Interview: Jane Espenson on “Buffy” and “Battlestar Galactica”
Writer and producer Jane Espenson has written, or co-written, episodes of some of the most popular and successful TV shows in recent memory. From her first writing work on Star Trek: The Next Generation through stints on the hugely popular Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel, to one of the most celebrated series currently on TV, Battlestar Galactica, Espenson’s career is certainly one which fans of quality writing, humor and storytelling can appreciate.
In addition to her continued professional writing accomplishments, Espenson also finds time to offer inspiration to fledgling writers by providing advice on the craft of writing, breaking into the businesss and what makes a good spec script via her personal website. Recently, I caught up with Espenson to talk about, among other things, how writers can break into "the business," her love of sci-fi and fantasy, and what episodes of Buffy are her favorites.
COMICMIX: Jane, thanks for taking the time to talk with me. For those who may not know, can you talk a bit about your background? Did you always know you wanted to write?
JANE ESPENSON: I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where I watched a heck of a lot of television — good and bad. For every M*A*S*H, there’s an Enos. You don’t remember Enos? The Dukes of Hazzard spin-off? Well, I was watching. I always knew I wanted to write for television.
I read an article once about spec M*A*S*H scripts that were submitted to the show, and I wrote one myself. I wrote "PUT COMMERCIAL HERE" after every scene. I never sent it to anyone. It’s just as well.
CMix: Were there any particular writers you admired when you were growing up? Anyone influence your work today?
JE: I didn’t notice the names of individual television writers back then, although all those shows certainly influenced me. My mother introduced me to the books of Jane Austen, which I love. Austen had that wonderful observational sense of humor rooted in character. I’d love to think that influenced me.
But I’m most strongly affected by the writers I’ve worked with and for. So much of this job is about seamlessly emulating the "voice" of the show’s creator, that I’ve spent years mastering how to write like Joss Whedon and Ron Moore.
There are worse influences to have!
CMix: How did you first break into the business? Was there someone who gave you your first break?
JE: I got so darn lucky, it’s amazing. You used to be able to submit scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation without an agent. I used that to get invited to pitch story ideas to the show. I used to pitch to Ron Moore as well as other young writers on their staff.
I met other people who were in the Trek pitching circuit and heard from them about the Disney Writers’ Fellowship, which is now the ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship, and applied using a spec Seinfeld script. I got in.
I suppose you could say it was two anonymous readers — one of them at Trek and one at Disney, that liked my specs enough to let me get in the door. They’re the ones who gave me that big break. It also didn’t hurt to pitch to someone like Ron (Moore) as my very first TV experience — I actually sold an idea to Star Trek: The Next Generation as my very first TV sale.
I still have a photocopy of the check they sent me and I’m 99-percent certain it was an idea I pitched to Ron that he championed.
CMix: You’ve written TV and comics. Does writing for television differ greatly from writing for comics?
JE: Oh, it’s totally different. I’ve always said that comic book writing is more like directing, but now I’m starting to think it’s more like sitting in an editing room, selecting shots for a "previously on" segment. You have so little space, so few images with which to tell your story. You can’t let characters chatter, everything has to be very concentrated.
I think it’s great training in the art of focused writing.
CMix: When you write comics, how do you generally work with artists? For example, do you write a full script complete with all the description or do you let the artist come up with more of it?
JE: I’m doing one now where I’m working more closely with the artist than I have in the past. I’m working with the amazing Georges Jeanty and it’s a real treat. I wrote the whole script with pretty detailed descriptions of the frames, and then he emails me the preliminary layouts and then the more finished drawings and we discuss them.
Usually it remains close to what I described, only better. And sometimes it gets a lot better, as he brings new ideas to it — right now I’m looking at his panel of a little dog as it’s flung through the air, and he’s drawn it coming toward the viewer, which is hilarious.
It’s different — and much better — than what I pictured.
CMix: Do you enjoy writing comics?
JE: Once I get into it, I do. Comics writing doesn’t call to me like TV writing does, but I enjoy the challenge. Also, I love getting to write physical gags that can be *made to work* unlike in real life in which they are incredibly hard to execute.
CMix: Since you’re writing comics, do you also read them?
I read a lot while I worked with Joss, because he would tell me which ones were good. He put a lot of Alan Moore in my hands, as I recall. And I love Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra.
