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Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains

Joss Whedon's new television show, Dollhouse, follows a group of young women and men who have volunteered to have their personalities and memories erased.


Other segments from the episode on February 12, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 12, 2009: Interview with Joss Whedon; Interview with Kevin Rafferty.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Joss Whedon: Slayers, Dolls And Singing Villains


This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our guest Joss Whedon created TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," its spin-off "Angel," and the sci-fi series "Firefly." That last series was treated so poorly by the Fox network that Whedon left TV for a while and made a movie spin-off of "Firefly" called "Serenity."

But now he's back and back at Fox with his first television series in five years. It's called "Dollhouse," and it stars Eliza Dushku, who had a recurring role as Faith, a renegade vampire slayer, on both "Buffy" and "Angel." In "Dollhouse," which premieres Friday night, she plays Echo, a woman who's coerced into having her memories and personality erased, then replaced over and over again with a series of new memories.
Like the other men and women she lives with, Echo is hired out to rich clients to fulfill their needs and fantasies, becoming a different person for each mission.

All is going fine until the constant rebooting of her memory begins to show signs of malfunction and starts to leave lingering traces. In other words, Echo starts to experience echoes. In this scene from "Dollhouse," Echo has just had her memories wiped after a mission involving a weekend love affair with a client. Topher, the scientist who erases and implants all the dolls, and Echo's handler, Boyd, are discussing Echo's mood.

(Soundbite of TV show "Dollhouse")

Mr. HARRY LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) Everything go all right with the wipe?

Mr. FRAN KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Why don't you just ask Echo? Oh, that's right. Because she can't remember. Ha, ha, ha. Of course it went all right. Imprint's gone, the new moon has made her a virgin again. Is there some reason it shouldn't have? Something happen during the engagement?

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) I think she finally met the right guy.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Ha ha. You're so jaded. That's such a -middle age. She had fun, right?

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) She thought so.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, man friend. We gave two people the perfect weekend together. We're great humanitarians.

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) We'd spend our lives in jail if anyone ever found this place.

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) We're all so misunderstood, which great humanitarians often are. Look at Echo. Not a care in the world. She's living the dream.

Mr. LENNIX: (As Boyd Langton) Who's dream?

Mr. KRANZ: (As Topher Brink) Who's next?

DAVIES: It may sound like a silly fantasy premise, but, warns our TV critic David Bianculli, so did "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and that turned out to be one of the best and smartest TV shows of the modern era.

David spoke with Joss Whedon last week not only about "Dollhouse," but about Whedon's most recent project before returning to TV, the Internet musical series, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." That's another project that, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," had a ridiculous-sounding title, yet made many TV critics' end-of-the-year top ten lists, even though it was never actually on television. David spoke to Joss Whedon last week.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Joss Whedon, welcome back to Fresh Air.

Mr. JOSS WHEDON (Writer-Producer-Director, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly," "Dollhouse"): Thanks for having me.

BIANCULLI: It's hard to believe - I mean, for me, anyway - that it's been five years since you've had a series on network TV. Why so long, and what's changed the most since the end of "Angel" and "Firefly" and the start of "Dollhouse"?

WHEDON: So long because of "Firefly," mostly. That was such a heart-breaking experience, I really just - my brain stopped thinking in terms of television shows for a while. And then, by the time I even could consider, you know, coming up with a concept for a TV show, I was working on movies, and then ultimately, I, you know, when this happened, it happened by accident. I hadn't intended to make a TV show. But in my talk with Eliza I realized that I had an idea. Fox appeared to like it, and all of a sudden there I was - and then we had the strike, so that set us back another two-thirds of a year. So it's just been - it's been one of those journeys where I haven't really been in control of it.

As for what's different, you know, I think the pressure on the networks is a little heavier, and I think, you know, the attempt to just sort of get into the modern has led to a certain, you know, a sort of deconstruction of the whole thing of, you know, more act breaks and webisodes and just, you know, trying to milk as much out of every episode - behind the scenes, director's cut. There's this mandate to create more than just a television show that just didn't exist when I was making TV just five years ago.

BIANCULLI: Am I alone in thinking that the real job is to make the best programming, to start with?

