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We Talk with Joss Whedon about This Week's Big Episode of 'Dollhouse'!


The March 20th episode of Dollhouse is the one you have all been waiting for.  Long described by show creator Joss Whedon as a game changer, a turning point, this supposedly pivotal sixth episode of the show about people who are blank slates, capable of being imprinted with any skill or personality, is upon us.  "Man on the Street" promises to blow the lid off the Dollhouse legend, while revealing some of the dirty secrets and hinting at much dirtier ones to come.  We snagged an interview with Whedon on the eve of this "event" episode.  To read what he had to say, just hit the jump!

Dollhouse doesn't have the same wit and snappy dialogue that your other shows are known for.  Is that something we can look forward to in coming episodes?

There is humor in the show.  But the fact of the matter is that this is not a comedy.  If there is a typical Whedon show, this is not it.  It's not the lighthearted romp that the other shows were.  There's definitely funny stuff coming up.  There's always moments of funny, but it doesn't build like a comedy.  It wasn't designed to be a comedy.  If people are feeling like it's too serious, then either their expectation has to be changed, or we need to lighten up a little.  But, yes, I don't think they're ever going to see the same sort of long, six-page runs of just pure humor.  This is not that show. 

Am I interpreting this correctly, that in an upcoming episode we find out that Sierra was basically sold into slavery with the Dollhouse?

More or less.  I wouldn't even say sold, so much as kidnapped.  Her situation is by far the worst of anyone's.  How complicit the Dollhouse was in that, how much they actually knew about her past, we don't go to in the episode, but what actually happened to her is just as appalling as anybody's story. 

One of the things I hear from people who may have been a little bit reluctant to get into the show is what they call "the ick factor" of the premise.  And Adele [head of the Dollhouse, played by Olivia Williams] tries to argue that most of the Dolls are there voluntarily and that she's doing a good service for them by wiping out these other memories.  But knowing that it is possible for at least one of the Dolls to have been brought in against her will, does that continue to make the show uncomfortable?

I don't know, maybe.  It makes me uncomfortable.  I'm not going to lie.  But for me, it's part of what we're dealing with.  We're dealing with people who have power and are abusing it, and people who don't have power and are trying to regain it.  The "ick factor" seems to get high with Sierra quite a bit, I'm sorry to say.  Poor girl.  She really gets put through it.  But it's not something we feel that we can shy away from without being a little hypocritical. 

Could you talk about the process of building up and hyping this particular episode and whether you think there might have been some negative side effect to all the interviews you did where you emphasized that episode 6 was the one where you wanted people to really get hooked? 

You know, there may have been a negative side to it, because we may have said, "The first five episodes are crap," which I don't believe.  There's also the negativity of somebody saying, "Well, now he's blaming the network for the other episodes."  No, no, no, no.  We did our best to try and figure out how to put the show over while under the gun, while we were in production or occasionally out of production.  And then what happened with "Man on the Street," was it came to me as a concept really quickly.  I pitched it to the network and for the first time, there was a real simpatico.  They went, "Oh, yes, we get that," and it was a very simple thing.  And I wrote it faster than anything I'd every written.  It just poured out of me.  It was like all of that brewing that we've been doing became the soup of that episode and so it really was a game changer for us on set and in production.  The staff and the cast read it and a lot of tumblers fell into place.  That's how we felt about the episode. 

There may be a negativity associated with hyping it, but for all of us, a lot of the following episodes really work on the model of "Man on the Street" more than anything else.  So it was a big moment for us.  It was a moment that we felt like we found a level and we were really proud of it.  I figure that other people may feel differently, but we walked away from shooting that episode going, "Okay, we just added a layer and we feel pretty excited about it."   

Could you talk about what the tumbler was that clicked, what the other layer was that you feel like you found?

I think it was doing an episode that somebody who had never seen the show could walk in on because it explains very clearly the premise. In fact, it's kind of about explaining the premise and at the same time really getting under the skin of the Dollhouse and of Agent Paul Ballard [played by Tahmoh Penikett] and of what's going on with everybody, the workings of the place and coming at it sideways rather than just showing an engagement and flipping in some information around that engagement.  This was one where we really got to look at the cogs of the clock and that's what gave it such momentum for us. 

Will we learn why Ballard is so obsessed with Caroline and the Dollhouse this season?

We don't really go back into his story in the first season, the first of so many seasons that there will inevitably be.  [Laughs.]  We feel like there's a thorn in his side and we feel that we can push it further and twist it and possibly hit a vital organ.

It seems like the show is getting better by going at things sideways rather than head on. How much of that was you finding the show and how much of that was the network relenting and letting you get it to the place that you wanted?

