PaleyFest 09 - Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse'
This can only end poorly.
Whedon, whose battles with the FOX network both on the production of the series "Firefly" and in the early days of "Dollhouse" have turned into the sorts of heroic ballads TV bloggers regale each other with around campfires, was quite recently (while accepting an award at Harvard) apparently quite pessimistic about the show’s chances for a second season. At Wednesday (April 15) night's PaleyFest session for the show, though --the second of two sessions in a row focusing on Whedon productions -- Whedon said he had spoken with the FOX network, both about airing the series’ 13th/14th episode sometime before the DVD release and about a second season. He reports that the network is both considering airing that episode and bringing the show back, even though the numbers are “soft.” Whedon said the network is pleased with how the show does in the key demographic and how it performs on DVR playbacks, all of which might lead to a second season.
When asked at the end of the session if there would even be enough story to propel a second season, Whedon continued the optimistic talk.
“We have a lot of questions left to answer, and that’s how we like it because we get a feeling we might get to answer them,” he said.
Good luck, pal!
The rest of the session focused on the show’s troubled birthing process and various criticisms the series has received since its debut, right down to character-specific criticisms. The always genial Matt Roush (apparently now attached to Whedon’s hip) actually asked a few probing questions of the cast and producers in between the usual fan fluff of a typical Paley session, and the answers provided a bit more insight into both the show and the people working on it than these sorts of events usually offer. The audience, similarly, while really into the show had some questions about the premise and technical issues in the operations of the Dollhouse of the sort most worshipful PaleyFest audiences wouldn’t dare ask. This, however, made for a more interesting panel than one might have expected for the low-rated, oft-beleaguered show.
For starters, Whedon suggested that one of the things that has been so praised since it was revealed -- the idea that the Dollhouse itself has a purpose beyond mere entertainment and that purpose is tied to sinister ends -- actually stretched from a note offered by former Fox head Peter Chernin. In Whedon’s original conception of the show, the very rich still hired the dolls, but the whole process was intensely private, so only the rich person and the doll knew what transpired on the engagement. Whedon likened it to a form of confessional, but said that Chernin preferred that the Dollhouse be keeping track of engagements and the dolls, leading to the larger mythology that has come into play since the show’s sixth episode.
Whedon also offered a bit of a mea culpa when discussing the show’s voyage from conception to pilot to series. The series’ problems were unusually public, due to the high level of interest in Whedon’s latest project and the fact that he was coming off the unlikely success of "Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog," and Whedon allowed that that success colored his view of a process that was surprisingly similar to the beginnings of his other long-running series ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was a midseason replacement show where much of the material was shot out of sequence in the first season; "Angel" endured a production shutdown early in its first season).
“This was a normally difficult birthing process that I was abnormally whiny about,” he said.
He thanked the cast for their patience and tolerance as the producers assembled the show we know today, scrapping the original pilot and inserting it into future episodes (one of the first scenes of the original pilot migrated to the mythic 13th episode), shooting most episodes out of order and just generally creating mass chaos. Whedon said that he and co-executive producers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain would send the actors notes letting them know where they were in the storyline.
“This is what you know. This is what you don’t know yet,” Whedon summarized the notes as saying.
Whedon, a talkative guy, did most of the talking, but the cast members on hand -- Eliza Dushku (Echo), Fran Kranz (Topher), Dichen Lachman (Sierra) and Miracle Laurie (Mellie/November) -- got to talk about the problems of playing people who can seem like sociopaths to the audience (Kranz) to people who don’t have a really consistent personality (everyone else). Kranz, in particular, bristled at the thought that Topher deserves to be judged. That may be, he said, but he plays Topher as an overgrown kid, who doesn’t have much of a sense of morality at all.
“His genius is so great that he’s never related to anyone,” Kranz said. “What we’re kind of dealing with is a kid playing with his toys.”
Whedon extended the Topher analysis.
“Most of the people (in the Dollhouse) seem to have trouble with what they’re doing, thank God. Except for Topher,” he said, pointing out that Topher enjoys creating people and then letting them dance on puppet strings, adding with a chuckle, “Who could THAT be based on?”
Laurie wasn’t called on all that often but managed to be charming and genuinely funny the few times she was, as though she’s still a bit blown away by having a recurring part on a bigtime TV show. She described laying in the show’s coffin-like "pods" as "way comfy" and said that she had to caution friends and family watching the show when she was seemingly demoted from doll to recurring player neighbor to Paul Ballard (the absent Tahmoh Penikett). She was, of course, later revealed to be a doll again.
She told friends and family, “Now I just bake lasagna, but I promise I end up cooler than that,” she said.
For being the show’s star, producer and reason for existence, Dushku was called on surprisingly little by Roush and the audience, but she got in a few choice remarks. She turned to Whedon to craft the series, she said, because she liked hanging out with him and he “gets” women and writes for them well. Plus, he saw other sides of her when compared to her usual casting.
“Everyone just painted me in black leather pants and put me in a push-up bra and had me kick ass,” she said, adding that Whedon believed she could play multiple things, from blind girl to romantic comedy heroine to a 50-year-old (whom she will play in the series’ next episode, airing April 24).
All involved agreed the hardest thing to deal with FOX on was the inherent ickiness of the premise. Whedon feared if the show played too coy with the Dollhouse’s purpose, the series would seem offensive, while FOX didn’t want to delve too deeply into the people who run the Dollhouse and do monstrous things in its name. Whedon, Craft and Fain felt that the series found its feet after storied sixth episode “Man on the Street” because that episode laid all of the cards on the table about the bad things the Dollhouse could be used for.
Though the episode screened was episode eight, “Needs,” all on the panel teased the final three episodes of the season, as well as the possibly-airing/possibly-straight-to-DVD episode 13. Whedon described that episode in limbo as a post-apocalyptic horror thing and said of the other three episodes, “They are fierce. They are ridiculous.”
Now everyone who works on "Dollhouse" gets to wait to find out if they’re also the end.
Other highlights from the PaleyFest event:
*** Craft and Fain also didn’t get to talk all that often (it was a theme of the panel), but Roush got them to admit that while Whedon was pulling back from some of the queasiness inherent in the premise, they would push further and further. “I think nine times out of 10, we’d be pitching things, and he’d say, ‘Whoa, guys!’” Fain said.
*** Whedon apparently gets the writers to try to admit their darkest fantasies to no avail in the writers room. “The room would just get so quiet,” after he would ask, said Fain. “Meanwhile, I’m oversharing wildly,” Whedon added to Fain and Craft’s emphatic nods.
*** Lachman revealed that Enver Gjokaj, who plays Victor, is claustrophobic and once was almost left in the tiny pods when filming on a scene wrapped. Fortunately, his frantic knocking on the pod’s door and Lachman reminding the crew got him freed.
*** Whedon said the character who changed the most from page to screen was Adele DeWitt, whose initial conception as the ultimate dragon lady had to be changed to fit Olivia Williams, who brings a sadness to the role.
*** In response to a question from the audience about whether we’d ever see Adele, Topher and other Dollhouse employees outside of the Dollhouse, Kranz said he’d like to see a scene where Topher goes out buying groceries and runs into Paul Ballard, realizing who Ballard is while Ballard is oblivious. “That’s not a scene!” Whedon said. “That’s an ARC!”
You can read more from Todd at South Dakota Dark.
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