Interview with Director Joss Whedon from Glee

I was incredibly honoured to get to participate in a recent interview with the fabulous Joss Whedon. He’s a legend of sorts, the great mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse and the genius behind Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It was fabulous, and he was fantastic. Whedon is directing the episode of Glee that airs this Tuesday night at 9 pm on FOX, titled, Dream On. The episode also guest stars, Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and Idina Menzel (Wicked).

There are mild spoilerish parts to the interview, but nothing that ruins it too much. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed doing it! Jump with me to check it out.

What was it like directing someone else’s show? Can you give us … an update on your Avenger’s victory ride?

Whedon- I can’t give you any updates. This is purely a Glee call. Directing somebody else’s show is – I’ve done it once before, twice just with The Office. It helps if the show’s unutterably wonderful. That takes a lot of the pressure off. It’s a little tricky. You’re living in somebody else’s house and you have to make sure that you’re fulfilling their needs. It also takes some of the burden off you. You don’t have to be the guy who sees the big picture. You just take what they give you and make sure that you’re servicing it as best you can. Having said that, Glee is probably harder to shoot than any other show in recorded history, with all the different elements going on and whatnot; it’s a different kind of challenge, but ultimately enormous fun.

Could you talk a little bit about was there any sort of feeling that once again, I’m directing sort of a high school show…different one, but..?

Whedon – Well, I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily been pigeonholed. I like high school shows, needless to say, I think they tap into something very primal. When you have some elements that take them to the next level, whether it’s physical or musical, it’s the kind of thing that completely jazzes me. To work with a troupe of people who are still young, and fresh and excited to be doing the work, you can’t beat that.

Just for a second, could you talk about the dance number, the mall number. How did that fit in? Was that the most difficult? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth.

Whedon- Well, here’s exactly what you must say. Actually, I want somebody to put words in my mouth, somebody to talk, to tell me – what do people know about that number? I haven’t seen the ads and I don’t want to be spoiler guy.

No, we’ve got the episode.

Whedon- Oh, you guys have the episode. You know, the thing about that number is that really was Zach and Brooke getting it done. Ultimately, it’s a complicated, it’s a big, big number, very gratifying, I think because we’re seeing things we haven’t seen before. I do pride myself on being the guy who knew we were actually going to be able to shoot it pretty quickly because once it gets dialed in, you pretty much just shoot them doing it. Because of the number of extras and the enormity of the number, people thought it was going to be much more of a bear than it actually was. We had two film cameras and four video cameras going the whole time, so the thing actually went pretty quickly. We were able to tack on another scene that day, which is great, because those schedules are a bear.

[Note from Me: I think it’s great how complimentary he was towards the cast about how hard they work.]

What was it like working with Neil again?

Whedon- I am so tired of that guy. Why do they always make me direct Neil? Why the pain? Neil is a consummate pro and a dear friend, which is an ideal combination. There’s no problem. My only complaint was that I wanted to shoot even more of the kids than I got to, that and certain craft service issues about not having caviar, but really that’s in my …, actually. I feel like he’s one of those people who expresses the way I wish I could express myself. He’s like a muse, and he’s friends with Matt. The sort of rivalry/affection between them just informed the whole thing so much. We had such a good time. He came in the day after the Oscars, the day before How I Met Your Mother. He fit this into his schedule in the most bizarre fashion. I even got him and Jane Lynch to come in late on Friday night after finishing How I Met Your Mother, just so that we could knock a scene off because the schedule was so hard for him. Always cooperative, always imaginative; Neil’s the man.

[Note from Me: Neil is wonderful, and I appreciate his acting and his contribution to television.]

I wonder if you could give as detailed as possible about leading us through, as well as how Neil’s character fits in, his impact on the glee club, but also the other two big story lines, Rachel’s and Artie’s, without giving everything away. Just to give everyone an idea of everything you explore in this episode.

Whedon- Well, the idea of the episode being “Dream On” really was let’s take the things that are at the core of what people are. With Will, it’s his desire to perform and what he may have given up. With Rachel, its questions about who her real mother was, and Artie obviously thinks about if he’ll ever one day get out of the chair.
These are very, very hard personal things that they don’t necessarily talk about with other people. I was really lucky because there’s a real fanatic coherence to the episode that really brought them all together on an emotional level. For me, it was just a question of making sure they dovetailed and didn’t feel sort of random, but they all came together and you understood why these three stories were all in the same show.

In specifics, getting back to Neil and that wonderful mullet, can you talk a little bit about how much fun you had doing the flashbacks and how collaborative you guys were about what Neil was going to bring to this episode?

Whedon- You know, Neil’s great because he looked at the script. He was very excited. He had some very specific questions about even based on the vocal arrangements, what kind of guy am I supposed to be. So, it was a real collaboration. As for the mullet, there was definitely some talk about “Isn’t that kind of the ‘80s, I mean, it’s sort of the ‘90s, what’s with the mullet?” Ryan, without missing a beat said, “Achy Breaky Heart was ’92.” So, he’s really on top of his game.

[Note from Me: Ryan Murphy is amazing at keeping all the music organized and knowing what music to use. Love him.]

Are there other shows that you’d like to direct? What are some of the other shows that you enjoy, that you’re a fan of?

Whedon- I’m going to just go ahead and make a blanket statement. I don’t want to direct the shows I’m a fan of anymore. It means I always have to read the episodes that come before it. It’s like a giant slew of spoilers that quite frankly is not fair. I would say after Glee, Friday Night Lights is probably the show that blows me away the most. But, I definitely don’t want to direct one of those, because I’m still on Season 2.

Do you do the marathon watches like so many fans do?

Whedon- Occasionally it’s the only way you can. Also, my wife sneaks ahead, so I have to catch up on her.

