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Heartbreaker: BUFFY Writer Marti Noxon
By Denise Dumars
May 02, 2000
One of the most prolific of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER'S writers, Marti Noxon writes some of the darkest and most heartbreaking episodes of the show. In contrast, Noxon herself is bubbly and cheerful and both surprised and delighted by her success as one of the show's writers. 'I've been on board since the first 13 episodes. This will be the end of my third year. So, I've averaged five episodes per season. I've written probably 17 episodes. I think I've written more than anyone but Joss,' she says, surprised when she adds it all up. 'This year, I think Jane Espenson and David Fury have written more episodes than I have, but I've been doing mostly rewriting this season. I did a lot of uncredited rewriting, just because we were starting two shows, and ANGEL was an adventure. Part of my job was to work on both, and I did a lot more on ANGEL earlier in the year. Once ANGEL kind of found its footing, I went back to BUFFY to concentrate on it.'
Noxon wrote one of the early episodes of ANGEL and did some rewriting on it. 'You struggle to find the right writers and the right talent. There were times when they [the ANGEL staff] would rely on the BUFFY writers to bring in some familiar voices, and now they've settled on who works well for what, and things are going really well.'
Jane Espenson said of Marti Noxon's writing for BUFFY, 'Marti writes the best heartbreak scenes ever.' Willow's heartbreak over losing Oz was a pivotal event in the series, and for many viewers, an extremely realistic breakup that brought back the feeling of first love and loss. 'That episode was 'Wild at Heart.' I had a lot of fun writing, in particular, the Oz and Willow stories and the storyline where Buffy and Angel are at the peak of their angst. The Oz stuff really resonates with me because it's a metaphor for men and the animal nature and their propensity, especially when they're young, to want to roam, even if they love the woman they're involved with.'
She adds, 'When I was a young woman, especially in college, I felt the struggle between the need to connect and be with one person and that sort of animal need to have adventures. It caused a lot of pain, on either side of it, whether you were the person left or the one who did the leaving. I can reach back to that experience for direction.'
Willow and Oz's situation seems realistic, more grounded in what we've all experienced (except for the werewolf stuff, of course) because Buffy and Angel seem larger than life. 'To me it's a big sweeping romantic thing; they are larger than life and very romanticized. Theirs is a very fantastic word. The real, grounded pain of Ox and Willow's relationship resonates with people's lives. People have responded even more to their breakup than to Angel's and Buffy's, since they're so mythic.'
Noxon does not have a particular affinity for any one character on the show, but rather feels that she writes certain kinds of scenes and situations well. 'As we were saying, a heartbreak scene, or anything grounded in drama, because that's where my background in. Anytime you put a character in a situation that really matters, that anyone can identify with, that's what I like to write. And high farce,' she laughs. 'I found just by doing, that I can expand my range and not just be one kind of writer. That's why I like the show: it doesn't just do one thing. You constantly have to think on your feet.' One reason for the show's continual appeal is its characters, who have grown and changed like real people over the years. 'And all the while fighting snot monsters,' Noxon laughs.
The other motif that Noxon handles really well is the very darkest of drama, the most extreme horror motifs. In 'Consequences,' for example, Faith tries to seduce and kill Xander at the same time in a very shocking scene. In another of Noxon's episodes, shown this season, Adam kills a child. Though this is done off-screen, it's still a shocking idea to broadcast at 8 PM, the traditional 'family hour.'
Noxon explains: 'Before I started working at BUFFY I was writing features on spec and writing for the theatre and though I had written some comedy, much of what I had done veered off into horror,' she says. 'In fact, Joss Whedon calls me 'Suicide Girl.' It seems like all the scripts I initially showed him featured suicide...I wrote an NYPD BLUE that had a suicide in it, and an X FILES that featured suicide. Every piece of material he read had suicide in it. I didn't realize it, but someone always died in it. I loved tragedies as I was growing up, the very dramatic stuff. I love horror movies, but the ones that are more psychological, like ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST. I thought THE SIXTH SENSE was one of the best horror movies ever, because it seems so real. If I have influences, then they come from those sources.'
'I had a pretty dark past myself,' she admits. 'As a teenager, I was pretty self-destructive. Thank God, I came through that. But I do think the dark part of my personality is where my creativity comes from. And I think that keeping in touch with my creativity kept me alive. When I was younger, I wouldn't have believed that there was a happy ending to my story. My life now is wonderful, but getting here wasn't easy.'
Marti Noxon speaks about creativity as a way out of teen angst; staying in touch with her dark side allows her to turn that energy into something positive. 'Working with Joss, we feel valued all the time. Our viewers value us as well, and that's an amazing feeling. And it's most exciting to my mother, to see my picture in a magazine!'
