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Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: An Oral History

An Internet musical about a lovelorn would-be supervillain and the video blog he records in his home doesn't exactly scream surefire hit, but that's just what Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog became in the wee hours of July 15. Viewers clicked so fast and so furiously at drhorrible.com to see the online production — created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer auteur Joss Whedon — that demand for the debut installment crashed the site (Acts 2 and 3 followed on July 17 and 19). This sweet and sinister tale about the eponymous mad scientist (Neil Patrick Harris) who battles his archnemesis, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion, of Whedon's dearly departed Firefly), for the affections of the crusading civilian Penny (Felicia Day) also shot immediately to the top of the iTunes video chart, and was viewed over 2.2 million times in its first week. Not bad for a project conceived in the heat of the writers' strike and shot on a breakneck schedule this spring. Here's the Horrible truth about how it all came together, and why we probably have not seen the last of the evil doctor or his nefarious blog.

Joss Whedon, director, producer, co-writer More than a year ago — one of those vague ideas that float around in my head — I thought it would be fun to do a sort of podcast musical diary of myself as a supervillain. Then, during the [writers'] strike, everybody said ''Okay, I guess we have to create Internet content, to show that it can be done, sans studio,'' which also involved the desire to do something other than picketing. The Guild, [Felicia Day's] web show, was an inspiration.

Felicia Day, Penny Yeah, I don't like to claim too much credit for it. I was basically making [a series] and putting it on the Internet without any permission, or funding for that matter. So, when I saw Joss on the picket line, doing the whole circle in front of [the] Fox [studios], of course I was giving him a business card with The Guild on it. ''Watch my Web series!'' He was like, ''I already saw it. It's fantastic. And I'm thinking of doing something for the Internet.''

Joss Whedon For a long time [during the strike], people would try to create [Web] content with partners: ''There are billions of dollars with this hedge fund and this dotcom. Billions of dollars!'' Which they still have because they never gave any of it to us to make things. After taking a lot of meetings and stuff, I just thought, ''I think I have to do this myself.'' And by ''myself,'' I mean with the help of everybody I know. The money [came from] me: Low six-figures is the phrase that I feel comfortable using.

Whedon rounded up his younger brothers Jed and Zack, and Jed's fiancée Maurissa Tancharoen, to craft the music, lyrics, and script for a short film version of his original podcast idea.

Maurissa Tancharoen, co-writer The songwriting process started with Joss' song, ''The Freeze Ray.''

Jed Whedon, co-writer He said, ''I don't know where this would go in the show.'' We didn't even really know [the story]. We knew it was ''Dr. Horrible'' and [his] blog, but once he sang that song it was kind of clear, like ''That's the first song!'' It all became much easier to visualize once we heard that. At first we were kind of calling out songs — like [excitedly] ''I'll write that one!'' — and we ended up handing [them] out: [resignedly] ''I'll write that one. Okay.''

Tancharoen There was a lot of sitting in the room, doing some back and forth on lines and scenes and stuff.

Jed Whedon Especially at the end when we were finishing it off. We were all sitting in the living room, saying ''How are we going to end this [act]?'' And Joss would say ''He's a giant!''

Tancharoen And then I would say ''Balls!'' And there you go!

Joss Whedon We'd written, probably, about a half of it? Enough to know that we knew what we had and what we wanted. And then I called Neil [Patrick Harris] and Nathan [Fillion] and Felicia. I wake up most mornings thinking about Neil and Nathan and Felicia.

Tancharoen He dreams about them.

Joss Whedon Neil's a no-brainer. I've heard him sing, and I've seen him do comedy and drama. I was very shy to ask him, but I had to ask.

Neil Patrick Harris, Dr. Horrible I'm a huge Joss fan, professionally but also personally. We travel in the same circles. I am very close friends with Amy Acker, who was on Angel for many years, and of course the connection with [Buffy alum] Alyson Hannigan [who stars with me on How I Met Your Mother]. I even read for a part as a regular on Firefly, for the doctor, and it almost happened. So when the phone rings and it's him, I'm quick to pick up. He said, ''I am doing a Web musical —'' and I said ''yes.'' And then he got mad and said ''Wait a second, let me pitch first.'' And then he told me the name of it, and the idea behind it and the reasoning behind it and I said ''Hell, yes.''

Jed Whedon When [Joss] talked to Neil, he assumed that [Joss] had already cast Nathan.

Joss Whedon Before I had even called [Nathan]. And I was like ''Yes! Definitely! He's on board if you are.'' When it comes to playing a smarmy superhero who thinks he's all that, is there anybody in the world you call besides Nathan?

Nathan Fillion, Capt. Hammer Joss was like ''My brothers and I are working on this thing.'' And I said ''I'm in, dude, I'm in.'' And he said, ''Wait a second, let me tell you, it's about this villain played by Neil Patrick Harris.'' And I said, ''I'm in, man, let me work with him.'' And he said, ''And he's plagued by this hero Captain Hammer, who's a real jerk, and that would be you.'' And I said, ''I'll do it.'' And he said, ''Wait a second, it's a musical.'' And I said ''Brother, I'm in, let me do it, don't make me beat you.''