I think it was both.  The show definitely contains elements that were pitched or developed by people at the network in terms of the motivations of the Dollhouse and the feel of the politics and the thriller aspect. The show is very much full of the stuff that they were pitching.  But, storytelling-wise, it was much closer to how I had envisioned coming at it in a sense that is clearer, than my original pilot.  My original pilot was deliberately obtuse and you had to come along and stay with it and figure it out. 

Here's the situation.  [The Dollhouse] is a myth.  This guy [Ballard] is looking for it.  We lay it out as simply as we did in the first five, but because we get to go inside the Dollhouse more, the events there take on much more resonance.  It has what I had hoped to bring to the other episodes that I didn't really have the opportunity to.  So I felt like it was really finding the code to a show that I can do my best work in that the network still really can get behind.  So it was a meeting of the minds. 

Boyd, Echo's handler [played by Harry Lennix] definitely seems more sympathetic and moralistic than the other characters who work for the Dollhouse.  Will we learn a little more about why is he working there? It seems that in some ways, it's hard to understand why he does the job in the first place. 

It is hard and we keep asking the question.  I will tell you without reservation that in this season, we don't answer it. 

Have you thought at all about his backstory?

Yes.  Way before we had it cast or even written, I knew what had happened with Boyd.  There was a line from an episode - it was ultimately cut - where he says to Saunders [the house doctor, played by Amy Acker], "None of us in here were next in line for Pope.  Everybody has a reason."  Rolling out how people came to this place is part of something we wanted to do, a little bit later on when we had people invested in the characters enough to ask, but we still have to wait on that.  We'll see. 

A lot of fans speculate as to whether any of the people we know as staff members could possibly be Dolls.  Obviously, you can't tell us yes or no, but is that something you've thought about? 

Yes, we talked about that and the different possibilities that we could tweak and the pasts that people have.  How many layers of unreality can you have in somebody's identity? We have to pull ourselves back and say, "If we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us."  So we've talked about, but we've been very restrained with the concept because you have to have some touchstone of reality, even in this world. 

I think the resistance that a lot of viewers have been feeling about the show is toward the reasons why someone would pay for the Dollhouse's services.  They understand hiring the perfect fantasy date, but they're not exactly sure, for instance, why you'd hire a midwife or a safe cracker.  Do you think you've made that argument yet or are you still working on it?

You know, we do work on it.  Again, it's one of those things where because it makes sense to us on some levels, we look back and go, "Are they with us?"  But we finished shooting it before any of it aired, so it's a little dicey there.  There were times we talked about why some of the engagements it seemed like things that you could find somebody actually is that person.  A lot of it is a status thing for rich people. But we never spent too much time with that because we were never sure how much of an issue that was going to be.  It's the one thing that's difficult about making a show when it's not airing.  You don't have that feedback yet and you don't know what they need to hear.  So it gets addressed, but probably not as much as people would like. 

I read that you intend to leave TV for online media exclusively.  Do you still want to do that?

I never actually said that.  New media is very attractive to me.  It's an open field.  There's a lot of freedom and I'm very afraid that that freedom will be taken away before the artistic community has a foothold in it.  So for reasons both artistic and political, I wish very much to pursue new media. 

But that doesn't mean that I'm never going to do television.  Everybody knows I had a rough time getting Dollhouse up-to-speed, but that doesn't mean I'm never going to do television.  I love television and I love it in a different way than I love the internet, in a different way than I love movies.  The scope and the breadth and the depth that you can get with the storytelling from a TV show are unlike anything else and I love it. 

I have to admit I'm shooting a movie right now that really went from script to preproduction in a matter of weeks.  I did Dr. Horrible in a matter of days.  Television can be a grind, but I adore it.  And the people I've dealt with have been honorable and honest.  It's just that getting a TV show off the ground is rough waters, no matter what.  And sometimes you feel up for a swim and sometimes you don't.  

Have you thought at all about doing a TV/internet crossover?

The problem is that we have two opposing models.  Regular television is made for a lot of money, has a lot of crews, employs a lot of people.  You can make a good deal of money in that business, so can the networks and whatnot.  And then there's in the internet, which is not that at all.  Although Dr. Horrible made money, we didn't make the kind of money that would make a studio stand up and prick its little ears up.  Nor were we paying people the kind of dollars where they can just do that for a living.  All that means is that shows are probably going to be shown on the Internet instead of reaping reruns on television, which means no residuals for the artists, which means that there's almost no money model for the internet.  They're trying to bring them together, but nobody knows how they're going to mix, how they're going to meld, where they're going to meet. 

At some point it would be great if they met, if we could have fast, well made, productions on the internet that employed enough people to keep the community in a good place, but at the same time, cut some of the fat out, so that everybody was able to do more work and still feel secure in making a living.  Right now that model doesn't exist, and none of us have figured it out. 

