Joss Whedon: The Biography, written by MTV’s Amy Pascale, is chock full of new details about Whedon’s life and career, from his veteran screenwriter family to his work on The Avengers and other Marvel films. Plus a lot of new insights into his creative process on things like Toy Story.
Below is the chapter on the genesis of Firefly, including why Fillion had such a hard time in those auditions. And it ends with the story of why Whedon named this show after the type of spaceship they were flying in.
We Aim to Misbehave: Firefly
Joss created Buffy the Vampire Slayer to introduce a character he had always wanted to see in a horror movie but never had. For his next television series, he turned his attention toward something he found lacking in televised science fiction: “a gritty realism that wasn’t an Alien ripoff.” In Firefly, he combined his love of outer space sci-fi with his affection for a much more rough-and-tumble genre—westerns, “particularly the ’70s westerns, the immigrant stories, the ones about ‘this is all we have out here, so we might be dead soon.'”
He first conceived of the series when he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about television at all, during a nonworking trip to London with Kai. “I wanted to play with that classic notion of the frontier,” Joss said. “Not the people who made history, but the people history stepped on—the people for whom every act is the creation of civilization.” And he wanted to do it on a spaceship.
That concept, he hoped, would elevate Firefly above the average sci-fi series. “Never watched any British sci-fi,” Joss says. “People were always talking to me about [Blake’s] 7, Red Dwarf, even Doctor Who, and I just never watched them. I watched one episode of Doctor Who and I was like, ‘Did they film that in my basement?’ because it looked cheesy.” His series aimed to be anything but.
Firefly would be set in a distant future in which the Earth has been “used up” and can no longer support the whole of the human race. Humanity survives by homesteading terraformed outposts in a new planetary system, simply called “the ‘verse” by its inhabitants. Joss would introduce us to not just one but a series of worlds recovering from a civil war between an antiseptic, Orwellian government called the Alliance and a band of outgunned rebels called the Browncoats.
Joss characterized his story as an exploration of “how politics affect people personally. And the personal politics are the only politics that really interest me. I’m not going to make this big, didactic polemic—I’m just going to say, ‘When there are shifts in a planet, those tiny little guys are the ones who are affected. So let’s hang out with them—not the Federation heads or the Jedi Council.'”
True to that mission statement, Firefly‘s heroes are the nine crew members and passengers aboard a ramshackle “Firefly-class” spaceship called Serenity. The crew barely scrape by on odd smuggling jobs and the rent they charge their regular passengers, who all have reasons to retreat to deep space. Joss had originally conceived of a smaller ensemble, but he increased the character count after being inspired by another western, John Ford’s 1939 movie Stagecoach, which likewise follows nine characters—a driver, a marshal, and seven strangers—as they cross the open and fairly unsettled frontier between Arizona Territory and New Mexico Territory.
Although Firefly‘s dystopian sci-fi elements might seem a drastic departure from Buffy‘s world of fantasy horror and privileged teenage angst, its central theme is quite familiar: A group of seemingly disparate individuals, each just trying to get by in a universe that really isn’t smart enough to appreciate his or her exceptional talents and quirks, are tossed together by extraordinary circumstances. Occasionally, and sometimes by accident, they manage to save the world(s).
Joss designed Firefly to be different, “about Joe Schmo, everyday life,” he said. “And then of course I introduce River, the young female superhero. Let’s face it, I’m just addicted.”
“It was nice to have a show that was about different perspectives and to really get to explore all of them. I was excited that I was going to have a happily married couple that was not boring. Because that’s just so rare in fiction and it’s such an important thing in life. And yet apart from [the] Thin Man [film] series, I think it’s never really been adequately represented. And I had a preacher on board, to explore the concept of faith, people who don’t have it and people who do.”
That exploration of faith would become an important aspect of the series, embodied in the relationship between the pious Shepherd Book and the lapsed believer Mal Reynolds. Captain Reynolds “is a man who has learned that when he believed in something it destroyed him,” Joss said. “So what he believes in is the next job, the next paycheck and keeping his crew safe.” Mal, to Joss, is a “guy who looks into the void and sees nothing but the void—and says there is no moral structure, there is no help, no one’s coming, no one gets it, I have to do it.”
Mal is also a character his atheist creator strongly identified with. “Of course the captain was the me figure,” Joss joked, “because he’s very tall and handsome, but cranky and also slim.”
“Wash is an absolute contrast to Zoe, yet a perfect mate for her,” he explained. “Rather than playing out every little romance in its infancy the way shows usually do, I thought it would be nice to show a happily married couple, who would have their fights and their troubles, but would stay married.” But when Fox executives were deciding whether to pick up the series, they saw a stable marriage as dramatically limiting, and they pushed him to break up the couple. “The last thing that Fox said was, ‘We will pick up the show, but they can’t be married.’ And I said, ‘Then don’t pick up the show, because in my show, these people are married. And it’s important to the show.'”
