Welcome to The Hellmouth – Commentary by Joss Whedon

I’m Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For some ungodly reason, you’ve clicked onto the audio commentary portion of this DVD, which means you probably have way too much free time on your hands, but I will endeavour to walk you through this and give you hundreds of fascinating, well, like four fascinating insights intothe production and what was going on when we shot this delightful epsiode of television.

Little overview, the first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy the movie, was the little girl, the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie, the idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image and create someone who was a hero, where she had always been a victim. That element of surprise, that element of genre busting is very much at the heart of both the movie and the series.

The sequence here is also part of that mission. We have here the hepless blonde girl as played by the delightful Julie Benz, who at the end of this scene does turn out to be a something a little bit more than we expected. Anybody who’s well versed in horror movies knows what’s gonna happen in this scene and te idea is always to try and surprise them, to subvert the obvious. We shot the show in a big warehouse in Santa Monica, we don’t have a real studio to shoot in. The show, you know, was produced by Fox for the WB. The WB had great enthusiasm for the kind of show we wanted to make and no money of any kind whatsoever, so we were very much on a tight budget and you’ll see a great number of examples of me, who had worked mostly in movies, trying to do things that I physically can’t having no idea actually how to run a television show, some of which hurt us, and some of which actually worked really well for us. This hall, by the way, you’ll see a lot of in the episode and in the first twelve episodes. It is the entire school. We, um, only had the one hall, so, we use it over and over again. Here now is the part where we discover a little bit more about Julie Benz and really hit the mission statement of the show which is, ‘nothing is as it seems’.

In the credits, where it starts out with this scary organ and then devolves instantly into rock and roll which is basically trying to tell people exactly what the show is in the credits, which is, ‘here’s a girl who has no patience for a horror movie, who is not going to be the victim, is not going to be in the scary organ horror movie, she’s gonna bring her own sort of youth and rockin’ attitude to it.’ I’m a great believer in actually knowing what’s gonna happen in the show when you see the credits so I very much wanted to state the mission up front. Song’s Nerf Herder. We had a composer do a credit sequence for us, a song rather, and it didn’t really work out and so we went to a few unknown rock bands to see what they could come up with and Alyson Hannigan turned me on to Nerf Herder and we went to them and they sort of won the prize, they did a great job.We open with Buffy and her nightmares, the show had to be designed so that if you saw the movie it didn’t reiterate what the movie had done because I wasn’t interested in doing that again, but if you hadn’t seen the movie, it had to bring you in. So we did a show that explained to everyone who hadn’t seen it what was going on but if you had, it’s sort of worked as a sequel, i.e. Buffy is already a vampire slayer, has already been on that journey, she already knows her destiny, she’s sort of rejected it, she’s moved to a new town and is trying to make a new start but she’s still haunted by her past, so that’s what this is. We were gonna shoot a very elaborate sequence with lots of cool stuff, but that was another case of reality hitting and most of the stuff that you saw in the dream sequence is just stuff we culled from the shows we’d already shot because we didn’t have the time or the money to shoot a really elaborate sequence I had originally written.

One of the advantages we had on this show was that we shot twelve of them before any of them aired, we were a mid season replacement. So you will see things that we shot after twelve episodes that are in the first episode that we sort of slipped in and tried to match because we had that extra time just to get things right and I’m kind of perfectionist control freak guy and I tried very hard to make everything work. So you’ll see some stuff later on that is actually shot much later.

Coming up is yet another example of ‘I don’t know how to make a TV show’, the introduction of Xander who you’ll see riding on his fun skateboard. First thing I learned was, you put a guy on a skateboard, you have to light a bigger area, you have to probably do a long tracking shot and may need a stunt man, although Nicky does his own stunt here really well. It’s very complicated to put a guy on a skateboard. Having him just walk in a room is much more easy on television and Xander never mounted that skateboard again in the whole history of the show. I think he carried it twice, just for continuity’s sake, but it was just too difficult for us, we just weren’t up to it.

