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Jane Espenson Interview - Atnzone.com

Monday 10 March 2003, by Webmaster

In her five seasons as a writer and producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jane Espenson has dished out her fair share of demon slayage, brilliant jokes and potent angst helping to craft heroine Buffy Anne Summers into the indelible TV icon she is today. Responsible for all or part of twenty-two Buffy episodes, Espenson has been a fan favorite since her episode debut back in 1998 with the role reversal classic, "Band Candy." Since then Jane has averaged about four episodes a season, most of which incorporate her flare for the comedic into the fabric of the storyline. With such episodes as, "Pangs," "Intervention," "Life Serial" and "Triangle," Jane has proved to be an incredibly adept comedic writer creating standout episodes rife with laugh out loud dialogue and impeccable timing.

A veteran TV writer before she landed at Buffy, Espenson wrote for Dinosaurs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Ellen and Something So Right before being hired by Joss Whedon as an Executive Story Editor. She’s risen through the ranks at Mutant Enemy over the years and now serves as a Co-Executive Producer on the series. Over the years, Jane has also expanded her role within the Whedon-verse writing two episodes of spin-off Angel, one episode of the space-western Firefly, and more than half a dozen original Buffy-related comics for Dark Horse Comics.

Jane and I had a chance to sit down and talk before the last Annual Posting Board Party in Los Angles on February 15, 2003 in Hollywood, California. Laidback and unassuming, Jane was gracious and funny as she settled down to talk about her experiences behind the scenes at the beloved show. Having just completed the filming of her last-ever Buffy script "Storyteller" the week before, Jane was excited but reflective as we discussed her season seven episodes as well as reviewed in-depth the lessons she’s learned working for Joss Whedon, the highlights of her career on Buffy and where her pen will take her next.

It’s been two months since Firefly was cancelled. Despite it’s short life, how was it working on that show? Oh, Firefly was a dream - it was really wonderful! I always wanted to write for a spaceship and I got my very first TV start at Star Trek so [Firefly] was going back to what I originally wanted to do.

How did you get involved in writing for Firefly? Did you pursue it with Joss or did he approach you and say ’Come on over here too? It was pretty much ’Come on over here, too.’ He involved all of [the writers] in the very early discussions of what the show would be. He told me early on that he was planning a space show and it would involve those characters. I tried to have input into [the show] but he really had [the characters] so well thought out. I remember a very early conversation that we had where I accompanied him to a store where he had to buy a gift and we were talking about how Mal (Nathan Fillion) got the ship and what Mal’s status was before the war. I was just asking Joss questions, thinking I’ll hit a question that he doesn’t have an answer to and that will help him formulate the show but every question I asked - he had the answer to it.

How long had Joss been developing Firefly? I think it was something he had in mind for sometime. He certainly had it really well worked out. Inara (Morena Baccarin), Mal and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) were really in place and I’m trying to think who he didn’t talk about early on…I think they were all there. It was clear he was seeing [the show] in his head. He just had to bring it out and that was before he had pitched the show yet. It was very exciting when it did get picked up because I had been there as the sounding board. From early on, it seemed clear that I would write one [of the episodes] but we also thought Doug Petrie would write one too but he never got to. We knew what his episode was going to be about but mine came up earlier in the rotation so it got in there [before the show was cancelled].

Joss, Tim Minear and the writing team really put their hearts and souls into the show but Fox canceled it in December. How was it going through that disappointment as a team?

We were sad for Joss and Joss was sad for the actors. Personally, I had been through so many more cancelled shows. I was [a writer] for five cancelled sitcoms before I was on Buffy so I was ready for it. I would have actually been surprised if it had the same easy path Angel did because space shows are problematic. They just haven’t had a good record of success and I’m always just braced for cancellation. [Laughs]. It is interesting that Joss’ main regret was always about the actors.

The pervasive feedback from Joss and the writers in reference to the show was their high praise for the cast. Was it easier to portray the ideas that Joss had developed because of the actors or did they surprise you all by adding more than was ever expected?

Both. It’s always easy to write for actors who you know will be able to do what you are writing, like we have on Buffy. Yeah, they did add a lot too. I think the episodes all turned out amazing and it was a combination of the fact that it was a fun show to write and then the actors took it to the next level. As did the director of photography with the lighting, the handheld work and the amazing sets! I was really pleased with how every episode of the show looked. I was really only involved in the one that I wrote, "Shindig" but you still feel that pride when you watch all of them.

