If you were going to be held against your will in an underground asylum, where beautiful people would pamper you, erase your memory and imprint you with different personalities, you'd probably want your captor to be Joss Whedon.
The TV scribe-producer-director and filmmaker, known for his keen ability to draw female characters, has created a sanctuary on Stage 19 of the Fox lot that is so impressive in scope and detail that it hardly seems like a set for his new Fox series, “Dollhouse.” With its serene reflecting koi pond, unusual but comfy sleeping pods recessed into the floor and meditation-massage area, the house feels as if it belongs on a Laguna Beach bluff instead of on a soundstage.
In the show, the 25,000-square-foot, two-story structure, unusually elaborate for a TV production, sits 10 stories below a Los Angeles high-rise, hiding its residents from the outside world. At once a Utopian spa and an illegal prison, the dollhouse is as much a player in the mystery thriller as Echo ( Eliza Dushku), the central character. Echo and the other "Actives" live there between assignments that require them to be anything the clients of the underground organization want them to be. Before each job, they are imprinted with a new personality, and afterward, their memories are wiped clean.
"The idea of the show is what I consider any good fantasy to be -- your worst nightmare and your greatest dream," said Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly." "And the nightmare is: I don't know who I am. I'm exploited. I'm trapped. I'm helpless. And the dream is: I have no burdens, and I spend all of my time eating really good food and getting massages in the nicest place in the world."
One of the most anticipated shows of the season, "Dollhouse" premieres Feb. 13, after several stops and starts. Fox ordered the show directly to series last year after the writers strike, hoping to launch it in the fall. But the pilot, which was shot in April and May, fell short of expectations and the network benched it until mid-season.
Instead of retooling the pilot, Whedon decided to scrap it and start over, though he admitted on whedoneqsue.com that doing so made him "depressing to be around for a while."
The network wanted Whedon to "up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase," he wrote. "Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to. Nothing I hadn't heard before on my other shows (apparently my learning curve has no bendy part) but frustrating as hell given our circumstances -- a pilot shot, scripts written, everybody marching together/gainfully employed . . . and then a shutdown."
Then Fox announced in November that it was scheduling it on Fridays, one of the most challenging slots in prime time, sparking “Firefly” flashbacks for fans and critics. Fox had given that short-lived series a Friday night graveyard shift in 2002 before canceling it.
At a media event last month, Fox President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly tried to quell concern by explaining that he hoped pairing "Dollhouse" with "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" on Fridays would create a new "X Files" night of appointment television.
"We were so keyed up and when Joss decided to scrap the pilot, we started to wonder, 'What did we do wrong? What didn't we achieve?' " production designer Stuart Blatt said. "But second chances are sometimes very refreshing."
Blatt, who worked on "Angel," says the "Dollhouse" set is the largest he's built in his 20-year career. Before settling on a design, Whedon pored over architecture books, focusing on traditional and modern Asian building styles and elegant spas. Much of his inspiration came from "Thai Style" by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni and William Warren and "Architecture in China" by Philip Jodidio.
"It's not normal for other producers to be so prepared, but it's normal with Joss," Blatt said. "We looked through everything, weeded out some ideas and came up with this world-class spa that's sealed off from the rest of the world and has a minimalist Japanese feel to it. Joss knows exactly what he wants, but at the same time, he's flexible and he allows you to surprise him."
Sensual and beautiful
The $950,000 set was completed in six weeks last spring. Although there are no windows, it feels open and expansive because there are almost no walls. Instead, there are Japanese screens to instill an illusion of privacy for the Actives, who are unaware that they are observed at all times, even when they're showering or changing clothes.
"The idea of the dollhouse is that these people are being pampered like world-class athletes, kept ready for whatever the next assignment is," Blatt said. "So they're living in a place that's deluxe. So whether it's a massage or a workout area or spa food being served in the dining area or calligraphy classes or yoga being done here, it's the best any of us hope to have anywhere we live or are forced to live or are brainwashed to live under one roof."
Because Stage 19 already has a pit in the middle, Whedon and Blatt decided to create a conversation pit with a fountain that would serve as the set's focal point. But two weeks before they shot the first pilot, Blatt had an idea.
"I asked Joss, 'What if I could build you a Japanese reflecting pool with a deck over it that our actors could do yoga and tai chi on?' " Blatt said. "He was immediately sold. Joss had been asking me from the beginning that he wanted to have a water feature that would be silent and yet always be there to look at. Water is a calming influence. It's sexy and mysterious."
Sensual and beautiful were the adjectives set decorator David Koneff kept in mind as he went about spending more than $130,000 to dress the dollhouse in a midcentury modern motif with a Japanese aesthetic. It has custom-made furniture, Japanese-cut wood carvings, giant bamboo in planters and orange, red and brown tones.
"Trying to compete with Stuart's set was the biggest mistake in the world," said Koneff, who worked on "Buffy." "It's a big room, and you feel like you have to fill space. But instead of a normal couch height-wise, I made the couch as low as possible to accentuate the size of the room. And I approached it all in that way."
To that end, the only furniture in the sleeping chamber are tiny ottomans that are 8 inches from the floor and are used by the Actives to sit on before they slip into the coffin-like, cushioned holes that serve as their beds.
Whedon got the idea for the pods from a book about trapped door spaces, but Blatt created its pinwheel design so that the pods are in a circle instead of a straight row.
"It's so nice in here that the crew comes in here to take naps during lunch," said Dushku, while sitting on one of the ottomans.
But not all of the spaces inside the dollhouse are as inviting. The Imprint Room, with its computers, lights, wires and spooky imprinting chair, is as ominous as the office of Dr. Saunders, Whedon's favorite spot on set. Although no one can see inside her office, the scarred doctor (Amy Acker) can look out into the dollhouse through two small ports.
"Dr. Saunders likes to hide from the world," Whedon said. "She feels hideous, inhuman. So she stays in her office and she tries to take care of the people around her and tries not to be seen."
The set, says Dushku, makes it easy for her to slip into Echo's skin.
"I walk in there and I feel peaceful," said Dushku, also a producer on the show. "I do feel child-like. It's so open, and it's such a safe place even with all the dysfunction. You look around and there's food, a gym, a spa, a doctor and a psychiatrist. You feel like you're in a big, safe bubble, but that's where the germ of the show is: Nothing appears to be what it is."