For latecomers to the “Firefly”/Serenity universe, knowing fans often advise watching one before the other. As one of the stragglers who has tried both ways, I suggest Serenity first. My initial attempt at “Firefly” was put off by a terribly slow and unengaging first episode, but after seeing the film, I’m encouraged to try again. And perhaps that is Serenity’s best unintended side effect, the beauty of a director’s film love story to his beloved, short-lived series may gain “Firefly” new audience and fans.
1. Serenity is a film that, according to Writer/Director Joss Whedon, should not exist. The follow-up to his beloved television series “Firefly” was “…Ignored…hailed as one of the most cancelled shows of the year.” The director explained “The people who made and watched the show loved it a little too much to lay down their arms. This movie should not exist—failed TV shows don’t get made into a major motion picture unless the creator, cast and fans really believe. It is your movie, which means if it sucks, it’s your fault.”
2. Whedon claims the funky company logo is “…everyone’s favorite thing to do. ”
His personal favorite is 20th Century Fox in Edward Scissorhands.
3. Of creating and writing the film, Whedon said it was difficult because the show was done; he didn’t want to have to repeat, but there was a lot of history. “If you explain for twenty minutes, people go away.” The director tried to get in a lot of exposition without being dull. For instance, the opening classroom scene turns out to be a dream sequence, then ends up in a scary lab. Whedon felt “The prologue works because it is thematic and relates to her (River’s [Summer Glau]) state of being.” The opening is one long take (four and a half minutes), which “establishes a sense of safety in space.” The director lauded Steadicam Operator, Mark Moore (Resevoir Dogs, Deep Blue Sea, “Awake”) who “In forty-something takes, only slipped once—going backwards up stairs.” Whedon wanted to “…show the layout of the ship and give people a real sense of where they are, going through room by room, and meeting every character. There were nine from TV series alone.”
4. The wall in this shot was built six inches too long because of a mismeasurement, and had to be redone. Whedon said the paint was still drying when Glau put her foot up.
The director also complained about a set that was built on a four foot platform when he wanted it to go all the way to the ground. He wasn’t shown the set until after it was built and said a model should have been done first.
5. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a new character created for the film. “Universal insisted on a villain who would really register (with audiences).” Whedon wanted him to be “A fellow so kind, so decent and caring, the audience would almost start to root for him before he starts destroying everyone.” On Ejiofor, “He brings such depth, soulfulness and regret to everything.”
6. Whedon likes to cast comedy actors because, “If they can do comedy, they can do everything.” Michael Hitchcock (Dr. Mathias) is a favorite (of Whedon’s) from Christopher Guest movies. He knew Sarah Paulson (Dr. Caron) from Down with Love. The Dr. Caron part was previously shot with another unnamed actress who, “through no fault of her own” wasn’t right for the role.
7. The ship was designed by Whedon, Production/Art Designer Carey Meyer and Second Unit Director Loni Peristere; it was contiguously built, two sets side by side. Whedon calls Serenity the tenth character and River’s feet, the eleventh.
8. Simon (Sean Maher) is always shot in blues and purples. “Unlike Mal, (Nathan Fillion) he represents the Alliance—a perfectly handsome, well-meaning thing—everything they are about. Mal does not.”
9. Of the Mule, Whedon said “Had to have hovercraft or I would take my ball and go home, because you’ve got to have a hovercraft. It was too big—they gave us a five-seater even though Mal says they can’t fit five (in another part of the film). They had to modify it.”
Whedon wanted a sense that “…the people were there, stuff was going by—not airless like in Episode I (digital).”
10. Establishing the marriage between Zoë (Gina Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) was difficult for Whedon—he didn’t have time to show them in their bunk—but in early versions of the film, some people had trouble understanding they were (married). While their first scene together was lit, Whedon added intimacy; he wrote lines and the actors memorized them. “Everyone can do things quickly.”
11. Writing the script, Whedon had trouble with the idea that “Mal is kind of a Western fellow and River is kind of Noir—how do I reconcile them?” The director went to his professor and she advised him to remember films like The Fury and Johnny Guitar.