[Note from Me: Whedon would be great doing Friday Night Lights. I do understand what he means but we love seeing him do all these great shows!]

When you do these things where you’re only wearing the directing hat, does that give you a chance to hone specific directing skills that you’re trying to work on?

Whedon- I have no directing skills. This is … for me to tell you, but I pretty much just say, “Point the camera at the people” and then hope that the scene’s good. Ultimately, the thing about directing a TV show like this is you’re not just honing your directing skills. Yes, you do get a little more time to really sit and work with the actors because you’re not prepping the next show or cutting the last show; but, at the same time, in prepping musical numbers, in working this incredibly difficult show, in trying to find the truth of the things. You know, I’m talking to the producers about the dialogue, which I’m talking about minor tweaks… a beautiful script, but I’m trying to find the through line. I’m trying to find how to make the schedule work. So, I feel I just look for it, as a producer/director, just trying to make sure I’ve got them there on schedule and that I was being realistic and … with it. Ultimately, you kind of feel like you are doing all these other jobs as well, even though you’re ultimately carried, and carried by extremely competent people, it’s such a complicated show that you feel like you’re flexing everything.

Do you pay attention to how other productions run to be able to … notes for the next time you get to do it?

Whedon- Oh, absolutely. Every time you step out there is a learning experience. What are they doing that I should have done? What can I bring …, so it’s a real back and forth, and I loved the crew I was working with so much. It was a real opening … and it was gratifying…

Obviously the show has its own plot line, it’s well underway. Were you involved at all about the song selections for this episode?

Whedon- Oh, no. They select the songs well in advance. They give you the script, not quite as well in advance, but much longer than I usually give the script, actually …. You’re there to service what they’ve already thought up. Quite frankly, I felt very fortunate. First of all, because I actually knew all the …, which is not always the case. I think a lot of people feel that because I’ve run shows that I was going to go in there and … working with them on it. But, honestly, I am just a visiting director in this situation.
I would definitely give my thoughts, “Oh, I feel like the song should go like this, is there any way we can … on this line,” little stuff like that, trying very hard not to overstep. I certainly wasn’t about to say, “Oh, do this on one …, well I may not get the rights to one song, and so I’d like to get another.” That would be the only thing. This really is Brad who wrote it, and Ryan and Ian. This is their world and I’m privileged to walk in it. But, I’m not going to walk all over it.

In past episodes, it’s kind of clear that the cast is lip-syncing, but in “Dream On,” particularly the bar scene with Matthew and Neil, it didn’t really seem that way. Was it sung live?

Whedon- Yes, it was. They had … just so they could hear the music and then they sang it live. Every now and then they like to do these sing-alongs as opposed to just a number, and for sing-alongs you have to have the originals so they’ve got it in their head. Then we lay it over them. So, yes, that was sung.
They’ve got someone on set to check the lip-syncing to make sure that it’s going well. They’ll … the actors if they need it. Obviously, it’s the actors themselves who recorded it so that makes it …. Ultimately, the only thing that would take longer was if someone wasn’t in very good voice. Of course, the singers will always say, “I think I’m not in very good voice today” before they sing. I think they just do that so they can blow you away.

Glee has won TV Land’s Future Classic Award and I’m wondering what you feel the legacy is for the show for both the current and the future fans.

Whedon- The thing is, this is the world that I’m used to. I love musicals and I think this show is a pilot, … really well established. I think it was just a very comfortable place for me. I think, ultimately, it didn’t really occur to me until later, the process is actually a little ground breaking just in terms of how it made people who would not normally embrace this kind of show, various people singing and dancing spontaneously…to songs from every different era possible, it sort of brought them in.
Then this very serious issue of inclusiveness and identity in school that you’re dealing with, that Ryan really wanted to bring to it, is something that kind of sneaks up on you while you’re having a great time. So, I think that it does a lot of good and it has a legacy that’s more than just the fact that it’s super entertaining, but as previously mentioned it’s super entertaining.

How Glee was different from anything else you’ve ever worked on?

Whedon- Glee is different from anything else period. Every show is different. I would just say that the enormous amount of work that everybody is doing at all times on that show kind of spun my head around. It’s not an easy show to make and the kids, the whole cast works so hard and are busy working on every episode. I did have one of the actors say, “Well, how do I … this guy?” So, really, I don’t remember we’re shooting four episodes at once. It’s hard to keep your head around all of it, the rehearsals, the recording, and the show moves as quickly as it moves. So, production … is tough and you have to be on your feet at all times. You’ve got a different aesthetic, an old-fashioned aesthetic in the lighting and the camerawork is very classical. It’s not edgy in that sense. The edge comes from taking a very comforting milieu, the comfort, and ease of set, and then putting something rather kind of shocking. Either shocking because it’s so snarky, or dirty, or funny, or because it’s just so open hearted in the middle of it.

You did a musical episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. How does that compare to Glee? Did it prepare you in a way?

Whedon- Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Doing Buffy and doing Dr. Horrible were both great prep for something like this. This is obviously not my first rodeo. It’s different, Glee, obviously, but knowing a little bit of the realities of the difference in a day’s work between shooting a musical number and shooting just a regular scene, is very useful. It’s the kind of thing that I would like to spend a lot more of my time doing. I love musicals deeply and dearly. This was a return to home for me. Not my home, but a very welcoming one.

[Note from Me: Geek moment, I still have the soundtrack to the Buffy music episode, titled, Once More with Feeling. I loved that episode!]

Would you do another episode of Glee in the future?

Whedon- “Nevah, nevah.” Oh, yeah, I choked, totally. Sorry. If I had the window and they would take me, yes, in a heartbeat.

[Note from Me: I hope he does Glee again soon! He was a fabulous director.]

It was a great interview and it was an amazing episode. For some spoiler teases check out our post on Dream On here.

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