Gail Berman, who brought Joss the idea of a Buffy television series back in the mid-1990s, had joined the Fox network in 2000 as its president of entertainment. In December 2001, she greenlit Firefly with an order for thirteen episodes. A month later, Mutant Enemy was given $10 million to develop and shoot the pilot. But before he could go behind the camera, Joss had to find the right cast.
Nathan Fillion was coming off a recently canceled ABC sitcom, Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, and had been offered a “talent holding deal” by 20th Century Fox; the studio wanted to keep him on retainer so that they could find a new role for him on one of their upcoming shows. He was brought in to meet with Joss about the Mal Reynolds role.
After failing to get past the first cut for the part of Angel on Buffy in 1996, Fillion had run into some of the actors who were cast in the series at parties, and they would talk about the adventures that they were having and the stories the show was telling. He was intrigued, and tried to catch the occasional Buffy episode. But he never met Joss until casting director Amy Britt brought him in for Firefly.
“I walked into an office,” Fillion recalls. “Amy was there, and she said, ‘Hi. OK, I’m just gonna let you guys sit down and chat.’ There was this little guy in the corner, in a purple sweater with a rip in it. With scraggly hair and a scraggly beard and I thought, ‘Nice guy, but when’s Joss Whedon gonna get here?'”
He realized quickly that this scraggly little guy was Joss Whedon, and they chatted for about forty-five minutes about work, about other shows, and about Firefly. Joss told Fillion that he’d love for him to come in and audition for the part of his captain. “This’ll be great,” Fillion remembers Joss saying. “I think you’d do well with this part.”
The audition process wasn’t as smooth. He was asked in to read over and over. The fifth time he went in, he told them that he didn’t quite understand what was going on. The casting people told him that he seemed to be reading it the same way each time. “Which I am,” Fillion told them. “Is there something you’d like to see differently?”
“These poor people are thinking, maybe I’m an idiot, I can’t take direction. I can only do the one thing; I’m a one-note guy. But here we go.” With a little input, he changed up his approach, showing them that he could take direction and give them different reads. “We did it differently and we had a great time,” he says. “There was a bit of a breakdown in communication there, but I was tense. I’ll tell you that, I was tense.”
After that, Joss had Fillion wait in an office. To his relief, he was told that he had the part. It was thrilling. He was a fan of westerns and of sci-fi—and this was both. “When I get a project, I don’t look at it and say, ‘Boy, the impact this is gonna have!'” Fillion explains. “I have no idea. When I look at a project, I look at a character that I’m playing, I look at the story that we’re telling, and I think, ‘Am I going to have any fun? Can I bring something to this? Am I right for this? Does it excite me?’ And Firefly was exciting.”
At the time, Joss didn’t even have a finished pilot script; Firefly was only a treatment of roughly eighteen pages. Fillion had a lot of questions, and he sat down with Joss to discuss them. He was so impressed at how completely Joss had imagined the entire Firefly universe, down to the minutiae. “He would describe something in the universe, and then describe how they were going to depict it. He would describe lighting; he would describe music.” Joss had everything planned for the way that they were going to shoot the special effects shots. He even explained how one group of guys would wear hats and another wouldn’t.
Joss was equally articulate about the big ideas, explaining to Fillion the idea of a “found experience”: how the characters were out in space because they were each searching for something in life they couldn’t find. “I’ve had a lot of meetings with a lot of show creators. And I have a lot of questions for them,” Fillion says. “No one has been so complete in their vision as Joss Whedon. And that much about Joss has never changed since the first day I met him. He’s always complete in his vision.”
Gina Torres was grateful to receive more open-ended direction from Joss. The two main things that she took away from their conversations was that Zoe is “career military” and that she loves her husband, Wash, who would be played by Alan Tudyk. “After that, it was up to me to add the flesh and bone and heart,” she said. “It was lovely to be trusted to do that.”
Adam Baldwin found out that Joss had seen some of his earlier work and already felt that he was a strong fit for the part (of Jayne). The direction that he was given was that Jayne was not the sharpest tool in the shed but that he was always self-centered and self-directed. “You wouldn’t want to cross him and you couldn’t trust him as far as you could throw him,” Baldwin explains, “but he was the guy you want on your team.”
Jewel Staite had just arrived in L.A. after sending in a taped audition for mechanic Kaylee. Before heading to a screen test at Fox Studios, she had to audition in front of Joss at the Mutant Enemy offices. “I was petrified,” she says. “Buffy was about to celebrate its millionth episode or something, so there were all these congratulations posters up in the office, and I was just kind of in awe that I was even there at all.
“Joss came out of the audition room to greet me with this big, warm smile on his face, and right away I was put at ease. I felt like he was in my corner from the get-go, and later at my screen test, every time I got overwhelmed with nerves, I’d just find his face in the crowd of Fox executives, and he was always smiling that warm smile at me. I kind of wish he could be there for every screen test I have to do.”