Are there any other incarnations being discussed in which to resurrect the story of the "Serenity" crew? Joss had talked about making it a two-hour TV movie but I haven’t heard the status of that recently.

But, I think we should be very pragmatic about this and say ’Joss has two shows on the air!’ That’s remarkable! He took a gamble on a really offbeat and idiosyncratic show. I certainly understood it was a gamble: that people would find it, that the network would understand it, all the things that have to happen to make it a hit. It was a great experience and I hope it launched the careers of various actors and writers.

Listening to your audio commentary on the newly released Buffy Season 3 DVD set, I was struck by your story about the pitching process in particular when you mentioned a time when you threw out five or six story ideas and they all got struck down by Joss and David Greenwalt. That led me to wonder if there were stories that you really would have liked to tell on Buffy but you couldn’t?

One of the things I kept pitching early on was a Xander double, which I ended up getting to do in "The Replacement" [Season 5, episode 3] but not off my pitch. I don’t pitch stories anymore. That was something that was tried at Buffy but went away because when get your writers to come in with a list of ideas for stories they want to do, what you tend to get is a list of cool science fiction concepts. Whereas, what Joss really wants are emotional moments about our characters that we then can turn into a science fiction concept. As we got farther and farther into the series and our characters emotions were coming out of well-established back-stories, pitches became more and more difficult. The way the Xander story came about was, we were looking for a story that would indicate Xander is at a point in his life where he has successfully made the transition from a schoolboy to a career man. He has that moment of redefining himself in his own eyes. That is when it clearly became the right time to do a Xander double story - not just because it’s a cool concept and he has an identical twin, which was the reason I kept pitching it. I was like ’How we could we not use that?’ What I had to learn was that’s not how stories on Buffy are made. You don’t whip out the twin because you have a twin. You wait until there is a story where you need a twin and then you go ’Hey, we have one!’

As for the stories I wanted to tell, that’s interesting. We had a couple that we really liked. Writer Steven DeKnight pitched one about the school psychologist getting into kids heads literally with a spider that actually crawled into your head. We all thought that was so neat. I always wanted to do a story with Buffy stealing someone’s happiness. So as Xander got happier and she got sadder, wouldn’t it be interesting if she found herself stealing from him but I don’t know what it means metaphorically. There is something interesting in there but I never really worked out what it was. I was always interested in Xander’s job making him old because that is a phenomenon. He was working with a lot of people that are older than him in a grown-ups job but he is only twenty. But we ended up doing Xander from the future ["Hell’s Bell’s - Season 6] so we’ve seen older Xander.

The animated Buffy series that was in development was also going to be a place to explore more of the high school issues and metaphors. I understand you wrote several scripts for it?

Yeah, it was going to be back when Buffy was a sophomore in high school and Dawn was going to be there too. It was going to be back to the basic metaphors for high school stories but without the soap opera elements. There’d be no continuations so you could air them in any order. I wrote one in which Buffy feels very small and then she is very small. It was very first year Buffy but with things you couldn’t usually do because it would be very expensive [in live action]. I also did one about school lunch turning on the students. The lunches were made of demon meat and coalesce into a big demon. Oh, and an example of a story we always wanted to do but never did was one with Buffy shoplifting. We ended up being able to do it in the animated show with Dawn.

Is there any chance the animated show will actually ever happen? I have not heard anyone mention it in a year now so I think it’s all gone now. Which I don’t understand because we have eight scripts which were broken with Joss and have his input and were ready to go. It’s a shame!

In previous interviews, you mentioned "Band Candy" and "Superstar" being your favorite Buffy episodes you had written. Do you still feel the same way or do you have new favorites?

"Superstar" - Definitely. "Band Candy" - No. I look back at "Band Candy" now and all I can think is ’Oh, I could have done better.’ The jokes aren’t quite right. I was coming right off of sitcoms where you knew your jokes were going to get re-written so I think I had gotten lazy and was not making my jokes as sharp as they should be. I think my later writing has been better. I would pick "Superstar" and "First Date." "Storyteller" was pretty cool and I liked "Same Time, Same Place."

Both "Superstar" and "Storyteller" were out of the ordinary in that you got the chance to take secondary characters and showcase them in their own episodes. Is there a reason Joss gives you those episodes?

"Storyteller" just came up in the rotation this time but "Superstar" was one that was brought to me as ’this is comedy, you do this.’ But right now, we have so many writers that can do comedy; we are getting assigned more randomly. I think we have all been with Joss long enough that we could all write any of them.