This is obviously the illuminous Miss Hannigan as Willow and we’re about to see Eric Balfour, their friend Jesse, who I originally wanted to put in the opening credits because I was gonna kill him and I thought that would shake people up and really confuse them if I had somebody who appeared to be a regular get killed right in the first episode. It just seemed too time consuming and expensive to do two credit sequences so we never got a chance to do it. I did end up doing it later on Angel and made everybody really angry, so perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

This scene is actually kind of a little landmark for me, although not that much goes on in it, because this was one of the times when I was really watching Sarah on the monitor and realised what an enormous television star I had on my hands. The subtlety of her acting, a lot of which would go completely unnoticed, just the reactions, the expressions, I realised you could play this entire scene on her. And she tells you everything that’s going on, it’s the reason, I think, Sarah worked so well in this role. What is great about her as a television actress, is she takes the audience with her everywhere she goes, everything she feels, very specifically, because everything she does is specific, there’s nothing vague, there’s nothing un-thought out, very precise, so she’s an open book, she brings you with her and watching this with David Greenwalt, my co-exec, the two of use realised we had something really potent on our hands, which is always a good feeling.

Ken Lerner, the Principal, was yet another someone we killed early on to shake people up and that worked out pretty well for us, we had him eaten. People really didn’t see it coming, they didn’t see the Principal getting eaten in episode six, so that really helped with the whole element of surprise.

This is the classic first meeting of the boy and the girl where the boy makes an idiot of himself, obviously based very much on my life. Xander I’ve always identified as the figure that I most was like because he did have that inability to sort of talk to the girl and come through in the big moment and he does make an idiot of himself a lot. Of course, he’s a lot prettier and more muscular then anybody who acts like that should be, but this is television so, get over it. The idea of this band of kind of outcasts being the heart of the show and sort of creating their own little family is very much, you know, the mission statement. To me High School is so much, I think for almost everyone that band of, you know, we few people that nobody really understand exist on a level that they don’t and your friends seem so terribly real to you when everybody else seems so fake and strange.

Charisma Carpenter here playing Cordelia is sort of the classic evil high school bitch, obviously there’s a lot more going on there, she’s not a total cartoon, although she does often act like one, sometimes her really big smile looks like one, but the idea here was to set up that she would see Buffy as someone she identified with. In the movie, Buffy started out basically as Cordelia and ironically Sarah Michelle Gellar was originally cast as Cordelia, so the idea that Cordelia, the popular, mean kind of superficial one, would latch on to her makes perfect sense, and we wanted to sort of introduce Cordelia as somebody you thought might be nice, a little scatty maybe, but kind of endearing and then turn it around and have her just lay into someone, into Willow so that you realised, oh, she’s not exactly what I thought she was either and to set up our sympathy for Willow and also for Buffy when Buffy gravitates towards Willow clearly because she’s upset that Willow has been attacked.

By the way, I did notice in that last scene that Cordelia says that she’s always wanted to live in L.A. and the fact is she did move to L.A. four seasons later for the spin-off, so as you can see this is all one big brilliant master plan and nothing happens by chance.

There goes Alyson, Alyson King of Pain, when anybody attacks her, we learned early on, it just, it opens up your heart, it’s a terrible thing, she’s so good at playing that vulnerability and so, that look for example.

Oh look, they’re back in the same hall that they were just in because we just had the one hall, so, it’s really kinda sad actually. We’re about to take Buffy into the library. This is the meeting place, it’s the batcave, it’s a very important visual part of the show and in the original script she wanders through the stacks for a while, and it’s dark and it’s scary and it’s a sort of labyrinth. As you can see here on the day, the wandering through the labyrinth became the walking into the big, brightly lit room where there is no labyrinth because we didn’t have time and it’s really hard to light a labyrinth, so she just sort of stands there instead.

Tony Head, playing Giles. Tony Head was one of the few people that we saw and instantly knew right away there was nobody else was gonna play that part. He is, you know, he embodied it perfectly. Most of the people who came in to read for Giles the watcher would read him as so old and stuffy that he was only there to be boring exposition guy, to be just the one thing. Tony brought this undercurrent of kind of youth and sexiness and great acting chops too the role so it was clear this is a guy who’s still trying to figure out his own life, while the kids are as well and that really works for us because it gives us places to go with Giles and we ended up going a lot of very strange places with him.