WHEDON: I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've tried to explain that. When people said, you can do, you know, a cool engagement in a two-minute webisode, and I would say, that then robs us of a fifty-minute episode of a cool engagement. You know, these ideas don't come fast. It's actually a very hard show to break, and in any of these cases, anything we do beyond, you know, just getting out the thirteen hours - which is extraordinarily difficult and in our case increasingly difficult because they added about ten minutes of screen time by pulling out commercials - it's just - the tonnage is overwhelming for writers, and it can be very damaging if people don't respect the first part, which is the story. They would say, well, we want to drive viewers to the show, and I would say, but if there's no show, then when they get there they will turn their cars around and drive away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: So that I don't have to explain what's going on in "Dollhouse," could you, briefly?

WHEDON: "Dollhouse" is a show about a group of people, men and women, who have signed on to have their personalities and their memories erased for five years so that they can be imprinted with new personalities and for engagements with various people who are either very rich, very connected or very nefarious, and after which they will have no memory of what happened.

And so week to week, we follow one active, Echo, as she goes from engagement to engagement as completely different people, and as she in between those times begins to build a sort of awareness that she isn't sure who she is and that she may have been somebody and she'd like to know who.

BIANCULLI: You know, to me it almost seems like an actor's fantasy or an actor's metaphor, where each job you get to start completely over and have a whole new personality. Is that part of it?

WHEDON: Absolutely. And you know, when I pitched it to Eliza, it had to do with an actor's fantasy in the sense that I was basically saying, I think you're much more versatile as an actress than people give you credit for, and I'd like to see you do a lot of different things instead of, you know, just be earnest or tough every week, and you know, because I think she's got great comedy chops. I think she can play sophisticated, and she tends to play the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. I was just like, you know, I just like to see a lot of aspects of that personality in a show.

And then, when I came up with the idea, Eliza's reaction was, oh, my God, this is my life. Everybody's telling me who they want me to be while I'm trying to figure out who I am. And then, ultimately, that also ended up translating for me, as well, as a writer, and then ultimately for everybody in the sense of, you know, how do I behave when I'm around certain people, what part of myself do I sublimate, what part of myself comes from my culture telling me it's so and what part comes from true humanity, is there anything in there that is just purely me?

There's a third aspect to it, of course, which is the actor's nightmare, that is to say, that every episode for Eliza now is kind of a pilot episode because she's playing a different person all the time.

BIANCULLI: And I read this, but I don't necessarily believe what I read, so I'll ask you. Is it true that you went to some sort of feminists' groups before you pitched the series, once you had it in mind, to make sure that you could get some guidance from a women's perspective?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I - it was sort of coincidental. I've had a relationship with the group Equality Now since its inception, and I was visiting the New York offices, which I hadn't been in, right after I had pitched the show. So I decided just off the cuff to sit everybody down and tell them what I was going to do because I figured I would never have a tougher room than that. And you know, and I think the reactions were mixed. Some people thought, well, there's a discussion going on there, and it's interesting and it's worthy. And some people thought, it just sounds like glorifying human trafficking, which is something they particularly fight against.

And so, you know, it was sort of a harbinger of what was to come, which was that this show is going to get some very mixed reactions, and I think it's going to make some people who - you know, who are fans of my political stance probably angry. Some others not, I think. But - but you know, the idea was to open a discussion, and I have a feeling now there may be some shouting during it.

BIANCULLI: So, the idea basically is that she as a person that has signed up on a five-year agreement to have her personality completely wiped and then re-entered by scientists at this dollhouse group, who can basically make her be any person that they want until they re-wipe her, until as in your universe things go wrong. So, first of all, how do you protect that to make it a feminist tract rather than just a male fantasy?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, the first thing you do is you don't set out to make feminist tract. That's not storytelling, that's polemics. And - but at the same time, you hope that whatever story you're telling is going to have enough of a feminist bent just by virtue of the kind of stories you like to tell that, you know, some virtue will come of it.

The fact of the matter is one of the reasons why I had an easy time studying gender and studying, you know, the murderous gays and the male animal and misogyny and all those things is that, you know, objectification is that, you know, I am the enemy. I am that guy. I, you know - and so whereas a lot - for a lot of people, for a lot of women I was studying with it was like how do we, you know, we have to codify this, we have to figure it out. We have to, you know, read about it. I was just like, ah, I'm sitting right here. It's all in my head. I mean, I'm not proud of the fact that, you know, I might be having, you know, particularly not - if not misogynist then certainly objectifying thoughts. But I can certainly tell you, you know, how this operates without a manual.