Day Joss sent me an e-mail out of the blue a couple of months after I had spoken to him about [the project] saying, ''Can you sing?'' The thing about Joss is that he definitely attracts the most talented people in all areas. When he wants to do an Internet musical starring a supervillain, everybody's saying ''Yes, please.''

Harris The concept was so pure and kind of amazingly moral. Joss wanted not just to walk the picket lines but actually do something about it. He said that obviously none of us will be paid, but if it catches on like he hoped it would, we would all be paid handsomely at the tail end of it all. That really wasn't even a concern for me. I would have done it for zero dollars.

Fillion I got sent a CD that had the songs that I could listen to, so I was running around with it in my car, listening to songs and singing them.

Harris I just couldn't stop listening to them. I was sort of on an iPod loop, not just because I needed to learn them, but because I really liked the songs. I still listen to them all the time.

Fillion Joss has a little recording studio built into his attic. We sat there with the Clan Whedon and recorded [the songs].

Joss Whedon We had everybody wandering into my house, eating snacks, and recording vocals for days, which was fun.

Harris I missed the first read-through. I was doing a reading of a play on the same day. I check my messages, and there's three messages from Joss, each getting more and more unhappy. I called him and said, ''Absolutely no excuse.'' I was just groveling, saying I'm so sorry and that's not how I operate and it's terrible form and an awful way to begin. I was just — I was gutted. Thankfully they thought it was all right and we carried on.

Day I got tonsillitis. When I went to the read-through, I went up to Joss and said, ''Well, you're not going to be happy. Look at my tonsil.'' And he was like, ''Oh, that's interesting.'' Thank goodness it was a couple weeks before shooting.

Joss Whedon It all started coming together, and then the strike ended and people had to go back to work.

Fillion [Joss] said ''You know what, we've come too far, it's going to be cool, so let's do it.''

The production had just a six-day window in mid-April to shoot the entire 42-minute film, so certain sequences became a bit of a challenge.
Joss Whedon Breaking the story wasn't that hard — except for figuring out the stuff about the van [that Dr. Horrible hijacks in Act 1].

Jed Whedon Especially when we didn't know what kind of van we could get.

Joss Whedon At first it was a wheelbarrow, and then it was the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. We really sort of bounced back and forth between low budget and ''let's go insane.'' I came that day with a shot list, which I don't always do, and it was like the King James Bible, it was so long. In fact, we had to drop a bunch of dialogue from that day to put into another day. We had a harness to the van, and we got all sorts of stunts and musical numbers and just tons and tons of pieces and I don't like to think about it. Getting the Universal backlot in the first place was, you know, a favor. We tried to get the street at Fox, and it costs tens of thousands of dollars, so we didn't know where we could do this because we have to drive a van out of control, and we couldn't afford to actually shut down a street. [The Universal lot] was as cheap as it could be made, by the head of production there, a really sweet guy and a big supporter. He just came through flying.

Indeed, the whole production took on a decidedly all-hands-on-deck quality, right down to the remote control Dr. Horrible uses to take over that van.

Fillion That is my friend PJ Haarsma. I called him up and I said ''Can you make me a thing? That looks like a thing?'' Twenty minutes later he says, ''Check out this website. You can call it up on your iPhone and you have a Dr. Horrible van remote.'' At Comic-Con, I'm going to release the Website that has the Dr. Horrible van remote.

Tancharoen Our assistant director Otto [Penzato] knew a guy who had a supervillain house, a mad scientist's house, in the valley. We didn't have to change anything.

Joss Whedon We did not bring a chair increaser. He has that chair.

Jed Whedon When we were filming the second shot of Act 2, we had everybody carrying speakers, carrying wires. We actually had a guy with a flashlight lighting [Neil's] face.

Harris They were trying to get [the shot] with that magic-hour light where the sun is setting with this really nice golden hue. But by the time we had moved all the equipment over and rehearsed, Joss said to our director of photography [Ryan Green], ''Is Neil in total darkness here?'' And Ryan said, ''Oh, yeah.'' [Joss] said, ''We should probably light his face somehow.'' And Ryan said, ''Oh, yeah.'' So someone just grabbed the Maglite, stood beside the camera, and walked backwards. This is all one guy with a camera on his shoulder, and someone had a boom box with the playback song that I was lip-synching to. That was the vibe of the entire shoot.

The low budget also meant the burden was that much heavier on the actors to deliver, no more so than Harris, who had to open the entire production with an entry in his titular blog.

