It came from pain

Interview: Joss Whedon talks Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: Commentary! - The Musical

Matt Looker

20th January 2020

Congratulations to everyone who read that thing I wrote last year about the brilliant, amazing burst of fruit flavour that is Commentary! The Musical - a musical commentary recorded for Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Well done to all of you who went on to not only watch the main feature, but also sought out the commentary, listened to all the songs and dialogue whilst reading the lyrics online, just as I suggested. Seeing it through makes each of you a huge fucking nerd (you’ll no doubt get that reference now). Achievement unlocked. Here’s me interviewing Joss Whedon about the whole thing.

After I posted that feature online last June, Joss very graciously contacted me to say that he would be willing to have a chat about the project. Perhaps he realised that there’s very little about Commentary! on the Internet and that we need to make a start on filling every last available space on Google with mentions of it. Or maybe he sensed a quiet desperation in my words and just reached out to see if I was ok.

Either way, there proceeded several months of me agonising over where the line lay between polite, friendly reminders and major harassment of a key Hollywood player, until now! Here’s me asking Joss everything I could think of about Commentary! and, in the process, covering diversity issues, a personal "rough patch" and his new HBO show The Nevers. The result is us talking about the story behind the scenes, what it all means, and some other insights about a filmmaker’s journey.

So come break the ninth wall with me as I make Joss pick pick pick apart the whole Commentary! God, I really hope you guys have done the homework or all these references are just going to waste.
: Thanks for your time, Joss! First of all, I’ve always been fascinated by the musical commentary, because a lot of effort clearly went into it, but ultimately it kind of flew under the radar. Do you feel that it has largely gone underappreciated?

Joss Whedon: Well... yes, absolutely. (Laughs) But also, we hid it on a DVD, and people don’t buy them often any more. We might as well have put it on Crackle. It’s very hard to seek out. You have to be a real believer.

So yes, there was a great silence. But not right at first because we did all those wonderful... although, I guess that was a separate thing... the fan applications to the Evil League of Evil. That was complex in itself, but the commentary was... it took twice as long to write than Dr Horrible. At least.

: Did you go into it then knowing that it was probably going to be a lot of effort for not much reward?

JW: I mean, that’s how we went into Dr Horrible. We weren’t thinking that anyone will watch it besides us. For the musical commentary, we just thought... this would be delightful. Because who does this? You have to, every now and then, have a 'who does this?' moment. Of course, we were all working by the time we were doing it and the answer was "ah, nobody does this... and now we know why".

I’m very proud of it though. I’m very charmed by it and consistently impressed and intimidated by my siblings.

: How did it come about? Were any of the songs written first, before this project?

JW: Yes. The process was: we said "Let’s do a commentary musical" and in my mind it was going to be a musical about making Dr Horrible, for real, even though it was going to be silly.

Commentary!, the first song was obviously a spoof. The biggest influence for that was probably the working song in Waiting For Guffman. You have this idea of "set course for wonder" about a commentary, and commentaries are so rote. I find them very dull and I could never listen to them. The only one I’ve listened to all the way through is Cannibal! The Musical, because, well, everybody seemed to be having a good time.

I did what I always do, which was make fun of everybody, and then speak too low so you couldn’t really hear me
And then I wrote the song about the [Writer’s Strike in 2008] and I was going to write a song called 'Yes' which was about everybody saying "yes" before I could talk them out of it and because I kept thinking nobody’s going to do this.

But then Jed and Maurissa walked in with a, as always, perfectly polished demo - or maybe they just fucking played it live because they can - of Nobody’s Asian In The Movies, and I was a) dazzled and b) like "Oh we‘re not doing...? Oh we’re just fucking around! Oh so we can do anything we want. Ohhhhh."

So when they did that, I was like sooo, and instantly came back with the lyrics to Ten Dollar Solo. Because, if we can do anything, then I’m doing Stacey’s song because I’ve known her forever. I’ve known her since she was two, she’s my agent’s daughter and she’s a dear friend, and she has an extraordinary voice. And she’s Groupie #2.

And then I asked the actors and Nathan said "I’d like something a little higher because some of the other songs in the musical are a little low for my register". After that he just said "I don’t really care, but I want my song to be called Better Than Neil and if you can mention my seven-layer bean dip and the fact that I’m in Halo 3, that would be great". Those were his requests.

