Inside Joss Whedon’s Unfilmed ‘Goners’

I’ve long argued that “cynicism is frustrated optimism, resulting only from first believing that people are capable of better and then too often being proved wrong”, and that “this is why the small, every day courtesies matter”.

What if we with deliberation and care did right by each other in all the tiny ways: holding the door for the person behind us, giving up our seat for someone who needs it more, using headphones on our devices when in cafes and bars, remembering our “pleases” and “thank yous”. What if paying attention to all of these small moments left us no longer too exhausted and too world-weary even to think about the larger and more inexplicable challenges of the larger life and lives around us, let alone to act on them?

My first time through an undated draft of Joss Whedon’s unproduced screenplay Goners, there was a moment which nearly made me leap off my couch. Explaining a colleague’s theory as to the nature of the film’s supernatural antagonists, one character says to another that the threat before them is not just the “fear” and the “hate” but “all the thoughtless bullshit of the city”.

All those small moments of unthinking selfishness and self-centeredness. What evils do they amount to?

Late in 2010, I was approached by someone I know from pop culture convention circles. They were about to come into possession of the screenplay for the film Whedon wrote almost immediately upon completion of his directorial debut Serenity. They asked if I’d heard of it.

At that point, I’d already been blogging about Goners for several years. I was part of a ridiculously-premature fan community which revolved around it. Nothing about the script was known save the tidbits Whedon would sometimes drop into interviews, convention panels, or Q&As.

We knew it was about a woman named Mia, who sees “a part of the modern world most people don’t get to see”, but “the world has forgotten about her”.

We knew there was a character named Violet.

We knew there were some dobermans.

So familiar was I with its existence, and for so long, that I expressed skepticism that the screenplay actually had surfaced, especially when told that it had a lot of Dollhouse-like stuff in it.

There are several other unproduced Whedon screenplays. Afterlife tells the story of a man whose mind is transferred into the brain of a convict, personalities whose conflict forms the general narrative thrust of the film. The mind-transfer technology in Afterlife having something of an ancestral feel to the technology in Dollhouse, I half-suspected that what was purported to be the screenplay for Goners instead might be that for Afterlife (which existed online), renamed by someone having a bit of fun of the expense of Whedon’s fans.

So it was with no small amount of surprise and excitement that in March 2011, I found in my mail a copy of what indeed turned out to be an authentic screenplay for Goners.

That first year in possession of Goners, I re-read it every couple of months. I told not a soul that I had it. When the original draft of the screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods showed up online, I even lied to people who asked me if I also had a copy of Goners.

There were weird coincidences. Certain aspects of the story happened to match certain design elements of the site I’d maintained to track development of the film. After my first read of the script, I deleted some of those design elements. I didn’t want anyone familiar with the actual script to get any indication, even if happenstantial, that I’d read it.

Around this time, the month after I received the script, talk of Goners popped up here and then as Whedon was getting mainstream attention for The Avengers. By then, my unofficial production blog for the film had been dormant for three years. Living with the script having re-sparked my interest, I started posting about these new remarks about Goners. It became clear over the next year that while Whedon still had some degree of interest in it, apparently not very many other people did. He revealed, in fact, that when he’d turned in the first draft, the powers-that-be at Universal “shitcanned” it, and he felt that over the years he’d been “yanked around” by studio executives. [Ed. note: I might have misremembered the timeline here; the folks at Universal who were in charge after Mary Parent left were the ones who “shitcanned” the project, and I think that had to have been after most of the rewrites.]

Goners was to have been Whedon’s next movie after Serenity, although, for awhile, his involvement with attempting to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen was in something of a competition for time and attention. Both projects, of course, ultimately went nowhere. Again in 2012 he expressed some continued interest in filming Goners, but the process of its development, back-burnering, and eventual death made him wary. He’d also let it be known more than once, in this context and others, that he doesn’t often “go back” to old material. Some stories, perhaps, need telling when they demanded to be written, not years later when life both personal and creative has moved on.

(That old Wonder Woman script surfaced online a couple years ago now, and was dragged pretty hard on Twitter, deservedly. Despite being written around the same time, Goners does not sink to its level.)