And so when I come at something, particularly this, this was always meant to be kind of a dark tale. And the idea of the feminist aspect of it is really very simply that it's about somebody with no power whatsoever gaining control of her own life. That's the arc of the character, and so we start her at zero, but the premise itself is very dicey. It's very controversial, and while I'm not out to court controversy, I'm not trying to shock people all the time, I do think that we have become complacent about what we consider to be morally good or morally corrupt, and I always want to challenge our assumptions.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Joss Whedon, creator of the new Fox series, "Dollhouse." More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: My guest is Joss Whedon, creator of the new Fox series, "Dollhouse." But right now, I want to talk about the thing he did just before "Dollhouse." It wasn't even on TV. It was an Internet mini-series, mini-musical made for the Web called "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," and it made my top 10 TV shows of 2008, even though it wasn't even on television.

I'll tell you before I play any of this, Joss, that I absolutely adored it. I mean, I just couldn't get enough of how much fun this was. Talk about how it began during the strike and how fast you got it together.

Mr. WHEDON: Well, it began before the strike in the sense of I'd had the title and the concept just as a possible, just podcast. I wanted to write songs. I really liked and related to this character and thought, well, I could just put up some songs, and you know, on a certain basis, just as a fun side project.

When the strike happened I thought, well, you know, you could do this visually with people who can actually act and sing. And then when all the deals I was trying to make with Silicon Valley were not panning out in any kind of a timely fashion, I realized, well, if I'm going to make something, if I'm going to prove that we can create mass entertainment without the studios, I'm going to have to do it myself. And if I'm going to do it myself, then by God, I'm going to do it with songs.

And it was a little late in the game. You know, I wished that it has been Christmas when I thought of this because of course by the time we filmed it, the strike was over. But we were having so much fun by that time with the concept and with what we'd done and the actors we had that we didn't care. All of the fun you had watching it, we had creating it, and I feel like that shows.

BIANCULLI: Well, this isn't the first I've played this on Fresh Air, but here's a clip with Neil Patrick Harris. He stars as wannabee super-villain who's obsessed with building a deadly Freeze Ray but also obsessed with a young woman he meets at the local Laundromat. Here's Neil as Dr. Horrible singing about the girl he's loved from afar.

(Soundbite of online musical comedy "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Dr. Horrible) (Singing)
Laundry day. See you there under things tumbling.
Want to say, love your hair. Here I go mumbling.
With my freeze ray I will stop the world.
With my freeze ray I will find the time to find the words to tell you how, how you make...

BIANCULLI: Now that's just delightful.

Mr. WHEDON: That was actually the first song that I wrote, and I wrote that one before the strike - not all of it, but the basic template for it. And when I pitched the idea to the other writers, my two brothers and my future sister-in-law, I - that's what I played them and said, this is sort of how I feel, you know, he's going to sound. And their instinct was, I think this is how we open it. This should be the first number because it's kind of disarming.

BIANCULLI: Well, one of the things, if you get the DVD of "Dr. Horrible" as opposed to the download, that you have to watch it three times at least because of the extra material. You have the regular sort of DVD commentary that comes with this sort of thing, and that's very entertaining. But then - and I don't know how in the world you did this, much less why - but you have a special musical commentary, which I'm pretty sure is a first. Now, how did that idea come about?

Mr. WHEDON: That idea, that I'll probably regret forever, came about - or at least Jed will because he had to produce everything - that came about just, you know, from me saying, you know what would be fun? If we did a musical commentary, commentary the musical.

And it took us about twice as long to write and produce as the actual film. It has to contain about twice as much music because you can't just sort of have people talking in a musical commentary because then it just sounds like a commentary. There's no visuals. And so it was really arduous.

But right upfront, you know, the first song - I think the first song that was written for it was Marissa's song, Marissa and Jed's "Nobody's Asian in the Movies." So I knew we weren't actually going to be sitting down and trying to compose to the picture that often. We could just be unbelievably stupid sophomoric people and write a bunch of songs where we make fun of each other, and that's what we ended up doing.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, but you also did things that actually said something and deconstructed the process musically in a way that's to me surprisingly ambitious and funny while still being cleverly lyrical. I really - I was stunned by how funny the musical commentary of your funny musical was. So I'm going to put you on the spot and play something I didn't expect from that whole unexpected patch - you singing a song and singing about the whole idea of having to comment on a DVD and what that means.

(Soundbite of online musical comedy "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. WHEDON: I tried to warn you. The truth never helps anyone.

Unidentified Man: Joss, don't start.

Mr. WHEDON: (Singing)
A Caveman painted on a cave.
It was a bison, was a fave.
The other cave-people would rave.
They didn't ask why?
Why paint a bison if it's dead.
When did you choose the color red.
What was the process in your head.
He told their story.
What came before he didn't show.
We're not supposed to.

