Auteurism: Joss and The Whedonverse

On March 10, 1997, the first episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer aired as a midseason replacement on The WB Network. Unbeknownst to television viewers, or executives at the novice, up and coming network, that singular episode of television would not only launch a brand for the WB, but also, the career of Buffyʼs creator: Joss Whedon. Over 200 episodes of television, a film, web-series and various projects in a variety of mediums later, Whedonʼs franchise is alive and secure all within the realm of his production company Mutant Enemy.

While Whedon might be the creator, name and face of these productions, further consideration and analyzation can be given to his company members and production personnel– specifically in the context of television studies and analysis. Criticism can be interpreted and argued through means of production theory as well as through auteur theory.

Joss Whedon has created a new facet of the auteur theory through the development and structure of his repeatedly used production personnel. This argument can be supported by use of three sub-claims: 1. Whedonʼs method of structuring and maintaining his production personnel who’ve been inspired by other successful creators. Whose careers and auteurism have inspired his own. 2. Factually and statistically, many writers, producers, directors and actors who’ve been repetitively involved in Whedonʼs shows. 3. Many writers, producers and directors have played monumentally prominent roles in the development and creative process of Whedonʼs shows.

In this analysis of Joss Whedonʼs work, it is first necessary to obtain a firm understanding of the theories used, compared and referenced within these writings. Most important is the basic understanding and comprehension of auteurism, or the auteur theory (included in production theory analysis of media works). Most simply, per a basic dictionary definition, an auteur is defined as: “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so immense  that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie” (Oxford Dictionary). Or: “a view of filmmaking in which the director is considered the primary creative force in a motion picture” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). As with all media types, structures and conventions, this definition has also endured multiple evolutions.

According to Andrew Sarris, in his highly regarded essay Notes On The Auteur Theory in 1962, the auteur theory “itself is a pattern of theory in constant flux” (563). In his essay, Sarris demonstrates an in-depth analysis of auteurism, its characteristics and how it relates to film and television production and criticism– all elements necessary to comprehending the argument of this analysis. The concept that this theory, as well as with production theory and any analysis theory, is constantly changing, re-shaping and evolving pertinent to, not only this argument, but to television analysis and criticism as a whole. Theory and basis of study evolve along with the media mediums- they must evolve in order for criticism to be progressed and to remain relevant.

Auteur theory, according to Sarris, can be analyzed through three premises, as use for criterion of value: “technical competence of the director… distinguishable personality of the director… [and] the interior, or ultimate glory of the cinema as an art” (562). Further Sarris affirms, that auteurism of directors and all creatives alike, “emphasizes the body of a director’s work rather than isolated masterpieces” (Sarris 563) and goes on to elaborate on the characteristics and similarities within a creative professional’s works, based on the above stated criterion.

This definition and shared elemental criterion of auteurism– a creator’s influence, through multiple premises, on the production and overall product of their work, can be related and attributed to the work of Joss Whedon. Clear understanding and parameters of auteurism are directly utilized and referenced within, and for the purpose of this analysis. Also, the examples and body of analysis used within this argument that had been  narrowed to Whedon’s most popular and acclaimed projects: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997-2003), Angel (The WB, 1999-2004), Firefly (FOX, 2002), Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (web content, 2008) and Dollhouse (FOX, 2009-2010).

As written by Sarris, auteur theory is constantly evolving into new forms and structures for criterion of creative media products. Joss Whedon’s repetitive use and communal structured production and creative team are a direct example. This evolution of auteurism, and how Whedon’s works have progressed and impacted it, are the primary issues the theory poses within this analysis and argument. It is important to understand the development of this production staff and how this community which was formed within the realm of Whedon’s creative works.

First, Whedon’s method of structuring and maintaining his production personnel was inspired  by other successful creative professionals whose careers (and individual auteurisms) have influenced his own. In A Religion in Narrative: Joss Whedon and Television Creativity, an essay originally presented at the “Blood, Text, and Fears” conference in Norwich, England in2002, then later published as part of The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, critic David Lavery writes about the beginning of Whedon’s career and those who influenced him, before he made it big with Buffy.

“Thanks to [Whedon’s] commentary on the Buffy DVDs,” Lavery writes, “where he mentions Hitchcock, DePalma, Lynch, Leone, Abel Ferrara, Luc Bessson, Sam Peckinpah, Tim Burton, Marcel Ophuls, Woody Allen, we know something about the directors whose work he remembers (not always favorably) and sometimes emulates,” (Lavery 2). These influences not only shaped Whedon’s education; but his early career in film and television.

With a degree in film studies from Weslyan University, Whedon, known as a comic book geek, a musical lover and television fanatic, emerged into the television industry at a time when “even television auteurs have become prominent in the way we think and write about the medium,” (Lavery 2).  Television legend and fellow auteur, Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, also pioneered and inspired Whedon in a variety of ways. In Do Not Go Gentle Into The Twilight: Rod Serling’s Challenge to 1960’s Television Production, an essay written by media scholar Jon Krazewski and published in the “New Review of Film and Television Studies 6.3”, Krazewski outlines Serling’s career, including the development, creation of The Twilight Zone and how Serling’s methods of television production differed from his peers at the time.