Little, really, has been said about Goners for the past several years. It continues to have its own small cadre of dedicated believers. I have no idea how many of them also ever stumbled into the chance to read the script. Even now, as I admit that I’d read it, I’ve no interest in getting into the details of the story it tells. I still hope it someday will see the light of day, even if it’s never produced. In comic book form, maybe? Or perhaps it’s time for Universal to just publish the script.

Or, I should say, scripts.

It’s been known all along that the script went through several rewrites. At one point, during the 2007 writers’ strike when the film still was in development, a fan asked Whedon how it was coming along. His response was what the fan later described as a “low, quietly-distressed moan”.

Late in 2014, three years after being alerted to the existence of a script for Goners, I received another copy. Unlike the first, undated script, this one had a date: September 2005. This, then, apparently was the original draft. The one that had been “shitcanned” by Universal. [See previous ed. note.]

(For lack of a better way to describe the difference, this was the earlier “Clay Men” draft, which recently got written-up online. The later draft, the one I’d read first, wasn’t. It remains a mystery to me is whether or not there also exists yet another version, a third. In reference to this September 2005 draft, someone remarked that they’d seen a different version but it wasn’t all that different. This does not at all characterize the relationship between the two drafts I’ve read.)

Whatever I’d at that point had for nearly three years was something later, the result of that oft-mentioned rewrite process. It for some reason never had occurred to me that what I’d read, and re-read, over and over, wasn’t the original draft. After having lived for so long first with tracking the film’s development and then with an actual script in hand, suddenly there was new, to me, Goners material.

There is an original draft of Serenity, referred to as the “kitchen sink” draft because in the wake of Firefly’s ignominous television demise Whedon tried to put everything he could possibly think of into what might be his one and only shot to bring it back to life. Certain infamous character deaths never happen. There’s at least one fantastic set piece that likely for reasons both financial and emotional is scrapped in the film itself. Generally speaking the “kitchen sink” draft of Serenity has some terrific stuff in it. It also would have made for a very long movie. It isn’t bloated, per se, but it was nowhere near as streamlined, efficient, or effective as the draft Whedon shot. Arguably, the movie that got made is better than the first script he wrote for it.

I thought a lot about the “kitchen sink” draft of Serenity when reading the original draft of Goners, heart racing the moment I detected the first deviation from whichever later draft I’d first read.

The original draft of Goners is long, and much more involved. Much larger parts of an overall background mythology for the characters and their world appear, never to be seen, mentioned, or even alluded to in the later draft. Various characters each get more little moments of their own. The protagonist is subjected to a completely unnecessary and extraneous assault. There’s also much more expositional discussion. It’s generally a lot more intricate. There’s simply too much going on, and whatever might be the point of telling the story at all effectively becomes lost in the shuffle.

It does not work anywhere near as well as the later draft. I don’t think this is just because I read the later draft first.

One of the most revealing things Whedon ever has said about Goners, it turns out, is that he considers it an antidote to “the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it” because he “[doesn’t] believe any human beings are”.

There’s a moment in the later draft of Goners where this is made starkly, remarkably clear, and for the first half dozen or so times reading it I simply missed it. He holds to that idea so strongly that it’s at the center of a larger mythology surrounding Mia, Violet, and the others that’s entirely different from the one used in the earlier draft. Once you see that moment for what it is, it’s impossible to shake the idea that it might even be something of a tough sell to an audience. There’s an expectation, yet it deliberately is left unmet, because for the story to be what Whedon says it is, it must be unmet.

On the surface, the actions of this moment occur in the original draft, but in every real and meaningful way the moment itself does not. Not really.

There’s a lot more going on in the original draft, but the story at the core I don’t think really comes out until Whedon has to subject himself to that frustrating process of rewrites. Whatever notes he received seem to have prompted (forced?) him to strip the story down to an essential core.

Not long ago, despite everything he’s said about how he doesn’t like to go back and revisit things from other parts of his creative life, Whedon revealed that Goners still has a place in his heart.