You’ll hear in this scene a lot of really sort of whacky California speak. We toned that down as people didn’t really respond to it and they didn’t know what we were talking about. We still speak in a very strange pattern but it’s more based on the way I and the writers speak then on anything we think teenagers might wanna say.

Now we come to the scene where Buffy latches on to Willow and we see that friendship begin to form. The character of Willow was a real difficult one for the network and for us to cast. We were having a big confusion about who to put in there. I was determined that we wouldn’t have the supermodel in hornrims that you usually see on a television show, I wanted somebody who really had there own sort of shy quirkiness and while the network and I were looking for people Alyson Hannigan sort of slipped under our radar. She came in and we didn’t really know she was gonna be the guy and then when she read for the network we were just completely blown away. She brings so much light and so much tenderness to the role it’s kind of extraordinary. It still, once we’d cast her, was difficult for the network to figure out what was right about her. The incredibly nerdy clothes that she’s wearing, you’ll see her wearing for exactly one episode because they kept sending us memos, you must make her more hip, you must make her more cool, you must make her more like Buffy which confused me, because, you know, I wanted to do an ensemble show and an ensemble means that people are different, besides I think that outfit’s really cute. But the character just, I think, threw them because, she isn’t the sort of TV glow, big hair star that they would usually expect and I very much kept saying, ‘I don’t think you understand, this character, this actress is going to have a fanbase that is more rabid than anybody elses’, because she brings so much to it and that’s the character that people think, ‘that’s somebody that I might have now, that’s somebody that I might have gotten along with.’ But at the same time she’s the ideal of that, because I knew that they would respond to her on a level that they couldn’t even respond to Buffy, because Buffy has an unattainableness, she’s such a hero.

All I can think about when I look at this scene is how orange Eric and Charisma are because it took so long to shoot and the sun went down and we had to take the last bit of sunset and bounce it all over the place and put it on them for the last shot, doesn’t really actually match with the rest of it but, hopefully you’re not noticing that and you didn’t hear me just say that.

We’re coming up the scene where Buffy breaks into the gym to find the dead body. As scripted this was a scene of her jumping up and through a second story window, an extraordinary elaborate stunt. Another lesson in what you can do in TV, that’s what we had the time and the budget for, the little door action there. A lot of my expectations had to be brought down, usually to the benefit of the show because the less elaborate I could be the more I just had to make things matter, so I couldn’t hide things with a dog and pony show cos I couldn’t afford the pony, I only had the dog.

This scene is a difficult scene for us, Buffy talks about to Giles, when she comes here she talks about being her first day. It is not in fact her first day in this angle here where she’s talking to Giles, it’s close to her last day. The scene was shot with Buffy being extraordinarily angry and it was the first time that I had ever actually said, ‘well, you know what, I think I’ll just go upstairs, this scene can take care of itself’ and then I saw the dailies and said, ‘no, that isn’t what I wanted at all’ so after we shot all of the episodes we went back and just shot Sarah’s side of this scene so I could bring her performance down to a place where it was more vulnerable and less pissy, we’re talking several months, eight months apart between this angle of Giles and this angle of Buffy. Luckily everything matched pretty well and we could hide the things that didn’t. It was a terrible pain for Sarah to have to shoot this again. I used to kid her that for the last episode of the series we would do a Back to The Future 2 thing where, she actually went back in time and saw herself having this conversation again so we could shoot it from some more angles. Sarah also came to me after this scene was originally shot and said, ‘I have a feeling that I was too angry.’ Her instincts as an actress are extraordinarily good and she knows generally when something isn’t working and she came to me right away and said, ‘I think you’re gonna wanna re-do this or do something with it’ because it just didn’t feel right to her either.

What Giles starts describing here is the concept of the Hellmouth, the centre of mystical convergence. This turned out to be a great big deal for us. When I first pitched this show to the network, we had a meeting and I spent a little time trying to think of the mythology of the place, sort of broaden a little bit, and spent some time with my friend, Tom Platkin, and we talked about the idea of the Hellmouth, the idea of that would be the reason why all these different creatures could come and attack people all the time and I didn’t think it would matter, I didn’t think anybody would ask about it and the network was obsessed with the idea of the Hellmouth. It is, I think, finally what sold them on the show, the idea that this was the centre of Hell and for anybody High School was, so that made perfect sense to me emotionally, but they were just very interested in the lore of it and the Hellmouth did turn out to be very important for the life of the series, they weren’t wrong. You know is also provides a great short cut for me because then whenever I can’t think of a cool scientific explanation for anything I just say, ‘well is cos we’re on a Hellmouth’ and just move on.