The Twilight Zone was created by dramatic television writer Rod Serling and it aired for five seasons, from 1959-1964.  During the 1960’s, in the midst of a golden era for television,. Serling challenged conventional production methods with the new, innovative and non- traditional methods he implemented. This primarily includes “subvert[ing] the traditional relationships between producers and writers in the 1960’s television industry,” (Kraszewski 344). The shift Serling implemented among his staff, allowed writers to take on roles usually reserved for producers. For example, “Serling allowed writers to mix fantasy with a variety of genres on The Twilight Zone in a way that enabled them to customize the level of character development, the narrative point of view, and the generic identity of episodes on a script-by-script basis,” (Kraszewski 344).

Despite some negative attention, and adverse effects,Serling completely altered and inspired a change in the way television was written and produced. As the industry moved toward the end of the 20th century, challenging a standard and managing to “overthrow the dominant mode of 1960s’ television production,” (Krawsewski 344).

“Not only does Whedon’s work mirrors Serling’s per use of science fiction genre and social/political commentary, but it is also inspired by one of Serling’s ‘unconventional’ production methods: giving more control to the writers of the series, and allotting the writers the most important “creative power,” (Kraszewski 361). The methods in which Serling took to develop his production team, those relationships, and the overall idea that he challenged the existing production methods of his time are the core components of Serling’s auteurism. They can be directly related to Joss Whedon’s works and production methods—tying the creation of a new facet of the auteur theory.

This emulation and inspiration that he had received from the creatives that have come before him gave Whedon the motivation to take on creative leeway in developing and transforming production personnel roles, status and relationships, into something modern and new, while transforming the role of the television creator and auteur. Through transformation and development of this production team, Whedon has taken a new approach in the developmental and creative process of his shows.

Second in argument, over the entirety of the body of accomplishments being used for analysis, many writers, producers, directors and actors have been involved, repetitively, in Whedon’s shows/projects.  Direct, factual and statistical examples of this repetitiveness and community of creators include: Actor Nathan Fillion with four projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity,  and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) for a total of 22 episodes and one film (Internet Movie Database), writer/director Tim Minear with three projects (Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) for a total of 88 episodes (Internet Movie Database) and actress Felicia Day with three projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse) for a total of 13 episodes (Internet Movie Database)

Additionally, others include actress Summer Glau with four projects (Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse) for a total of 19 episodes and one film (Internet Movie Database) and writer/producer/director David Greenwalt with two projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel) for a total of 232 episodes of television (Internet Movie Database).  To further understand and elaborate on expansive numbers and use of Whedon’s talent and production team, the season seven episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Dirty Girls”, which originally aired on April 15, 2003, was examined for this repetition. Within approximately 42 minutes of television, over a dozen actors, writers and other production personnel were featured within the episode– actors, writers and production personnel who are not only credited in other Buffy episodes, but in other Whedon projects. “Dirty Girls” examples include: actress Alyson Hannigan, actress Eliza Dusku, actor Tom Lenk, casting director Anya Colloff, stunt double Steve Tartalia and makeup technician Ken Culver, among others (Whedon “Dirty Girls”).

In Rhonda Wilcox’ article In ‘The Demon Section of the Card Catalogue’: Buffy Studies and Television Studies, Wilcox examines the cultural and social impact of Buffy, as well as Whedon’s works as a whole (the “Whedonverse”) on television audiences and 21st century societies. Wilcox references the “boundary-crossing” (Wilcox 42) Writer/Producer Jane Espenson, who has not only worked on Whedon projects Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, but also wrote and collaborated on several other Whedon-based projects, including the Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Eight comic book series.

Wilcox compares the Whedonverse, and even the “Buffyverse” to a “Venn- diagram” (43) of creators including “…Espenson, musician Christopher Beck, actor [James] Marsters, even stunt coordinator Jeff Pruitt– though every episode is touched by the hands of Joss Whedon,” (Wilcox 43).  This repetitive use of personnel and creative professionals has developed into a, noted and criticized, community within Whedon’s works. While these numbers are statistics, they represent a vast majority of Whedon’s team and contacts. The group of people form the auteur and their continued and maintained work within Whedon’s series sustains it.

Lastly, many writers, producers and directors have played monumentally crucial roles in the developmental and creative process of Whedon’s shows. This relationship, team-mentality and dependency upon creators other than Whedon himself, support the analyzed auteur. This important role, played by Whedon’s personnel, spans over the entirety of his television series.  This, specifically, exemplified by the involvement of Jane Espenson, along with the work of Writer/Producer David Fury with three projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) for a total of 164 episodes (Internet Movie Database). As well as Writer/Producer Marti Noxon with three projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) for a total of 187 episodes of television (Internet Movie Database).

