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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: Writer Jane Espenson
Mixing laughs and screams on the hit horror TV series.
By Denise Dumars
January 24, 2000
A few years ago, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER writer Jane Espenson was just another overachieving U.C. Berkeley student, double-majoring in Computer Science and Linguistics. As she entered grad school, a career in teaching Linguistics almost certainly in her future, she decided to take one last stab at the career she'd always dreamed of: television writing.
'I'm from Iowa, and so is Captain Kirk,' laughs Espenson, who then quotes Kirk's famous line: ''I'm from Iowa; I just work in space.' I've always loved science fiction; I was raised on Ray Bradbury--another Iowan,' she says.
The Ames, Iowa, professor's daughter had written some spec scripts for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, and through a friend of a friend submitted some to the production. 'A lot of people don't realize that all the STAR TREK shows take unsolicited submissions,' she says. 'They're about the only ones that do.' Soon she was pitching story ideas to the production. They bought a five-page story treatment that was never filmed, and then her idea for a story in which warp speed has been tearing the fabric of space/time all along, was bought and produced. Her television career was on its way.
Receiving a Disney Writer's Fellowship allowed her to continue practicing her skills, and she focused on sitcom writing. Hired by the producers of ELLEN on the strength of a spec SEINFELD script, she worked on the last season of the show, while also writing episodes of DINOSAURS and NOWHERE MAN. After ELLEN had folded, her agent asked her, 'If you could work anywhere in television, where would it be?'
'Buffy,' she told him, having seen the new show that was attracting fans faster than Giles can find a copy of the Necronomicon.
Her agent submitted--along with one of her ELLEN scripts--a spec NYPD BLUE script to BUFFY creator Joss Whedon to show him that she could work in both half-hour comedies and in the one-hour dramatic format. 'Joss really liked a joke I'd worked into the NYPD Blue script,' she says. 'He was impressed that I could inject humor that worked into such a serious dramatic show.'
She was hired, and was thrilled to be back in genre TV.
Espenson calls Joss Whedon 'An absolute genius.' Whedon oversees the writing process from the earliest story ideas to the final drafts that writers turn in. 'And then he may still rewrite the episode, after I've rewritten it three times,' she says. 'He's amazing. He can remember everything about every episode. I can say, 'Like, remember in episode four when...' and he'll jump right in with the details.
'What's so cool about writing for Buffy is the mixture of
comedy and horror,' she adds. 'It's very different from writing a sitcomI feel I use different muscles in writing BUFFY, where the comedy is in how events unfold, rather than in carefully scripted jokes, as it is in sitcoms.'
Espenson worked her way up through several levels of job titles. 'As Executive Story Editor, I wasn't an executive and I didn't edit,' she says. 'It was another category of staff writer. I worked up to Co-Producer and then Producer. Joss, of course, is the Executive Producer.'
Espenson began soloing as a BUFFY writer in the 98/99 season, and in the 99/00 season she has written for both BUFFY and ANGEL. One of her episodes, 'Earshot,' has made it to the preliminary ballot of the Horror Writers Association Stoker Awards, given by the organization for excellence in horror writing. 'Earshot' was one of the most controversial episodes of BUFFY; it was postponed for several weeks due to the Columbine shootings because it dealt with BUFFY overhearing a plot to kill Sunnydale High students. In the episode, Xander says, 'Who hasn't just idly thought about taking out the whole place with a semiautomatic?'
'Actually, people need to hear what Jonathan has to say in that episode,' Espenson says of the troubled young man in the story who is about to commit suicide--not shoot his schoolmates--because of his 'loser' status at school. 'The episode is also about watching out for what you wish for. In it, Buffy wishes she knew what was going on in Angel's mind, and then manages to pick up from a demon she's slain the ability to read minds--everyone's but Angel's, however, since apparently one can't read a vampire's mind. Because she can read minds she overhears the plot, but doesn't know whose mind it has come from.' The episode dealt with the actual conspirator--a disgruntled cafeteria workerin typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, which effectively helped to defuse the explosive nature of the plot.
Espenson also scripted the very popular 'Band Candy' episode in which the adults eat magical candy, which makes them behave like teenagers. One of the show's more hilarious moments was seeing Buffy's mom, Joyce, and librarian Giles necking on the hood of a car. 'There's a follow-up to this in 'Earshot,'' says Espenson. 'Since Buffy can read her mother's mind, she learns that later on that night Joyce and Giles had sex--twice,' she laughs. 'And scripting Principal Snyder as a teen was great fun. I'm proud to say I've written lines for Armin Shimmerman on two different shows,' she states, speaking of both 'Band Candy' and the STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE episode 'Accession.'
In the new season of BUFFY, she wrote the Thanksgiving episode 'Pangs,' which dealt with a vengeful Indian warrior. 'I did more research for that episode than for any TV show I've ever written. I drove to Santa Barbara [CA] and did research on the Chumash Indians. Everything in the episode is authentic, from the weapons to the language. Only the costumes are inauthentic--mostly due to budget,' she says.
She has also written a very popular episode this season: 'Harsh Light of Day,' in which Spike returns, with a new girlfriend, searching for the Gem of Amarra, which will render him invincible. The sparkling dialogue between British punk Spike and his air-headed teen girlfriend Harmony is classic BUFFY. She has also begun to write for ANGEL, including the episode 'Rm W/ A Vu,' a wonderful send-up of housing issues in L.A., in which Cordelia finds the perfect apartment--except for the murderous ghost that inhabits it, of course.
When asked why ANGEL deals primarily with demons rather than vampires, Espenson says, 'Well, in the story, L.A. is a hotbed of demon activity,' which generates some ironic laughter from both Espenson and her interviewer.
January 18's episode of BUFFY found Espenson sharing writing credit with Marti Noxon and David Fury on 'Doomed.' When asked what Giles is going to be doing now that he's out of a job as school librarian, Espenson hinted that some answers may be on the way in her next solo script, January 25's episode, 'A New Man.'
'We'll definitely learn something about Giles's professional
future,' she hints, but offers no details.
What does Whedon have in mind for the series? 'He has a definite story arc in mind, overall,' she says. 'For example, the character of Doyle in Angel was meant all along to be killed off. Joss thought that it would be more touching when a series 'regular' is actually killed off. Actually, a similar thing happened in the early episodes of BUFFY. Wesley will be a part of Angel's demon-fighting business now that Doyle is gone.
'Joss always has a few surprises in mind,' Espenson continues. 'Though Seth Green, who played Willow's boyfriend Oz on the show had to leave because of a film he was making, I wouldn't be surprised if he comes back. But he'll only come back if Joss has a place for him in his plans for the show. Marti Noxon wrote the scenes of Oz's breakup with Willow. She writes the best heartbreak scenes ever. As for Drusilla [Spike's former girlfriend] we'd love to have her back, but again it's all a matter of logistics.'
She describes working for Whedon as a great job. 'Joss is a dreamboat. He's just wonderful. We spend all day laughing. And the cast likes to hang out with the writers.'
Whedon has storylines planned out through season five, which will take the show to 100 episodes. 'Then we can go into syndication, and I believe the rights have already been sold to the FX network,' Espenson says. 'We have so many great characters--Harmony, Anya, Xander, Willow, Buffy--such a complex and amazing cast. Everyone on the show can do it all, from comedy to drama.'
Espenson promises some surprises surrounding not only plots involving Giles but also the mysterious organization to which Buffy's new love interest, Riley, belongs. 'Things are not always as they seem,' she whispers, her voice becoming mysterious.
But one thing is exactly as it seems, she says. 'This will probably be the best show I'll ever work on.'