Homer's odyssey was swell.
A bunch of guys that went through hell.
He told the tale, but didn't tell the audience why.
He didn't say, here's what it means.
And here's a few deleted scenes.
Charybdis tested well with teens.
He's not the story.
He's just a door we open if our lives need lifting.

But now we pick pick.
Pick pick pick it apart.
Open it up to find the
Tick tick tick of a heart...

BIANCULLI: That was Joss Whedon, creator of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," actually singing along with his sing-along blog on an audio commentary musical track.

Mr. WHEDON: Yeah. You know, we really did want the DVD to be its own experience. And this, we knew, was the one thing we could do that categorically, you know, was not on any other DVD and would make it something really special. It, you know, nearly broke us, but - and I do think it is ultimately fairly silly. But we really did, you know, we were dedicated to it, dedicated to making the DVD something - a special experience.

And I always want to get behind or inside everything I'm doing. You know, whenever I'm making a show or if it's a lecture or anything - a comic book, whatever it is, I always I feel like I want to dig underneath it and say, well, what's the point of this, of this medium, of this experience? Why did you sit down with me for an hour? Why did you do it? Why did I do it? Why did I write this?

And without becoming so self-reflective that it becomes pointless and it's all about breaking the fourth wall, you know, I want to be asking those questions. I don't just want to say, well, here's, you know, an Internet musical, here's a TV show, here's a commentary. I want to say, yes, OK, but you've seen that before. So you know, what is it? What does it mean? How does it feel? And obviously, this was a rather sophomoric attempt to do just that.

DAVIES: Joss Whedon, speaking with Fresh Air TV critic David Bianculli. David teaches at Rouen University. Whedon's new show, "Dollhouse," premiers on Fox tomorrow night. We'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of online musical comedy "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog")

Mr. HARRIS: (As Dr. Horrible) (Singing)
That's the plan. Rule the world.
You and me. Any day.
Love your hair.

Unidentified Woman: What?

Mr. HARRIS: (as Dr. Horrible) (Singing)
No - I love the air.
Anyway, with my freeze ray I would stop...

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, back with TV critic David Bianculli's interview with Joss Whedon. Whedon's new show, "Dollhouse," premiers on Fox tomorrow night. Whedon's also the creator of the shows "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," and "Firefly." Last year, with members of his family, he created the online musical, "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," which appeared on many TV critics best-of lists, even though it wasn't actually on TV.

BIANCULLI: You're supposed to be the first third-generation TV writer.

Mr. WHEDON: That I know of, yes.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, who keeps those stats, first of all?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I think I'm the one. I'm the first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because nobody else was saying it. And I had never heard of it. And you know, my grandfather wrote radio before he wrote television. So, you know, it was really in our blood. So I just...

BIANCULLI: But your grandfather, John, wrote "The Dick Van Dyke Show," that's one of his credits. Your father, Tom, wrote "Golden Girls," and "Benson."

Mr. WHEDON: Mm hmm.

BIANCULLI: Is your dad still alive?

Mr. WHEDON: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And what does he think of your doing things for the Internet? What's that cross-generational conversation like?

Mr. WHEDON: That cross-generational conversation is him being so thrilled because before he wrote for television, he wrote off-Broadway musicals, as did his father - they both wrote lyrics. And he is a musicals fanatic, as was my mother, and so he loves them. But what he loved more than anything, I think, that I've ever done was when the credits came up at the end, and he just saw so many Whedon's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because I was working with Zack and Jed and Marissa, who's going to become a Whedon - poor girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: And it's - he just - I watched him just tearing up with just joy that so many of us were involved in it. And that's - so you know, he doesn't care if it's on the Internet. I mean, as long as the DVD comes that he knows how to put it in a machine, he's fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: He just cares that he had so much fun and that it was such a family endeavor.

BIANCULLI: Well, I have one other Broadway question for you because probably the best compliment that you can get about your own musical attempts and your lyrics is to have someone evoke the name Stephen Sondheim. And you have met him and talked to him, so I'm wondering, what have you said about his music and lyrics and what has he said about yours?

