A 'Dollhouse' that was built in a week

Times Staff Writer

Joss Whedon, the scribe who birthed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" and swore off the small screen after "Firefly" was canceled, is part of the Fox family again.

Whedon's "Dollhouse" will be unveiled today as part of Fox's lineup at a presentation in Manhattan. The drama is about an illegal house of men and women whose memories and personalities have been wiped out so that they can be hired to be anyone and do anything. It stars Eliza Dushku (Faith from "Buffy"), who unintentionally served as the inspiration. It will air in midseason.

Describing their initial meetings with Whedon, Fox President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly and Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, used terms not often heard from powerful executives regarding pitches.

"He had me at 'hello,' " Reilly said, admitting that the first time Whedon visited the network, "I was kinda drunk with the surprise of it all. He laid out the whole concept but I think it was one of those things where I heard every other word of it."

"I don't quite know what to liken it to," Newman said. "He pitches as if he's thinking of it for the first time. There's an extemporaneous nature to it, which keeps you kind of riveted. You have to listen really carefully because the wicked and clever asides are nonstop."

Listen for yourself:

Is it true that this idea came to you over lunch with Eliza Dushku?

Eliza had made the deal at Fox and we got together to talk about her ambition, her management, her opportunities because I've always felt that she's a huge star. Plus, she's a friend.

But I was trying to get a movie off the ground, "Goners." "Wonder Woman" had already crashed and burned. "Goners" they had already lost control of the instruments, but who knows? So things were not that auspicious but I was working it. Not shunning television, but not intending to come back.

But as we discussed Eliza's predicament, I started giving her some ideas about what I thought she would need: a genre show so she could be political without being partisan; an ensemble show so she didn't have to be in every scene. And I thought about it for a bit and then literally went oh, curse word, I just came up with the show and the title. And it was the title that I knew I was doomed. Because if you have the title, you know it's right. And that's just bad.

When we really discussed the whole thing, she said, "You're talking about my life. In my life, everybody tells me who they want me to be while I try and figure out who I am." And that spoke to me. I agreed that I'll write and maybe oversee the pilot. So I went home and said, "Honey, I'm sorry, I accidentally agreed to a Fox show at lunch."

Recently, you had decided to become more of an independent filmmaker. Why?

I was lucky for a while. I got a lot of breaks, including the brief existence of the WB and UPN. So I got to do things my way, which is a rare privilege in television. Then I had ["Firefly"] and for the first time, I was not under the radar anymore, which meant they would give me everything I wanted. Except a full order. So it was a heartbreaking experience and the only way to resurrect the show was to make a movie ["Serenity"] out of it.

And your fans loved it.

People loved it but not so many people that they asked me to make another. I had scripts and offers, and three years later, I seemed to be running in place. It was harder for me to write and partially because I was adjusting to having a family. But it was also the movie-making process. In movies, they really will question everything. Sometimes that makes it better and sometimes that makes it die in development hell or filled with notes. And notes that you can practically see floating around the screen.

How long after your lunch with Eliza did Fox offer you the opportunity to make a guaranteed seven episodes?

One week. This just felt right. Fox understood the show and they've continued to prove that that is the case. I've pitched shows to people who didn't and they made them anyway and that didn't go so well.

Then I went into a state of blank panic. Oh wait, all of my writers have jobs. So I went upstairs and I laid out seven notebooks and every night, I'd go up and put my seven notebooks, all in a row, and I'd look and see what do we need to get from here to here? I even had to take them to New York. I thought, 'Oh, I'd just rip off the page. No, you can't rip off the page. You'd kill the magic.' So I brought them to Kevin Reilly and I laid them out on his coffee table and he said, "This is great, I love all of them." I said, "Great, now if you'll excuse me, I'm on strike."

And for the entire strike, I did not think about "Dollhouse." Occasionally, I would get a feeling. And when we came back, Fox said instead of 3 1/2 months to write a script and a few months of prep time, we're shooting in two months. And we hadn't even fully broken an episode.

How are you balancing being a writer, producer and director?

After the first day, we were in this tiny cramped apartment, which I had scouted. The actors would do three lines and we'd have to move the camera. It was a nightmare. I was like, I forgot how to do this. You get a big apartment and you make it look tiny. I'm away from my family. This footage is terrible. It's over. Bury me. People who know me know that's probably not the first time I've said that. But it always feels like the first time. And I really thought, "I've blown it. What am I doing? Where are my children? What's going on? I'm dizzy."

Directing is my way of creating the style, of relating to the actors and dialing in what their characters are. For me to be doing that as an executive producer over another director's shoulder isn't fair to them. And I happen to be one of my favorite directors. I'm not the best, but I'm just easy to get along with. I agree with almost everything I say. I won't do it the whole season. I have to be home and I have to get the scripts out on time. It's going to be a new skill that I'm learning.

Do you feel more pressure because it's a big network?

No. I feel the same pressure I always feel, which is all the pressure in the world. My name is on it. It's a story. My name now means something to people that it didn't before. But I still tried my hardest when it didn't.

I'm sure when you became a writer you didn't think viewers would be this familiar with your name. Do you like it?

There are not two parts to that answer. I like it. I'm sorry. I'm superficial.

Do you ever sense that nowadays fans feel like they really know you because they have more access?

If somebody comes up to me, it's because they're moved by something I'm moved by. I've never taken a job I didn't love. And, yes, I am including "Waterworld." I didn't love it at the end, but what a good idea. So when somebody's coming up to me, or they're writing, they're in the same space I am in. I write for fanboy moments. I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I'm afraid of. I write to do all the things the viewers want too. So the intensity of the fan response is enormously gratifying. It means I hit a nerve. "Dollhouse" might not. "Dollhouse" might make them go, "What else is on?"



For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 17, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction Joss Whedon: In some copies of Thursday's Calendar section, a caption on an article about Joss Whedon, the creator of Fox TV's new show "Dollhouse," misspelled his first name as Josh.
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