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July 22, 2008

On 'Dollhouse' set: Whedon talks pilot reshoot

TCA -- Oh the irony, it burns! Ever since Fox canceled Joss Whedon’s beloved 2002 series "Firefly," fans have groused that the network sabotaged the show’s chances by airing its episodes out of sequence.

Now Whedon himself is shaking up the order of his midseason Fox series “Dollhouse.”

The creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is shooting a new “prequel” episode to serve as the show’s pilot. Whedon says he opted to craft a new introduction to the series after meeting with Fox executives, who expressed concerns about the accessibility of the first episode.

"When we talked to the network I got a sense of hesitation about what we had and I understood why," Whedon says on the “Dollhouse” set Tuesday afternoon. “There’s a concern about the audience coming into this world. I respect their need to draw in an audience and present this a certain way. That said, I feel it's a very strong episode.”

Whedon acknowledges there are similarities to the “Firefly” experience.

“That’s why I hit myself on the head for this,” Whedon says. “Having been through this I should know I need to deliver a way to get into a story. I get their perspective, I get my perspective, these are not stupid people [at the network] and I decided I needed to make a preemptive strike. I wasn’t going to entrench around my art. It is very fluid -- the creation of a television show. So I said that I know a way to satisfy everyone.”

The new first episode, Whedon says, will allow him to select from previously shot footage to figure out “the most iconic way from what we had to introduce each character.”

Adds star Eliza Dushku, “And I didn’t get to wear my leather pants in the pilot, so that was a deal-breaker.”

In “Dollhouse,” a group of people can be programmed with various abilities and personalities and rented out for assignments to high-paying clients. They are kept stored in an underground compound that resembles a Zen-like spa. One of the Dolls, Echo (Dushku), begins to gradually become self-aware.

“I wanted everybody to feel like Echo is in this terrible situation, slash, ‘can somebody wipe my memory and feed me and put me in a wonderful spa and give me massages too?’ Whedon says of the elaborate set.

The tone of each episode, Whedon adds, will shift based on the Dolls’ assignment, a tactic that some might consider risky.

"I live to subvert [an audience's] expectation," he says. "There's a part of me that was clearly born for this and a part of me that will never be right for it. I live to do the episode of 'Murder She Wrote' where nobody dies. Because the greatest joy is to be genuinely surprise by human behavior or narrative structure. "

That said, “Every time I’m here, I worry that this show is a big mess, that this is the time I will fail. At the same time you learn to let go of that or not one word you will write.”

The set is impressive. A huge and rather tranquil living space that would be listed for about $9,000 a month on Craigslist. The Dollhouse includes coffin-like sleeping pods, a Koi pond, doctor's office, massage area, a drawing room, a gym, a co-ed shower and a couple offices.

Critics, naturally, are obsessed with the shower.

“The whole idea was to show how innocent they are," Whedon says. "It’s like the Garden of Eden, with Eliza either the Eve or the snake. We originally were only going to use the set for the pilot but the writers kept finding uses for it. As innocence falls, other things become more noticeable.”

“I’m not the most modest person in the world,” adds Dushku, who did a wardrobe change halfway through the critics' set visit.

Critic: “Where do they hold the soap?”

 Whedon: “That’s a sweeps episode.”

-- Follow up: Whedon plans "Dollhouse" webisodes


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