Interview with Creator Joss Whedon from Dollhouse

Dollhouse Logo

In the last week, I got the chance to speak with both Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku about Dollhouse, which premieres tonight on FOX at 9/8c. They came up with the idea of the show kind of together and based it around Eliza then Joss took the idea to FOX. The show’s original pilot was rewritten to the version that we will see tonight but both of them seem pleased with not only the pilot, but the other 12 episodes as well. First up is Joss Whedon’s call. (Click on the pictures to get to a bigger version, by the way!)

When asked about how the rewritten pilot came to be, Joss gave a great answer.

“The original pilot explained everything that happened, but came at it very sideways, and they said let the audience see an engagement so that they understand that every week she’s going to go to a different please and be a different person and that they have that sense of structure.

That part was simple enough. It was my idea to do a new pilot, because once I was clear on what it was they didn’t have that I had planned to provide in the show anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to give them something they could get behind more.

But there was some real questioning about what exactly we wanted to get at in terms of the humanity and what they do and why people hire them and there’s a sexual aspect to it that makes some people nervous. Part of the mandate of the show is to make people nervous. It’s to make them identify with people they don’t like and get into situations that they don’t approve of, and also look at some of the heroic side of things and wonder if maybe they were wrong about what motivated those as well.

So we’re out to make people uncomfortable, but not maybe so much our bosses.”


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If you’re worried that the changes the network had them make would affect Joss’ vision of the show, don’t be. When asked if they’ve found the show now or if it is an ongoing process, he was quick to put the fears to rest.

“Well, it’s always an ongoing process to an extent, but I would say emphatically yes. We had all of the elements, the characters, none of which were changed really, and none of the regular characters, and the premise, the concept, the way we were able to explore what makes us human, all of that is in there.

As the season progresses, it ends up going exactly where I had hoped it would go before all of this happened, so I do feel like we got back to our vision in a way that really works for the network. And the last few episodes that we just completed shooting got us all extraordinarily excited.

There are things I miss from my original vision, and there are things that I think are better the way it is. Ultimately, the show ends up going exactly where I hoped it would go. There are elements of intrigue and high stake suspense that have been added, but I don’t think they hurt the show at all, and it really goes where we planned to have it go.

The idea was always to have a mythology that was counterbalanced by a standalone aspect that every episode would be self-contained, and that the mythology would play out, but you would feel a sense of resolve, be that an engagement, or some other aspect every week.

The mandate [by the network] to go ahead and just really make the first several episodes pure standalone engagements is tough. It’s more work for a staff to drum up that enthusiasm and that identification for the guest of the week. That’s just difficult, but we knew that was part of the show going in, that every week, we were not only going to have to create a new world and care about it, but that she was actually going to have to join the guest cast, because she would be a new person.

So it’s a challenge, but it’s one that we new going in we were going to have to tackle, and I think we’re getting better at it. It is definitely a different skill.”

Joss Whedon directing Dollhouse

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Because networks are so quick to pull shows that aren’t hits right out of the gate, some fans are already participating in Save Dollhouse campaigns. Joss said that while his biggest concern is giving them something worth panicking over, not whether the show gets saved, the support is very sweet and he agrees with the people that want to see the show get a chance.

“My concern isn’t whether the show gets saved. It’s whether these fans who are panicking about it love it. They may get over their panic. They may see it and go, you know, actually, we’re okay. It really is a show that finds itself as it goes along.”

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Joss was asked if he planned to do with Dollhouse what he did with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in having different types of interesting things happen, such as a musical episode, or having an episode where no one speaks. His answer showed how easy that would be to do with Dollhouse, without having to do something different like that.

“One of the exciting things about the show, one of the reasons why we’re excited to have more runs at it, is that you can really come at these stories from a lot of different perspectives; from the perspective of the client, from the perspective, as we do in episode six, from the man on the street, from the perspective of obviously Echo or any of the dolls or the people who are running it.

There’s always a different way into the story, and since there is a basic structure of an engagement where somebody comes in, says what they want, and they build that personality and the engagement takes place, there is a lot of fun that can be had with how you come at those stories.

But I don’t have anything specific in mind, and no, I’m not planning a Dollhouse musical just yet.” (cue the Awwww’s now!)

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When asked why he had made comments elsewhere about the earnestness of the show, and why, with the concept, that there should be plent of opportunities to have fun with the show as well, Joss was quick to point out that there is plenty of fun and humor in Dollhouse, as well as seriousness and weight.

“There is a lot of fun and a lot of humor in it. What it doesn’t have is an inherent silliness that both Buffy had, and even Angel. Part of the fun was of deconstructing the genre we were in. This has to be a little bit more grounded in order for it to play, or it would become campy, and with vampires and spaceships and horses, we had more leeway to be a little less realistic in how we plotted things.

But humor is a part of the show all over the place, because we have really funny actors, and these situations do become absurd, and besides, we would get really bored if we didn’t.”