Mr. WHEDON: You know, he actually hasn't really commented on mine, mostly because if he ever brings up the subject, I change it instantly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: He's a truthful fellow, and I just - I'm too terrified to hear anything he has to say. So, I did send him "Dr. Horrible" because, of course, Neil has done a couple of his shows, and he's a big fan of Neil's. And he said, oh, it's really good. I'm like, great, OK. Good, you liked it, good, moving on - next question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: Because I was just, you know, I'm too terrified to come under that eye. To be compared to him, yeah, that's about the ambition of my life. I mean, there is no other single writer who has influenced me more or who has taught me more about humanity than Stephen Sondheim.

BIANCULLI: Your TV shows, other than the "Sopranos," are probably - and "Twin Peaks" - are probably the most dissected shows in academia. So I'm wondering, whose analysis surprises you more? The professors or the Web site fans?

Mr. WHEDON: I'm not as up on the professors as I perhaps could be. And you know, I try not to read too much deconstruction because ultimately, you know, if you start to look behind your own curtain too much, you're gonna - you might just lose some of your own magic. And this is - it's a very easy trap to fall into. You also might begin to think you are the greatest writer in the history of letters, and that, you know, you go on a Web site that's all about you for a while, you forget that there's 12 people on it. You think the entire world is talking about me and my genius. I can't possibly write anything because I'm paralyzed by my own genius. It can be a little damaging.

However, I have looked at some stuff, and I will say that my favorite stuff has been things from fans who pick up just little things that I hadn't necessarily understood or intended but that I had absolutely done. And that's a real joy for an artist. I actually, you know, was able to spend some time with Sondheim because he read an interview with me where I said something about "Sunday in the Park" that he had never thought.

BIANCULLI: What was that?

Mr. WHEDON: And - well, it surprised me because I sort of assumed it was the reason that - I said that the first act was about the burden of genius, and the second act was about the burden of not being a genius, that those are the two things every artist...

BIANCULLI: That is good, yeah.

Mr. WHEDON: But I think it's very true, and it's why I love the second act, which some people discount. And - but it's what every artist goes through, the pain of being near the muse and trying to live a life at the same time and then the pain of not being near the muse. And you know, we're both - we're all going through all of it. So, that was sort of my thing.

And you know, like anybody who's a true artist, Stephen Sondheim is, you know, he's ready to be - he's ready to learn. He wants to know. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he's ready to hear more and to be disagreed with and just to sort of engage in what's around him. And so, it intrigued him that he hadn't thought of that. And so that opened a door for me that's been one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life is spending time with this great man.

BIANCULLI: Did you ever get an ah-ha(ph) thing from a fan that was something like that about your own approach?

Mr. WHEDON: Well, I definitely didn't see the lesbian subtext between Buffy and Faith until - until a fan, actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: You have to be kidding me.

Mr. WHEDON: Directed me to their Web site.

BIANCULLI: You have to be kidding.

Mr. WHEDON: No, I really didn't. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: And in fact, I became irate. A fan - somebody wrote - because I checked the posting boards all the time back then because, you know, it was a new way to hear from the audience, and it was still very fresh and exciting. And somebody said, oh, there's lesbian subtext. And I just blew up. I was like, you guys see lesbian subtext behind every corner. I mean, you know, when Buffy's mom had a friend over, you're all lesbian subtext. I'm like, guys, you just want to see girls kissing. It's not lesbian subtext, and get over it.

And the person who wrote it said, we would like you to go to our Web site where we have dissected every episode and written our treatise about the lesbian subtext. I went on it, and came back and apologized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: It was like, everything you said is true. It's all right there. And you know, it's where I first coined the phrase, BYO subtext, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHEDON: I realized that, you know, part of art is going to be people bringing - it's got to touch everybody in a way that's totally personal. And if - I think the problem with a lot of mass art, a lot of, you know, the studio stuff is they think that means that you want hit everybody in the same way. You want, you know, you want to be able to reach everybody. You want a four-quadrant movie - old people like it, young people like it, men and women. And you know, and so, you want to sort of homogenize the experience.

But in fact, if it's really working, if it's really art, it is touching everybody, and it's doing it differently for every person because what they're doing is incorporating their story into it, and that's what these people were doing, and that's what I'd been giving them to do. I'd been giving them the material to do it without ever knowing it. And you know, when you're doing something and you don't know it, you know, that's the difference between just, you know, crafting a nice chair and art.

BIANCULLI: Well, Joss Whedon, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us again. It was great having you back on.

Mr. WHEDON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Joss Whedon, speaking with David Bianculli of David's also Fresh Air's TV critic. Wheton's new show, "Dollhouse," premiers on Fox tomorrow night.

