10 Questions For... Joss Whedon
As the seven-year run of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comes to a close, creator Joss Whedon shares his thoughts about redemption, the soul and other frivolous matters.
Q. 1. What are your thoughts on the academic community's use of the show, from the humanities to the sciences, to debate and analyze everything?
A. I think it's great that the academic community has taken an interest in the show. I think it's always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it's successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why.
"Buffy," on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we're trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we're writing it. The process of breaking a story involves the writers and myself, so a lot of different influences, prejudices, and ideas get rolled up into it. So it really is, apart from being a big pop culture phenom, something that is deeply layered textually episode by episode. I do believe that there is plenty to study and there are plenty of things going on in it, as there are in me that I am completely unaware of. People used to laugh that academics would study Disney movies. There's nothing more important for academics to study, because they shape the minds of our children possibly more than any single thing. So, like that, I think "Buffy" should be analyzed, broken down, and possibly banned.
Q. 2. Is there anything on any show you wanted to do, but couldn't, because the budget or network TV standards wouldn't allow it?
A. I've always fought the budget fight, but I found early on the less money you have the more you have to fall back on good story telling, so it's never been a terrible problem. We've never been able to have (with the exception of John Ritter) any particularly notable guest stars. We're not one of those shows that's such a big hit that everyone wants to be on it, and we never had enough money to have anyone really famous. Every now and then we sort of wished we would, but we don't really tell stories that way so that wasn't a big deal either.
The only thing that we've ever actually been stopped or asked to stop doing was the fast food run. When Buffy worked at the fast food joint it made the advertisers very twitchy. So apparently the most controversial thing we ever had on Buffy was a hamburger and chicken sandwich.
Q. 3. Are there any plot twists or character developments (characters leaving the show, going from evil to good or vice versa) that you look back on and wish you could alter, somehow?
A. There aren't a lot of twists that I wanted to throw out there. After seven years you've pretty much used a bunch of them up, and then you start twisting just to twist again (like we did last summer). You're not really telling mythic stories, you're just trying to surprise people and it sort of becomes fake.
However, there are a couple of things I would've liked to have seen a little more of; either Vampire or Hyena Xander, because Nick pulls that off really well. And I wish we had been able to service Dawn's character a little bit more in her third season. I really wanted to paint her with a lot of different colors, but we got wrapped up in the big slayer story and the whole arc of the season, so I think she got a little bit gypped.
Q. 4. Buffy's father and his absence are important thematically in the first season. How did he go from being a somewhat neglectful, newly-divorced father in Season One to a total deadbeat? Did he fade out to clear the way for Giles as a father figure? Did you ever consider taking the Joyce/Giles pairing farther than it went?
A. It's true that Buffy's father started out as just a divorced dad and then turned into this sort of "evil pariah" figure of not even bothering to show up, and that was simply because we had a father figure in Giles.
I'm very much more interested in the created family than I am in actual families. And, you have to deal with that character; how he's dealing with his ex-wife's death for example. We have so many characters to service it made things simpler to use the short hand of, "he's just not there". And since we're telling stories about family that often hit on the traditional patriarchy as being kind of lame-o, and the created family as being more lasting and more loving, it just made sense.
But there was also the practical reality of having to hire an actor and create a sub-plot that may not be as important as what we wanted to see our regular actor, Tony Head, going through, nothing against Dean [the actor who played Buffy's father]. We didn't mean to make him such a bad guy, but that's just the reality of the thing.
And no, I never wanted Joyce and Giles to hook up romantically, but I did think it would be pretty funny if they had one night of drunken sex, of course the "Band Candy" episode lent itself perfectly to that.
Q. 5. I would like to get a more in-depth, coherent explanation of your concept of the soul. It seems to be the crucial thing that separates good and evil in the Buffyverse, yet at times it is treated like a commodity -- if you survive torture or know the right kind of magic you, too, can get a soul. Is it one particular soul per customer, as the white fog in the glass jar, identified as "Angel's soul" would indicate? Or is the soul merely the conscience? Why was Spike able to be "good" even without a soul?
A. I would love to give you a more in-depth coherent explanation of my view of the soul, and if I had one I would. The soul and my concept of it are as ephemeral as anybody's, and possibly more so. And in terms of the show, it is something that exists to meet the needs of convenience; the truth is sometimes you can trap it in a jar; the truth is sometimes someone without one seems more interesting than someone with one. I don't think Clem has a soul, but he's certainly a sweet guy. Spike was definitely kind of a soulful character before he had a soul, but we made it clear that there was a level on which he could not operate. Although Spike could feel love, it was the possessive and selfish kind of love that most people feel. The concept of real altruism didn't exist for him. And although he did love Buffy and was moved by her emotionally, ultimately his desire to possess her led him to try and rape her because he couldn't make the connection - the difference between their dominance games and actual rape.
With a soul comes a more adult understanding. That is again, a little vague, but
can I say that I believe in the soul? I don't know that I can. It's a beautiful concept, as is resurrection and a lot of other things we have on the show that I'm not really sure I can explain and I certainly don't believe in. It does fall prey to convenience, but at the same time it has consistently marked the real difference between somebody with a complex moral structure and someone who may be affable and even likable, but ultimately eats kittens.
Q. 6. We hear you're fond of Shakespeare's works - "Hamlet" in particular. Could that have partly inspired the "Normal Again" storyline that Buffy might be insane, since one theory about "Hamlet" goes that the entire story is actually taking place in Hamlet's imagination? How important is "Normal, Again" in the "Buffy" arc?