Former Doogie Howser, M.D. star Neil Patrick Harris was in contention for the role of surgeon Simon Tam, but the role ultimately went to actor Sean Maher. Before being cast, Maher had very little interest in the series, as he’d never cared much for Buffy and wasn’t particularly a sci-fi fan. He agreed to go in to talk about the project simply because he wanted to meet with Joss. Since the pilot script still wasn’t written, all he was given were sides. But they were enough to change Maher’s mind about the show. “This whole moment in the pilot where Simon explains to the crew the backstory about his sister River. I was so immediately intrigued, the first thing I said to him was, ‘Please tell me about this show.’ So I got to hear about the world of Firefly from Joss’ mouth. . . . I almost fell off my chair.”
In the role of the Companion Inara, Joss initially cast Rebecca Gayheart, who left the project after production began in March 2002. Morena Baccarin came in to audition as her replacement. After her initial read-throughs, casting director Britt decided to stop and call in Joss, who was on set at the time. She ran through her lines and Joss told her that she did great.
“He immediately started joking around with me, asking, ‘Can you do it in a Polish accent?'” Baccarin remembers. “And I was like ‘Sure!’ So we just had this rapport and started joking around together, and I thought ‘Wow, this would be so much fun! To get to work with somebody like that.'” When she tested for the studio and network the next morning, Joss was in the room. As with Jewel Staite, “he was smiling at me and, like, giving me the thumbs-up and just being really sweet and very supportive, which was really nice.
“I left the room after my audition, and they have to confer and talk about you, and sometimes they ask you to go back in and do the scene again a little differently. When they asked me to come back inside, Joss came out to get me and I went inside and I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to have to prove myself again, have to do this again,’ and he just said, ‘Congratulations, you have the job.’ It was incredible! The day after that I was on set shooting.”
Nathan Fillion fondly remembers his first day on set. He was in his trailer when he was called to the stage. “I put on my coat and walked into the studio. The big cargo bay door was open, and I walked up into the cargo bay up this ramp. Someone [called out] ‘Captain on deck!’ And everybody turned and stopped and did like a little mock salute. A couple of people applauded. And I thought, ‘Oh. I just got on a spaceship.’ The moment was not lost on me. Every kid wants it.”
Talk Like Joss
Like many actors in their first Whedon roles, the cast of Firefly needed to adjust to Joss’s signature rapid-fire, snarky dialogue, peppered with invented slang. Adam Baldwin admits, “I had trouble in the early going with the whole ‘Nothing into nothing carry the nothing’ [line in the pilot], the rhythm of the language in a couple of the scenes, before it really clicked in. I would go to Joss and say, ‘What’s the rhythm of this?’ Joss is a very good actor, so it was very easy for him to give me a line reading.
“I found that was effective,” he adds. “I worked for Stanley Kubrick—Stanley was not as good a communicator with actors as Joss is. Stanley would just have you do it again and yell at you that you were lame and bad and need to be a better actor, whereas Joss would say, ‘Well, try this’ or ‘Try that,’ and he would care. Being a good actor, he was able to give all of us guidance toward his vision of how the scene would play. And that was a huge, huge benefit.”
Beyond the trademark Whedon-speak, the Firefly actors had to contend with a new linguistic complication. In the Firefly universe, the English language is peppered with Chinese—in particular, long and inventive bouts of swearing, created by Joss. The idea was inspired by Kai’s experience of living and teaching English in China, combined with Joss’s own interest in the country and culture. “It does make perfect sense,” Joss said. “China is going to be the greatest world power on the planet within this decade.” But he soon discovered a surprising limitation of the complex, tonal language: “You can say something that’s paragraphs long in like two syllables, so I kept having to write longer and longer curses, just so people could hear the Chinese.”
His actors may sometimes have found it frustrating to memorize and repeat long curses in an unfamiliar tongue, but they were otherwise deeply grateful for Joss’s creative leadership. “When Joss directs, he has a way of saying no that you don’t care that your idea was rejected,” Nathan Fillion says. “‘I have an idea. What if I do it like this, and I jump around and I take my time, and do a little—,’ and he says, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Or . . .’ His idea is so much better, realistic, and clever. And then, I go, ‘Oh! That’s brilliant, yes! Yes, of course that’s how I should do it.’ Then it goes on screen and people give me the credit: ‘Oh, when you did this thing, it was so great, and it was real, it was so cool and clever.’
“Yeah, that was me, all right, up there doing that thing that Joss told me to do.”