12. The director described the idea of sending signals through TV; “Not since ‘Max Headroom’ has TV been so insidious. I love the idea that the screens are always watching everyone. TV has become something watching you as you watch it.”
13. Summer Glau did “95 percent” of her stunts. Whedon did long takes of her fighting—“She was a dancer so we were able to train her in ways that others can’t do.” One of the stunt coordinators said, “She can kick a guy from behind, around a pole, can we build a pole?” Whedon: “Yes we can.”
Mal’s fight with the Operative was nearly all Nathan and Chiwetel; “You almost never put two actors together—usually one actor and a stunt double—but this scene was both. Nathan can take a punch in an almost extraordinary fashion.”
14. Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) was new, “…designed not just as the prince of exposition, but also to find the right place for a climax.” Whedon used the character to set up the location where the final battle would take place, so it would be familiar and not come out of nowhere. “He is the beating heart of everything subversive.” The room was designed around him and “If I could have had a hundred more screens, I would have.” The director said during Krumholtz’s audition, “I just kept thinking of what more I could do with the character because David was so good.”
15. Whedon’s favorite shot was of Mal by the fire, “A Jack Green special.” The director called Green the “Underrated Director of Photography who lit Unforgiven and Bird” (as well as Against the Ropes, Space Cowboys, The Dead Pool, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County and Twister). (He is) “A dream to work with, very fast—important with limited budgets. Not afraid of negative blacks and shadows; brings your eye to important characters, gives great textures to the skin. Two actors were never lit cooler.”
16. “I would like to apologize to all of America for putting Mal shirtless in only one scene and only shooting him from the clavicle up.” (Whedon)
17. Two scenes of characters speaking to each other through a video screen were done live. The first was Inara in her room, speaking to Mal; she looked at a camera as if she were onscreen. Whedon noted the importance of mentioning Inara’s trunk, which explains her clothing changes and her bow and arrow (later changed to a CGI bolt thrower because “audiences didn’t react well to the bow and arrow”). The second scene was with Mal on the bridge, speaking to the Operative.
18. Only the front of the ship was brought to location for Haven, that’s “…all they could afford. Ron’s (Shepherd Book) death scene has him making an important pronouncement to the hero, it’s important not to make it cliche. Ron played with a lot of voracity without milking it. The character is only in two scenes, but he has such resonance. He’s the one guy Mal truly trusts and his death really does something to Mal. It’s all one shot from the death to end of scene. Mal’s reaction is not finding vengeance or justice, rather, ‘Let’s run away more—let’s run away most. Mal always looks for the out, he’s not going to stand up until he has absolutely has no choice.”
The shots of Mal looking down into the “jaws of death” (created by Rhythm & Hues) were limited by the studio to exactly five. Whedon spaced them out very specifically and split/intercut them even more in editing. The director noted, “Special effects cannot buy you Nathan’s face slamming into plexiglass.”
19. The sounds and noises when the ship was being pulled apart (screaming) was Whedon’s assistant’s (Michael Boretz) idea; the director thought it added to the tension. Summer was shot in blue light and “She looked so good, we reshot everyone else and matched her.” The shadows were created with a cuculoris, cutouts moved in front of light to create shadow and motion. Meanwhile, the scene featuring Dr. Caron used motion control; Whedon noted Cronenberg’s use of the technique in The Fly’s disappearing monkey scene.
20. The crash was the “…only real miniature work, non-CGI (though fire and explosions were added as after-effects). It was very exciting to see the miniatures—kicking it old school.” (Whedon) The director chuckled over Alan Tudyk’s (Wash) making jokes about his death. Tudyk would say, “My script only goes up to page 105, I don’t have anything happening after that.” Whedon would reply “Oh, it just ends there.” Fans were “very upset. It was a terrible thing to do to the guy.” The director wanted to “…show they could all go down trying to work this, one by one. Wash’s death accomplishes that and gives an arc for Zoë.”
Cindy Davis is slowly warming up to some of Whedon’s antics.