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October 14th, 2005

Serenity Comes From Doing the Impossible

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
I’m not much into hero worship, especially with Hollywood types: The most creative people in entertainment are often the ones who do the dumbest things in real life.
Still, every once in awhile a Hollywood type does something remarkable enough to be, well, remarked on. As an example, real second chances are unusual, at least where money is involved. Another unusual thing is being truly multi-talented; for instance, it’s rare for an actor to sing– well. Oh, they do it. Singers act, actors direct, directors write. They just don’t do it well.
Joss Whedon was destined to be a TV writer: His grandfather wrote for “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It To Beaver”, and his father wrote for “The Dick Cavett Show”, “Alice”, and “Benson”.
Whedon became writer and story editor for “Roseanne”. He went on to movies, writing or fixing screenplays for little known movies such as “Twister”, “Toy Story”, “Alien Resurrection”, and “X-Men”. He wrote songs, too, including one for “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride”. The guy got around.
He wrote for comic books, and later based his most famous character partially on an “X-Men” superhero called Shadowcat, A.K.A. Kitty Pryde.
Back in 1992, he watched one too many slasher flicks. You know, the ones where the not so bright blonde gets herself caught in an alley or dark hallway, then her body’s discovered by the cute brunette who actually survives to the end of the film? Those. He got to thinking about how great it would be if, just once, one of those blonde bimbos turned around and royally kicked that slasher guy’s butt.
So he created a kind of hybrid horror/comedy movie script. Just for fun, he made his super heroine a shallow valley girl type, and even named her Buffy, then sent her out to slay vampires.
But the suits – that would be those executives in Hollywood who control the money, but don’t have any actual creative talent – saw to it that, even if Buffy didn’t get slashed to ribbons, the script would. After all, Whedon was only a writer; others demolished his original concept, and the movie that resulted was a critical and commercial flop.
End of story. Why? A failed creative effort just doesn’t get a second chance in Hollywood. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was gone forever because, just like in the military, a bomb doesn’t get used twice.
Yet somehow, against all odds, Whedon found the support to do a pilot episode of a Buffy TV series. Then, even more against the odds, he convinced a network to take a chance on buying half a season of BtVS as a replacement series.
The rest, to coin a cliché, is history.
Whedon proved to be startlingly multitalented. He wrote the complete lyrics to a musical episode of BtVS that stands as one of the great hours of TV. He went the other direction and wrote an episode without dialogue – it was about, naturally, communication. He fearlessly killed off major characters, and went off on head spinning new tangents. Writers in Hollywood are notorious for being oversensitive about their work, but every writer who worked for him would go on about how much his suggestions improved their own scripts. He directed, he produced. He danced.
Okay, so the show lasted seven years, spawned a successful spin-off, is the subject of a rather rabid fan base, and may yet be resurrected as another spin-off or movie. Sure, it was critically acclaimed, broke ground, and whatnot. So what? You can say those things about lots of series, if not to this extent.
The most remarkable thing remains that it happened at all. A disastrously failed movie, funded as a series? No way!
So, just to show he wasn’t a one hit wonder, he went the opposite direction.
Whedon created a show called Firefly, a science fiction series that’s actually a cleverly disguised western. The ship captain is a riverboat pilot, a somewhat shady character who even talks like an escapee from the old west. He and his partner are survivors from the losing side of a Civil War. Passengers on his boat include the prostitute with the heart of gold, the itinerate preacher, the gunslinger, and the comedy relief sidekick.
Whedon sent his western into space, adding his trademark humor and – oh yeah – writing the show’s evocative theme song. Critics loved Firefly.
Naturally, the show flopped. Fourteen episodes were filmed, but the suits were in charge of the scheduling. The pilot episode, which set up a season long plotline, was passed over, and the second episode shown first. Only twelve episodes actually aired – out of order, and often pre-empted -- before the plug was pulled. It was over. The fact that it was generally considered one of the best shows on the air made no difference. Television programs that limp through only half a season just don’t come back. Period.
Of course, they said something similar about that low budget failure, Star Trek.
What brought all this on is that I just got back from seeing the return of Firefly, in the form of the movie “Serenity”. Yep. He did it again. First he turned a bomb of a movie into a hit show, then a failed show into a movie, which took second place the week of its debut. I don’t know how he does it.
No, you don’t need to watch the show to get the movie. No, it’s not mindless entertainment – there’s an honest to goodness plot. No, it doesn’t fit a genre. That would be too easy for Joss Whedon. You’re going to laugh, and get scared, and perch on the edge of your seat, and maybe cry, and possibly all of the above in one scene. (He doesn’t pay me for reviews, by the way. I asked.)
Okay, so maybe hero worship isn’t such a bad thing. There’s something to be said for admiring people who do the impossible.

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