It seems that the biggest market for Engagements would be weird sexual activity, yet you barely touched upon that so far.  Was that something you were saving for later, or something that was nixed by the network?

There were two things.  One is, yes, the network.  Some people at the network definitely said, "Well, wait a minute.  This idea that we've bought is illegal and very racy and frightens us."  There was definitely an element of, "Should we tone this down?" that for me was frustrating because I was telling them it was dangerous ground and was meant to be.  That is not to say that the only thing I pitched them was Echo having sex.  The idea was always that she would be doing a lot of different things.  I had a structure that the first few episodes were supposed to take us into engagements that would always be shifting.  That she would be solving crimes, that she would be helping people, that she would be committing crimes. Sexuality was a big part of it and the most edgy and titillating part of it, but not in any way the only part of it. 

When you pitch, you want to compare it to two known entities.  Mine was it's Alias meets Quantum Leap. I thought of her as a kind of life coach, a kind of person you absolutely need in your life at a certain moment who will either change you or comfort you or take your life to the level that you want it to be.  And that could be something nice, evil, sexual.  It could be any number of things.  It was never just meant to be the one.  Sexuality took over because it's the one that frightens people the most and also interests them the most.  So, yes, I think we ended up not going there as much as we would have in the first few episodes because we were still in that dialog with some of the people at the network.  You end up doing a disservice if you just sort of gloss over it and never hit it head on.  Having said that, I still have no problem with the idea that somebody very rich and very far off in the mountains would hire the perfect midwife because for the birth of your child, you don't want a thinker. 

The Boyd/Echo relationship is reminiscent of the Giles/Buffy relationship.  Is Boyd going to become more and more attached to Echo?

It's definitely very much that same kind of de facto father figure.  He definitely cares about Echo more than his job requires, but at the same time he doesn't have the same opportunities in these first thirteen episodes to really do anything to help her in that same sense.  Their relationship is also going to have to shift a little in ways that I'm not going to describe.  But for us on the staff, that was sort of the bedrock place of "No matter what happens with these guys, we know that he wants to protect her and the only truly safe place in the Dollhouse are his paternal feeling toward Echo."

You always had really great emotional stuff in Buffy and Angel.  Are we going to see more of that at some point in the series?  Is there something set up with Victor and Sierra or even Paul and Echo?

The emotion of the thing is really why we're there.  It's the only thing that really interests us.  If we have to figure out a caper, that's work.  But to figure out something that causes one of them to be in pain, that's fun!  So, yes, as the show progresses, we are able to go further with the emotionality because the Dolls are actualizing more and everything is going to get much more tense for everybody. 

Do you think it could evolve in romantic directions? 

For certain people, there could be some romance, but it's never simple.  I would say Victor's feelings about Sierra are probably the closest thing to simple that there is in the show right now.  Even those are not… well, we're not not going to mess everybody up. 

Joss, now that we know there are actually twenty Dollhouses out there, are we going to cut away to any of them this season?  Like a Doll makes a phone call to her counterpart somewhere, anything like that? 

We do get to see one of the higher ups and we talk about the other Dollhouses.  We didn't want to do an Italian [version of Angel's] Wolfram and Hart, where we just use the same set and fill it with Italians.  That's one of my favorite things we ever did, but that's because Angel was a lot sillier.  So as the economy started to take a toll on our budget, that and the fact that we've thrown out our pilot, we hunkered down.  So, no, you will not see Dollhouse Tokyo in this season, but, boy, I'd like to. 

Will we ever get to see the lives of the Dollhouse staff outside of the Dollhouse?  Do they live there?  Do they ever just go to the movies?

At this point, we're still interested in how the staff relate to our Actives, and particularly Echo.  So we don't spend a lot of time with people in their outside lives, although we do spend some.  We will learn a little something about the private lives of some of our employees, but something we're treading lightly.  That's really something you would come to later in a season. 

Why is the Dr. Saunders character so sad?  Are we going to learn more about her?

Yes, we sure are.  I love that character, not just because it's Amy Acker, but because she wears misery and torture on her face literally.  We will definitely learn how she came to this fabulous career.  In the last few episodes, we get to turn the Acker up pretty hot and it's very exciting. 

Are we going to see any other familiar faces on the show?

Well, I did mention that Felicia Day was going to appear in an episode, but that's pretty much it for Buffy cast.  Most of them are, I'm happy to say, working, but I do like to see the gang.  We have to establish the reality of this world before we can bring in somebody without it being too jarring.  Although we have one episode with a guy who looks a lot like Nick Brendan [Xander from Buffy] and his character's name is Nicholas, and that was a terrible idea.  We should have never named him Nicholas, because every time I see his footage, I go, "Hey, wait a minute…  Oh, I'm confused."