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Down-home directing

Joss Whedon used every cost-cutting trick he knew -- or could invent -- to keep production of the sci-fi feature 'Serenity' in L.A.

October 09, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

JOSS WHEDON wasn't looking to make a political statement. He just wanted to make a movie. In Los Angeles. Because he lives in Los Angeles.

But by filming his sci-fi feature film debut, "Serenity," in town, he found himself something of a local hero, one of a growing number of people who are fighting to keep Hollywood in Hollywood. Essentially it required deconstructing every part of the process -- casting, crew, locations, lighting, wardrobe, props, production design, technology, special effects -- to find efficiencies that would make a $39-million movie look and feel like $100 million.

Two years ago, the writer-director of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and its successful spinoff "Angel" watched his newest show, a futuristic western called "Firefly," get pulled from Fox midseason. A silent howl of protest went up from cyberspace, followed by the clatter of online petitioning. Although it wasn't enough to revive the show, it did convince Whedon that the feature-length movie he had been writing as an accompaniment to the series still had an audience.

It just didn't have a green light.

Universal Pictures had acquired the rights, but while executives liked the premise and loved Whedon, they were not so fond of the numbers. Set in space and on planets colonized in a wide variety of ways, "Serenity" had all the trappings of a $100-million-plus project. That, they told Whedon, was just too much.

Whedon pushed back. If Universal let him have his way, he promised he could shoot the film -- which just opened to great reviews and good business -- for less than half that. And not by running off to Toronto or Bulgaria.

"Joss was adamant from the very start," says James Brubaker, president of physical production for Universal. "He was so eager to show that you could make a movie in L.A., we never thought of going anywhere else."

"My reasons were completely personal," Whedon says. "My wife is an architect; I have two kids under 3. There may be a time when I am willing to uproot them, but this is not it."

Whedon put together a cast and crew equally driven to buck conventional wisdom, which says it is no longer possible to make a decent-size film in Los Angeles, in part because of the cost of local talent. Producers and studios often bemoan the price of unionized workers.

"It takes an act of Congress to get a film of any size made in Los Angeles," said veteran cinematographer Jack Green ("Unforgiven," "Girl, Interrupted"). "Studios think they save so much money going abroad. Which I don't think they do, but that's just my opinion."

But though every union position on the film was filled by a union member, Whedon saved money because he was able to recruit local talent, such as Green, that he otherwise might not have been able to afford.

"It was hugely helpful to be able to tell people they could stay with their spouses, with their children," said executive producer David Lester. "I shamelessly used that argument. Everyone was committed to showing that this could be done."

Whedon, who has spent much of his career shooting television in L.A. (one episode of "Buffy" was shot in England when the plot shifted the storyline there), hadn't given the issue of runaway production much thought until he found himself suddenly being congratulated for taking a stand.

"There were no groupies," he says, "which was disappointing. But I did hear from a lot of people. I realized that we are in a state of crisis and that this is something people feel very passionately about."

For years, people in the entertainment industry have been bemoaning the drain of runaway production. But while the guilds continue to lobby Sacramento for incentives that would make California competitive, individuals such as Whedon have planted their feet on various projects that have no artistic reason to leave Los Angeles.

"People are starting to say no," said Brubaker, even as he was leaving for London for an upcoming film that he swore had to be shot there. "Stars, directors, especially people with children, they just don't want to go unless they have to."

The recently released "Flightplan" was scheduled to be filmed elsewhere until star Jodie Foster said no. "To go through what I had to go through emotionally on the film and be away from my kids?" she said. "No way." So she "made it worth their while" to keep the production in L.A. Though she won't discuss the specifics of her salary, studios have long contended that far more film production would stay at home if A-list talent would cut their fees.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently brought a certificate of commendation to the set of the thriller "When a Stranger Calls" to thank the filmmakers for keeping the production local, and many point to "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" as a good example of a movie that could have gone elsewhere but didn't.

Cinematographer Green, who worked on "40 Year-Old Virgin," has turned down jobs when he felt the filmmakers were going out of town unnecessarily.

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