: Was the song Moist originally going to feature in Dr Horrible as Simon Helberg suggests in the dialogue beforehand?

JW: Oh, no, that was just a joke. He says "I know that with the time-slot on the Internet that there wasn’t enough time" or whatever. That line either came from Simon or Jed, who wrote the Moist song. We knew Simon could play so of course we wanted to make sure that everybody knew that’s what he was doing. Because he’s like a ninja-genius-everything guy. But he was never supposed to have his own song in Dr Horrible.

: Did any of the actors have input beyond that? Playing fictionalised versions of themselves, I wondered if they had a say in the dialogue between songs?

JW: Dialogue was the last thing. Some songs we wrote a little bit and then said "Well, if we stick this song here, we can add this line that syncs it up to what we’re seeing" and some we had written to go in a certain spot. But mostly we just laid them out and once we had where they would go, I just took how much time we had between each song and wrote dialogue to fit it exactly. And then I did what I always do, which was make fun of everybody, and then speak too low so you couldn’t really hear me.

We actually recorded the dialogue like an old-time radio show. We all got together and any doors slamming or shoes walking away was Neil. He loved doing that part.

: In my article last year, I reasoned that the whole commentary argues for the importance of writers, which ties it all back to the strike. Like in Neil’s Turn, where Neil becomes so overwhelmed with choices because he didn’t have anyone telling him what to do. Was that the plan or have I just massively read too much into the whole thing?

JW: I wish that you had told me this before we recorded the dialogue because then I would have said "Look! See what we do? See how writers are important? It all circles back!" I wish I could say that, but no, once again, I was just making fun of my friends. But I like your version. Print the legend, I say!

: It’s fine. It’s in the article now, so it’s basically fact.

JW: Excellent.

: Do you have any favourite moments from the commentary?

JW: Well, there’s one thing I definitely wanted to mention. There’s always a stand-out moment, and clearly it’s Felicia. Because before going into this, I asked - not just the actors, but everybody - what do you remember? This was a few months later. And "Very little" was the answer from everyone. But then Felicia sent me two single-spaced pages… because Felicia is Rain Woman. She was a huge part of, not only making Dr Horrible, but inspiring it and marketing it. She kept coming in and understanding what nobody else did.

So I got this massive thing from her that was just all this crazy shit that went into it. The thousand mundane things that go into something that looks like it has meaning and closure was so interesting to me. And that’s why she has a sort of scatterbrain thing in the commentary. I feel like people think she came off as ditzy and it’s like, no, she’s a goddamn supercomputer!

One of my favourite things to do when I’m writing, be it a song or a scene, is to go "This is my opinion stated with all the passion I could put to it" and then to counter it
But also every actor has that immersion in what they’re doing coupled with their complete removal from it. There are a million silly things going on and they’re all playing in your head and you never know when you see an actor if, in the moment of that kiss, they’ve never been more in love or if, in the moment of that kiss, they’re thinking "Oh, if I took Beverly over, I could cut across Santa Monica in, say, 15 minutes". So that’s the dichotomy. And I liked the idea of giving her a patter song instead of just a ballad too.

In terms of putting it together, that was a favourite for me. Also, my whole thing of "Let’s not do this, let’s not have commentaries", which I really owe mostly to Drew Goddard because he kept refusing to do things for Cabin In The Woods.

: Has that affected your opinion about commentaries and special features then?

JW: No, I’ve always been of both minds. He was right in that you keep the magic of the horror by not explaining it. I mean, I used to watch a lot of the behind-the-scenes when it was about the special effects and stuff, but I would not watch anything about The Matrix, because I was like "No, the Matrix happened. I can’t, I can’t... I don’t wanna... don’t tell me anything else". It mattered too much to me.

: So your position in Heart, Broken, in which you sing about resenting having to dissect your own art - is that how you really feel?

JW: No, I am always making fun of myself. Because, you know, I hate myself. And I both agree and disagree. One of my favourite things to do when I’m writing, be it a song or a scene, is to go "This is my opinion stated with all the passion I could put to it" and then to counter it.

