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September 13, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT


One year ago, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon was dying to make a movie. The timing seemed perfect. Buffy was about to enter its sixth season as a well-oiled machine at new home UPN. Angel had finally gotten itself into high creative gear over at The WB. Trusted lieutenants were in place to steer both ships, so the acclaimed cult-pop demigod (whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story and the Buffy flick that spawned his TV glory) decided it was time to give movie directing a try. He even had a project lined up: New Line’s adaptation of the Marvel Comics’ superhero title Iron Man.

But then, late last fall — an epiphany.

”I didn’t want to develop a movie for a giant conglomerate; I wanted to make something that was truly mine,” recalls Whedon, an unassuming, slacker-looking man with a slightly goofy grin and a laser-sharp mind. ”I didn’t want to be beholden to a studio’s development process. The development process is the enemy of film.”

In retrospect, even Whedon admits the irony of that sentiment given all the giant-conglomerate development meddling that has transpired to bring Firefly, his risky Western in space, to the small screen. The sci-fi series — set 500 years in the future, in a galaxy colonized by restless earthlings — stars Nathan Fillion (Two Guys and a Girl) as Malcolm Reynolds, the glib-on-the-outside, tortured-on-the-inside captain of the space freighter Serenity. Mal and his steely second-in-command, Zoe (Cleopatra 2525’s Gina Torres), were rebels in a civil war between independent-minded planets and the Alliance, composed of Earth’s last remaining superpowers, the U.S. and China. Disillusioned in the wake of defeat, they now eke out a dangerous, Han Solo-like living running a transport business with a truly motley crew: hulking mercenary Jayne (played by X-Files supersoldier Adam Baldwin); Wash, Zoe’s husband and the Serenity’s always-joking pilot (played by Alan Tudyk, the rehabbing German junkie in Sandra Bullock’s 28 Days); and Kaylee, the ship’s cheery mechanic (played by Jewel Staite of the film flop Cheaters).

This big new geeky universe banged into Whedon’s brain four years ago after he read The Killer Angels, the richly detailed 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Since his schedule was suddenly movie-free, Whedon decided to pitch his Stagecoach-meets-Star Wars concept to Twentieth Century Fox Television (which produces Buffy and Angel), whom he still owed one series. He promised the Fox execs that Firefly would have humor, action, and F/X aplenty, while zeroing in on existential angst and those quiet, human moments…like urinating. ”One of the first things I thought was, I’m gonna have a ship with a toilet,” says Whedon. ”I wanted a ship that felt lived-in.”

In fact, the dim and dingy Serenity is steeped in that kind of, uh, anal attention to detail. Crappers are contained in pull-out drawers. There’s a cozy common area of chipped coffee tables and fifth-hand leather chairs; a cavernous, three-story cargo bay with rusty hand-holds and treacherous steel catwalks. And most impressive: The whole ship was built nearly in toto across two soundstages. ”When we first got on the set, the size was just intimidating,” says Torres, whose sci-fi resume also includes a role in next year’s Matrix sequels. ”Joss told us: ‘Make it your friend, because this is your new home.”’

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