A. I have never been a subscriber to, "the entire play takes place in Hamlet's imagination" theory. In fact, although I'm a devoted fan of "Hamlet" and it is the text I know best in all the world, "Normal Again" did not come from it.
How important it is in the scheme of the "Buffy" narrative is really up to the person watching. If they decide that the entire thing is all playing out in some crazy person's head, well the joke of the thing to us was it is, and that crazy person is me. It was kind of the ultimate postmodern look at the concept of a writer writing a show, which is not the sort of thing we usually do on the show. The show had merit in itself because it did raise the question, "How can you live in this world and be sane?" But at the same time the idea amused me very much and we played on it a little bit, "How come her little sister is taller than her?" "What was Adam's plan?" We played on the crazy things we came up with time and time again, to make this fantasy show work and called them into question the way any normal person would. But ultimately the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that's what the viewer wants. Personally, I think it really happened.
Q. 7. Redemption has been an important theme of the show. Is redemption the mode through which the characters become less cliched, more inspiring and interesting? Is redemption a theme that you have looked for in other texts from which you have drawn inspiration?
A. Redemption has become one of the most important themes in my work and it really did start with Angel. I would say probably with the episode "Amends," but even with the character itself and the concept of the spin-off was about redemption. It was about addiction and how you get through that and come out the other side, how you redeem yourself from a terrible life. I do actually work with a number of reformed addicts, if that's what you call them. I call them drunks. But my point is a good number of people that are most close to me creatively have lived that life, and it informs their work. I never have, and so I'm not sure why it is that redemption is so fascinating to me. I think the mistakes I've made in my own life have plagued me, but they're pretty boring mistakes: I committed a series of grisly murders in the eighties and I think I once owned a Wilson-Phillips Album. Apart from that I'm pretty much an average guy, yet I have an enormous burden of guilt. I'm not sure why. I'm a WASP, so it's not Jewish or Catholic guilt; it's just there. Ultimately, the concept of somebody who needed to be redeemed is more interesting to me. I think it does make a character more textured than one who doesn't.
I can't think of anything, off hand, that I am a big fan of that contains that kind of thing. My favorite fictions are usually the kind I make, which is sort of adolescent rites of passage, which is what "Buffy" is about. It's about the getting of strength and that's probably the most important theme in any of my work, but I would say coming a close second is the theme of redemption. I think as you make your way through life it's hard to maintain a moral structure, and that difficulty and the process of coming out the other side of a dark, even psychological time is to me the most important part of adulthood.
I think to an extent every human being needs to be redeemed somewhat or at least needs to look at themselves and say, "I've made mistakes, I'm off course, I need to change." Which is probably the hardest thing for a human being to do and maybe that's why it interests me so.
Q. 8. "Firefly" was the first time in a while when your ideas did not get to make it through to fruition. First of all, is there anything you would like to share with people following the show on the edge of their seats? And secondly, having seen how you turned a previous disappointment, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the movie, into an artistic success on your own terms, can we hope for something similar with "Firefly"?
A. "Firefly." I'll answer the second question first. I have every hope in the world of bringing "Firefly" back to people in another format. I haven't got anything definite yet but I've been fighting to do that since the day we were cancelled. I therefore don't have any particular plot things I want to share with people because I'm hoping I'll get the chance to do that in the near future, whether it be on TV, film or a t-shirt.
It was a bizarre blow to have a story in your head and suddenly not get to tell it. I don't know why, I've written movies long enough to know that that's usually the case, but after "Buffy" and "Angel" sort of took off I got lulled into overconfidence and was so excited to tell the stories of these people, and then suddenly had it truncated. However, knowing that what we shot will be coming out on DVD in its full form is a big vindication, because I got to say a lot of things that I wanted to say right, up in the first episodes. So, as I said, watch and wait.
Q. 9. Have you always known how "Buffy" would end? I ask this more in terms of Buffy's character than the show's plot. Meaning - have you always known where you wanted to take the character psychologically? And if so, where is that?
A. It would have been impossible for me to predict where Buffy's character would go by the end of the series because the character is informed by so many things. You have to find out what people respond to, you have to find out what works on the show, what aspects make sense, what your meaning is. After seven years your mission statement may have changed. Ours remained pretty much the same, or rather came full circle. We looked at the idea of power; the girl who had power that nobody understood, living in high school and how hard that was. We came back to that girl and that concept very strongly in the seventh season on purpose because we knew it was our last.
In terms of the character, though, you can't say - a lot of it has to do with the actor. If you are working with an actor, and reading them at all, and are making a show in which people change and don't just solve a crime every week, inevitably that actor informs that character. It happened very quickly with Willow becoming goofier and sexier, because that's the way Alyson was. Giles' character became hipper because Tony was not a stuffy guy. Sarah's became more thoughtful and intelligent. Buffy also became a little bit closed off from the other characters, in the same way that a star is kind of separated from an ensemble, so we dealt with the idea of the isolation of the Slayer, of the person who has to lead.
Some of that of course comes also from me - because at the end of the day I don't know how I'm going to evolve - and as much as the actor, the writer is the character. For seven years I've been Buffy. Some people do plot in advance, but because my show is really about just growing up and changing and growing, if you try and predict that too heavily you stunt it, you don't feel a natural flow and the stories start to feel forced.
Q. 10. If you were to continue with the same cast of Buffy for another year, where would you like to go with it?
A. Honestly, if I had a strong answer for that question there probably would be another season. I think it's time they all went their separate ways. And so my answer is, I can't possibly think of anything, I'm simply too tired. That's the end, thanks very much.