In Focus

Joss Whedon's New Frontier

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2005

This isn't just another year of once-popular TV series morphing into movies ("The Dukes of Hazzard," "Bewitched").

It's the year in which a low-rated, ill-treated, clumsily cancelled series has been reborn as a feature film, written and directed by its creator and with its original cast intact.

That 's never been done before (even by "Star Trek").

Welcome to Joss Whedon's "Serenity" (see review on Page 38), by way of "Firefly," a critically acclaimed but short-lived series that aired on Fox in 2002. Eleven of 14 episodes aired, out of order and irregularly (often preempted by sports). "Firefly's" elaborate concept -- a cowboys-in-space Western set 500 years in the future, featuring a ragtag crew of misfits, mercenaries and smugglers working a frontier of outer-rim planets and taking aboard their rickety spaceship a pair of fugitives desperately sought by a totalitarian regime -- was well explained in the show's two-hour pilot, but it was shown last, after the series had been canceled.

But death is never final in Whedon's world. After all, Whedon rescued "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from a terrible 1992 film based on his original script and transformed it into one of the best, most influential, genre-defining television series in decades; it ran for 6 1/2 years and spun off the "Angel" series, which was cut off in its prime by the WB network. Even "Buffy" suffered premature closure at UPN, further souring Whedon on television.

So call this small-screen-to-big-screen move poetic symmetry and salve for what Whedon once described as "the source of more joy and pain than anything I've ever done."

"There's been an incredibly small amount of pain in making this movie, which can only mean it will do horribly and cause me pain there," Whedon joked recently from his Hollywood office. "I've never worked for executives who not only supported me but actually guided me. Someone forgot to bring the pain to that little buffet, and I'm not sure why."

While this is Whedon's debut as a feature-film director, he directed numerous episodes for all three of his series. He's also an Oscar-nomimated scriptwriter (for "Toy Story") and script doctor who had to separate past experience from the project at hand. "Serenity" does flesh out and complete "Firefly's" central story arc involving the evil powers-that-be relentlessly chasing the ship's stowaway, weird and psychic teenager River (Summer Glau), who may have been a guinea pig in the development of advanced warfare. There's a galaxywide cover-up involved, as well.

"It absolutely must stand on its merits as a film," says Whedon of "Serenity." "Ultimately, you can't say, 'I want to finish my TV series, and I think I'll spend a lot of Universal's money doing that.' That's a disservice to them and to an audience. . . . I do feel a sense of closure that I would not otherwise have felt, but ultimately that's because the story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so that somebody who doesn't need that closure can walk into it and have a great time."

One challenge for Whedon was to make a film that satisfied "Firefly's" loyal fans yet hooked the much larger universe that never saw the series. According to Whedon, "Ultimately, if I make a movie with these characters and this universe, my responsibility to the fans -- and the fans include me -- is taken care of. . . . The movie is for the newbies, the people who never saw ['Firefly'], who don't know who I am, don't know the kind of story I'm used to telling. It's for absolutely everybody."

"Serenity" -- the name of the ship that became a 10th character in "Firefly" -- reunites a terrific cast led by Nathan Fillion as the ship's captain, Adam Baldwin as an irreverent mercenary, Gina Torres as the hard-nosed first officer, Jewel Staite as a wunderkind engineer and Morena Baccarin as a planet-traveling courtesan. (No one does strong female characters better than Whedon.) The film also extends Whedon's future view, in which past, present and future technologies meld, as do languages (a polyglot of English and Chinese slang, the result of America and China being the last remaining superpowers).

There are no aliens in Whedon's space, just people struggling to make a living, and stay alive, on the farthest frontier. Both the series and the film, he says, "are about the idea that there's just us. In the past there was just us, now there's just us and in the future there's just us. We are always struggling, there are always the disenfranchised, and there are always the powerful overreaching themselves, and no matter how altruistic they are, that stuff's not going to change. And aliens do not make that statement."

Other Whedon staples, notably his deft blend of action, drama, comedy, romance and horror, are intact, but the approach Whedon was able to take on television -- extended storylines years in the making, complex characters slowly revealed, relationships gradually explored -- couldn't work in a two-hour movie. Whedon admits to having been spoiled by television "because you can really zig and zag and get into the minutia and go to really strange places. An audience who watches my shows knows who I am, knows that right when they think I'm going to make a joke, I'm going to blow something up, or during the worst peril, I'm going to have someone give someone a kiss -- it's just going to happen. I'm going to mix up the genres and the rhythms because that's what keeps it fresh for me. How do you get all that to work in a science-fiction/action movie? How much of that do you jettison and streamline and combine? It was definitely a challenge."

The redemptive move to film began after fans petitions on the Internet led to the DVD release of "Firefly's" only season, finally in correct order, with three unaired episodes. It proved a huge hit, not all that surprising since Whedon's "Buffy" is among the most successful TV-to-DVD series ever. Impressed by the reaction, Universal came up with a modest budget ($40 million).

For "Serenity," Whedon reunited his cast and much of his crew. Whether that will be repeated with his other series remains to be seen. Asked about rumors of "Buffy" or "Angel" being reborn as films, Whedon reports, "The Buffyverse hopefully will be open for business, but I'm not sure how or on what scale. Sometime in the next few months, I hope to make an announcement of some kind that will be pleasing to people."

Whatever it is, it won't be immediate: Whedon has been tapped to write and direct the first Wonder Woman film, starring the first great female superhero to emerge from comic books (via DC Comics in the '40s) and television (via the campish Lynda Carter series in the '70s). As the groundbreaking heroine of her times, Wonder Woman is very much Buffy Summers's godmother.

"Oh, absolutely," says Whedon, who has announced that his Wonder Woman film, set for 2007, will be an origin story in the manner of "Batman Begins."

"There's never been an absolute canon in terms of the comic, where you can go, 'This is exactly who she is,' " says Whedon, adding, "I was not raised on DC; I was strictly Marvel as a child. [But] it occurred to me, Wonder Woman is pretty much the reason why I write. She is absolutely the lady I've been waiting my whole life to meet."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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