David Lavery

“Emotional Resonance and Rocket Launchers”:

Joss Whedon’s Commentaries on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs*


I think everybody who makes movies should be forced to do television. . . . Because you have to finish. You have to get it done, and there are a lot of decisions made just for the sake of making decisions. You do something because it’s efficient and because it gets the story told and it connects to the audience.

Joss Whedon, Interview in The Watcher’s Guide, Vol. 2 (323)

The two things that matter the most to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers. Party of Five, a brilliant show, and often made me cry uncontrollably, suffered ultimately from a lack of rocket launchers.

Joss Whedon, Audio Commentary for “Innocence”

(1) According to an old witticism (credited to, of all people, Otto von Bismarck), “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Perhaps television shows and movies should be added to the list. The magic we so often experience as members of the audience of both media may well not be visible on the production set. With the advent of the DVD, however, we are now often given the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see the wizard for what he is, especially when the wizard does the audio commentary. On the DVD releases of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first and second seasons, the great and powerful Joss Whedon speaks over the two part pilot, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” and “The Harvest” (1001 and 1002; hereafter “Hellmouth” and “Harvest” respectively) and “Innocence” (2014), and in the process we are given the opportunity to see through his eyes how Buffy was made.[1]

(2) The Season One DVD is not the first time Whedon has emerged from behind the curtain. Previously released VHS boxed sets Buffy the Vampire Slayer,[2] The Buffy and Angel Chronicles,[3] and The Slayer Chronicles[4] each contained interviews (placed either before or after the episode in question) in which Whedon offered behind-the-scenes insights into the show’s creation, and he has granted numerous online and print interviews as well (see the bibliography). But on the DVDs Whedon talks in real time accompanying the pilot, and in the process we learn a great deal about the realities—technical and economic limitations, on-set exigencies, ambitions and frustrations, actor proclivities—of television production. Whedon was making television for the first time and had much to learn about the process, and thanks to the magic of DVD we learn along with him.

(3) A third generation television writer, Whedon recalls in a recent interview with James Longworth that his childhood was filled with humorous dialogue.

I think my father's best work was probably done at our dinner table. . . . It was great to live around a writer, and my mother also wrote in her spare time, so the sound of typewriters was probably the most comforting sound in the world to me. I loved that. And while I really enjoyed all of the funny things my dad was working on, it was really just being around someone who was that funny. And all of his friends were comedy writers. So the house was constantly filled with these very sweet, erudite, intelligent guys just trying to crack jokes—my father's friends, my mother's friends, teachers, drama people. It just had a great air to it, and what you wanted to do is to go into that room and make those guys laugh. (199)

(4) Watching Buffy DVDs accompanied by Joss Whedon we become the recipients of this impulse. With self-deprecating humor—at the very beginning of his commentary on “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” setting the tone for what will follow, he promises to offer “hundreds of . . . well . . . like . . . four fascinating insights” into the creative process behind Buffy—Whedon makes us laugh, constantly, but we get sweetness, erudition, and intelligence as well, and we understand better how Buffy happens.

“I couldn’t afford the pony. I only had the dog”: The Ambitions, Limitations, and Frustrations of Making Television

(5) The “dog and pony show” of series television production apparently provided a rapid education for Joss Whedon, who, except for writing earlier shows like Roseanne and Parenthood, had no prior hands-on experience with making TV. As he acknowledges at the outset of his commentary on “Innocence,” every aspiring television auteur thinks of his work, however, minor it may be, as equal in weight and importance to Citizen Kane.[5] In reality, the strict parameters imposed on creative inclinations by small budget and time constraints force novice and veteran alike to find less expensive and more expeditious paths to quality. Whedon’s commentaries have much to say about this process.

“Rabid Animals”: Working with Actors

(12) With tongue-firmly planted in cheek, Whedon attributes to colleague David Greenwalt the Hitchcockian belief that actors are “rabid animals and should be put down,” but in the DVD commentaries he shows tremendous respect for them and again and again heaps on his cast high praise (“Hellmouth”).

Inside Baseball

(18) Although he cautions viewers at the beginning of “Innocence” that he will have no hilarious anecdotes about the silly hijinks of Buffy’s cast because they are far too hard working and professional, Whedon does offer us scores of “inside baseball” tidbits from behind the scenes. We learn that:

“My incredibly low-budget attempt to do Sam Peckinpah”: Cinematic Influences

(49) Not surprisingly for a film studies graduate of Wesleyan University, Joss Whedon reveals in his audio commentaries his movie influences.

(57) “Freedom,” Robert Frost once observed, “is swinging easy in harness.” Though he began as “Mister - I - don’t - know - how - to - make - a-television - show” (“Hellmouth”), Joss Whedon has mastered the TV harness as well as any of his contemporaries, and he concedes that what he really “love[s] about my show is the amount of cheese that we can sort of get away with, the amount of how little money we have and how we make it look a little more epic than it is” (“Innocence”). But he continues to chafe at the bit. In an interview in The Watchers’s Guide, Vol. 2, he confesses that “I’m getting to the point now where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve told a lot of stories. I’ve churned it out.’ I just feel like I want to step back and do something where I can’t use the excuse of ‘I only had a week’” (323). When he does finally get the chance to make that big-budget film, we will anxiously await its release on DVD. The director’s commentary, no doubt, will make it worth the price.


* In an e-mail on Sept. 2, 2002, British independent scholar John Briggs wrote the author with the following fascinating observations concerning this essay.  His comments are based on research that will be presented in a talk, "Unaired Pilot or Bad Quarto: Textual Problems in Buffy and Shakespeare in an Internet Age," at the October 2002 Buffy conference in the UK. I add them here with his permission.

