Q&A: Joss Whedon
'Buffy' creator sinks his teeth into new TV, Web projects
SAN DIEGO -- With the Fox series "Dollhouse" set to air in January, a continuation of his cult hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" running its eighth season in comic book form and a new Web-only musical, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" released online this month, Joss Whedon has his hand in just about every medium.
The multihyphenate 2.0 is also producing MGM's "The Cabin in the Woods." Whedon sat down in between panels at Comic-Con with THR to discuss new business models, comics and what comes next.
The Hollywood Reporter: Did you expect this kind of response to "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"?
Joss Whedon: Yes and no. I mean, you always do; you always go in swinging thinking everyone will love it -- they will love my painting of sunflowers - but it doesn't work out that way. So it's a surprise but also not a surprise.
But I also felt that this (Comic-Con) was the crowd. If anybody was going to get it, it was going to be these guys.
THR: "Dr. Horrible" launched July 15 and you announced the soundtrack will be available in a few weeks. Were you prepared to put out the iTunes soundtrack so quickly?
Whedon: We made everything happen so quickly partially because we wanted to get it out before Comic-Con, partially also because we wanted to make it happen quickly. I tried to make Internet deals; they took forever, they're still not made. And this was during the strike, this was before Christmas that I started these deals, thinking, "I'm going to make content."
And with these big Silicon Valley companies, they're like, "So in the third part of the second part of the fifth clause ..." and I'm like, "Guys, it's August."
So one of the things we said was that we're going to show this for free in mid-July so we can rock the Con, have a really good time, but also because you just have to get it done. Everybody was not used to that and they were pretty much on board, iTunes was pretty enthusiastic, and everybody we showed it to, and they just said OK we've never done it this fast so have your lawyers call us now (a few weeks before "Dr. Horrible" streamed).
It was a couple of weeks before we streamed it that we started to make the deal with iTunes. We created our own paradigm from start to finish with this, including the business deal. Which was really fun.
THR: Is there a release date for the soundtrack? Is it iTunes only or will there be a physical release as well?
Whedon: It should just be a couple weeks. It'll be strictly downloadable at first, and then we do hope to put out a cool-looking actual release. But our main goal is to get the DVD out, definitely before November. We have a lot to do for it, we want to make it special. That's another thing that we're in where we make the rules.
THR: Speaking of the DVD, can you tell me anymore about the Evil League of Evil video submission contest?
Whedon: We do have an interview with the Evil League of Evil for the DVD, and they're evil, I gotta tell you. They're not good people. Not good. We're just going to have people send in under three-minute submissions for their pitch for why they should be in the Evil League of Evil and we'll put the best ones on so the fans can be a part of what's going on instead of just, "Sit back and enjoy your entertainment and shut up and buy stuff."
THR: Have any studios or distributors expressed interest in "Dr. Horrible"?
Whedon: Yes, actually, we met with a couple of different companies but we showed it to studios as well as streaming people. We showed it to anybody who would watch. My agent took it around town with it tucked under his arm because we couldn't send it to people because we were worried about security and it getting out. The response there was overwhelming. People were very interested in partnering in one way or another.
So far, we've partnered with iTunes, we have other stuff coming up but we don't know what we're going to do for the DVD, we sort of took our own route. There were some companies that were like, "This is great and we can roll it out slowly by creating awareness on the Internet and throw out some bread crumbs at Comic-Con," and we're like, "No, we're going to stream it for free first for a week."
THR: What was the response regarding streaming it for free?
Whedon: The free thing kinda threw some people. Everybody had to kinda take a breath on that one. Because, you know, you make less money with free things.
But there were two sides to that. One was very idealistic, one was very mercenary. The idealistic one was we wanted to do this event, we wanted it to be about the Internet as much as it was about "Dr. Horrible." We wanted to say there is another way, just not to the studios, but to the people doing the Internet. It's not your cat falls off a TV set or "Ben-Hur," there is something in the middle.
THR: You've said that production budget for "Dr. Horrible" is in the low-six-figures. Is "Dr. Horrible" profitable yet?