Noxon also wrote the very imaginative episode called 'The Wish,' in which Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. In this episode, an evil parallel world is revealed, where we get a look at evil Willow for the first time. The episode has motifs that are reminiscent of both IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and the STAR TREK episode 'Mirror, Mirror.' Noxon explains the episode's origin: 'Joss really wanted to explore the idea of evil Willow and evil Xander. We worked backwards from that concept. I put forth some ideas, and other writers did too, and I created the character of Anya, never expecting her to come back as she has now. But she was a kind of device, and it was Joss's idea to use her to bring evil Willow back. And she was just so funny in that episode that we saw something more there with her. We often start out with an idea we want to play with, and then build an episode around it.'
Unlike 'Mirror, Mirror,' BUFFY is intentionally funny. Noxon, like Espenson, writes a lot of humor into her episodes. 'Because my episodes do skew darker, I do really make an effort to lighten things up. In an episode where there's a lot of melodrama and heavy dialogue, I try to use humor to lighten the moment effectively. It allows the characters to then go on and talk a lot longer! Humor is the other side of that dark place. That, too, is so true about being a young person.'
Noxon began in television as a writer's assistant, working first for a writer who is now the Executive Producer of JUDGING AMY. 'I called that job the Warner Brothers scholarship,' she jokes. 'She was in development a lot, so she wasn't always in the office, so I'd come in; I'd write; I'd use the copy machine...I should send them a check for copies and paperclips! I worked in variations of that situation for a long time. I had sold a freelance script early in my career to LIFE GOES ON. And at that point I was more focused on features. I wrote mostly ghost stories and fantastic adventure tales with supernatural overtones. I was trying to write TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY or GHOST or something cool like that. But people had already done that and much better than I had!'
'By the time I decided to work in television I had an ER, with suicide in it of course, and then I had a full-length play that was being work-shopped when I got this job. Joss read it and liked it, and he read the other two things, and brought me in for a meeting. I didn't think it went well at all, and I had another offer, and my agent told me to take it. I almost did; it was an NBC show with a full order of episodes. But I'm glad I went with BUFFY. I made the right choice. Joss and I have gotten along really well. So this is my first big gig.'
Noxon was raised in the L.A. area and grew up about six blocks from where BUFFY is now made. 'I was an actress in high school, but quickly realized that it wasn't for me. It all depends on how you look; it was so brutal. I was already way too worried about that. I went out on cattle calls, looked around and saw all these girls who were prettier, and it was crazy-making. So I'm glad I got out of that. But I still had this love for the dramatic, and people had been telling me I could write but I didn't see it. Finally, I started to brave this. This is my calling.'
She went to U.C. Santa Cruz, a school which could well be the blueprint for the show's fictional college, U. C. Sunnydale. 'I was a theatre arts major. At that time they had a tiny film department; they didn't have a film major. But my thesis was a screenplay, and I made dreadful, dreadful short films, and did all that stuff you do when you're in film school! Lots of films about angst, interspersed with music videos featuring break dancing!'
Noxon's plays have not been professionally produced, as she was just getting into the theatre world when her television career took off. 'Much to the chagrin of my professors,' she says. 'One time when I was a fairly new writer in a playwriting workshop, the professor looked down his nose at me and said, 'Marti's going to be a very successful television writer,'' she hisses in imitation. 'It was the worst possible thing he could think of to say. It's a double-edged thing. But it's a pedigree issue. I still feel the urge to go and try and get one of my plays produced; it might be easier now.'
Noxon wrote Episode 19, which will air May 2, the week before the show's season finale will begin, which takes three episodes to play out. 'All I can say about my episode is that it involves Willow and Tara. Hold onto your hats--it's going to be a bumpy ride for Willow!'
Next season Noxon continues her rigorous schedule. 'I'm consulting on ANGEL; I'm Co-Executive Producing BUFFY; I'm writing and directing an episode of BUFFY, and I'm getting married!' she enthuses. 'Then I'm having a nervous breakdown,' she laughs.
Watch for Episode 10 next season, which will be both written and directed by Noxon. She may also write an episode for ANGEL. 'The show is finding its footing,' she says of the BUFFY spinoff. 'Expect more of an ensemble cast next season.'
Noxon has been so busy on BUFFY that she hasn't done much credited work this season on ANGEL, although, as she says, 'In some ways the show is more suited to my darker impulses. I had a good time going in and helping out. Who knows? Maybe next year I'll get to go in and write an episodea real creepy one,' she says. 'Stay tuned, as we always say. There will be some cosmetic changes to ANGEL that I think the viewers will really enjoy.'
What BUFFY writers are most afraid of are not vampires and demons, but the phenomenal success of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. Noxon is nervous about May sweeps, but says that ratings stay pretty much the same year-round, with a loyal BUFFY audience. 'We were terrified of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE, but we needn't have been. Their audience is not ours. It hasn't affected us.'
Not surprising. After all, how could a mere game show compete with Noxon's BUFFY universe, in all its darkness, heartbreak, and yes, its humor and hope.