The fact is, probably one of the most important books in my life was Truffaut’s Hitchcock. Having somebody offer up to Joe Schmo the tools to understand and start building worlds is more than useful. It’s necessary and lovely. But, at the same time... there was a time when seeing a behind-the-scenes from Star Wars would make your heart go "Oh my god, what an event" and now it’s like "Oh, here’s a behind-the-scenes of a teaser trailer of..." y’know. And "Here’s the coffee cup and here’s..." There’s a need. I kept getting "Do webisodes!" and "Give us this and give us that and do all this blah blah blah" and I was like "Can we just make the thing? Can the thing exist and can it exist in an exulted state?"

Because to me, if someone is telling a story, you don’t interrupt, y’know? Like, if somebody says "It was a dark and st-" "How dark? Which night? Was it Wednesday night?" You just have to be carried along.

I, as a filmmaker, and as a student still, was always able to - not always, I have become a bit curmudgeonly, but mostly always - was able to straddle the 10-year-old who can’t believe what he’s seeing and the film student picking it apart saying "How did they do that?" And still enjoy stuff with all my heart while not going mad. But I do think that’s difficult for people and so sometimes you can’t help but rob your story by shoring up the marketing for it.

: I won’t ask you if there’s going to be a Dr Horrible 2 because I’m sure you get enough of that, but if it happens, would you do another musical commentary for it?

JW: I think you could probably throw us onto punji sticks before we would... um... I mean... I’m very old. I’m an elderly. And we’ve all been quite busy. And we all got very, very busy in different places. We had come back to Dr Horrible 2, because we had songs, we had a plot, we had a lot going on for it, but then we didn’t have enough time together to get back in the rhythm of it. So it kind of sat there.

So, if we accomplish a second Dr Horrible, which isn’t outside of the realm of possibility since all the stars look amazing, it would be such a grand feat - a GRAND feat – to do another musical commentary. I mean, if the commentary isn’t just a bee attacking some distant person... Zzzz argh! Zzzzz aaaargh! I will be so proud.

: Obviously you wrote the Buffy musical episode Once More With Feeling, and the Firefly theme, and others, but I think this musical commentary marks the last time you released any of your own songs. Do you still write music?

JW: You know, for a long time I didn’t. I did write a folk EP with Shawnee Kilgore called "Back to Eden" [released in October 2016]. I even shot a video for it with Richard Jenkins and Ashley Johnson. And that album was me saying "let’s do this!" and not doing it till over a year later. You may have some understanding of this non-process of mine.

But when I was doing the Buffy musical I was playing instruments and I was learning so much, so by the time of the commentary I was about at the peak of what I could do as a player and therefore as a composer. And then... having two children, being divorced, getting sick... there was a lot of stuff, and playing music just fell out of my repertoire. And I’m not good enough for that to happen. I was never trained as a kid, and I don’t have the reflexes so it really did just go away.

It’s seemingly random but my favourite thing is that everybody gets a moment to be the star
But just in the last year, it’s sort of started to come back. Although, I have no idea what I will do with any song I ever write unless I really did sit down to write something as another piece.

Also I have been hanging around a little too much with geniuses who are younger than me and it really does take the wind out your sails when you’re like "Oh that’s... oh you did that... ok. That’s nice too. I did a commentary recording once..."

: When you look back on this musical commentary now, is there anything you would have done differently?

JW: I don’t think so. Although… I’ve had a number of collaborations that very softly just came to a halt. And then I realise that I have a way of telling stories, and it’s my way, and [the collaboration] seemed to have gotten stuck on it.

I’m good at working for someone, or being a boss, or if two people have two strong ideas and they come at each other, but I can be a little tedious in the collaboration process, and the fact that we sort of... I mean, Zack’s Rap is probably my favourite thing in the entire album and, like most of them, I didn’t know that it existed. They didn’t say "Oh we have a rap, let’s do a thing". It just showed up one day.

So we were all sort of dazzling and confounding each other. And also helping each other out. Although I don’t believe I should gave got a credit on Steve’s Song because my only contribution was to mention Sussudio. I mean, I’m proud of that, but I think that’s punch-up work.

Again though, it’s seemingly random but my favourite thing is that everybody gets a moment to be the star.

: When I posted my article last year, Maurissa – correctly – called it out for making no mention of Nobody’s Asian In The Movies. I guess it didn’t fit into the point I was trying to make about the whole project, but I always felt bad about that because it’s such a great song.

