By Sean Axmaker
I miss Joss Whedon. I guess I got spoiled by the long, rich runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. After the egregious mishandling of Firefly (could a network sabotage a Joss Whedon show any more effectively than shuffling the order of his episodes and confusing the dramatic arc of his character journeys?), he's been MIA on TV, apart from a turn in front of the camera for a goofy cameo on Veronica Mars and directing an episode of the American sitcom The Office. And since Serenity, he's been even less visible on the big screen. His take on the Wonder Woman movie was scotched by studio heads and, rumors aside, there is no Serenity sequel in works. At least not yet. "Right now, nobody has any plans to do any kind of sequel," he explained in a brief phone interview. "If they do, I hope they'll include me, because if I find out Brett Ratner is directing it, I'm going to be so mad." The occasion for the interview was the DVD release of Angel: Complete Series, and that naturally led to my first question…
What is it about TV vampires that they all want to become detectives?
You know, I think ultimately it's the dream of every young vampire to be a detective. I don't know. There was a time when vampires were all puffy shirts and poetry and that was glorious, when it was Frank Langella. When we started Angel, people were like, "It's just Forever Knight." And it's happening again, isn't it? [Moonlight is a new TV series this season about a vampire detective.] But you take the vampire concept and ultimately it translates into sort of a modern noir and a lot noir stories were about detectives. The idea with Angel was to do a modern noir, was to do a little office with the blinds and the fast patter and the sort of nihilistic toughness and the dark world and the strange turns and all of the things that you find in the great 40s and 50s noirs. And I have feeling that's probably what everyone else is chasing, a little bit, too. It puts you in a world that's slightly heightened in the way that those were, so it kind of makes sense that they would be detectives.
I love the series finale of Angel, leaving off in the middle of battle. Was is always your intention to end the show with that as the final word on the state of Angel's fate?
It was not always my intention. You come to every season praying for another one, but know that it might be your last. There was one season we did a cliffhanger because we knew we were coming back, the only year we've ever done that, and that was between Seasons Three and Four. We almost didn't come back for Season Five; that took a lot of negotiation, and I'm told that we didn't come back for Season Six. In Season Five, we knew we were under the Sword of Damocles. We had completely changed the paradigm by putting them in the middle of Wolfram and Hart, and I knew that I had one of two options. I had the idea of him going out in the middle of a battle, which was to me the ultimately perfect statement for Angel, that his fight will never be over. Because a) that's cool for a vampire, b) that's what redemption is all about.
The show was always about him trying to redeem himself and become a human, basically, after having done terrible, unconscionable things, and having made terrible decisions trying to regain something. That's what separated the show from Buffy, so for him to go out in the middle of a fight was perfect. If they had given us a last-minute reprieve, obviously, I was going to use that as the set-up for the next season. That's how I always played it with Buffy and Angel, because I was never sure I was coming back. Again, with that one exception, we always said, "If that's the last thing we get to do, it will feel like a final statement." In Angel's case, by the time we got to the episode, we knew for sure we weren't coming back and there was no talk of doing anything else, because it really felt like, this is the way we should go out. A lot of people were like, [in creaky, crank voice] "It's a cliffhanger!" And really, it was never meant to be one. It was meant to be a statement. But people like complete sentences. And you can't blame them.
I always loved the season arcs of Buffy, because each season felt like it was novel. You would wrap up the story, delivering the climax at the end of the season, and sometimes you ended with a coda after the climax, an episode where the characters wound down.
Actually, we only did that once, at the end of Season Four.
That was the dream episode, with the Cheese Man.
And a lot of people were very confused. They were like, "This is not a very exciting climax." Although it's one of my favorite episodes I've ever made. Generally speaking, we'd save all the big stuff for the very last one, and generally speaking, it would be a big, two-part extravaganza. We always knew, just in case, we're going to wrap everything up. The trouble with that was that it made the hardest episode of every season Episode One. When we finally did a cliffhanger on Angel in Season Three, we came back for Season Four, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is why people do cliffhangers! It's so easy to write, there's all this stuff to wrap up. I'm so happy!"
