"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Joss Whedon looks rough and rumpled, as if he just tumbled out of bed and into his hotel lobby. Is this what a great television auteur looks like? The man who created “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” has earned a zealous cult following with his special blend of giddy fantasy, brainy humor and beautifully constructed narratives.
Wearing an unbuttoned shirt covered in tiny retro TVs, Whedon doesn’t resemble a Hollywood icon so much as a guy who spent part of the previous day at New York’s fanboy festival ComicCon. Where he was, by the way, the star attraction. Along with the various fantasy worlds that he has conjured on big and small screens, Whedon also writes comic books, contributing to hugely successful series like “X- Men” and “Runaways,” as well as penning comics based on his own TV shows.
Whedon’s most surprising recent success was “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” a charming online musical about a lonely wannabe-supervillain (played by Neil Patrick Harris), which Whedon and his brothers (and sister-in-law) created on a shoestring budget during the writers strike. Originally intended to be streamed for free on the Internet last summer, the three episodes became a stone-cold smash via iTunes and later DVD. One might reasonably think that Whedon would now give up on network television for the creative freedom of the Internet — especially since his last TV show, the 2002 sci-fi western “Firefly,” was canceled by Fox after just 11 episodes. (Whedon later remade “Firefly” into the 2005 movie “Serenity.”)
And yet here he is, back on Fox with the new series “Dollhouse” (reviewed here). It stars former “Buffy” star Eliza Dushku as Echo, a young woman — known on the show as an “Active” or “Doll” — sapped of her memories and free will, who is sold to rich clients to fulfill their needs and fantasies. For each assignment she is imprinted with a fresh personality, complete with new skills, intelligence and neurological information; sometimes she morphs into a sexbot, other times she takes on the life of a highly methodical negotiator. Echo and her fellow Actives live in a giant Zen loft called the Dollhouse, blissfully unaware that they are being remote controlled by a shadowy organization under investigation by a Fox Mulder-style FBI agent (played by “Battlestar Galactica” escapee Tahmoh Penikett).
The “Dollhouse” pilot may not immediately strike the Whedon lover as quite silly or talky or girl-powered enough. But this is a man who knows how to blow up genre expectations, and even in the debut episode we start to see cracks in Echo’s vacant veneer that will undoubtedly force us to think about the nature of identity, memory and sexuality, and even what it means to be a TV auteur who creates roles for sexy actresses to live out. Whedon swears that in “Dollhouse,” he has created a premise full of juicy possibilities for fun, fantasy and intelligence, one that can also — he hopes — run the brutal gantlet of network TV execs.
You went to New York ComicCon this weekend. I assume that must be the epicenter of your fan base.
Sometimes you go because you’ve got to promote something, and sometimes you go because you just want people to remember that you’re still around, even though you have nothing to promote. I did that one year. I was terrified. I was like, uh, I just want to say, I’m still alive!
What’s that movie where the movie star goes to a mall when she’s feeling insecure so that fans will recognize her and ask for an autograph?
“Soapdish”! I was thinking about that yesterday. I understand that on a level I wish I didn’t.
You have a huge cult — it’s not very often that TV show creators and writers get that kind of adulation.
I was one of the first. The Internet community started forming right when “Buffy” started airing, and the notion of a show creator being anything other than a name people recognize on the screen was completely new. When you become a writer you assume it’s this life of anonymity, and then all of a sudden it’s this other thing. But at ComiCon everybody’s like that. There’s a reason all the comic book artists trudge out there, because they do get, as they say, treated like rock stars.
I don’t know that there are a lot of other instances of people taking their own TV shows and continuing them on as comic books for years after the series ends. Do you have the same kind of emotional attachment to the characters in “Dollhouse”?
It’s different because this universe is so complicated. It’s not a gut-punch like, “She’s little and she beats up monsters.” Echo is a much more complicated character by virtue of being hardly a character, and the premise itself is designed to be kind of distancing. I did pitch it with a six-year plan. But when we did the [first] 13 episodes, we eventually said, instead of holding back, let’s just go nuts. And by the second half of the season, we just started blowing shit up. And I don’t mean literal explosions, because we couldn’t actually afford those anymore.
In the pilot, one of the men who works in the Dollhouse says, “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It seemed very much a trademark line of yours, because, aside from quoting Shakespeare, which you do –
I do way too often.
But you also like to play with the whole good-and-evil-are-relative thing in your shows. How is that gonna play out in “Dollhouse”?
Constantly. The good and evil is kind of the point, the relativity of both and our assumptions about what’s evil is something we want to explore all the time. The Dollhouse is by definition kinda sketchy. And very illegal.
It’s kind of a combination human trafficking/whorehouse/corporate fulfillment center.
There’s also some assassination. Actually, did we ever do that or did we just talk about it in the room? And of course the network is like, can we have more assassination and less sex?
Fox asked for less sex?
You’d be surprised. The networks are very prurient, especially after Janet [Jackson] decided to share with us. So the networks are like, we think this premise is hot. Just don’t show anything or talk about it. Which can be so disingenuous that it becomes offensive.
Obviously it’s tough because — and this is the thing that kept me up nights — human trafficking in the real world is beyond heinous. What we were trying to do was create a situation in a science-fiction world where people gave themselves up for five years to the idea of, “I don’t care what happens to me. I won’t know about it. And as long as I’m not hurt, go with God. It’s fine.”
So for whatever reason these “Actives” have voluntarily given up their bodies?
Well, the question of whether they’ve actually volunteered or not is obviously somewhat dicey. And as we’ll begin to learn, every Active has a different backstory. What I wanted to do was talk about the idea of sex and what we expect from each other. Power, love, how these things are all connected. We’re positing the idea of, if people were in a position to give up their lives, how many of them would?