In David Perry’s article Marti Noxon: Buffy’s Other Genius, published in a compilation of essays focusing on the final two seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, explores Marti Noxon’s role and impact on the show and other Whedon productions. Not only did Noxon’s introductory work cause an “immediate impact” on the series (Perry 14), but also incorporated “themes and imagery that would later be associated with her writing” (Perry 14). These themes and ideas made it’s mark on the entirety of Noxon’s work with Whedon.

According to Perry, “Marti Noxon is credited by other Mutant Enemy writers for being the passionate and pained heart of the show and for capturing the sometimes deliberately cruel aspects of love,” (Perry 14-15). These themes and ideas can be seen, repeatedly, in Noxon’s work on, both, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Not only did these aspects have a monumentally impactful role on analyzed shows, but evidence of Noxon’s professional relationship with Whedon further proves the auteur and importance of the repetitively used production personnel. For example, “Joss Whedon expressed his admiration for Marti Noxon by rewarding her with choice assignments,” (Perry 14). This professional and personal working relationship, the responsibility Whedon allotted to Noxon as a member of his personnel, over the entire span of her involvement further demonstrates Whedon’s evolving methods and auteurism.

In a coinciding article within the same compilation of essays, Understanding the Espensode, author David Kociemba also outlines Jane Espenson’s involvement in Whedon’s body of work, specifically in relation of auteurism and her relating roles. He describes Espenson as “a craftsperson working under Joss Whedon’s direction” (Kociemba 23) and notes “several places where Espenson carves out some artistic autonomy and influences other in the creative process,” (Kociemba 24). Kociemba goes on to outline some of the characteristics of Espenson’s writing, used over the span of her multi-series involvement, including, “off-the-nose dialogue” (Kociemba 27). Along with these characteristics and techniques as a writer and producer, the work of Espenson can be compared to Noxon with her incorporation of repeatedly used themes. Espenson, who has worked with Joss Whedon on four projects (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) for a total of 102 episodes, has held the position(s) of writer, executive story editor, co-producer, supervising producer and executive producer.

Espenson’s involvement, as with Noxon’s, Fury’s and a handful of others, is much more than a face on the screen, or a name rolling in the closing credits. The work of these writers, producers, and directors has played a key role in the creative and developmental aspects of Whedon’s productions. The work of these individual production personnel has impacted the content of these productions. It has impacted the displayed themes and incorporated ideas of these productions. It has impacted the overall tone of these productions, spanning over several series and several hundred episodes of television.

In conclusion, as with any type of media criticism or analysis, methods and concepts are continually expanding and evolving, and will continue to exist in this “constant flux” (Sarris 563). Critics may rebut that the “auteur” is a term often  reserved for film directors, specifically– a negation that can immediately be dispelled by these progressions and evolutions. The evolution of the auteur theory holds a place in an identical vein of thought: as television forms and mediums evolve and progress, the theories administered as criticism must mirror this progression.

This proves criticism and argument that Joss Whedon has created a new facet of the auteur theory.  through the developmental and structure of his repeatedly used production personnel, by means of: structuring and maintaining production personnel as inspired by auteurs before him, the repetitive involvement of writers, producers, directors and actors, and the monumentally important role a select group of writers producers and directors have played in the creative and developmental process of his body of work.

Works Cited

“Auteur.” Def. 1. Oxford Dictionary. Oxforddictionaries.com. Oxford University Press, Apr. 2010. Web. Nov. 2011. <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ auteur?region=us>.

“Auteur Theory.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Www.merriam-webster.com.

Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Nov. 2011 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/!dictionary/auteur?show=1&t=1323696533>.

“David Fury.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011  <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0299236/>.

“David Greenwalt.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011   <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0277213/>.

“Felicia Day.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov.2011  <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0277213/>.

Kociemba, David . “Creating the Espensode.” Buffy Goes Dark: Essays On The Final Two Seasons Of Buffy The Vampire Slayer On Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland &, 2009. 23-40. Print.

Krazewski, Jon. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Twilight: Rod Sterling’s Challenge to 1960s’ Television Production.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 6.3 (2008): 343-64. Print.

Lavery, David. “”A Religion in Narrative”: Joss Whedon and Television Creativity.” www.slayageonline.com. Online Journal of International Buffy Studies, Oct. 2002. Web. Sept. 2011. <http://www.slayageonline.com/PDF/lavery2.pdf>.

“Marti Noxon.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011 <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0637497/>.

“Nathan Fillion.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011 <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0277213/>.

Perry, David. “Marti Noxon: Buffy’s Other Genius.” Buffy Goes Dark: Essays On The Final Two Seasons Of Buffy The Vampire Slayer On Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland &, 2009. 13-22. Print.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes On The Auteur Theory In 1962.” The Film Artist (1962): 561-64. “Summer Glau.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011  <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0277213/>.

“Tim Minear.” Imdbpro.com. Internet Movie Database. Nov. 2011 <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0277213/>.

Whedon, Joss. “Dirty Girls.” Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The WB. 15 Apr. 2003. Wilcox, Rhonda. “In ʻThe Demon Section of the Card Catalogueʼ: Buffy Studies and Television Studies.” Critical Studies in Television (2006): 37-48. Print.