Touring the dollhouse of “Dollhouse”

Last week on the last day of the TCA press tour, I joined a lucky batch of weary TV critics for a tour of the set of Joss Whedon‘s new show, Dollhouse. This was, hands down, the coolest part of my entire TCA trip — stepping onto a set is like getting an opportunity to actually enter a fictional world, which is always a trip. And the set of Dollhouse is, in a word, incredible.

The cast of Dollhouse in the dollhouse

Although Fox hasn’t released any photos from the set itself, I put together this little tour of the set tour using images from the Dollhouse trailer that was released earlier this year. As you may have heard, Joss Whedon has decided to re-shoot the pilot (more about that further down), but I can’t imagine that the impressive (and potentially expensive) set is going to change much. Without further ado, here we go!

When we arrived at the first of two sound stages on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, the interior was dominated by a huge, elevated room that we accessed by going up some stairs. Usually sets are built on the floor level, but this set — which is the office of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), the manager of the "Dollhouse" — is elevated so that they can shoot a floor-to-ceiling skyline through the windows. The dollhouse itself, which is a sort of dormitory/office complex for the "actives" — including Eliza Dushku‘s Echo — is all underground, and Adelle’s office is the only part of it that is above the ground.

The office, like the rest of the set, has a vaguely Asian type of design style, with dark reddish woods and smooth, sleek lines. "What we were going for was ultimately sort of the perfect spa, but with just a hint of something a little bit darker, a little more corporate," Joss explained. The set was designed by Stuart Blatt, who was also the production designer on Angel.

Interestingly, Adelle’s desk is facing away from the door and toward the windows, so that her back is to the door.

"I didn’t want to do the standard, come-before-me- and-my-desk thing," Joss said. "I found it interesting that she would be the kind of person who wanted to look at the world rather than into her own space. Also, it means that if you enter the room, she doesn’t have to look at you, which is a power play."

Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) at her desk

But though you can see Adelle’s computer screen when you enter her office, you cannot see the widescreen monitor in a niche to the left of her desk, on which she can observe everyone in the dollhouse. "Adelle is — she’s not ruthless; she’s ruth-deficient," Whedon quipped about the character. "She could use a little more ruth. She’s pretty tough, but luckily she’s British, so … somehow everything she says is nice."

Adelle’s monitor

Next, we visited the coed showers that all the actives use, prompting Eliza Dushku to do an impromptu stroll through so that we could see just how much of her we could see through the shower walls (answer: not much).

Although Whedon and the reporters joked about the titillation factor, the showers do have a metaphorical raison d’etre. "The whole point about this environment is that it’s completely innocent, as somebody said, ‘a garden of Eden,’" Whedon said.

The actives in the coed shower

He continued: "Actually, amazingly enough, we were just going to build them for the pilot, and they keep turning up in episode after episode. Those wacky writers! Sometimes for a very good reason, because as innocence starts to fall away, other things start to become noticeable. The more they interact on that very childlike level, the more we can then corrupt them." He added jokingly, "And America!"

We visited the actives’ dormitory next. It’s a circular room with five sleeping pods sunken into a slate ground, and the Zen-like decor softens the creepiness of the coffin-like sleeping arrangements. Each one slides shut with a plexiglass cover so that when the actives are asleep, they’re basically put away — like dolls, of course.

The dollhouse’s dormitory

Whedon said that he wanted to create "something that was a little womb-like, a little coffin-like, and a little bit like no matter how free they feel coming and going into the dollhouse, in essence they are completely trapped."

Last but not least, we visited the sound stage next door, which contains the massive set of the actual "dollhouse" referenced in the title of the series. This is a multi-story circular room with several little circular rooms opening into it, including a gym, a dining area and a crafts and meditation area. The center of the dollhouse contains interconnecting walkways over a pond (see cast photo at the top of this page).

In one corner is the only enclosed space in the dollhouse: the lab of Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker). "She is the GP," Whedon said. "She likes to stay in the shadows a little bit, so she is more enclosed. She is cut off from everybody, and with good reason. She is slightly damaged."

Overlooking it all is a messy, windowed laboratory for the programmer, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), which Joss described as "the one discordant note" in the serene calmness of the entire space. "He is kind of a genius, and in that way, he can’t stop playing around," Joss said of Topher. "But he is also very likeable and delightful and kind of amoral. And he looks down on everybody else, and he has got red hair and thinks he is really cool but he is kind of a nerd. I read about a character like that once, so I based him on that."

Topher in his lab overlooking the dollhouse

After the set tour, Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku took some questions about the series, including what went into his decision to reshoot the pilot episode. "When I was talking to the network, I could sense some hesitation about what I had given them and I understood why," he said. But rather than "try to take what I had and gut it, which didn’t make any sense to me and ultimately never satisfies anyone," Whedon decided to shoot a new first episode.

"I believe [the pilot] works very well, but I also believe that [the network's] concerns about the audience coming into that world a little more simply were valid," he said. He referred to the new first episode as a "prequel"; the original pilot will still air, but as the second episode.

"It’s not a situation where everyone meets and then meets again in the next episode," he clarified. "That would be strange and bad. … It was kind of nice to do a dry run and then go back and say, ‘OK, what is absolutely the most iconic way to introduce this character and this character?’ And for a lot of them it has worked out very well."

Dushku added that in the pilot, she didn’t have the opportunity to wear leather pants, "and that was kind of a problem," she joked. "That was like a deal breaker.

We have leather pants for me in the next one." Sounds like an improvement to me!

Do you think the new first episode is a bad sign or a good one? And how awesome does this set look?

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