You created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’re writing a Wonder Woman script, and your movie Serenity features River, a teenage girl who’s a genetically engineered weapon. What is it with you and superpowered young women? Have you talked to your shrink?
Actually, I have. I have a lot of answers–my favorite term that I’ve come up with is “cinematic drag.” But all my stuff is about people being stronger than the world tells them they can be. I have a fierce identification with the young adolescent female because she is so categorically told that at that age, “You are going to be less than what you thought you were.”
Is that something that you were told at that age?
It’s certainly something that I felt. I always assumed that everybody thought that I was a loser. When I got my first job, writing on Roseanne, somebody said, “We always knew you’d make it.” I was like, “Then why the hell didn’t you tell me? Was it some big funny secret when I walked out of the room?”
Across the years of your career, what are the dumbest notes you’ve got from studio executives?
One was about Firefly [the short-lived TV show that turned into Serenity]. They said, “We don’t like stories to unfold here at Fox.” I was like, “How else do stories work? Do you experience time teleologically and it all happens at once?” But my all-time favorite was on the first year of Buffy, we did a talent show that ended with a scene from Oedipus. The note came from the network: “We realize it’s Shakespeare, but does he have to talk about sleeping with his mother?”
Outer-space TV shows and movies are already westerns thematically. So why lard the Wild West on top of the spaceships in Serenity?
I love westerns for the gritty deadliness of pioneer life. The unbelievable deadliness of it. The extraordinary deadpan realism of people who took their 70 pounds of cured bacon and their five blankets and tried to build society. That kind of grittiness was something that I think we lack in our lives–although we’ve seen more of it than we’ve wanted to recently. I also thought the world of sci-fi was a little aseptic; I wanted to tell the story of the final frontier as a frontier. Some people were like, “Do you really think suspenders are a good idea?” and I was like, “I love suspenders. I’d wear them if anyone would let me.”
You did a musical on Buffy and a ballet episode on Angel. What are the hidden talents of your Serenity cast?
I basically did a ballet in this movie: the ballet of beating the shit out of everybody. I was so in love with the idea that I had a ballerina [actress Summer Glau] and that I had enough months to turn her into a martial artist. If action heroes can do half the things she does, then they can’t act or pronounce words correctly. Summer managed to do all of that and would do beautiful crying scenes–without steroids.
That Meryl Streep steroids scandal was a tragedy.
You think those accents are easy? She needed help. Don’t judge her.
Interview by Gavin Edwards.