Monday, July 26, 2010

The Foot: The Top Eight Episodes Directed By Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon spoke about the perception of writers as directors some years ago with Candace Havens. Many Hollywood bigwigs scoff at the idea of a writer directing his or her own work, especially in the world of feature film where the director is king and a screenwriter's script bears little resemblence to the original product after the re-writers and script doctoring. Whedon understood this because he spent many years as one of Hollywood's script doctors. Among his script-doctor credits are Toy Story and Speed. His experiences with his Buffy, The Vampire Slayer screenplay and Alien Resurrection also taught him about the power of the director in feature film Hollywood. Fran Kuzui, director of the feature film Buffy, did not understand the script and mis-interpreted it completely. Kuzui transformed the story into a broad comedy and thought Joss' intent was a pop-culture commentary on how people think about vampires. She was wrong. Joss watched as his screenplay became increasingly foreign from the script that he sold. For Alien Ressurection, Whedon wrote two different versions. One without Ripley and the other with. The studio initially accepted the Ripley-less version of Alien 4 because she died in the third Alien movie; however, the studio eventually panicked because they worried about the box office appeal of an Alien sans Ripley. Whedon said the final product is weak because of numerous rewriters, bad direction, bad production design, etc.When Gail Berman wanted Buffy to become a television series, Whedon was skeptical because his grandfather and father worked as television writers for their whole life and Joss' dream was independent filmmaking. He wanted to be a great indie filmmaker but he eventually thought about his experiences in feature film, and he now sought creative control over his own stories and agreed to turn Buffy into a television series. He shot a short "pilot" that TheWB bought and picked up for 12 episodes for mid-season. Thus began Joss Whedon's life as a director.

As showrunner, Buffy was his world entirely. The studio let him run the show as he wanted to. Joss didn't direct an episode of Buffy until the season one finale. He used most of the season as his own film school where he could learn how to direct. Once he felt ready, he directed his first of many, many television episodes.

The world of television directing is not as glamorous as feature film. TV directors are anonymous people and unnoticed by the television audience. If you asked someone about who directed episode five or episode twelve of their favorite show, chances are he or she will not know. In the world of genre television, the fanboys and fangirls are much more aware of the production crew than fans of procedural drams or family dramas or half-hour sitcoms. Ask any diehard fan of the whedonverse about David Solomon or James Contner and they'll probably be able to tell you their thoughts on those directors and the episodes they directed. The same knowledge exists in the LOST community where fans are as big a fans of Jack Bender, Stephen Williams, Paul Edwards, Tucker Gates, etc as they are fans of Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse, Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.

Joss Whedon is a very talented director. Whedon's one of the rare directors who finds himself in the news when he announces he'll direct an episode of The Office or Glee because he's Joss Whedon. He took full advantage of what he could do with Buffy. He wasn't satisfied with settling into the the forumla of episodic direction. Whedon pushed and expanded the boundaries of what a television director could do because they were his shows. If he wanted to direct a musical, he did.

One of the many great things about watching a Joss Whedon show is witnessing the progression of his directorial talents. He's never satisfied and always looks for something new to do. During the commentary for the Buffy series finale, he expresses regret about how he directed the finale. Time constraints forced him to shoot a very conventional episode from a directing standpoint and plenty of the action sequences were shot by second-unit director David Solomon. Whedon's directed many episodes of his own television show with the most being Buffy and he's accomplished some fantastic things with Buffy.

Of course, Joss wrote every episode he directed besides a season two ANGEL episode. Don't worry, though, because I separated the writing from the directing since there is a post entirely about his writing coming this week. This post focuses on the best eight episodes Whedon directed. Many non-fans will even recognize the bulk of these episodes because of the publicity the shows received because of the episodes themselves and what Joss accomplished with them. Before I rank, I must say that Joss Whedon is going to own The Avengers. Have no fear with him behind the camera, folks.


8. Prophecy Girl

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Want to watch Joss' rookie debut as a director? Here it is. This episode elevated the show into cult status. In the years to come, Joss would really hone his craft but this episode is a terrific debut. He needed to remind the viewers that Buffy's not simply a superhero in a sixteen year old girl's body; she's a sixteen year old girl first and foremost and she doesn't want to die.

7. Serenity (Pilot)

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An 88 minute introduction into the world of Firefly. The episode is masterfully shot and features tremendous performances from his ensemble. My favorite sequence is the tracking shot with Simon after Mal tells him Kaylee is dead.

6. The Gift

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You'll see this episode again in two other lists this week. "The Gift" builds to one moment which is Buffy's death and the way it builds is wonderfully done. Joss got so many good performances from his cast and scenes like the one between Buffy and Spike in her house or the one between Dawn and Buffy at the end warrants the episode's spot on the list.

5. Once More, With Feeling

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I'm sure the cast and crew had a hellish time making this as it was sandwiched in the shooting schedule of season six. The cast would shoot other episodes while rehearsing for this one but it's one hell of a feat to shoot a musical on a network tv series. It's a Joss Whedon tour-de-force with many of the tricks Joss loves doing like long one-ers among others.

4. Graduation Day Pts. 1&2

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It feels like a feature film and the run-time is feature film length. Yes, Becoming Pts 1&2 is the same length as Graduation Day but Graduation Day feels more cinematic which is something I always admire in television. Jack Bender is the king of the cinematic television episode. I digress. The scene between Buffy and Angel, when Angel feeds on her, is enough for this episode to be no.4 but Whedon and his crew kicked some ass with this episode. There's flaming arrows and a huge snake and the school is destroyed plus there is a dynamite fight between Faith and Buffy. This episode is tied with "The Gift" for the most epic Buffy episode in the series episode.

3. The Body

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One of the most unique episodes of Buffy. There's no music because Joss wanted to capture what it's actually like to experience the death of a loved one and he does a very good job of capturing that experience. He doesn't let the audience escape from what the characters are going through.

2. Restless

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An episode that's been described as Lynchian. I think this episode should be taught in film classes or, rather, classes about directing. It's very sophisticated direction. It's shot totally different from any other episode of Buffy. There's an homage to Apocalypse Now and Death Of A Salesman. He hasn't directed anything remotely close since but I hope he returns to this style one day.

1. Hush

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It's basically a silent movie. To get the most out of the actors, the actors spoke the dialogue and it was later muted in post-production. The point: 29 minutes of silence. I love how The Gentlemen are shot. I love the classic silent horror movie atmosphere that exists in some sequences like the Tara chase and Olivia at the window. I wanted to focus on the most innovative and interesting episodes he's done from a directing standpoint so some very quality Joss episodes were left out. No ANGEL or Dollhouse made the cut though "Waiting In The Wings" deserves an honorable mention.

TOMORROW: The Best ANGEL episodes


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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.