Coming up, the documentary about a 1968 Ivy League football game that even non-football fans are cheering. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Tie To Win: Kevin Rafferty on 'Harvard Beats Yale'


This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Documentary filmmaker Kevin Rafferty captured the feel of the early days of the nuclear era with his 1982 film, "Atomic Cafe." Since then, he's tackled subjects from the Ku Klux Klan to presidential campaigns. Rafferty's latest documentary tells the story of a football game that's somehow much more than a game.

It was the 1968 tilt between Harvard and Yale, a showdown of two undefeated teams played at the end of a tumultuous year that saw the Ted(ph) offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the siege of Chicago at the Democratic Convention. The New York Times' Manohla Dargis wrote that Rafferty creates a narrative that pulses with the artful exciting beats of a thriller.

While the political events of the era affected both campuses and add interest to the story, the game itself was a heart-stopping thriller. The far superior Yale team dominated until the game's final moments, when Harvard staged the astonishing comeback that gave the film its title, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."

The story is told entirely through footage of the game and interviews with players from both teams, including actor Tommy Lee Jones, who played tackle for Harvard. Here's the film's opening sequence with four players describing how the end of the game felt.

(Soundbite of film "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29")

Unidentified Man #1: You just got the feeling that, you know, the universe had shifted somehow and that something portentous, significant, weird was taking place.

Unidentified Man #2: You just had the sense it wasn't real. It was happening, but yet...

Unidentified Man #3: Almost as if an outer body experience, you know, where you're watching things happen, and you can't believe that it's happening.

Unidentified Man #4: It wasn't painful. It was too strange to be painful.

DAVIES: Kevin Rafferty was a student at Harvard at the time, even though his father and grandfather had played football at Yale. I asked Rafferty to explain the feeling on both campuses as the game approached.

Mr. KEVIN RAFFERTY (Director & Producer, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29"): For the first time since 1909, both Yale and Harvard entered their final match against each other, their final game against each other undefeated. So already there's incredible anticipation of this, the two undefeated teams. Yale had a nationally ranked team. They were number 16 in the country. They were ranked number five in total offence per game - 500 yards per game. They had a juggernaut of a team. Harvard had a scrappy little team, a bunch of JV guys, Vietnam Vets thrown together, assembled people playing new positions, and somehow managed to get through the season undefeated.

The week before the game, tickets - a ticket cost $6.00. People were selling them for $500 apiece in 1968. That's a lot of money in 1968. So why is this game remembered? The game went according to expectations. Yale kind of rolled over Harvard. And near the end of the first half, the score was 22 to nothing, Yale. Harvard coach John Yovicsin makes a surprise, desperate move, and benches his starting quarterback and puts in an unknown guy - unknown even to many of his teammates, Frank Chaffy(ph), who leads Harvard down the field and they score a touchdown just as the half is ending.

But in the Yale locker room, there's - at halftime, they're saying, now this is no big deal. You know, we've got to go out there in the second half but, you know, the game's over. We're killing them. And as the second half progresses, Harvard scores again, but then Yale scores again, so the score is 29 to 13 with three minutes left. In fact, the score is 29 to 13 with 42 seconds left. Yale is ahead by 16 points.

Anybody who understands the way football is scored knows what that means. You have to score two touchdowns, and you have to score two 2-point conversions. And you have to do it in 42 seconds. OK, well, the name of the film is "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," so that tells the story of what happened in the last 42 seconds.

DAVIES: And you know, it was a tie, and yet, the remembered phrase is Harvard beats Yale. Where does that come from?

Mr. RAFFERTY: That's a Harvard Crimson headline, the following Monday.

DAVIES: That's the student newspaper, yeah.

Mr. RAFFERTY: Yes, that's the student newspaper at Harvard - one of the most famous sports headlines of all time, in any league.

DAVIES: And I think to everybody there, it felt like a win for Harvard and a loss for Yale, didn't it?

Mr. RAFFERTY: Absolutely. Totally, yes. Yalees(ph) will all tell you the same story. They use the word, "we lost."

DAVIES: Well, let's talk a little about these two schools. I mean, this is the oldest rivalry in football. But in 1968, they each had their own distinct character, and I thought I would let the film tell us a little bit about what these two are like. And I'm going to play two clips. One begins with a little bit of the game, which, you know, the film interweaves the actual broadcast of the game with interviews with the players.

Now, the first clip, I thought I would - we would hear is a little bit of the game and then three Harvard players. This is Tommy Lee Jones, who was a tackle, Jim Reynolds and Frank Champi. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29")

(Soundbite of stadium crowd cheering)

Announcer: That's John Ballantyne, number 25, great speed, outside. Going down the sidelines. Inside Yale territory to the 38-yard line.