JW: It’s the dance hit of the whole thing. It’s hilarious and beautifully done. I was showing my girlfriend all these things that I’d done and... I forget what it was but it was in some very romantic context... and I was suddenly like "Ok, and now I have to play you Nobody’s Asian In The Movies by my brother and sister-in-law that you’ve never met!" She’s like "Why?" And I’m like "I’m not sure, but I have to. It’s really good".

: It seems crazy to say so because it doesn’t feel all that long ago, but I remember thinking the song was quite powerful at the time too. I think it was the first time I had heard Hollywood’s diversity problem being called out in such a bold, frank way.

JW: Yeah, when she wrote the song I was like "Oh yeah, she makes jokes about that stuff all the time". And then all of culture was eight years behind her going "Oh yeah! Hey!"

And that’s the thing. People like her have been dealing with this sort of thing all their lives. Y’know, somebody had to tell me how hard it is for a woman writer and I was like "Ohhhh, of course it is". So I really think that Mo is a) ahead of her time, and b) has always dealt with it in a positive, funny – but not unscathing – manner.

Y'know, I think about that Emmy speech about Long Duk Dong from Alan Yang for Masters Of None, which was powerful, and it’s like "Yeah, he makes a good point". And Mo made the point in a beautiful song a decade earlier.

The short version of all of that is that I’m an idiot. She’s not.

: I had the privilege of interviewing you years ago for Much Ado About Nothing and I remember you saying then that you wanted to always explore new genres and mediums, such as making an animation or a ballet. Do you still feel that way?

JW: Yeah. I had kind of a rough patch after that and I kinda thought that I was... dying. Not that the doctor had said so - nothing like that. Just that I was perpetually miserable and sick and kind of thinking "I’m done, the industry’s done with me and I’ve run out of inspiration and I’m old and someone is going to put me on an ice floe". And just in the last year, I’ve started working on The Nevers and stuff has happened in my life and I’ve had an operation so I can breathe better and I’ve started to get my voice back... so I’m kind of back to where I was when... well, when you last interviewed me.

So the answer is still the same but I haven’t done anything about it because I kinda faded away for a while. I did spend some time trying to stop Trump from becoming president. It didn’t go my way.

: Yes, I remember you were very active on Twitter…

JW: Well I joined Twitter the first time for fun, and then I left when it wasn’t. And then I came back because… well, I didn’t want the bad man.

So I sort of went fallow, as we do I guess. And now I’m kinda back and I’ve started to play and write again. And I’ve started to remember again that I can’t imagine going through this life without having made an animation, or written a musical, or... made a film that is almost entirely dance. Or having done the things that I want to see and learn the things that I don’t know. I want to get better at the things that I already do and part of that is doing something new and part of that is just working harder.

: I guess I wasn’t really aware that you had gone through this bad patch…

JW: To be clear, I’m not talking about health issues. It’s not like the doctors had given up or I have a baboon heart or anything. I’m just talking about a confluence of awfulness, of insomnia and sleep apnea and everything that could keep me from functioning all coming at me in a great big bundle. I mean, I worked, but I kept backing off of projects and I kept not getting stuff done.

And you wouldn’t really notice because, y’know, you notice when someone makes something. And this is actually the first time I’ve ever really mentioned it.

: How does this all fit with you working on The Nevers? Was it a case that working on that show has been quite a restorative process?

JW: It’s been hard, but yes, it’s been restorative. I’m extraordinarily excited that we start shooting again tomorrow, but also doing a show for HBO means working to a different structure to what I’ve done before, so I was like "Yeah, I’ll get back on the horse. Oh wait I’m riding the thing from Avatar, I don’t know how to ride this!" So it’s been really challenging but really worth it and great. It’s a little bit like "Oh yeah, this is what it feels like when I write and direct. I remember now". So that’s great.

: One last question. I have to ask this because I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t... how good a Joey Buchanan are you?

JW: I will never be a Joey. I lack Buchananity. Y’know, the first time I ever spent time with Nathan, he was like "Best Joey Buchanan. That’s right. I was the best Joey Buchanan". That was sort of his thing: actor, raconteur... best Joey Buchanan. It might have even been on his resume under Special Skills.
Oh my god, it's just occurred to me: what if there was someone reading this who HADN'T listened to Commentary! The Musical? They wouldn't understand any of it! They'd have had to Google the relevance of that Joey Buchanan question! What a nightmare.

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