What was especially rewarding for you about "First Date?" I felt like every scene had something interesting in it. The idea of Principal Wood’s [origin] came off of something I pitched so I have proprietary feelings about it. I loved the ending and the ’thank you’ to Nikki [The Subway Slayer]. I thought the stuff with Danny (Strong) and Tom (Lenk) worked really well. I got to say some stuff in that episode that I’d wanted to say about a lot of Buffy’s people being murderers. I was really pointing out the murkiness of it all. And there was just the tiniest moment when Dawn says something nice to Andrew and he says ’Thank you Dawn. You’re a peach.’ I want to see our characters be kind to each another and I got a chance to do that in there and I was very pleased with that.

Which in turn leads to the strong fan feedback especially coming off of Season 6, which was very polarizing for viewers. Many fans really want to see the core group re-bond this season after such estrangement last year. How do the writers balance pleasing the fans while also staying true to the story that Joss is trying to tell?

I like it when our characters are kind to one another but I know, on the whole, there are real conflicts in real human life that make people have divisions even when they love each other and that is part of the story that we are telling. So, I know we have to go there which is why I find it so important that when you get a chance - put in the moments that show the love and kindness. I never have done anything because the fans are clamoring for it because I feel that’s not our job. Our job is to make this "world" as well realized as we can. But I do understand, as a fellow fan, why they want certain things and I’ll put them in if I can. We all see the interaction between the characters through our own prism and so when it’s my episode and I get to see them my way, I make sure I get my moments. [Laughs] It’s weird because we’re not supposed to be doing that. I always tell aspiring writers ’your job is not to make the show yours, it’s to help the creator realize their vision.’ So, the odd thing is even though I say that all the time, there is still a part of me that goes ’I see these characters a certain way, I want them to act a certain way - here’s my chance on the keyboard.’ If Joss disagrees, he can re-write it so you feel free to put in what you want knowing if it goes the wrong way, he’ll fix it. [Laughs]

So, this will probably be the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Looking back on what you’ve been able to contribute to the show and what you have accomplished in your career, what lessons will you walk away with from working on this show when it’s all said and done?

You know it’s interesting, I was in the room with the writer’s yesterday and we were trying to break a story without Joss and he came in and erased everything and started over. I was telling the other writers, I feel like I’m only just now learning some of the lessons. The lessons being this is not about the logical moves that you need to have the characters make to get from the beginning to the end of this story. It is about the emotional steps they have to go through and the logic is just a thing that happens while they are doing it. We broke the story, the return of Faith, and we had this big mystery that [the Scoobies] had to solve. Joss came in and took all the mystery out and made the story very simple and minimal and made it all about how dropping Faith into the mixture of people affects every single person. It’s so much better! That’s the thing I hope I’ve learned. I keep realizing that I haven’t yet - not to the extent that Joss does it but I think I am finally getting it.

I’ve learned to make my jokes sharper than they were because there’s not going to be much re-writing. So, you better like that joke even in your first draft because that’s probably how it’s going to be said so you want it exactly right. I’ve learned a lot about the logic of act breaks. What is an "out" and what isn’t an "out."

The act breaks being those zingers and cliffhangers before commercial breaks, which are a key component in the story structure of both Buffy and Angel.

Yeah, trying to find those moments that turn the story and recognizing it when you have it. That’s something that I’ve also been working on this year, I feel like it hasn’t been until this year that I’ve really said ’I get it now.’

Comedy is your forte but you’ve also been responsible for writing some heavy drama on Buffy as well, like the episodes "Afterlife" in Season 6 where Buffy deals with being resurrected and your contributions to this season’s "Conversations with Dead People." There was a serious lack of funny in those scripts but they were outstanding episodes. Does it scare you to leave the comfort of comedy and write the heavier stuff?

Yes, "Afterlife" scared me. "Conversations with Dead People" was split up in a very unusual way for us. It was split up by story line and not by acts. I only wrote the Dawn material in "Conversations with Dead People" so it was all serious. I was not given the Andrew/Jonathan material and I was really worried. I really had my heart set on writing the "nerds" and I couldn’t believe it when that was given to Drew Goddard. I was very concerned because I felt I knew I could write the boys and I wasn’t sure if I could write horror. I’m really pleased that people liked [the outcome] because I did not go into that [episode] with a great deal of confidence.

Since going through that fear and uncertainty, do you feel more confident writing outside your comfort zone?