Whedon: No. We have not made back our investment, but we are in the process; we are accruing. We have high hopes. The idealistic side was, let's throw this out there, why not. And the mercenary side was honestly, it's honestly promotional.
The idea was to create a buzz that would exist beyond that, and the only way to really do that was to have people see it. More people saw it than we anticipated, hence the site crashage, but hopefully it will continue. Hopefully people are still downloading it.
THR: In terms of producing content specifically for the Web, how far have you seen it come in the past couple of years?
Whedon: People are kind of dancing around it. There definitely has been some interesting stuff that I've seen. I haven't seen as much as other peope; I'm kind of new to the field, truthfully. I feel like we've seen some cool things and some advancements, but people have gotten stuck in a rut already.
When we were making this, people were like, "You can't have anything over seven minutes long," and somebody else was like 'You can't have anything over three minutes long; attention spans will go at two minutes and 49.7 seconds every single time no matter what." It's a very nascent field and everybody was very entrenched about the way you could create content and what people would sit for on the Internet.
So we were like we were going to make it however long we'd like. We shot for 10 minutes, but it's me so it came out long.
THR: Based so far on your experience with "Dr. Horrible," do you think the Web is a good business model?
Whedon: None of us is going to become a billionaire from doing this but yes, I think it's very tricky and most people will tell you it can't be done. I had one person who might actually be a billionaire, and he said, "Yeah, you'll make $2,000." And he wasn't being mean. ... I'm happy to say, we've topped $2,000.
The thing is, as a business model, what it isn't is a cash cow. Most of the territory has been staked out. Unless you create a YouTube or a Google or something that's all already been done, now the field is crowded. There was 1.0, where it's basically the open prairie, now that's all done. And there's 2.0, where the ideas are smaller and they fit in what is now an existing structure.
And so you have to find a niche in there ,and you have to accept that that's what it is, especially if you're working on my level. A studio isn't really interested in making an investment unless it's a huge one. I can't do that.
But I do think that's the best way to find a sustainable model on the Internet is to build something that is always exactly the size it needs to be. Don't throw $100 million and need it to start bringing back (returns); don't say, "Oh we'll get in the black in five years' time."
I was prepared to lose every cent that I put into this. I did this because well, I got to make a musical that's first and foremost, but because we do need new business models for the creative community as residuals are going to become a thing of the past. Some people are going to need to get into this and I feel the way to get it is to always stay at the exact level you're at.
"Dr. Horrible" should turn a profit and just enough to continue at that level. At some point it could get bigger and turn into a bigger thing, or it could get smaller. You have to have that malleability. If your expectations are too high, if you're in it to make a fortune, you're going to have a bad time, I think. If you're in it to make a living, you might do OK.
THR: How will the 13 webisodes of "Dollhouse" be different from the series? Will they be interstitials or stand-alone episodes?
Whedon: We're talking about both, about doing a few sort of teasy pops at the beginning, we're talking about having a story appear as sort of part of a story that's not part of a main story, that's laid out as part of an arc in the show. We're still feeling our way around that; I'm still feeling my way around the show.
I think ultimately what we'll end up with is arcs because that's the easiest way to do it. If every two-minute story you do is a 40-minute story you can't do later, arcs is a good way to go.
THR: Any "Dollhouse" comics planned?
Whedon: I talked to ("Buffy" comics publisher) Dark Horse, and "Dollhouse" has got some adventure and suspense and thrills, but it's people talking and I know they have a "CSI" comic, but I don't read it. (Laughs) I believe that you need a reason to be in a medium and you have to respect what that medium is for, and I just don't see "Dollhouse" as doing that. It could be done, but I just don't see why.
THR: As for the "Buffy" Season 8 comics, are you going to be writing more or is your role shifting more toward oversight?
Whedon: I'm finishing the Fray arc and then a couple of other people are stepping in and I have a plan to do one more arc before the end of the season. Although I'm looking at that with a cold eye; maybe I should just oversee that because I'm late with an issue, and it gets harder and harder.