As Firefly proceeded from pilot to series, Joss knew that he was going to be spread thin overseeing three shows simultaneously. Buffy was in the middle of its sixth season, Angel its third. Joss had enlisted Marti Noxon to run the day-to-day operations of the former, and David Greenwalt was still doing the same with the latter. But he needed someone to fill that role on Firefly—someone with whom he could develop the show and to whom he could entrust it when he wasn’t able to be on set or in the writers’ room. “If you don’t have a second-in-command who can control the set when you walk away,” he remembered being told, “you never will.”
His strongest inclination was to draft Angel‘s Tim Minear. But he had promised Greenwalt that he would never pilfer him from Angel. He searched for a Firefly showrunner outside of Mutant Enemy, to no avail; he felt that he “could not find anybody even remotely of the caliber of Tim.” Determined to keep his promise, he kept looking, until someone convinced him that if he didn’t move Minear to Firefly, Joss would have no time or energy for Buffy or Angel.
Minear had already read the Firefly pilot script, and Joss had told him about some of the stories he wanted to do over the course of the series. He was very excited about the show. When Joss showed him an early cut of the pilot, Minear gave him notes in the editing room—he loved the episode but kept himself from becoming emotionally invested in it, because he was working on Angel.
Finally, Joss showed up on the Angel set at Paramount, where Minear was directing (two) episodes back to back. He sat down with Tim and said, “I want to give you a spaceship.” As a longtime Star Trek fan Minear was thrilled. “Oh! That’s the whole reason I’m doing this!” he said.
The offer led to some turmoil at Angel. David Greenwalt “did not take it lightly, nor should he have,” Joss said. Greenwalt chose to leave Angel at the end of season three; he had a chance to develop a new show outside of the Buffyverse as the showrunner for the new ABC series Miracles. That wasn’t the only upheaval in the Whedonverse; Marti Noxon left Buffy to have a baby and would be gone through most of the seventh season.
Joss suddenly had three shows and had lost two showrunners. But he knew that this kind of pressure could actually be a good thing for him—it had helped him refocus his life for the better before. In the early years of Buffy, he’d pull all-nighters all the time, because they were always behind. “When Angel came around, I was so tapped out,” he explains, “because every second I wasn’t working on Buffy, I would turn around and there would be work to do on Angel. I was much healthier, because I just was so worn out that I couldn’t wear myself out.” He got eight glorious hours of sleep every night, because his brain was so full.
In the same way, he says, “when three shows came on, I was very fierce and ridiculously focused.” Buffy‘s upcoming seventh season was likely to be its last, so “I can let it slide,” Joss reasoned. “It’s the first year of Firefly, there’s nowhere to slide from”—and there was a risk that it wouldn’t succeed—”so I’ve got to bust it out.” He decided that “Angel‘s where everyone’s going to expect me to drop the ball, so I have to make that super awesome. You get into a mode where you can just keep going, and just, you know, clicking over and clicking over. It was taxing, but in a way, it was almost simple.”
Joss did realize, however, that he could no longer oversee the day-to-day dealings of his production company. It was at this point that he reached out to his friend Chris Buchanan, who had quite the varied résumé as, among other things, a film producer, literary agent, and senior VP of production (one of his projects was 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven). On March 31, 2002, he announced Buchanan as the new president of Mutant Enemy.
Buchanan saw himself as the person to guide Joss’s creative ideas into concrete projects. “He’s done his thing,” Buchanan told Variety. “Somebody was needed to pick up the ball and run with it, figure out how we make things happen, how do we move it to the next stage.” He hinted that in the future, Mutant Enemy might not limit itself to only Joss-penned TV and features. “Joss has surrounded himself with people who are very creative,” Buchanan said. “He’d like to be the platform on which they build their own empires. It all goes back to world domination.”
Two weeks later, Joss reemphasized his commitment to Firefly and its Mutant Enemy siblings. The longtime comic book geek dropped out of talks with New Line Cinema to direct their upcoming film Iron Man.
Nathan Fillion never lost his initial giddiness, even with all the pressure of being the lead on a one-hour television program. “I didn’t feel a daily pressure of, ‘Hey, you’re carrying the show,'” he says, “because it was very much an ensemble piece. And when you’re on a television set and you see the kind of work that goes on, the lead actor is not doing the majority of the work.
“Certainly your face is up there, but the majority of the work has been done before you even get to work. There’s a lot of hard work going on in a television program, and the majority has been done long before I ever step foot on a set. The writing, the organizing, building a set, the decoration, the costumes, casting; it’s a lot of work. What I do is icing on the cake.” But if anyone around him tried to remind him that the success of the series was riding on him, “I’d start to feel it. Start to look around and think, ‘I can’t blow this. I can’t blow it. Don’t blow this.’ That was my mantra.”
Joss warned the cast early on that there was a reason why he named the show Firefly, after the spaceship, and not after any central character. Adam Baldwin recalls Joss declaring, “Because I’ve had experience with that before and I don’t want that. You’re all expendable. If I choose, you can go at any time.”