CMix: You’re a successful writer of television, comic books, magazine articles, a blog and more. What about features? Any desire to tackle that medium?
JE: You know what I’d love, love, love to do? Punch-up. I’d love to take someone else’s completed movie script and go through and punch up the jokes. I think that would be about the most fun I could imagine, but no one’s askin’ me to do it.
Other feature work? If there was something really exciting to write or rewrite, I’d do it. But television is what I always wanted to do and it’s closest to my heart.
CMix: You’ve discussed this on your website, but can you talk a bit about your writing process. For example, are you a person who makes a lot of notes? Do you start from story first or character?
I make tons of notes because I have a remarkably poor memory. I really need notes to serve as the storage system that one’s brain is supposed to be. You know, every now and then you’ll read something you forgot you wrote? I can do that within a single day.
Joss always starts with "why are we telling this story," and I think that’s exactly the right place. Start with something you want to say.
CMix: What is it that makes a character and a show like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer so enduring? The show’s been off the air for years and went through two different networks while it was on, yet it still remains so popular. Why do you think that is?
JE: I still get notes from women telling me they only got through high school or other crises because of Buffy. It had something to say and it did it with style.
CMix: How did you end up working on another one of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica?
JE: I begged. I got myself a meeting with Ron, hoped he’d remember our Star Trek association, and told him, "Please, can I write for your show?" I couldn’t believe I actually got to write a freelance episode, and then another. Then the real prize was when I got put on staff for the show’s final year.
CMix: Now that Battlestar Galactica is winding down, what’s next for you? Will you have anything to do with the Caprica series, for example?
JE: Is Caprica a series? So far it’s just a pilot. If it gets ordered to series then I would certainly be interested. Joss also has a new series, Dollhouse — also interesting. But right now, neither is certain so I’m just waitin’ and wishin’ and hopin’…
CMix: I heard you are writing the new BSG two-hour TV movie. If so, what can you tell us about it?
JE: I’m told I can’t comment, sorry. Others have commented already and you’ll have to go with what they’ve said.
CMix: Okay. Before you got involved with Battlestar Galactica, were you a fan of the show?
JE: Yes! I was a fan and I was just blown away by what I was seeing. That’s why I was so focused on getting a chance to write for the show.
CMix: If you had one piece of advice for writers looking to get into the business, what would it be?
JE: There are a couple ways in — you can apply to programs like those offered by ABC/Disney or Warner Brothers, or you can work your way up from an assistant position, or you can do both at the same time.
But no matter what the approach, you’re only going to make it if you’ve got great sample scripts. Polish them relentlessly — don’t let even one line get through because it’s "good enough."
CMix: You’ve worked quite a bit in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, do you consider yourself a geek or a nerd? Or, is it just a job?
JE: It’s certainly not just a job. I love TV and I love sci-fi/fantasy. If I wasn’t writing for these shows, I suspect you’d still see me at a convention now and then.
… But not in costume.
CMix: As someone who works in TV, do you watch much of it? What’s on Jane Espenson’s Tivo?
JE: I love Project Runway. I watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert every night, and I recently added Keith Olbermann to that routine. I like all those crime investigation shows too, all the unscripted ones — except the ones about psychics.
In terms of scripted television, I’ve fallen behind. I’m watching some of The Wire on DVD, and I’m about to launch into a big Pushing Daisies watchathon. I can already tell I adore it. I came to it a bit late, but I watched some of The Tudors and loved it.
I was fascinated by the wives of Henry VIII when I was a kid and read all kinds of books about them, so it was fun to tune in mid-season and realize I already knew who everyone was and what they were doing. I love The Office and 30 Rock, of course.
And I find it hard to resist Family Guy, even though there’s usually at least one thing per episode that troubles me.
CMix: You wrote, or co-wrote, some of my favorite episodes of Buffy. What are your favorite episodes of the show?
JE: I love "Hush" and the musical, of course. And Doug Petrie’s "Fool for Love" episode about Spike’s back story is right up there too. Among the ones I wrote, I really like "Superstar" and "Harsh Light of Day."
CMix: Okay, Jane, one last question: Star Trek or Star Wars?
Many thanks to Jane Espenson for answering my questions. To find out more about Jane and her work, be sure to visit her official website at Jane Espenson Dot Com.