For a long time nobody really cared who the TV showrunner was, then with you and The X-Files’ Chris Carter and a few others, it began to matter.
It stunned me. The idea that a showrunner would be any kind of quasi-celebrity was hilarious. We went to Comic-Con—me, Nick Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan—after the first season of Buffy had aired, and we’re like, “Do we have any fans?” And we walk out in the hall and there they are, cheering. “Oh! We do! This is nice.” But then the whole time we were doing the signing, I kept saying, “It’s okay, you can just have the actors, you don’t need me to sign that.” I could not conceive that they actually wanted me to sign something. It took a long time for me to figure out (a) just say “Thank you” and sign the thing, and (b) smile in the picture, because if you try to just half-smile you’re going to look constipated.
But you’ve fostered that relationship with fans, too. You go to Comic-Con every year for a panel where fans can ask you anything.
It’s an ego boost—not gonna lie. It’s also where all of my friends gather. I was always about interacting with people partially because I was so gratified that people would care. Partially there’s a business aspect to it—be decent [to people]; that will help. And there’s a real connection. Someone will say, “You helped me through a hard time in my life with this show.” For a long time I thought, “That’s so sweet and lovely they’re responding to the work.” And then I realized, “Oh, I was helping me through a hard time with that show, too.” I was a different version of them. We’re almost like a support group.
Has there been any film you’ve worked on that you haven’t copped to?
I’ve been pretty up-front about everything I’ve done. Almost all have been a crushing disappointment, with the rewrites almost always coming out wrong, with the exception of Toy Story and Speed. There’s other bits here and there—the “You’re a dick” line from X-Men. I had done so much work they had thrown out, so that was a personal victory. It was then overshadowed when I told the famous Toad story [when Storm, played by Halle Berry, dramatically asks Toad what happens to a toad struck by lightning]. It’s supposed to be [casually]: “What happens when a toad gets hit by lightning? [Lightning strike] The same thing that happens to everything else.” It was supposed to be like a throwaway, and she did it like she was King Lear. I was trying to explain what I had written versus the actor who played it. But all people remember is you’re the one who wrote that terrible line. I should have never told that story.
If somebody wants to look for your voice in Toy Story, what should they look for?
The thing that [Pixar chief John Lasseter] always quoted was “You’re a sad, strange little man”—that little argument between [Woody and Buzz]. They’ve been very generous about that [credit], and they can afford to be very generous because they got all the moneys. Because everything they touch turns to gold and every Toy Story movie is great. A small part of me was like, “They couldn’t possibly do it without me.” Oh, no, they did it perfectly without me—twice.
When NBC and The CW both tried and failed to develop a Wonder Woman project over the last couple years, were you like, “See? That one is hard.”
The CW did it?
Yeah. A project called Amazon — a Wonder Woman origin story.
It is hard. She’s a tough nut to crack. I know she’s famous as a television show, but I don’t think she lends herself to television. I think she only works on an epic scale. I saw a bit of the David E. Kelley [NBC pilot]. That was not a good marriage.
With broadcast ratings declining, we’ve now crossed Firefly singularity threshold — it’s 2003 average is now big enough to not get canceled.
Of all the setbacks, you’ve said Fox canceling Firefly was the hardest, that for a while you were incapable of thinking about doing TV afterward. How frustrated did you get?
I wasn’t frustrated; I was heartbroken. A huge amount of energy went into getting [Firefly’s big-screen continuation] Serenity made. I had this four-year deal with Fox to do television, and I gave it up the last year. They were like, “How dare you!” I was like, “I just saved you an enormous amount of money.” A lot of my friends were like, “Just ride it out and don’t write anything.” But I knew in my heart I got nothing. It had been ripped out of me, and I couldn’t get paid for that. When I directed Serenity I had trouble writing, because I had to be the guy who cuts out the writer’s favorite bits to make it work…. It was a nightmare to write—nine main characters to introduce to the audience without alienating people who already knew who they were and then keep all those balls in the air. I was all “I’m never doing that again! Sure, I’ll make The Avengers!” So dumb.
In an interview around that time, you said you’d always wanted to make blockbuster movies, and the interviewer called that “completely unrealistic.” You responded, “You don’t know, it could still happen.”
Nice. In your face, some guy!