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Jane Espenson

Jane Espenson - "Caprica" Tv Series - Brisbanetimes.com.au Interview

Thursday 21 October 2010, by Webmaster

AMERICAN TV writer Jane Espenson was in Australia recently to teach the local creatives how to write genre television - specifically science fiction but more broadly anything created with a strong and unapologetic sense of its audience in mind.

At least, that’s what Film Victoria, which paid her way, thought it was getting. But as she took to the stage, Espenson - whose credits include sci-fi epic Battlestar Galactica, its prequel Caprica (now on 7Two) and, soon, the Dr Who spinoff Torchwood - told the would-be writers in the room to ignore all notions of the marketplace. ’’Don’t write for an audience,’’ she said. ’’Write what you want to see.’’


Caprica is set 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica.

Espenson also had another, less contentious, bit of advice: watch what you want to write. ’’Work backwards,’’ she said. ’’If there’s a TV show you really like, watch your favourite episode and re-create the outline. Now you’ll know what a good outline looks like. That’s how I taught myself.’’

Espenson wrote about a dozen spec scripts following the working-backwards principle before she landed her first paying job. She tried her hand at Seinfeld, Roseanne, Frasier and Cheers before finally getting an in on Star Trek. From there she landed a traineeship with Disney, which led to a staff writing job on Dinosaurs (the Jim Henson prehistoric Muppet sitcom) and, eventually, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Battlestar Galactica. She has just finished a stint as the show runner (the head writer-producer who manages a show) on Caprica and is about to write three episodes of Torchwood.

Espenson clearly knows her sci-fi and fantasy, both as a creator and fan, and when she talks about writing for herself, she might as well be talking about writing for an audience. She respects them; she’s one of them (gabba gabba hey). Eric Stolz plays Daniel Graystone in Caprica.

Eric Stolz plays Daniel Graystone in Caprica. Photo: Syfy

’’I’ve heard people say sci-fi nerds are people who don’t fit in here, so they’re looking for a different world where they would fit in. I don’t buy that,’’ she says.

’’When you meet sci-fi fans, they’re fully functional, lovely people but they do tend to be frustrated by the pettiness in our world and are in love with infinite diversity. They’re broad-minded, broad-seeking people.

’’Sci-fi fans are very special and demanding. If you can create a world that is real enough to satisfy their quest for something that is real and is not here, you’ve really hooked into something.’’

Certainly, no one could accuse Caprica of not giving that a red-hot go. Set 58 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, the series explores life on the 12 colonies from which Battlestar’s 50,000 human refugees will later emerge. The planet Caprica is the focal point but what goes on in the outlying colonies matters, too, if only as utterly plausible background noise.

’’We made a great effort to make the worlds you’re watching feel as real as our world,’’ Espenson says. ’’I had a writer called Bob Harris write a big, long document for us, where he went through all of the colonies other than Caprica … and came up with personalities, languages, cultural backgrounds, capital cities and all that kind of stuff so they felt real and grounded and inhabited, so when our characters would talk about them, if they made a joke where the punch line is, ’Well, he’s from Aerilon’, we knew what sort of joke it would be.’’

Many American shows have ’’show bibles’’, a kind of form guide that details all the background that informs characters and storylines, but this was just one of Caprica’s. ’’We had a number of them,’’ Espenson says. ’’This was just the one that told us what all the other planets were about.’’

It’s that level of detail, she says, that gives this kind of genre film and television its richness.

’’When people say they don’t like sci-fi or fantasy, I say, ’Oh, so you didn’t like The Wizard of Oz, Blade Runner, Big, Back to the Future, It’s a Wonderful Life’? So many beloved movies and shows, when you think about it, have some aspect of alternative reality. People don’t realise how much of what they love is this genre.’’ Caprica airs Thursday at 9.30pm on 7mate.