Your para (6): the skateboarding sequence appears in Whedon's draft pilot script (the precursor of the "unaired pilot").  Whedon had presumably discovered the difficulty and expense of the sequence when directing the "unaired pilot" - he has Xander simply walk up to Willow carrying the skateboard - but he still retained it in his script for "Hellmouth".

Your para (11): the dark and labyrinthine library is in the draft pilot script.  This is jettisoned in the "unaired pilot" - "Hellmouth" retains the shortened version of that scene.

Your para (15): Whedon doesn't actually say that the WB had problems with the casting of Alyson Hannigan as Willow, nor is it obvious that Whedon won the battle.  In the "unaired pilot" Willow is played by Riff Regan, a choice so bizarre that it can only have been Whedon's.  A "close reading" of Whedon's words, combined with Hannigan's own guarded version in interviews, would suggest that she was actually originally the Network's choice!  (Incidentally, being put in danger is Willow's sole purpose in the draft pilot script.  This, coupled with the absence of a Jesse at that stage, makes one wonder if she was originally envisaged as a disposable character.)

Your para (21): the re-shooting of parts of the library exposition scene of "Hellmouth" cannot possibly have been eight months later (it would have been five at most).  My suggestion is that Whedon is thinking of the first shooting of this scene for the "unaired pilot", which could well have been eight months earlier (perhaps a bit more).  The version in the "unaired pilot" (which Whedon directed himself) is very close to the version in "Hellmouth", so this would have made it one of the most rehearsed scenes in the series.  That was probably why Whedon didn't bother supervising the shooting.  He directed the re-shooting of parts of the scene himself, and the original director has not directed another episode for the series.

Your para (24): as "Hellmouth"/"The Harvest" wasn't really a pilot (one of the issues I shall discuss in my paper), the decision "early on" to tone down the California-speak was probably made at the end of the first series (which was, of course, before the show had aired).

[1] Other key Buffy players also provide commentary on the second season DVDs. David Greenwalt makes “Reptile Boy” (2005) much more interesting than it ever seemed before, and Marti Noxon talks us through “What’s My Line,” Parts One and Two (2009, 2010).

[2] “Welcome to the Hellmouth, “The Harvest,” “The Witch” (1003), “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” (1005), “Angel” (1007), and “The Puppet Show” (1009).

[3] “Surprise” (2013), “Innocence” (2014), “Passion” (2017), “Becoming,” Part I (2021), and “Becoming,” Part II (2022).

[4] “Bad Girls” (3014), “Consequences” (3015), “Enemies” (3017), “Earshot” (3018), “Graduation Day,” Part One (3021), and “Graduation Day,” Part Two (3022).

[5] Citizen Kane, Whedon reminds us, should we not know, is a “black and white film about a bald guy.”

[6] In “Buffy vs. Dracula” (5001), of course, Buffy does offer us bat transformations.

[7] The dialogue from the scene I am referring to is as follows:

Buffy: Oh, why can't you people just leave me alone?

Giles: Because you are the Slayer. (comes down the stairs) Into each generation a Slayer is born, one girl in all the world, a Chosen One, one born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires . . .

Buffy: (interrupts and joins in) ...with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil blah, blah, blah... I've heard it, okay?

Giles: I really don't understand this attitude. You, you've accepted your duty, you, you've slain vampires before...

Buffy: Yeah, and I've both been there and done that, and I'm moving on.

Giles: What do you know about this town? (goes into his office)

Buffy: It's two hours on the freeway from Neiman Marcus?

Giles: Dig a bit in the history of this place. You'll find a, a steady stream of fairly odd occurrences. Now, I believe this whole area is a center of mystical energy, (comes back with four books) that things gravitate towards it that, that, that you might not find elsewhere. (sets them on the table)

Buffy: Like vampires.

He puts the volumes into Buffy's arms one by one as he lists off various monsters and demons.

Giles: Like zombies, werewolves, incubi, succubi, everything you've ever dreaded was under your bed, but told yourself couldn't be by the light of day. They're all real!


[8] Presumably a reference to Shemp Howard, one of The Three Stooges. To learn more about him, go here: http://www.3-stooges.com/text/shemp.html




“The Creator Speaks: Joss Whedon on Sex, Death, Gaping Holes and Horrible Things Ahead.” http://www.eonline.com/Features/Features/Buffy/TheCreatorSpeaks/index.html.

___. Interview with BBC Online http://www.bbc.co.uk/buffy/reallife/jossinterview.shtml.

___. Interview with David Bianculli. Fresh Air 9 May 2000. Available online at http://whyy.org/cgi-bin/FAshowretrieve.cgi?2876.

___. Interview with ET Online http://www.theslayershow.com/chat8.html.

___. Interview with Fanforum http://www.fanforum.com/buffy/news/786.shtml.

___. Interview with Fraxis. http://websites.cable.ntl.com/~fraxis/the_ww/features/whedon.html.

___. Interview with The Watcher’s Web. http://websites.cable.ntl.com/~fraxis/the_ww/features/epk/joss.html.

___. “Joss Whedon: Feminist” (interview with James L. Longworth). TV Creators: Conversations with America’s Top Producers of Television Drama. Volume 2. The Television Series. Syracuse: Syracuse U P, 2002: 197-220.

Golden, Christopher and Nancy Holder. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher’s Guide. NY: Pocket Books, 1998.

___, Stephen R. Bissette, and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Monster Book. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

Holder, Nancy with Jeff Mariotte and Maryelizabeth Hart. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher’s Guide. Vol. 2. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.