Joss Whedon at the Shasha Seminar, Part II

Last time, I gave a recap of Joss Whedon and Mark Harris’s thoughts on where the media industry is going, but much of our time at the Shasha Seminar was spent talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting work produced.

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Whedon talked about his own career, and how he got his stories up on screen. He started with Buffy, who he described like so: “This is my voice. This is my avatar. This is my girl.” Buffy, the story of a “bimbo” getting her revenge on big scary monsters, was the story he needed to tell. Being a script doctor was not enough for him – because it didn’t involve creating anything. Lucky for him, as he creates, he sees the title, the trailer, the one sheet and the marketing campaign all in his head. That probably goes a long way to explain why Whedon’s incredibly off-beat concepts worm their way into the pop culture landscape – he understands that media doesn’t just live up on screen, it lives in advertising, it lives in conversations online and in person. He claims it’s not cynical to think of these things as you’re doing creative work – because “It’s going to be a dialog between the audience and us.” In other words, he’s reaching out to his audience any way he can.

For Buffy, reaching out to the audience also meant a huge amount of multi-platform content – some of which he controlled creatively, and some of which he didn’t. In the case of the books, Whedon said, “Please don’t have Buffy deny the Holocaust in any of them, I’ll be over here.” In the case of the video game, he voiced an avatar of himself. Whedon put a lot of creative effort into the comic book series, because that platform interested him. However, he also addressed the announcement that Fran Rubel Kuzui, producer of the original (and failed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, intends to revive the series without Whedon’s creative input. Whedon said that Buffy “would not have happened” without Kuzui, and that the party who would have legal difficulty creating a new Buffy TV series is, in fact, him. When someone asked if he regretted not telling more television stories in the Buffy universe, he said “I’m not long on regret.”

Whedon’s shows are widely given credit as some of the first to have massive (and well-organized) online followings, Firefly was one of the first shows without a fully aired season to come out on DVD, and now his show Dollhouse is being renewed in part due to a strong web-based viewing audience. As I noted in my last post, Whedon started shooting the second season of Dollhouse on Monday. Budgets have been cut, and he’ll be shooting in HD video instead of film. Whedon actually seemed pleased about this, saying that “When they take money away from me – I get better.” (Fox executives, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it to heart). Whedon talked about the challenge of writing a show with six act breaks instead of four (which I understand is at Fox’s request, since there are more ad breaks online than on TV). He said it was challenging not to take the audience “out of the story” with so many cuts.

When you watch Joss Whedon speak in person, what comes across most readily is that he genuinely loves his job, and believes in his own work. Much of the weekend (which I’ll get to in a third, and possibly final post) was very tied up in justifying the artistic compromises that everyone makes in order to get art to make money. Whedon still believes that storytelling can, should, and must stand for something – even when it’s happening in a staunchly commercial enterprise. Whether regular folks can do what he does – create their own Dr. Horribles without the backing of experience, prestige and lots of famous friends – remains to be seen. But it’s nice to know that there are powerful people who are still in our corner.

Joss Whedon and Mark Harris: Getting art and commerce to finally hook up

This weekend at the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns at Wesleyan University, I was lucky enough to hear from some of the biggest movers and shakers in the entertainment business.

The weekend kicked off with Mark Harris, critic and author, who spoke about the need for both the producers and the consumers of media to raise the bar for pop culture.

To Harris, the relationship between consumers and producers of media is. . . a lot like a regular relationship – that when it works, it’s participatory, fun and meaningful – a lot like sex. As Harris actually put it, “I want better sex.” He observed that “We watch three things at once, and so we watch nothing at all.” The relationship has grown dysfunctional – a product of too many screens (he described getting distracted from writing his own speech by Hulu and Netflix), and and too little quality content on them. Harris challenged media makers to do interesting, edgy, inspiring work – and in return, he promised to pay more attention.

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

Screenwriter Joss Whedon, creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." JD Lasica / SocialMedia.biz

On Saturday evening, Joss Whedon also gave us a sex metaphor to describe the current state of the entertainment industry (what is it about Wesleyan University that inspires all this media lust?). Whedon described independent media and studio film as “. . .doing a very awkward mating dance. They’re coming together and they are going to have to have sex.” I’d say that is pretty apt. Some people in traditional media “get” new media (such as the clever webisodes from The Office) – but so far there’s a lot of flirting without anyone making a move. However, Whedon also insisted that “When the industry changes, as it can and will and must, the only thing left standing will be the telling of the story.”

Joss Whedon flew in for his talk after wrapping his film Cabin in the Woods, and before starting to shoot season 2 of Dollhouse on Monday. As he put it, the Dollhouse renewal is “Fine for you, but I had plans this summer.” Thank you, Joss Whedon, for forgoing the beach in favor of giving us something smart and funny to watch in the chilly months. Maybe the Actives can go on assignment in Hawaii?

Next up on the blog:

More from Joss Whedon’s talk: The future of Dollhouse, that pesky Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and the creative process.

More from the Shasha Seminar: Why two esteemed TV producers would not buy a TV show about under cover cover models – aka, pitching is harder than it looks.

Movies, TV and Finding Your “Strange”

I’m about to go get a good night of sleep before the last day of the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, a weekend seminar at Wesleyan University that has a completely different theme every year, and draws a wide variety of speakers to the campus. This year the theme is “Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made.”

The conference has given me a lot to think about. Last night, Mark Harris, film and pop culture critic, spoke eloquently about the future of media, art and commerce. Tonight, Joss Whedon addressed his own career trajectory as a guy trying to tell stories by any means necessary. Great words of advice for writers from the very quotable Mr. Whedon: “Find your strange.” and “Finish it.”

Stay tuned, folks! More commentary to come.