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES (As Himelf): It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. Revolution was in the air. People's lives were changing by the minute. Ideas were flying around like bullets. That's kind of what it was like, yeah.

Mr. JIM REYNOLDS (As Himelf): For me, you know, going through that period of time where you really, on the Harvard campus, you were challenged. To be a moderate was very, very difficult. You were either looking to your classmates, your friends, your teachers, people from colleges, locally, were looking for you to, one, take a stand. Where do you stand on these issues?

Mr. FRANK CHAMPI: (As Himelf) There was so much going on outside the world of football, especially in Vietnam and the turmoil that was being created that I found it very uncomfortable to play sort of a sport and take it all that seriously when people were dying, people my age, people I had gone to school with were serving in Vietnam.

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," directed by my guest, Kevin Rafferty. That's three Harvard players kind of reflecting a bit on the time, 1968, and how it interacted with their lives as players and students.

And then I thought we'd - this is a cut from the film of three Yale players. This is Kyle Gee, Ted Livingston and Mike Bouscaren.

(Soundbite of fim "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29")

Mr. KYLE GEE: (As Himself): I mean, Yale is a very insulated place. And you know, you live in those colleges and you don't have a great deal of contact with the outside world. And Yale was not, you know, a hotbed of liberalism in that time period, and you know, certainly the young Americans For Freedom were a more active campus group than, let's say, SDS. And so, we were living kind of an oblivious life there and aware of the outside world but not really tuned into it that much.

Mr. TED LIVINGSTON (As Himself): You know, one thing you probably wouldn't ask me that I'm not sure is very relevant, but up until that year when I was married, for the previous three years at Yale, I was George Bush's roommate. So, you know, my politics are not 100 percent aligned with his, but he's a very good friend.

Mr. MIKE BOUSCAREN (As Himself): I knew George pretty well. We played rugby together. We were classmates at business school, and you know, we went to Maine to see his place and to see my place.

DAVIES: And that's from the film, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," directed by my guest, Kevin Rafferty. Two very different schools in 1968, weren't they?

Mr. RAFFERTY: Yes, they were different. They were different. I may have overdone it a little bit in my opening montage, but they definitely - and the schools were different and the makeup of the teams was different also. All of the Harvard team were local Massachusetts kids who had gone to the local schools within a half an hour of Harvard Stadium.

DAVIES: And a lot of the Yale guys, blue bloods, right? A guy who not only went to George Bush's house in Maine, but had one of his own.


DAVIES: You know, there's this syndrome of people who are high school football heroes sometimes, once they get beyond being a celebrity - and particularly if they're a hero in a small town or in a place like where I come from in Texas - they have to enter adult life as just a regular guy, and it's hard on them.

I'm wondering to what extent that perhaps is less true of Ivy League students and players? I don't know, to what extent did this game kind of linger in their consciousness and affect their lives?

Mr. RAFFERTY: I think it lingered a lot. I mean, there are a few players who talked about the game as though it had happened, you know, yesterday. And you know, as you were asking the question, Frank Champi came to mind. And Frank Champi was the shy, introspective, backup Harvard quarterback who was not well known even by his teammates, who came into the game when Harvard was behind 22 to nothing and replaced the starting quarterback, George Lalich, who had brought them through the undefeated season.

DAVIES: Which shocked everybody at the time, right?

Mr. RAFFERTY: It was a bold and shocking move. And he came into the huddle, and he has a thick Boston accent, and his teammates, many of whom - some of them were from the Midwest, et cetera, couldn't understand what he was saying when he called the first play.

DAVIES: What did he say? Do you know?

Mr. RAFFERTY: Well, he said, fauty, outy, watty, on hup(ph) or - there are different memories, but it was all along those lines. And what he was supposed to say was 41 on one. But in terms of how it affected people in the rest of their lives, he's the first person who comes to mind because after the game, he was this guy who came off the bench and was suddenly a hero, an instant legend in Harvard athletics.

And at first, he kind of reveled in the adulation, and he and the Yale quarterback, Brian Dowling, went on the "Dating Game," for instance. Neither one of them got the date, and there are many interviews and whatever. But shortly thereafter, within a few months of the game, he suddenly stopped giving interviews and avoided all publicity.

And the reason, he told me, was that he knew that this was going to be the highlight of his athletic career. He was concerned that this would be the highlight of his life, and he didn't want to be remembered as the guy who came off the bench and saved the day. He wanted to have a life.