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Joss talked quite a bit about how the show came about. He mentioned again about his lunch with Eliza, about what kind of stuff she should play and how he thought she should play lots of different things. But he also added this:

“Beyond that, I’m very interested in concepts of identity, what … is our own, what’s socialized, can people actually change, what do we expect from each other, how much do we use each other and manipulate each other, and what would we do if we had this kind of power over each other? And in this, our increasingly virtual world, self-definition has become a very amophous concept, so it just felt what was on my mind. I don’t mean it felt timely, like I was trolling the papers looking for something timely. It’s just been something I think about a lot.

As for the characters, they sell out by necessity. I wanted to have a strong ensemble around Eliza, because I didn’t want her to have to carry the burden of every single day of shooting, or she would burn out. So it was the question of really just doing the math. You’re going to need the handler, you’re going to need somebody running the place, you’re going to need the programmer, and then realizing what all of those different perspectives would give us, even before we had the astonishing case, started to make the show really live.”

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We all know that the television industry is not a secure field. Our favorite show can be cancelled seeminly out of the blue tomorrow. Joss was asked, given the pressures and drawbacks of being a creative person working within television, what keeps him going and inspires him.

“Ultimately, it’s two things. It’s the story and it’s the people I’m working with. I’ve gotten pretty good at putting together a group of people, both in the writing and in the acting fields, who are not just really gifted and delightful to learn from and to watch, but are just good people to be around. And creating an environment that is fun and safe and creative is difficult and enormously important, and a lot of shows obviously don’t feel the same way, and a lot of stars don’t feel the same way.

But I have had both good luck and the good sense to make sure the people I’m around are the people you want to spend your time with, and when those people come to you with ideas, or bring you something you didn’t expect and really know what they’re doing, it snowballs and an idea gets bounced around between all of the people who are helping create it and it just gets bigger and better.

Ultimately, it comes from the world itself. It comes from the world you’ve created. If you’ve really created a world and not just a character, then it’s constantly going to be screaming its awesome variations at you. And when you’re surrounded by a group of people who are hearing that scream as well, then you go on, despite being really tired some of the time.”

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One caller brought up the fact that episode two deals with bow hunting and hunting humans. Someone else asked about some of the topics that Joss would like to address in future episode that he hasn’t tackled before.

“Well, the constant topic of identity is one. There are a couple of things that were originally on the slate that didn’t quite fit the venue and had to stand back. We had an episode about Rwandan boy soldiers that was really about how we imprint people now, how we literally brainwash people, and we’re contrasting that with the Dollhouse.

There was an episode that was about perversion. It was about sexual shame and people’s inability to deal with real people that was, I thought, ultimately very heartfelt and very strange and very beautiful, but again, not to make the cut for the first 13. Those are some that would be coming up.”

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Theology is one aspect that can be explored as you look at what it means to be human. Joss talked a little about how much he will use theology in the show.

“I will explore it only in so much as people will tend to use it as a metaphor for the way they talk. I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time with it unless there is a point about the way religion interacts with our humanity that I think needs to be made. But I would say that I’m more interested in the philosophy than the theology of the thing.”

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One of the episodes involves Elgin marbles and was written by two women who are going to be the acting show runners on Dollhouse. When ased why Joss chose them and if they shared his sense of humor, he replied:

“Liz and Sarah are the ind of people who are so solid and so sensible and so good at the day-to-day show running that you forget how good they are with the script until they turn it in and you go that’s right, you guys are really funny and very twisted. They’re the ind of writers who take all of their weirdness out on the script and it’s not out on me or the people they work with, and that’s what you look for in a show runner.

It was important for me also that the show runners be female, because the subject matter is intense and delicate, and they are aware of that without being a slave to it.”

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Dollhouse is obviously airing on Friday nights, which many consider a “death” slot for TV. Joss feels differently. He talked about that and about being paired with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

“Honestly, I really do see the opportunity there because the deal with the Friday night time slot was you don’t come out, bang, opening weekend, and it’s all decided. It’s about growing a fan base, both for Dollhouse and Terminator. I think Terminator is a remarkably good show, and the kind of show that makes sense to be paired with Dollhouse, so I feel great about that, plus I get to see all these posters with Summer and Eliza together and that’s just too cool.

Ultimately, this is a show where people will hopefully become intrigued and then hang in, that really builds, so it needs the 13 weeks, and it needs the 13 weeks of people paying attention, but no so much attention that it gets burned out in the glare of the spotlight. I’ve always worked best under the radar. Most of my shows people have come to after they stopped airing, but I would like to buck that trend, and at the same time, it is part of how I work that you stay with it and it grows on you and it becomes family, and the Friday night is a much better place for that to actually happen.”

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Joss’ previous shows tend to feature a lot of “Whedon-verse” alumni, but he explains why that isn’t the case with Dollhouse.