Was there ever pressure to deliver the cliffhanger ending that network's seem to thrive on?
These shows were not considered serialized shows. The mandate was to tell a story every week, and on Buffy we adhered to that religiously. There was no episode that was just a series of events leading to the next episode; it was always something we resolved. On Angel, we did get a little bit more into the serialized storytelling and by then they were okay with it. It was not the phenomenon that it is now, where everybody is doing it, but it was more or less okay until Season Five, where they said, "Okay, you gotta stop that."
They said a lot of things, including, "Use less money." But our production team was so goddam good that I swear to God it looks fancier than the rest of the show. And they said, "You need Spike," and we said, "That's okay, we want Spike." And they said, "You've got to tell stand-alone stories that begin and end," even though, obviously, we had an arc to the season. So we said, "Okay, we'll do that." And it was fun, because we'd come from Season Four which was one really sort of 24-ish giant episode and then we go into something that's slightly different. It keeps you fresh.
I'm sure you've heard this before, but I watched Firefly when it originally ran on network TV and the show didn't click. The show didn't have a flow or development. When I got the DVD and watched the show in the correct narrative order, everything clicked, the characters expanded through the show, and the narrative flowed and developed like a story and I loved it.
Yes. Yes. Not airing the pilot. Let's talk about that. You got 40 minutes?
For a show that isn't serialized, you created a tremendous amount of character development and movement and it unfolds over the course of episodes to where it becomes a character journey.
The thing is, I've never been able to make reset TV. I've never understood it and I've never liked it. I cannot just have people get kidnapped and then next week be all chipper so they can have their next adventure. I find that offensive and bizarre and as a kid it would frighten me, it would confuse me. "But he was engaged in the last episode, why isn't he talking about his dead girlfriend?" It's just not the way I operate. That doesn't mean I need to tell some serpentine tale, it just means that if something happens to somebody, they're going to be a different person. That's just how it is. People evolve, and that's the only kind of storytelling that interests me. By the time we got to Firefly, I was still telling a story a week. It was in fact, at that point, the network's mandate was that you have to add an overarching story. It can't just be these people trying to get by every week. You have to have a giant, big plot thing surrounding them. And that's why the blue-handed fellows showed up in the first episode after the pilot, because that was one of their mandates. "Now the stuff we used to not want, we want."
Could you make a TV show that didn't have that kind of development?
No, I couldn't. I'm in the office of The Office right now and it is absolutely just a breezy, slice-of-life comedy that is not in any way pretentious or in any way trying to string you along, but it is absolutely about the characters' development. Every week that whatever they go through, it resonates. They always call back to it, it makes them change, and the show's gone through an enormous amount in its two-and-a-half seasons. And that's part of what I like about the show, the reality of it. I could never make simple, straight-up reset TV. I just don't have it in me. That's not about people to me and people are pretty much the only thing I'm interested in writing about.
Are you shooting an episode of The Office right now?
I am, yes. I'm happy to be back.
So what are you doing now, after you direct this episode of The Office?
After The Office, well, I'm still trying to get Goners off the ground and I've got some other stuff, like Ripper, which I'm going to try and see if I can't do it as a 90-minute BBC film. I'm finishing a polish on this movie, The Cabin in the Woods, something that Drew Goddard and I wrote this summer, and then I'm opening a bunch of doors and seeing which ones don't have brick walls pilled up behind them. I should know which ones soon, but I can't really say because I'm not sure.
The Cabin in the Woods isn't even listed on your IMDb page yet.
I announced it at Comic-Con. We haven't even gone out on the market with it. I told the fans about it because I thought it would be nice to let them know that I was still working and we had something exciting in store for them, for them to be the very first people to hear about it, and for me to get to hear them all go nuts when I said the name "Drew Goddard."
I apologize for forgetting to go all nuts when you said "Drew Goddard."
No, I think you did, but in a way I couldn't hear.
I was cheering on the inside.
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