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The Talking Issue

Joss Whedon

Fuck it. It's time to come out of the closet. We were/are total nerds for Joss Whedon and <i>Buffy the Vampire Slayer</i>.

by Liz Armstrong; Photo: Jeaneen Lund
02 October 2008, 12:00am




Fuck it. It’s time to come out of the closet. We were/are total nerds for Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And now, in light of that bullshit new vampire series by Alan “Smells Like a” Ball on HBO (fuck you, sir, and fuck Six Feet Under too), we thought we’d talk to Whedon, the fucking OG when it comes to heavy, funny, complex, and even—yes—avant-garde television about vampires. Did you see the silent episode, “Hush”? Did you see the fucking musical episode? Did you see the Lars von Trier-worthy episode when Buffy’s mom died?

Anyway, there will never be another vampire show as intense as
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Shit, there’s hardly ANY show as intense as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It consumes our doomed and forsaken souls to this very day. (Also let it here be noted that Joss Whedon’s Serenity is Vice publisher Erik Lavoie’s favorite movie. He’s seen it like a thousand times. What the fuck that is about, we have no idea.)

This past summer we also became obsessed with Whedon’s hilarious online musical
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, in which Neil Patrick “Doogie” Harris plays a novice supervillain desperately trying to get accepted into the Evil League of Evil. (Download it from iTunes for five bucks right now!) And now, now, we are peeing ourselves waiting for Joss’s new TV show, Dollhouse, starring second-string Vampire Slayer Faith—oops, Eliza Dushku—as a human “doll” whose memory can be wiped clean and then imprinted with a new persona to be hired out for different sinister missions. It sounds really weird, which is exactly the direction Whedon says he’s going in. Will it be better than Buffy? Fuck no. But what is? The Wire and The Sopranos are the only things that ever have been, basically.

Vice: You’re super-busy all the time.

Joss Whedon:
Oh yeah. Well, I complain constantly.

I’m sure that helps everyone around you.

I’m a huge whiner.

The more I research you the more I fall into these wormholes. You’re so anti-linearly prolific. How do you know when to pursue an idea and when to let it go?

They kind of decide for themselves. With Dollhouse, it all fell together really quickly. I talked to my wife about it and we were both clear that this was gonna happen. It’s very organic. You just wait for that to be, you wait for the thing that asserts itself. You’re never sure what it’s going to be. I thought I was going to do Wonder Woman for a long time.

Yeah, what happened with that? You’re so good at creating your own superhero woman characters, why would you want to take on one already in existence?

Because it was Wonder Woman. And I was interested in her, once I thought about what makes her tick, and I was interested in making my version of that work. But Warner Brothers was not interested in that work. It’s their ball. She’s a character who’s kind of elusive, she’s an old-fashioned superhero. At first I didn’t know what to do with her and then I realized, oh no, that’s what’s great about her—that she is an old-fashioned superhero and there is no place for her here. Or anyplace.

You write such rich characters that I feel like it’d be hard for some of the actors whom you’ve worked with to get a job and not have someone refer to the people they’ve already played. It’s not them as actors, it’s your strength as a writer. I look at photos of Eliza and go, “Oh, that’s Faith.”

Thanks. I want people to remember that, but at the same time if at the end of the first episode of Dollhouse you’re still saying that, we probably blew it.

It seems Dollhouse is a chance for Eliza to play off the idea that an actor is malleable by a director but fixed by a viewer, but in this role she’s looking for a sense of self.

That’s the whole point of the setting, is her sense of self and her assertion of herself and getting past what people—even me—expect of her... People have already accepted that she can be something else, so she’s already gotten past Faith a little bit. She has been sort of pigeonholed, though.

I wonder if there’s any bigger-picture stuff going on with the show, like some cosmic theory that this life is a Sims life, that there’s a real waking life somewhere else.

You know, um, not really. I don’t think we’re trapped in the Matrix, or trapped in the way that the Matrix actually means, where this isn’t really happening. But I do think that our idea of what life really means and what we are is different than what we’ve become. And how much of us is made up of what’s expected of us, how much of us is made up of our actual free will, is a lot to pin on people, especially in this country.