We saw a thing on “This American Life,” where guys had found a way to block a memory stream on mice and they got flooded with letters from people begging them to be test subjects, because they were like, I don’t want to remember my life. Something bad happened or I want to cut out something. There is also this fantasy of not having control, of not having responsibility. These people are taken care of like children. They live in the best spa ever.
I believe that prostitution is not, in concept, repulsive. I believe that people are gonna want to have sex for a long time. Eventually, I think that computers and TVs will become so awesome that they’ll stop wanting to …
Or they’ll forget about it.
Right. What interests me is that urge and what we do with it. People will always want to give up their power on some level. It’s a nightmare and a fantasy. The nightmare is, I have no will. And the fantasy is, I have no responsibility or memory of what I’ve done.
Along with “Buffy” expat Eliza Dushku, you have “Battlestar Galactica” star Tahmoh Penikett in “Dollhouse.” Are you a Galactica obsessive?
Um, I think obsessive is too light a word. I absolutely adore it. It’s my favorite show ever. Come on, it’s “The West Wing” with space battles. It covers all of my needs. I watch their storytelling and go, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done. Fuck.”
Based on the pilot, ”Dollhouse” seems much less playful than some of your previous shows.
It is less playful, which doesn’t mean we don’t play. There’s a lot of silliness and repartee and fun, but first we have to win over the world. I think the first episodes are trying to get people to understand and accept how this world works. But the show really finds itself in the second half. It’s really where we start to go, “Ohhhhhh, we can do thiiiis. Right, this is why we showed up!” And so I’m hoping people will stick with it.
So you’re doing a bait and switch? You’re tricking them with the more conventional stuff up front?
Well, it’s more that by episode six, people know the characters, they get it, now we can start to really mess with them.
Viewers seem much more TV-literate these days. Certainly, your shows helped to create that literacy, but people seem able to cope with much more complicated ideas and structures.
I think television is getting smarter and dumber at the same time. As it gets harder for the networks to figure out how to make their money and what’s going to happen structurally with advertising, at the same time, on cable and even on some of the bigs, people are taking chances. It’s a time of crisis, which means a lot of entrenching, a lot of let’s just go for exactly what we know how to do, and a certain amount of let’s shake it up. And those will be the shows people remember.
I was startled to see that you were back on Fox, since you’ve had problems with networks supporting your previous series. There’s so much good stuff on cable channels like Sci-Fi and AMC — and obviously you had a hugely successful experiment with “Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
Yes, well, I made that after I made the deal for “Dollhouse.” [smiles] And um, [the Internet] is definitely a brave new world, in which I would like to live. But you know, TV is like a home for me, and Eliza obviously is a buddy [who had a production deal with Fox]. It just made sense. And since then, it’s made less sense — and then it made more again, and then it made less again.
It was so clear to me what was interesting about this show — the idea of identity, and the idea that everybody is compromised. But knowing going in that the premise was going to be offensive to some people scared the shit out of me. Because I’m usually like, please love me. I actually had a lyric that was cut out of the commentary musical for “Dr Horrible” where I just go, “Love me,” very pathetically.
So that’s what motivates you — a desperate need for love?
Yeah, hello! But this was one where I was just going to let that fall by the wayside because I wanted to deal with the issues. I wanted to actually deconstruct this love that I seemed to need so badly. But again, if the parallels to the horrors of the real world overwhelm the fantastical aspect of it, it won’t work.
Early in your career you worked as a writer on “Roseanne,” which was kind of a social realist comedy, and very much of its era. How much do you feel like your shows reflect their moment? Thinking about “Dollhouse,” where the clients are these zillionaires — are you going to have some of them being bankrupted by Madoff?
Well, we wrote all of it before all this economic hilarity, so we were like, “Yeah, people are really going to want to see this show — a lot of billionaires, this is awesome!” Ultimately everything I do is pretty baldly classist — like, the powerful people are taking advantage of the poor people, and they don’t get it.
Looking at the set I was reminded of Wolfram and Hart, the creepy law offices in “Angel” that looked very normal and slick but were run by the devil.
Yes, it is the same designer. And we wanted the same feeling of, “Isn’t this attractive? You can’t leave.”
And it’s a similar idea of these mysterious people who seem very normal and slick, but are they … evil?
Yeah. And we get to confront them with the consequences of what they do, and learn more about why they do what they do. Because very few people are entirely evil. I know it’s hard to believe that after the last eight years of government in this country, but everybody has two sides, and I believe that not only are people often less or more righteous than they understand, but they often don’t know what part of them is actually the good part. And a lot of the things that we prize in America might not actually be useful traits, and a lot of the things we vilify, to me, are not necessarily harmful, and that’s something that’s been in my work from the start.
I’m always stunned by how much you appear to be doing. You seem to have a zillion comic books and 10 movies in production.
I create that illusion. I would like to become what I appear to be. I would like to have as much going on as other people do, but my problem is I get so attached to things, and there’s my kids, and I need my sleep, and then there’s being married, gotta check in on that, too. But living my life now is as important to me as telling stories, which it never used to be. Stupid kids.
You grew up with a TV writer for a dad. Was it a different kind of a job for him?
It was different, I think. He worked on other people’s shows. He enjoyed what he did enormously, and I think his father enjoyed it too. But their love was really writing lyrics for musicals, off-Broadway musicals, and TV was something they did because they were good at it. But I got to incorporate all the things that I loved into my TV.
Did you absorb stuff from your father?
Oh, yeah, all of the most important lessons about writing I learned from my father. He never set out to teach me anything, it would just be something he said casually in conversation. In fact, he warned me, don’t be a television writer. You’ll have to work too hard.
Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.More Joy Press.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)