Here we have Giles coming after Buffy in our one hall and sort of pushing her over to the side. One of the things worried about very much in the beginning was how intense he was with her, how much he manhandled her, I was the nun of the six inch rule, they must be six inches apart because a teacher having that intense a conversation a beautiful young student and getting too close to her is pretty much unseemly and so I kept having to say, ‘you people, let’s ease off on the tension here, let’s pull them apart a little bit’, because it’s just not right, it’s just not done.

We’re going down now to see the Master’s lair, which is the church that was swallowed in the earthquake. Steve Hardy was our originally production designer, designed beautiful sets. You’ll also see here a bunch of extras. We couldn’t actually afford to put vampire makeup on all our vampires and since vampires aren’t always in vamp face they go back and forth, we thought we’ll just have some extras in there and it’ll look creepy and what it looks to me is like a cocktail party of people with torches, it’s, just really doesn’t work at all and after about two episodes we stopped having them there at all and we only had people in vampire face or nobody at all. The Master suddenly got a lot lonlier in his cavern.

Brian Thompson playing Luke, he came back and played the Judge for us in episode 14 of the second season. Quite frankly, we were in a hurry and we already had his face cast and we knew that we could put make up on it, we knew he could give us a good performance.

Buffy here saying the word ‘slut’, that turned out to be a big issue for The WB. The show has pushed it’s sexual content somewhat in the last years but when we first made these twelve episodes we weren’t even on the air, they didn’t know what time slot we’d be in, they didn’t know what kind of a network they were and they didn’t know how far we could go. They didn’t like us using the word ‘virgin’ in episode four and the word ‘slut’ here. It was a big controversy even though we did sort of imply that it’s not great to be a slut.

Kristine Sutherland playing Joyce, she’s just great and she is, like Tony, somebody who’s clearly still searching in her own life, you know, who doesn’t have all the answers. One of the things we really tried not to do with this show was make all the grown ups complete morons, even though we play the metaphor of Mom doesn’t understand and, you know, your parents don’t understand when you’re a kid what you’re going through, she literally doesn’t understand that Buffy does have to save the world and is the vampire slayer, but at the same time, it’s clear she’s got struggles of her own and she’s a very sympathetic character. We didn’t feel like demonizing and alienating the grown ups on this show, it seemed a little single minded and immature.

This then would be the introduction of young Angel, David Boreanaz, who was possibly the most difficult piece of casting we did, we saw dozens and dozens of guys, never found anyone. David came in, gave a very good read, I liked him, wasn’t exactly, you know, my type, I wasn’t sure we necessarily had the guy here until I asked the women in the room, Gail Berman the executive for Sanddollar and Macia Shulman our brilliant casting director, who had both turned into puddles the moment he walked into the room and they had just disappeared, they were so excited about what he was and I had to defer to them, they seemed to know better than me and thank god I did because David turned into, you know, not only a great star but a really solid actor.

This scene, this bit right here in the alley we shot, again several months later I shot this when we were shooting the last episode because the stunt hadn’t really registered and I wanted to do something pretty dramatic, very Batman. The stunt woman there was held up by a wire and, which we took out digitally, and then came down on Angel, this part of the scene was also shot that night, several months later. Again because, Buffy’s attitude had been very angry and we wanted to pull it back and make her more vulnerable. The moment he gets up, the rest of the scene now plays out when it was originally shot when we were shooting the first episode many, many months before. We still ended up having to do some looping on Sarah to bring the attitude back a little bit so that she wasn’t too aggressive.

The idea that the man Buffy would clearly fall in love with would turn out to be a vampire, to me seemed like it might be a bit of a cliche but it was so perfect for this that, the wrong side of the tracks romance, the one person she could categorically never be with, the one person she spent her life learning to hate was the person she fell in love with, it was just too good to pass up. The amazing thing was that so few people figured out that he was a vampire beforehand, I assumed everybody would, giving her the cross was supposed to be a mislead, so that you wouldn’t suspect it. Of course, he gave it to her in a box so he didn’t have to touch it.