This show is a lot more of an exploration of the psyche, and the Buffy comic book is sort of the same way. Your stories have always been rooted in the mind but you’re going deep full-blast now.

Well, it’s what interests me. I get less and less subtle. It’s the thing I want to talk about: What are we? Why? And why aren’t we better? In what ways are we being held accountable for things we’re actually OK about, and in what ways are we being let off for things we really should be dealing with? Because we deal with repurposing sex and what people want from each other we see right upfront the scariest parts of us, and some of the nicer parts as well. What those are are not necessarily what you’d expect. And of course, you know, other people might disagree but we have a saying here on the show: There’s no judging in the Dollhouse.

What do you think makes a successful TV show?

Ergh, God, um, there’s a lot of ways to go there. For me it’s just that the premise is relatable and the characters are delivered upon. If you make a promise that this is what the show is about and it’s about that and the characters are all dealing with it, people still may not go for it. They may say, You know what? That’s really interesting but not for me. If you’re giving them what you promise them and the premise has some sort of fun, sexy element to it—I mean sexy in a marketing sense—it has an opportunity to be something more than just flash, and you deliver on that. I look at, you know, Terminator. That was a good job of delivering on what is important and impressive about that premise, both in terms of humanity and in terms of watching an awesome Terminator movie.

Have you ever come up with a plot or a premise that’s been just too outlandish, even for you?

After Dr. Horrible, I’m going to say no! Bring it on. I’ve definitely got some ideas that are effin’ strange, but I find that the world every now and then embraces my strange.

With Dr. Horrible, because of the writers strike, you had to start a new filmmaking model. How’s that going?

It’s going really well. I want to pursue more and see what else I can do in that format.

What do you think makes an ideal villain?

Perspective. An ideal villain is partially right.

Any real-life examples?

Well, I don’t believe that George W. Bush is real.

Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who thinks he’s a lizard!

He’s so arch it’s got to be fake. There are villains who’ve gotten so cartoonish, it’s like they’ve been watching 80s movies and have gotten the wrong message. Hmm, I’m trying to come up with something…

Maybe there’s no such thing.

Maybe not. But I do know that in fiction, making them do something more than just say something so your hero can say something funny back is the most important and sometimes the most difficult part.

Can I ask you some geek-out questions?

Totally!

Or, um, is it irritating at this point to still be answering questions about Buffy?

Depends on the question. Good luck. We’re all behind you. We’re rooting for you.

Between the end of the show and the beginning of the comic, what happened? It seemed like Buffy was so excited to start having a normal life, and then right away in the comic she’s basically gone Aeon Flux. That’s about as much the reverse of an organic California blond as I can imagine.

Mmm-hmm. Well, the first thing you do at the beginning of any season is make everything bad so that you can have something to fight against. You take whatever resolution you had and say, Well, what were the consequences of that? Besides that, I was dealing with the fact that I had created a future where none of the things she had apparently accomplished had actually happened—I wrote them before I wrote her doing them, and that was a mistake. So trying to reconcile the two led to the tone of season eight. It is a little intense but it hopefully has a goofy side to it.

It definitely has a silliness, with famous actors showing up in dreams and fantasies, but in general it seems more sexualized than the TV show.

More sexualized than season six?

Yeah, totally! Even just the way the characters are rendered.

It’s a comic book. But I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. To me it seems pretty restrained. Usually. And I’ve just gotten weirder so that may be the problem.

What’re you listening to these days?

Right now I’ve pretty much been listening to Linkin Park a lot.

To who?!

Linkin Park.

You’re kidding.

No. I’ve been listening to Minutes to Midnight, which I realize is not a new album, pretty much on repeat.

Ah man. It seems so different from the music you’ve had on your shows.

Yeah, it’s a little different but I’m a very big fan of metal. That stuff and Lilith Fair and you’ve got me in a nutshell.

I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.