“You know, the basic mandate for me was to find new people, because I had Eliza and I didn’t want to feel like it was going to be ‘Faith’ [Editor’s note: Eliza’s character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel] or just a reunion for my pals or anything like that, and I found some not only amazing new actors, but amazing new friends. But then, eventually, a person has to wae up and smell the ‘Acker’ [Editor’s note: Amy Acker, who appeared in previous Whedon shows] and realize you just have to cast anything that you can with her, so that happened.

Apart from that, we’ve put on some old faces in soem guest roles, but not too ofen, and sometimes, we’ve been very much behind the eight ball in terms of production and when you now somebody can do something right and you don’t have time to go and find somebody else who can, you hire them. But apart from Amy and Eliza, it’s a new crowd.”

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Joss Whedon directing Dollhouse

When asked if Joss, as a writer creating characters, identifies a lot with Echo’s programmer, he said he definitely does.

“It’s not a shock to see a lot of Topher in myself, because he’s building people, and he’s amoral and fairly goofy, but I see a lot of myself in Adelle DeWitt too, and ultimately, in all of the characters. If you don’t, you’re usually doing it wrong. If just one person is your mouthpiece, then you’re going to have trouble writing a real conversation between two people, and the fact of the matter is the person who is my mouthpiece is definitely sketchy, which is good, because it makes me question everything I have to say, no matter how funny it is.”

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Because the Actives are different people each week, some people might wonder how we as an audience are supposed to connect with any of the actors, because the actors are supposed to be like blank with new info each week.

“They’re supposed to be empty vessels and the constant struggle with Dollhouse is that they’re not quite, that Echo and Sierra have formed a kind of bond, and that Echo is clearly evolving in a way that they have not imprinted her to do.

The ideal is to creat people that people can relate to, because they were so helpless and so innocent, and then let them have these latent senses of identity and of their surroundings, and create sympathies through that, as well as through the characters that they become.”

Sierra on Dollhouse

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My main concern for the show would be how hard it will be for viewers to understand if they join after the first episodes. Joss talked about how much of the show will be episodic and how much will be an overall season or series arc that they may miss if they don’t start watching from episode one.

“We always refer to the first seven episodes as the seven pilots. You can’t just shut down after episode one and it can’t be a train that’s left the station. So the first several episodes, the first five are all individual engagements where the premise is made clear and the cast of characters is made clear and relationships are made clear. Obviously there is some progression in those relationships, but there is nowhere where you have giant pieces of information missing, or where you have to sit through a three minute previously on in order to get to the show. We really care about that, and that was one place where we were completely on the same page as the network. I think that there should be no problem if people come in a little late.”

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Kind of along that same thread, if you are worried that Dollhouse will turn into another Lost (for example), where it seems like you only get more questions and never get any answers, Joss helped put those fears to rest.

“There’s a lot of payoff in this season. There are some things that we draw out and then some things that we payoff fairly heavily, so that people don’t get the feeling that they’re just going to tease me every week.

Paul Ballard is going to be hunting the Dollhouse, and obviously, he’s going to be one step behind them for awhile, but then every now and then, he’s going to come up against them in a rather abrupt fashion, and he’s not going to be the reporter in The Hulk, always five feet behind, and this creepy naked guy [at the end of the first episode] will be explained.

Echo’s progression is a constant in the show, her search for herself, so that’s something that is being spun out episode by episode. It’s just different little aspects. It’s like she takes a little memento away from every engagement, so that will be a constant.

But we’re definitely laying in some threads, and there are definitely things that we are not explaining, but we kind of took some of the things we were going to hold for a few years and said hey, let’s just hit them in the head with a frying pan, because that will keep them excited, and it’s not like we lack for places to go.”

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If you have questions about the technical aspect of the show, about the way the Dollhouse and the Actives themselves work, Joss had some to say on that as well. Is there a limit with the technology used to imprint and erase the Actives? Could you take a bunch of people at once and have an, as one reporter asked, “army of super ninjas” shortly after? Is it just the Actives there in the Dollhouse that are programmed with the identities or are there a bunch of people just walking around with personalities that were programmed in by the Dollhouse team that stay in their identity permanently?

“What you can accomplish and what you can destroy with this technology is something that we’re going to be asking increasingly towards the end of the season. But for the first season, we did keep the premise fairly simple, and the Dollhouse is fairly strict about what they will use this technology for, so no ninja armies just yet, but keep watching the skies.”

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Finally, Joss talked a bit about the other dolls, or Actives as they are called a lot, besides Echo (Dushku), and about how much we will get to know them.

“Obviously we start out focusing on Echo, but the friends that she makes, in particular, Sierra, all have their own stories, their own reasons for being there, and their own reaction to things. As her friendships are formed more, we get to spend more time with the other dolls, and we get real tastes of how easy they have it, and how hard they do, how controlled their lives are, and then how out of control they can get, because they have no skills for dealing with the world.

I can’t really go into specifics, but we pretty much get to start putting everybody through the ringer long about halfway through. It starts to get complicated for all of them.”

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Dollhouse Cast

Stay tuned for the interview with Eliza Dushku, Echo on Dollhouse, in a few!

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