Back to the Music: Joss Whedon on Dr. Horrible

Whedon Talks Dr. Horrible

It’s been just under seven years since “Once More, With Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired, and this week, Joss Whedon (and friends) enter the realm of musical drama with Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

The three-part online event begins tomorrow, Tuesday July 15th, with Act One. Act Two goes up on Thursday July 17th, and Act Three will go up Saturday July 19th at http://www.drhorrible.com/. The streaming video will all be online and free through midnight July 20th, when they come down…but more on that later.

The short film got its roots, Whedon tells Newsarama, thanks to a limited amount of idle time during the recent Writer’s Strike, and a suddenly wide-open field to do whatever you wanted to do.

“We were all a lot busier than we thought we were going to be, with picketing and trying to make deals to create internet content, and doing everything we could to fight the cause, but the fact is, eventually, we realized the best way to make something was going to be to make it ourselves,” Whedon says. “It turns out that this was the thing that if you had asked me, ‘What in the world would you like to do the most?’ I would have said, ‘A musical with a supervillain.’”

The short version of Dr. Horrible - Dr. Horrible is trying (and failing) to be awarded membership in the Evil League of Evil, while being thwarted by Captain Hammer, and his own lack of confidence when it comes to winning the affection of the beautiful Penny.

Whedon originally conceived of Dr. Horrible as an podcast, something almost like a concept album of yore, to be an outlet for him to write more songs. The story – something the Buffy creator said he can relate to – “A supervillain who just can’t get a break…I don’t want to say he’s a loser, buuuut… It’s the sort of thing that appeals to me – it’s very personal, it’s about loneliness and who we are, but it’s all wrapped up in the skin of silly.”

The character and the beginnings of the first song sat in Whedon’s head for close to a year as things like his new Fox series, Dollhouse and writing the Buffy, the vampire Slayer comic for Dark Horse kept him busy. When circumstances led him to think about creating online content, the podcast got a kick, and Whedon began thinking about doing it visually, with people that could, in his words, “actually sing.”

Whedon says that, from the start, he wanted Dr. Horrible to be smaller, and inexpensively produced, but at the same time, professional – something which meant Rolodexes started whirring, and friends and family were corralled.

“It really just started with getting Jed, Zack [two of Whedon’s brothers] Maurissa [Tancharoen] on board as writers, and saying, “Let’s create this thing and see what we can do with it,’ and then realizing that we knew the people that needed to play these roles. So we gave them a call, and it snowballed. The more people we brought on, the more people they knew, and everybody had a love for the idea.

“A lot of these people do work on smaller projects in between their studio gigs just because they love the art itself. Some people are all, ‘I gotta get paid,’ and are completely career oriented, and some people live for the love of the craft, and those are the sort of people I’m drawn to in the first place.

Cast as the lead as Dr. Horrible, Neil Patrick Harris. Sure, the vast majority of his fans remember him from Doogie Howser M.D. or currently, How I Met Your Mother, but as a supervillain? Really?

“I’d seen him in Assassins, not only where he played the Balladeer, but also Lee Harvey Oswald,” Whedon says. “I’ve seen him in All My Sons. I’ve seen him do comedy, drama, musicals – he’s extraordinarily precise, extraordinarily gifted, and he has the best voice of anybody I know. He actually turned out to be more perfect that I could have realized because he has awesome cheekbones.”

And on the flipside as Dr. Horrible’s nemesis, Captain Hammer is played by Nathan Fillion, Whedon’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly.

“I believe that at night, Nathan dons and cape and fight crime,” Whedon says. “He’s playing the villainous character – he’s the foil for the person we care about, so he was able to bring on the smarm, which is something else I can say about Nathan – he is hilarious when he does his smarmy guy act.”

As for putting the words in Harris and Fillion’s mouths, it’s harder when the actors have to sing their lines rather than say them, Whedon says.

“Writing lyrics is much harder than writing dialogue, not just because of the rhymes, but because you basically have a set space within which you have to fit something, and you’ve got to find a tune and a tempo which allow the lyrics to do more than explain something in a sing-song way,” Whedon says. “Building a song is its own little art, and while it exists inside a musical, it also has to flow within itself. It’s very, very labor intensive, and sometimes it does come quickly, and sometimes you can just kill yourself for weeks on a lyric.”

Whedon shares the lyric writing duty on the musical with brother Jed and Tancharoen, and the two brothers split the songs pretty much in half when it came to writing the music, though they did work on some together.

More on the business side of things, Whedon confesses that, even though Dr. Horrible was done largely as a labor of love by all involved, the 40-minute musical was run as a normal production – from budget and pre-production through to post-production.

“I had a budget in my head and money of my own put aside for me being an idiot,” Whedon says of the funding. “David Burns came in - he’s an experienced line producer, and he budgeted the whole thing and figured out contracts; and Michael Boretz came in a producer and he had connections with people in post, so between the two of them, they did all the real, actual nuts and bolts producing, which I am not so great at.

“I was able to bring in a lot of talent and call in a few favors and a few things like that – but we wanted to everything very strictly above board, so we needed contracts and waivers and location permits. We wanted to have a slight guerilla feel, but not so much if it became a success people would point out something and say, ‘Well, how come you did this bad thing here? Why did you steal?’”

Once Dr. Horrible has completed its online run, Whedon says that the plan is to have it return online in a pay-per-download format. The film will be shown in its entirety during the Dr. Horrible panel at next week’s San Diego Comic Con International on July 25th, with the film’s cast in attendance.

“We’re looking at having a download window and some ad-supported streaming and we want to release it as a DVD with extras [reportedly a musical commentary],” Whedon says. “We’re looking at ways to monetize it. Again, part of the ethos of the whole thing – part of it was to do something for the love of it, but it was also to see if we can monetize something on the internet, without the studios. If we can, then…that was the point of all those long meetings I went to during the strike.”

And while a sequel is something Whedon says he and the rest are considering, Dr. Horrible’s nemesis, Captain Hammer, is already branching out on the internet, and can currently be found at Dark Horse Comics’ Dark Horse Presents MySpace Page , in a story written by Zack Whedon.

“We’ve had this great relationship with Dark Horse, and while some of the things I do like Dollhouse don’t really lend themselves to comics, but this one did, and they said that they could do an eight page comic, and Zack jumped on the idea of doing an Captain Hammer comic, just to flesh out how ridiculous Nathan’s character is. It was another relationship where everybody wins.”

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