In July, LA-based writer-director-SFX artist (and Whedon fan) Jesse Griffith was at Comic-Con promoting his award-winning sci-fi short Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement, and dropped us a line. He had recently gotten a gig writing the story for a new science fiction video game, Ancient Space for Paradox Interactive, with voice work from Ron Glass, along with Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers), Aaron Douglas (Battlestar Galactica), Dwight Schultz (Star Trek TNG), and John Billingsly (Star Trek: Enterprise). Griffith also does graphics and animation for Jimmy Kimmel Live, where he once pitched Nathan Fillion his particular take on the meaning of Serenity. He shares his fandom connection and theory with us:
How did you come to Whedon fandom?
Serenity to Firefly, in that order. I had always enjoyed the occasional Buffy, but wasn’t watching a lot of TV back then. (I was poor and didn’t have a DVR). Later, I was a victim of coming into Firefly mid-season (which as we know was already out of order) — and I came in on one of the least-strong episodes, “Safe.” That’s the one where River is riding the merry-go-round and we first see the Alliance ships that looked like a cluster of skyscrapers. I foolishly tried to compare it to Star Trek by gawking, “Oh, River is the psychic like Counselor Troi! Oh, Simon is the Doctor of the crew, Jane is Worf, etc.”
But when I saw the film, it changed everything for me. I loved it! I was floored with how intricate the story was and how much I was cared about characters and losses. I decided to go back and give the show a second chance. That’s when a friend explained to me how FOX aired them out of order. Right from the first (real) episode, I became obsessed and instantly became a born again Browncoat.
What elements from the Whedonverse have had the most impact and resonance with you?
Joss is the master of combining family with the fantasy and it’s something I strive for in my own work. But the unique thing about Mr. Whedon is he is the rare specimen in Hollywood who has scientific proof of the right way to do things, and the wrong way. Case in point:
Buffy movie: Wrong way.
Buffy show: Right way (the way he wanted it).
One of the simplest gems I learned took from Joss Whedon came from the Buffy series. It was the importance of keeping his vampire actors from speaking like gurgling hissing monsters. When they spoke, they sounded like high school bullies and jocks. That’s something we take for granted now – to take the fantastic and put it in a common context. Many have adopted this style of dealing with monster voices and supernatural things because it allows the audience to connect to their own experiences.
How have your projects been influenced by Joss’s works?
I just finished a festival run of my short film, Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement which starred Ronny Cox (Robocop, Total Recall), and am about to launch my kickstarter campaign for a Cockpit feature film (based on my screenplay that also picked up a bunch of awards).
It is about Earth’s war with an alien race that controls minds, and follows a squadron of our greatest starfighter pilots who wake up stranded in space with little air and no memory of the last 24 hours. The debate in my universe always comes down to whether a carrier lets a suspected infected pilot return to base. Pilots are supposed to follow a rule of engagement that says if you are in visual range of the enemy, you eject to ensure you and your vehicle are not used against Earth’s Military. Government Agents are dispatched to the carrier to make sure this rule is followed. The element of a heavy handed Black Ops agent who thinks they’re fighting for good is inspired by Serenity’s Operative, and you’ll find that theme in both the short film and the feature screenplay. Plus my Government Agents are typically women, so yeah, there’s a lot of overall Joss Whedon inspiration there.
Follow Cockpit on Facebook to see the feature film happen.
Made any connections with creators or performers from Whedon productions?
I recently worked with Ron Glass on Ancient Space, a videogame that I wrote the screenplay for. His performance was awesome and he was a lot of fun to work with. I got to meet Nathan Fillion backstage at Jimmy Kimmel Live. And, I recently learned that the editor from my first feature film, Just Add Love, Lisa Lassek, edited Serenity and Firefly.
But most importantly, the composer of Firefly, Greg Edmonson has become a good friend over the years. He is a fantastic musician and scored the music for my Cockpit trailer.
Did I mention that Ronny Cox from the Cockpit short was on the shortlist to play Shepherd Book? I’d still love to see a scene where Ron Glass and Ronny Cox face off as two retired Operative with opposite perspectives of the Alliance. Ron versus Ronny!
You might notice my obsession with the Operative now. I want to take an opportunity to mention somewhat of a pet theory, if you will. I ran this by Ron Glass and Nathan Fillion, and they didn’t seem to agree with me.
I believe Serenity was a deeper film the people give it credit for, [and] the cancellation of Firefly left Joss with a the wealth of untold stories, specifically delving into Shepherd Book’s past. Keep in mind, the movie was produced 5 years before the comic; therefore we need to disregard the comic for this discussion.
I think Joss Whedon was using Serenity to emotionally tell the story of Shepherd Book’s backstory. I believe that the Operative played by Chiwetel Ejofor WAS Shepherd Book’s character “surrogate” story. Understand that I’m not referring to a literal timeline or alternate universe or anything like that; I’m not saying that the Operative was Shepherd Book or vice versa. But what I am saying is as a writer, the greatest sadness comes from having a story to tell and not being able to tell it. When Joss Whedon set out to write Firefly he had several episodes worth of material dealing with the Reavers and Shepherd Book’s back story in his mind. After the show was canceled and he was granted the opportunity to do the movie, I think he combined what he wanted to tell about Shepherd Book through Chiwetel Ejofor’s Operative, with the origin of the Reavers.
Consider this. We knew that Shepherd Book was a high-level operative. And we know something of significance happened to make him change his way and take a long contemplative walk across the galaxy like Kane in Kung Fu. Yes, I’m quoting Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction, and yes, I think Mr. Whedon was paying some homage to that. I don’t think it’s coincidence that all three of these men are black. And it was on this walk that he encountered Mal and his crew. Isn’t what exactly happened to the Operative? He was a “true believer”, and a high-ranking Alliance officer who upon learning that the ill-fated Miranda experiments, had his faith in the Alliance shattered, and his whole world crumble. The Operative was left to find a new faith and take a contemplative walk across the galaxy.
I believe that storyline was planned for Shepherd Book. Am I crazy? I can tell you that Nathan Fillion and Ron Glass probably think I am a little crazy, but they were looking at the story as actors, not writers. Maybe you have some insight.
What’s going on with your latest video game project, Ancient Space, and how did you get involved on it?
The video game was released last week! Check out the trailer.
The reviews are in, and gamers are really into the story and acting – so I feel I’ve done my job well. This project was a dream come true for me because it starred actors that I’ve been a long time fan of: Dina Meyer and Firefly’s own, Ron Glass. How did I get the job? By writing and directing the short version of the sci-fi movie I was telling you about: Cockpit: The Rule of Engagement. I think it had exactly the dark moody sci-fi vibe the people at Paradox Interactive were looking for… and we just clicked.