How Steven DeKnight Survived Last Friday's Dollhouse

If you think last friday's forest-hunting Dollhouse episode was a harrowing experience for you, the viewer, then just imagine how terrifying it was for writer/director Steven DeKnight. He told us his Dollhouse survival tale.

Steven S. DeKnight, of course, is the guy who wrote a bunch of episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel. (He helped rescue Angel's Shanshu Prophecy from irrelevance and did a lot of the heavy lifting to build it into a real mythos.) And he was a writer/producer on Smallville, where he was instrumental in introducing the young Justice League. Here's what he had to say about his work on Dollhouse.

Are you stoked that everybody's singling out your episode as one of the series' best, with the bow-hunting and the most dangerous gaming?

I've been very pleased with the reaction to it. "Relieved" is probably a more accurate description. I'm still recovering over the directing horror of the exploding baby episode I did for Smallville. A low point, to be sure – for me and the audience. I gained a little ground after that with the Justice League episode, and really felt like I took a leap forward with "The Target" for Dollhouse. It's only the sixth episode of television I've directed, so I still have an incredible amount to learn. Luckily I had such amazing directors as Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, and David Solomon to help school me in the art.

How Steven DeKnight Survived Last Friday's Dollhouse

One thing to remember when you're watching this episode: it wouldn't exist without Joss Whedon. He gave me all the tools and all the pieces to put it together. He also gave me an episode that played to my strengths. Without the juice squeezed from that big pulsating brain of his, I'd be sitting here with an empty glass.

One thing I loved about this episode was the whole sequence where Echo is "imprinted" to trust Boyd, and it's sort of showing how a lot of our social ties are actually sort of fictional, and how silly rituals create them for us. Did you come up with that, or was it Joss?

I had pitched the whole "Welcome to the Dollhouse, Mr. Langton" scenario because, quite frankly, I didn't think I could dramatically sustain 50 minutes of running around in the woods. Joss was very much interested in how humans interact, what makes you a person, how you define your relationships, and all that other good stuff, so it just seemed natural to show Echo imprinting on Boyd. I think Tim and I came up with that part, but I'm a little fuzzy. I do remember that what excited me about it was how uncomfortable Boyd was in acknowledging Echo as a human being. It's a beautiful arc from treating her as a thing to loving her as a person.

How Steven DeKnight Survived Last Friday's Dollhouse

Your episode takes on a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of introducing the mystery of Alpha, the rogue "Active" who went psycho. Was Alpha always going to be the person behind "Richard Connell," or was that added later? A mind-wiped slasher and a fictional bow-killer seem to go together pretty seamlessly.

Joss had always planned to reveal that Alpha was behind the assault. It was a very natural fit, and I thought elevated it from a simple crazy-guy-in-the-woods episode. It gave the story a much deeper resonance. Originally, however, there was no flashback structure. That was something I suggested. When Joss heard the pitch, he immediately said, "Let's show the aftermath of Alpha breaking out of the Dollhouse." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he makes the big bucks.

Did you cast The Middleman as Richard Connell? We're all huge fans of Matt Keeslar over at io9. And was this a fun episode to direct, thanks to all the running in the woods?

I was a huge fan of Middleman. I hadn't heard such brilliantly sharp dialogue since my Buffy days. When Matt came in, I thought, "Holy crap! It's the Middleman!" He gave a great audition and was a blast to work with.

How Steven DeKnight Survived Last Friday's Dollhouse

I loved directing this episode, but I'm not sure I would use the word "fun". It was a grueling shoot that took us to rivers, woods, and rocks. The woods part of it was particularly demanding — and vomit inducing. We shot at Angeles Crest only about 30 miles north of LA, but 26 miles of that was gut-churning mountain roads. I was chewing Dramamine like Tic-Tacs. The trip to Kern River, where we shot the water rafting sequence, was just as bad. I actually did blow my breakfast on the location scout to that one. And those rocks for the mountain climbing sequence heated up to a thousand degrees by late morning. Plus we had to fend off rattle snakes and avoid bee hives the size of a Buick. But looking back, I had a blast. The crew was amazing, Eliza and the cast were delightful, and the end product came out pretty good. Well, better than an exploding baby, at least.

Thanks for letting me play with your toys again, Joss! You're the bestest!