“Every now and then, it crops up in my head,” he said. “A lot of my stories that I’ve told, I’m like, I’m past that stage of storytelling, or I got it out of my system, and it’s hard to work up the energy to go back. Every now and then with Goners, I’m like, there’s something about this that hasn’t been expressed yet.”

That something precisely is what those rewrites, despite the low, quietly-distressed moan they later prompted from him, apparently led him to find after he peeled away the more complex layers in the scenario of his original draft. Once he stumbled upon that something that hasn’t been expressed yet, Goners found itself.

Presuming that the first draft I read in fact was the final draft before the project spiraled into the lowest rings of development hell, it still has issues. There’s a problematic character name that I’m quite sure was taken from a Grateful Dead song but carries racist European baggage. Two minor characters, among the only ones specifically to have their races specified, really ought to have those races swapped. Some characters who were more developed in the earlier draft perhaps have had a little too much of that stripped away in the later one.

These would be necessary tweaks, not wholesale rewrites. The first draft I read, however late in the rewrites process it came, essentially feels like it’s ready to go.

Will we ever see it?

I don’t think I really believe it will ever be a movie. But there are other venues, other mediums.

I’ll never quite entirely give up hope, even if I won’t be holding my breath. I still sometimes fantasize about how I’d shoot it: nothing like The Avengers, not even like Serenity; more grounded like the Whedon-written and -produced but Brin Hill-directed In Your Eyes.

(I’ve even mapped out how an expanded version of the later draft could be structured as a short season of television. Lately I’ve started finding ways to make Mia not “painfully shy”, as described by Whedon, but instead actually autistic.)

I still want to see its mythologizing of the thoughtless bullshit of the city. I still want to see its argument for the unexpendability of human beings.

I like to think that Mia is still out there, somewhere, waiting. The world might have forgotten about her, but I haven’t.

Update: The copyright on the script is from March 2005, while the dated draft is from September 2005. My assumption here is that studio notes would have happened only after the sale to Universal was made, and that the dated draft is the same or substantially the same as whatever originally was copyrighted.

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash.

‘There’s Something About This That Hasn’t Been Expressed Yet’

This is supposed to be a dormant archive site, but since BuzzFeed snagged a bit of an update, I’ll add it here.

Whedon’s fantasy horror thriller project with a female lead protagonist has remained dormant for years.

“Every now and then, it crops up in my head. A lot of my stories that I’ve told, I’m like, I’m past that stage of storytelling, or I got it out of my system, and it’s hard to work up the energy to go back. Every now and then with Goners, I’m like, there’s something about this that hasn’t been expressed yet. But I can’t think about anything that involves a number of people. The central character, it’s really her story. But then she really falls in with this, dare I say, team. And I’m just like, Can I please do something that just isn’t that. I’m so tired! So it’s another question mark. Most of these are question marks, sorry! But with exclamation points, and smiley emojis!”

Image of mouth taped shut courtesy Jennifer Moo via the specified Creative Commons license.

‘The New People Just Completely Shit-Canned It’

In a great interview for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine a couple weeks ago, there’s an interesting bit about the period in Joss Whedon’s career immediately following the release of Serenity.

At the same time, Warner Bros. told Whedon they had been unhappy with his work on an adaptation of Wonder Woman he’d been set to direct, and a change of management at Universal meant that Goners, a horror project he’d been nursing, was shutdown on the verge of production. “It was a whole laundry list of gut punches. There were years where I wondered if I should even go to Comic-Con. I had nothing to say, other than, ‘I failed at the following things…’”

This actually was the first time I’ve ever heard the project described as “shutdown on the verge of production”, having mainly remembered an apparent series of re-writes in 2007, and then the project going away after Mary Parent left her production deal with Universal for a post at MGM.

So I asked the reporter about where that came from, and in the post comments there he kindly provided the relevant portion of his interview transcript.

“After I made SERENITY, I had GONERS set up at the studio. Mary, who’d basically produced SERENITY when she was working at Universal, had bought it. Everything was in place. And the new people just completely shit-canned it. And I wasn’t ready for that.”