This is the actual warehouse that we shoot in, when we designed the club, we put the door to the club on the actual outside of the warehouse so that we could do this, that we could go in from the outside, because that would give it real life and make it very sort of realistic and exciting and not just like a TV show. Of course, we did it exactly once and then, I think, once more in the third season because you have to wait til night to shoot, you have to go in and out and light, it’s really complicated and it’s one of those things that at the time seemed like it was gonna increase our production values enormously and then we realised, well, we’re just too lazy to do that. The same goes for the balcony upstairs that Buffy goes to, which we thought was the coolest thing we’d ever designed and really gave the club some vertical depth, but going up there with all that equipment and all those lights and it’s really hot and it’s really crowded and it’s real, we just stopped doing it. When you’re making these shows one after the other, you start to take short cuts and that was definitely one of them.

Just a little scene designed to explain the Xander/Willow relationship and sort of cement her friendship with Buffy a little more. Alyson was convinced that she had been terrible in this scene, she had ruined the entire show which convinced me that she was insane since she’s wonderful in it. These are the things you start to think about, Sarah had to eat the same cherry ten times from ten different angles at the exact same moment and did it perfectly every time, little things like that, little things about matching and that kind of professionalism, you have no idea how important they become when you’re editing these shows, when you’re doing one after the other, when you find somebody who can’t remember what position their arms were in and things like that will drive you insane, but, Sarah’s been doing this, obviously, forever and she’s a classic pro at that.

She is actually about to go up to the balcony finally, I think it’s a very beautiful sequence in terms of the lighting. Michael Gershman has been our DP on this show since the beginning. He’s got an extraordinary eye, makes things very beautiful, really gave the show a lot more depth than it might have had. Most science fiction horror shows tend to be very flat, sort of very awkwardly lit, very blue, very sort of distancing, Mike makes a very lush palette with a lot of blacks and a lot of depth and can make something both eerie and beautiful at the same time really well. I think that’s shown to great advantage here where they’re standing from the balcony. We shot the show on 16mm as well which doesn’t have the depth of 35mm, it’s much more negative, has a lot more grain and the whole time we were shooting on 16, which was for the first two seasons, nobody ever knew it because Mike did such a great job.

The band behind them by the way is Sprung Monkey who was our first ever band. We put a club in because we thought we would wanna have bands playing as much as possible, it’s nice for the energy and they were usually unsigned or fairly unknown bands and not just the latest pop hits which really also gave us a good energy. They were excited to do it, everybody always has a good time when we shoot a band here. Giles clearly violating the six inch rule. It’s very bad. Very bad.

The infamous Jesse asks Cordelia to dance scene. This is one of the few things that is actually based verbatim on something that happened to me one of the only times I ever asked a girl to dance in High School, her reply was ‘With you?’ I didn’t actually say anything after that the way Jesse does, I just sort of slunk off for about four years.

This is another one of our classic sort of Giles is trying to live in a world of normal horror movies and Buffy completely undercuts it scenes. It’s what we used for Tony’s audition. The way he gives the line, ‘But you didn’t hone’ always makes me laugh extraordinarily much, his frustration at her just complete subversion of all the rules of making horror movies. The idea that vampires would dress in the era that they were killed in was a charming notion but one we ultimately abandoned because if every vampire looked like he was from the seventies or the fifties or whatever it was they really wouldn’t be that scary. Patrick did a very nice job of being completely creepy in a completely ridiculous outfit, which you gotta give him credit for.