And sometimes juggling everything is easier just because you get in this awesome mind space where you can just click from one thing to another -- and that should kick in any minute - but since it hasn't, I am struggling with all the different things that I have going on right now, including the movie (MGM's "The Cabin in the Woods"), which I'll be producing at the same time as I'm doing "Dollhouse" and what ever I have to do with "Dr. Horrible" and "Buffy."
THR: What other comics are you working on right now?
Whedon: I finished my run at Marvel, which was really fun and sometimes I have ideas for other ones, but then I tape my own mouth shut and they go away. "Runaways" is done and it's coming out in hardcover.
THR: "Sugarshock," an online comic from Dark Horse Presents that was available only on MySpace, is coming to print. Do you have a release date for that? Any plans to bring the MySpace "Captain Hammer" comic to print?
Whedon: "Sugarshock" is coming Aug. 28. All the Dark Horse Presents content stays online then can go to print a year later. We do plan to do a couple more of those. We want to do a Moist comic, and a Fake Thomas Jefferson. We've got some ideas. (Laughs)
THR: You've touched on all the massive commitments you've got going on. How do you balance everything?
Whedon: The trick is extreme focus. I don't have the key. I'm a horribly disorganized and lazy, procrastinating person, so that doesn't help me, either. The good thing about some of these is you don't have a choice. It's gonna go up. You have a shoot date. You gotta get it done. And then sometimes, with "Dr. Horrible," you've just gotta do it. You just have to, and not because anybody's saying it has to be done but just because you know in your heart that you'd always be sad if you didn't. I love telling stories more than anything. I wake up, I wanna play with my kids and/or tell stories. That's it. I don't have a lot of hobbies. I don't collect stuff, I can't fish. I don't use my muscles in any way ...
THR: Will there be an Act 4 for "Dr. Horrible"?
Whedon: This was one piece, it would be Acts 4-6 or another three-part thing if we did a sequel in a way that we did this one. Or we might do something completely different.
THR: But there will be something that follows?
Whedon: I can not say with absolute certainty that there will be just because who knows where everybody's going to be and if we'll be able to put it together. Plus, this has gone over so well I'm a little scared now. Like we won't have the excuse of, "We did it really fast" anymore. And I always need an excuse.
We definitely have talked about plans and I have some grand plans about what we can do to continue the story, and I think we all want to. But nobody is committed to doing it. But there's nothing definitive. All weekend (at Comic-Con), I've been like, "Guys, I have another idea for the sequel! Oh wait, we have to do another thing (panel)." We haven't really gotten a chance to talk about it.
The big part of this for me was bringing my brothers ("Dr. Horrible" writers Zack Whedon, Jed Whedon) and (Jed's) fiancee (Maurissa Tancharoen) to experience this. They've never been to the Con, let alone stood in front of a panel of 4,000 cheering people and I wanted them to experience that. It was fun to watch. So we're taking it one step at a time.
THR: Any plans for new Internet-only ventures?
Whedon: If I didn't have other commitments, I would probably be doing nothing else. I think it's really fascinating. There's a lot of stories I want to tell in exactly that way. On the cheap, directly designed to be experienced on the computer in segments and keep the whole thing modular. I think it would also be a good idea to do something other than "Dr. Horrible" first just to sort of say, "Oh by the way, there are different shapes to this," so that it doesn't become just the one trick.
THR: Is there any other forum you'd like to explore?
Whedon: The stage. I don't have a podcast, but that's originally what "Dr. Horrible" was supposed to be. I've never done live stage, but we've talked about bringing "Dr. Horrible" to Broadway (laughs). But a live stage musical is something I've always been curious about. And I'm still planning on someday making this ballet with Summer (Glau, Whedon's "Angel," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles") that I wrote the score for.
THR: Would you consider adapting the "Buffy" musical "Once More, With Feeling" for the stage?
Whedon: I don't think so, because it's an episode in the middle of seven years of history; it doesn't stand on its own. Whereas something like, say, "Dr. Horrible," you start at the beginning. I have thought about doing a "Buffy" musical but I wouldn't do "Once More, With Feeling." I would do a musical adaptation of the concept starting from square one.
THR: Would you use the same cast?
Whedon: I doubt it. None of them do theater in that way. Besides, they'll be 80 when I finish it.