And he described it as - he said, it was as if you're seven years old, and it's a beautiful day, and you learn how to ride a bicycle for the first time, and your parents love you and it's just wonderful. But then, 30 years later, a friend of yours comes up and says, hey, remember that day when you learned to ride the bike? What did it feel like? Wasn't it great? And that's all he wants to talk about.

So, he made a very conscience effort to move beyond it. In fact, when I called him up to do the interview, he was very reluctant at first. And I had to convince him this was not going to be the Frank Champi story. It was going to be one story about all the players, and he finally agreed to do it.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Kevin Rafferty. His new film is "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29," the title of a book that will be coming out by Kevin Rafferty later this year. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with documentary filmmaker Kevin Rafferty. His newest film recounts the remarkable game between Harvard and Yale, two undefeated teams in 1968. The title of the film is "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29." He'll also have a book coming out later this year by the same name.

You know, when people 40 years later recall an event like this, which, you know, was so dramatic and has been the subject of stories told and told again, memory can play tricks with you. Did you find cases in which people's memories just simply didn't square with the events as you knew them?

Mr. RAFFERTY: Well, there's one case that's in the film where one of the Yale players describes making a tackle on Harvard halfback Ray Hornblower, which caused him to leave the game. And he definitely misremembered that aspect of it. He had made a - he had tackled him several times earlier in the game, and I'm sure that's what he was remembering, but he didn't. The tackle that caused Hornblower to leave the game wasn't made by this guy, and I showed that in the film.

DAVIES: Right. It's dramatically illustrated in the film. I mean, that particular player, Mike Bouscaren, the Yale linebacker, comes across almost as a villain in this film. And I should mention that he is the guy who described how he was friends with George W. Bush, and he would go to Maine and visit the Bush's house and then they would visit his family home, so clearly a guy of some high connections.

Talk a little bit about the role he played in the game and the way he talked about it.

Mr. RAFFERTY: Well, he was all over the field. He had a great game. He recovered a fumble for Yale in the first quarter. He's their defensive captain. He's a very intense guy and a very intense football player, and he had a great game, but he fumbled a punt return in the third quarter and then decided he had to make up for it and committed a couple of key penalties in the final three minutes of the game. And in one instance, he confessed in the interview that he was trying to injure the Harvard quarterback, Frank Champi, but he got caught for a facemask penalty in the process of doing that, and it was costly for Yale.

DAVIES: He was really candid. I mean, he said...

Mr. RAFFERTY: Yes, he was.

DAVIES: Maybe we should just listen to a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of film "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29")

Mr. BOUSCAREN: My intent was to inflict so much damage on him that he wouldn't be able to play the game anymore. So I didn't care if I got a facemask penalty and 15 yards and he can't play anymore - that's a good trade as far, as I'm concerned. So I was out for, you know, hell bent for destruction, and I got what I deserved. Good call.

DAVIES: Were you surprised to hear that kind of confession from him?

Mr. RAFFERTY: I was surprised by the honesty and the soul searching that accompanied his interview. I was surprised because I didn't know, for instance, that he had done any of the things that he mentioned because you can't tell from the game film who the penalties are actually called on. So I just said, tell me about the second half, and then these stories started coming out.

DAVIES: You know, I think one of the things that's really effective in the film is, you know, the simplicity of the game and the interviews with the players. And given that there were a lot of other very well-known people who had some connection to the game, not to mention the momentous events of 1968, I mean, you could have used file footage of...

Mr. RAFFERTY: Tear gas in Harvard(ph) Square.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, all of that, and you chose not to. I'm kind of wondering how you decided on the approach you did.

Mr. RAFFERTY: I thought about it, stock footage of the riots in Cambridge and Harvard Square that year. I thought about it for about five minutes, and then I said, no, no, I don't want to do that. I had an idea for this movie that would be just the players tell the story, and I stayed with it. There are no coaches interviewed, no celebrity witnesses to the game like George Pataki or Ted Kennedy, who were both at the game.

Many, many people were at that game, and many, many tens of thousands of other people claim they were at that game. But I wanted to do the story - I wanted the players to tell the story and only the players. So the politics, their memories of sexual revolution, their memories of 1968, their memories of what it meant to be on both of these teams, all came from within the players, and so I kept it that way. I kept it simple.

DAVIES: Well, Kevin Rafferty, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. RAFFERTY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Kevin Rafferty's new documentary is called "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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