Buffy’s going in to the bathroom area here, it was another scene that we re-shot because it was too brightly lit, too wide. It’s very hard toneally to maintain suspense, to maintain comedy and action, those three things require three very different kinds of framing, different kinds of lighting and camera movement and to know what to exentuate, to know what space you’re in, tonally, it’s something, it’s very, very difficult to find a director who can go back and forth from one to the other. The guys who shot these two shows did a really great job, but inevitably they’re instances where things just don’t seem to work on as many levels as they might. The idea that the show could be so schizophrenic, that it could be bouncing from horror to comedy to action to drama all the time is something that some people had trouble getting used to. Luckily my performers all turned out to be people who could do all of those things and turn on a dime between one or the other and to their great credit, the network completely understood that mix and was behind it. They never asked us, can’t you just be a comedy, can’t you just be a drama. We had one sticking point, one issue about that which was the title which very clearly says we’re a comedy, we’re a horror show and we’ve got action, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sort of wears it’s, both it’s silliness and it’s cross-genre kind of popping around on its sleeve and that threw the network because they weren’t sure how to sell it. They understood what the show was but they weren’t sure how to show that to people and we bandied about the title, we went back and forth a lot of times.

The Master rising from the pool of blood, CGI effect. Originally we wanted him to rise from the pool of blood, but that’s another television production thing. You have a man covered with blood for an entire episode and that’s just too hard to do. So we had him rise out completely clean just because we couldn’t possibly do a second take if he had to come up in all that blood.

Mark Metcalf playing The Master, he did a great job for us. He had been working on Seinfeld as the Maestro, he had been in Animal House, most of the guys we read came in and gave us, villain, villain, villain in a very unimaginative way. Mark is completely not that guy, he’s not that character, he’s just very sort of sly and kind of urbane and real, although he completely came up to it and we put him in some really good looking makeup, he undercut all of the villainousness with real charm. It’s very good to have the ancillary characters, especially cos, like Jesse, sometimes they actually get killed, we can really put them in danger and really stress their vulnerability. With Buffy it turns out to be a question more and more as we work on the series of putting her in peril emotionally because, just because she can defeat something, doesn’t mean that it can’t effect her and Sarah plays the sort of grief and dealing with that level of her life really well so Buffy’s problems are less physical then emotional, whereas Willow sort of has both going on. Here she is, you know, tentative about her sexuality and about being with a boy and he’s about to turn into an ugly, scary vampire.

The decision to make vamp face for the vampires was very conscious and very thought out, the idea that they would look normal and then change into vampires was done because we wanted A) to have normal High School students who you could interact with and then they would turn out to be evil and you would never be sure which was which, and also because when Buffy is fighting them, it was important to me that they looked like demons at that point, monsters. I didn’t think I really wanted to put a show on the air about a High School girl who was stabbing normal looking people in the heart. I thought somehow that might send the wrong message, but when they are clearly monsters it takes it to a level of fantasy that is safer.

Here we are about to see one of our first morphs, my whole agenda was that the morph not look just like a special effect con, but it is sort of shot very flatly and very much in a new frame, a different frame that says, Ok we’re gonna do an effect here which was a little bit of a disappointment, but the effect looks really good. As you can see the makeup, very white face, very creepy, very ghoulish, but we sort of backed off from that in later seasons to make it a little more human partially because of Angel and partially just because that much body make up took a long time and some people felt the white was a little funny looking. I actually find it somewhat creepier, more Day of the Dead, more Evil Dead then the later vampires we’ve had.

Our first dusting coming up. I like the way he explodes into dust there, that’s something we’ve worked on and perfected over the years as well. That was also conscious decision that they would turn to dust clothes and all because I didn’t think it would be fun to have fifteen minutes of ‘let’s clean up the bodies’ after every episode. Part of this has to be hidden, people can’t know that there are vampires everywhere, we get away with a lot of that by saying people just won’t admit it to themselves.

Luke refers to Buffy as ‘the little girl’ in this scene. That was one of the joys of the show that we haven’t been able to do as much was the idea that nobody took Buffy seriously. As the show’s progressed, you know, she’s met fewer and fewer people who don’t know who she is, who think that she’s nothing but a little girl and it’s such a charge when somebody underestimates you and you turn out to be stronger than they are and that’s really the heart of the show.

I love that fall, particularly painful. I said Buffy is stronger than most of the things she faces, Brian Thompson, you know, not one of them. He’s just enormous and very creepy, he provides genuine menace.

The thing about Buffy is, you know, hero that she is, it’s very important that she keep that quirkiness, that vulnerability and that character actress feeling. She’ll make the jokes, she’ll get scared, she’ll be a person in that situation and not just Superman so that, even though, we know she’s gonna win the day, we’re still gonna worry about her.


Author: Cider

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