?

Mr. WHEDON: That cross-generational conversation is him being so thrilled, because before he wrote for television, he wrote off-off-Broadway musicals, as did his father - they both wrote lyrics. And he is a musicals fanatic, as was my mother, and so he loves them. But what he loved more than anything, I think, that I've ever done was when the credits came up at the end, and he just saw so many Whedons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because I was working with Zack and Jed and Marissa, who's going to become a Whedon - poor girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: And it's - he just - I watched him just tearing up with just joy that so many of us were involved in it. And that's - so you know, he doesn't care if it's on the Internet. I mean, as long as a DVD comes that he knows how to put in a machine, he's fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: He just cares that he had so much fun and that it was such a family endeavor.

BIANCULLI: Well, I have one other Broadway question for you because probably the best compliment that you can get about your own musical attempts and your lyrics is to have someone evoke the name Stephen Sondheim. And you have met him and talked to him, so I'm wondering, what have you said about his music and lyrics and what has he said about yours?

Mr. WHEDON: You know, he actually hasn't really commented on mine, mostly because if he ever brings up the subject, I change it instantly. Because I am, I'm...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: He's a truthful fellow, and I just - I'm too terrified to hear anything he has to say. So, I did send him "Dr. Horrible" because, of course, Neil has done a couple of his shows, and he's a big fan of Neil's. And he said, oh, it's really good. I'm like, great, OK. Good, you liked it, good, moving on - next question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because I was just, you know, I'm too terrified to come under that eye. To be compared to him, yeah, that's about the ambition of my life. I mean, there is no other single writer who has influenced me more or who has taught me more about humanity than Stephen Sondheim.

BIANCULLI: Your TV shows, other than "The Sopranos," are probably - and "Twin Peaks" - are probably the most dissected shows in academia. So I'm wondering, whose analysis surprises you more? The professors or the Web site fans?

Mr. WHEDON: I'm not as up on the professors as I perhaps could be. And you know, I try not to read too much deconstruction because ultimately, you know, if you start to look behind your own curtain too much, you're gonna - you might just lose some of your own magic. And this is - it's a very easy trap to fall into. You also might begin to think you are the greatest writer in the history of letters, and that, you know, you go on a Web site that's all about you for a while, you forget that there's 12 people on it. You think the entire world is talking about me and my genius. I can't possibly write anything because I'm paralyzed by my own genius. It can be a little damaging.

However, I have looked at some stuff, and I will say that my favorite stuff has been things from fans who pick up just little things that I hadn't necessarily understood or intended but that I had absolutely done. And that's a real joy for an artist. I actually, you know, was able to spend some time with Sondheim because he read an interview with me where I said something about "Sunday in the Park" that he had never thought.

BIANCULLI: What was that?

Mr. WHEDON: And - well, it surprised me because I sort of assumed it was the reason that - I said that the first act was about the burden of genius, and the second act was about the burden of not being a genius, that those are the two things every artist...

BIANCULLI: That is good, that is good, yeah.

Mr. WHEDON: But I think it's very true, and it's why I love the second act, which some people discount. And - but it's what every artist goes through, the pain of being near the muse and trying to live a life at the same time and then the pain of not being near the muse. And you know, we're both - we're all going through all of it. So, that was sort of my thing.

And you know, like anybody who's a true artist, Stephen Sondheim is, you know, he's ready to be - he's ready to learn. He wants to know. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he's ready to hear more and to be disagreed with and just to sort of engage in what's around him. And so, it intrigued him that he hadn't thought of that. And so that opened a door for me that's been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, is spending time with this great man.

BIANCULLI: Did you ever get an "aha" thing from a fan that was something like that about your own approach?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I definitely didn't see the lesbian subtext between Buffy and Faith until - until a fan, actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You have to be kidding me.

Mr. WHEDON: Directed me to their Web site.

BIANCULLI: You have to be kidding.

Mr. WHEDON: No, I really didn't. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: And in fact, I became irate. A fan - somebody wrote - because I checked the posting boards all the time back then because, you know, it was a new way to hear from the audience, and it was still very fresh and exciting. And somebody said, oh, there's lesbian subtext. And I just blew up. I was like, you guys see lesbian subtext behind every corner. I mean, you know, when Buffy's mom had a friend over, you're all lesbian subtext. I'm like, guys, you just want to see girls kissing. It's not lesbian subtext, and get over it.

And the person who wrote it said, we would like you to go to our Web site where we have dissected every episode and written our treatise about the lesbian subtext. I went on it, and came back and apologized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: It was like, everything you said is true. It's all right there. And you know, it's where I first coined the phrase, BYO subtext, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: I realized that, you know, part of art is going to be people bringing - it's got to touch everybody in a way that's totally personal. And if - I think the problem with a lot of mass art, a lot of, you know, the studio stuff is they think that means that you want hit everybody in the same way. You want, you know, you want to be able to reach everybody. You want a four-quadrant movie - old people like it, young people like it, men and women. And you know, and so, you want to sort of homogenize the experience.

But in fact, if it's really working, if it's really art, it is touching everybody, and it's doing it differently for every person because what they're doing is incorporating their story into it, and that's what these people were doing, and that's what I'd been giving them to do. I'd been giving them the material to do it without ever knowing it. And you know, when you're doing something and you don't know it, you know, that's the difference between just, you know, crafting a nice chair and art.

BIANCULLI: Well, Joss Whedon, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us again. It was great having you back on.

Mr. WHEDON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Joss Whedon, speaking with David Bianculli of David's also Fresh Air's TV critic. Whedon's new show, "Dollhouse," premieres on Fox tomorrow night.

Coming up, the documentary about a 1968 Ivy League football game that even non-football fans are cheering. This is Fresh Air.

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