Those re-writes in 2007 did not appear to be going well as late as that fall and winter. Mary Parent left her deal with Universal for MGM in March of 2008. By that July, Whedon was quoted as saying the project had been “back-burnered”. I guess now we know the operative phrase wasn’t so much “back-burnered” as the more colorful and decisive “shit-canned”. But it’s also the first time, to my knowledge, we’ve heard the project described with “everything was in place”.

All of this perhaps sheds some more light on just what Whedon meant mid-2010 when referenced the project for a Sydney audience in the context of a more recent one.

The producers that were attached to it still are attached to it emotionally, and the regime at Universal has changed, and I actually met with them recently and they were saying, “You know, you’ll be finished with the Avengers in ten or twelve years, so why don’t we revisit this.”

It’s never been entirely clear to me here whether the “them” in “met with them recently” referred to the new regime at Universal or to Mary Parent and her then-partner Scott Stuber. Given that the regime at Universal scuttled the project, I’d tend to suspect now that it’s a reference to Parent and Stuber. He again referenced this idea of revisiting the project at SXSW this year, but said he wasn’t sure exactly how that would work.

In the end, the developing tone seems to be both harsher about the project’s demise, and perhaps more skeptical on the idea that it could be resurrected. And that doesn’t even reach the issue of whether or not it’s necessarily even amongst the projects Joss most wants to be working on at this point.

Nonetheless, and as always, I encourage people who want to free Goners to write those open letters. The world might have forgotten about her, but, unreasonable as it might be, some of us still haven’t.

Image of a chamber pot courtesy Tim Evanson via the specified Creative Commons license.

‘That Was Definitely Going To Happen’

Remember the flashback to which I recently linked? Based upon his answer to a question about Wonder Woman from today’s Joss Whedon AMA on Reddit, I’d guess the pain lingers.

They never really told me. But by the time it was looking grim, I was so burnt, and so excited about my next project, Goners, that was DEFINITELY going to happen, that I didn’t mind.

And, no, Wikipedia, that “definitely” was not an announcement that Goners is moving forward. It’s a sarcastic remark about both projects having collapsed in somewhat rapid succession.

If you’d like to read the entire AMA, you can wade though the entire thread or just read his answers (click “context” on any one for the question at hand).

For the record, I didn’t succeed in getting an answer on the matter of buying back Goners from Universal Pictures.

‘I Don’t Usually Go Back’

In a recent interview with GQ in advance of The Cabin in the Woods and Avengers, the soon-to-be “King of all Hollywoodland” was asked a question potentially relevant to Goners.

Are there any unfinished projects that you are hoping to revive post-Avengers?

I do have screenplays I’ve written that never saw the light of day but I don’t usually go back to them. When I’ve told a story, I want to tell another story. Some people might have a hearty laugh about that because I’ve taken Buffy from movie to TV to comic and Serenity from TV to movie to comic. I don’t mind being in the same world, I just don’t like telling the same story. I have spent a bit of time thinking about if Avengers does well and I can do anything I want for a short period of time [laughs]. What would be the next big thing? There are two things that I cannot resist: one is musicals and the other is a spaceship in trouble. But I am smart enough not to combine the two things…

While it’s true that as recently as the middle of 2010, Whedon has expressed interest in the possibility of revisiting Goners after the likely blockbuster success of Avengers, he’s more recently expressed some doubt as to just how that could happen.

It’s probably important to remember that Goners was written six or seven years ago now, and it’s always possible that makes it, in a sense, old news creatively. With a new micro-studio fired up, and plans for a Dr. Horrible sequel as well as a web series collaboration with Warren Ellis, it’s not likely Goners is atop the list of storytelling priorities.

I’m still fairly certain that we’re approaching the start of a two-year period during which, under Writers Guild contract provisions, Whedon could buy back Goners, but I’ve never actually confirmed that and, more importantly, there’s certainly no guarantee that either Universal or Whedon even would be interested in such a sale, or that Whedon could afford to buy it back it he wanted to.

Nonetheless, I and others will persist in “believing unreasonably” (as Whedon said of the Browncoats who wanted more Firefly and found themselves with Serenity) and, as always, seek to free Goners, one way or another.

Image of unproduced screenplays courtesy Sharon Terry via the specified Creative Commons license.