Harris It was surprisingly not tricky. I thought it would take a lot longer to film and so I did my homework. When you read Joss' interviews, or blog entries, he incorporates little parentheticals and little extra thoughts. So to get a chance to say it was a great challenge. But we got it in, like, four takes. I was worried the monologue sets a strange tone — you think it's a musical and then it starts off with one shot of one guy in front of a computer monitor, so when that first song ''Freeze Ray'' starts, you're a little off-kilter.

Joss Whedon We had told him, ''Don't worry, we're going to cut this up, and we'll add images to go in between so we can cut between takes.'' And then we watched that take and we were like, ''Yeah, I don't think we're doing that.''

Day The shoot was so quick. It was five days short of what any human would possibly say we can do this in. It was just crazy.

Harris I kept turning to Nathan and Joss and Felicia and everyone saying, ''I don't want to jinx it. But I think this might be a 'thing.'''

Tancharoen The fansites started when we started production.

Joss Whedon Generally whenever we announce anything? The fans get started.

Jed Whedon ''We'' being Joss.

Joss Whedon Well, that's how I always refer to myself. We are tired. We're hungry!

Fans streamed the Dr. Horrible trailer a ''couple hundred thousand'' times, according to Jed, when it debuted on June 25. Still, no one anticipated that the film would be so server-meltingly popular when Act 1 debuted on July 15 with a free video stream via Hulu.

Jed Whedon We launched it midnight Eastern, 9:00 p.m. [Pacific], and then panicked for the next four hours.

Tancharoen There was the international uproar because [people couldn't] access it overseas, so we were dealing with that.

Jed Whedon That was one thing that we hadn't quite thought of. We were on the phone with Hulu, and they were up all night changing the code to open it up to international [viewing]. So that was exciting. And then when we woke up —

Tancharoen We get a call from our hosting company at 7:30 in the morning with a frantic message saying that the traffic was insanely huge, and the site was down.

Day I'm on all the social networks, so all of a sudden I get all these Twitters and e-mails and Facebook and MySpace [messages] letting me know, hey, the site is down. It was like full panic mode.

Jed Whedon When it crashed, we were averaging 200,000 views an hour. We had to move to a bigger server, and the way the Internet works, even when that's done, it has to propagate through to all the different Internet service providers, and it takes a long time for the new IP address to be associated with the domain and blah, blah, blah, blah so that took awhile.

Harris I had no idea that the internet world was as enamored by all things Whedon as they are. It's been fun for me to read what people thought about Act 1, wondering what would happen in Act 2, and how they think it will end.

Day I think there are a lot of the things that Hollywood doesn't understand about the Internet. It's kind of the reverse of mainstream media: You don't want to aim for everybody. You want to aim for a targeted audience, and then from there, that passionate audience is going to spread the word. It's a different approach to creating something for the Internet, and clearly, Joss's got it. Dr. Horrible was all word-of-mouth.

Though the free streams ended July 20, Dr. Horrible remains available as a paid download on iTunes, with a DVD release (packed with bonus features) planned before the end of the year.

Jed Whedon Joss comes every day with a new extra. So we've got lots of plans; how many we execute is still up in the air.

Joss Whedon We're not sure that we can accomplish it, but we want to have languages: French, Spanish, Japanese translated back very badly into English, classical Latin, and panther noises. That's what we're hoping for. We'll definitely be doing an original musical commentary.

Tancharoen With all of us singing.

Joss Whedon All of us, and all of the actors, and anyone else who has something to sing about. We've been writing that on the side, and it will run the length of the thing as an actual commentary, but it is an all original musical. It's Commentary!

Tancharoen As you can tell the fun doesn't stop for us.

And, yes, there may be a sequel.

Joss Whedon We were approached before it was a hit, people who wanted to talk about the idea of a feature-length film, a sequel, a Broadway version — which we talk about all the time. It wasn't just ''Oh! You might have made money so perhaps I should talk to you.'' It was really a response to Dr. Horrible itself, which was cool. We have played it close, because we want to do it our way. We're taking it sort of one step at a time and usually it's a step too late.

Harris As it was pitched to me initially, they did have this big master plan that might have included the sequels, and the TV films, and the Broadway musical, and the theme park attractions. And the blimp.

Joss Whedon It did start out as kind of a political statement. As we got into preproduction, and the strike was over, it was more about ''Okay, we didn't have our chance to make a bold statement, but we still have our chance to make this.'' And now it's sort of come full circle because people are talking about it as an Internet event, as a business model, as all the things that we had hoped for back when we were still carrying our picket signs. We believe, yes, it will be profitable. It's not I am Legend, not bang out of the gate, ''Woohoo! Studios take note, we've all become billionaires in 30 minutes.'' More just like it's just going to keep going until, yes, we can pay everybody off and then there might be a little more there.

Fillion It's a brand new deal. The people who created it are the people who are in control of it. It's such a weird thing, an incredibly cool thing. I think a very interesting peek at how I think things are going to start to be: the future of entertainment, I believe.

Tags: neil patrick harris

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