Yeah, I feel like I can write stuff that’s not funny but I also kind of see ’why would I?’ [Laughs] It’s only going to be on a show like this, that is such a mix of genres, that you would get to do horror and still know you will get to write comedy again. I’d be miserable if my next job were on Law & Order even though it’s my favorite show. There would be nothing I could contribute. I could write Law & Order but I feel the thing I do best is joke writing. I would really miss that.

Speaking of shows you like and now having to look at potential shows you might like to work on, what are your favorites?

Scrubs! I adore Scrubs. It’s cross genre just like Buffy. It’s comedy and drama and it does them both beautifully. It has the most gorgeously intricate stories I’ve ever seen. Like where they set up something like the Barbershop Quartet, that only sings cartoon theme songs, as a big joke and then at the crucial part of the episode, that became the soundtrack for the heroic doctors. That is brilliant! I love Andy Richter Controls the Universe, that show is hilarious. I enjoy The Gilmore Girls.

Do you know where you want to go next?

I have an offer, which I can’t talk about in specific but I expect to be on an existing hour drama next year.

Will there be comedy for you to write on this new project as well? Yeah, I wouldn’t go to a place without comedy. [Laughs]

Were you devastated when Jonathan was killed this season considering you’ve really been the person to develop his evolving status within your episodes?

I didn’t know it was coming but I remember the moment Joss told me because he was bracing himself to tell me. [Laughs] He thought I would be very upset. It actually did not upset me because I always knew that our dead characters work a lot. I immediately assumed he would be like Harmony and still be around. Then, he wasn’t around for a long time and that is when I started to feel bad. I was like ’Maybe dead Jonathan, really means dead Jonathan!’ I was very pleased when it became clear that Andrew’s role was getting bigger which I could have gotten upset at but I immediately recognized if Andrew gets more prominent then Jonathan makes more and more sense.

Do you have a favorite season or story arc in particular? I really loved Faith and the Mayor even though I never wrote for Faith. I thought that was great fun. I enjoyed the Nerds - always! They were always so funny. I’ve been interested in Principal Wood this year. But my number one has got to be the Buffy and Spike love story. I think that is just a gorgeous story. How do you follow-up her romance with Angel? I like the romance with Spike better. I’m more interested in the heat between those two characters because I felt Buffy and Angel had romantic love. Spike and Buffy have something so much more complicated that it’s got that romance and all this other stuff on top of it which makes it so interesting for me.

Some would say Angel and Buffy really had more of an idealized first love while Spike and Buffy have the more adult, messy, kind of love which is more realistic.

That’s right. It’s not idealized and it’s just so often ugly and yet when James Marsters does stuff where you look in his face and you go ’Oh, my God, he loves her so much!’ Ahh! It’s just so wonderful.

Yet that story line has been polarizing too since some fans will always want Buffy and Angel together then there are those that don’t think Spike can be redeemed and then there are the fans that think Spike is redeemed already. It’s the perfect example of where you just have to write your story despite the feedback.

You have to write your story, exactly! If we have made both love stories compelling enough that they both have adherence, then we’ve done our job. Our job isn’t to advocate one or the other but to present two reasonable romances with balance. I feel if it’s polarizing then - great we did it!

I think Joss has been misunderstood when he talks about ’You don’t give the fans what they want, you give them what they need.’ People think he is antagonizing the fans. No, what he is trying to do is give you that delicious ’I want more feeling.’ That little bit of dissatisfaction that keeps you from going ’I’m bored.’ [Laughs] The example I always use is the first season of Big Brother on CBS. They let the viewers vote and they voted out everyone who brought any conflict to the house and then viewers felt their job was done and turned off the show! Our human impulses work towards satisfaction and against involvement and our job [as writers] is to keep you entertained and involved and not necessarily satisfied because once you are satisfied, that’s it - you turn off the porn movie. [Laughs]

Since this is the last season, it seems the writers have been having particular fun in revisiting old stories, characters and loose ends, like having Faith return at the end of this season. Has it been fun dipping into the shows extensive history?

Absolutely! I love continuity.

The fans of Buffy in particular are experts on the continuity and will call you on any mistakes made with it!

Yeah and sometimes they aren’t mistakes. People have been very angry with Drew Greenberg because [in "The Killer in Me"] The Initiative was not cemented in. In Drew’s outline, he had that they had to break through an enormous cement plug but it didn’t get filmed that way for whatever reason. But we all felt when [the Government] said ’Fill it with cement, salt the earth, burn it to the ground’ - it was clearly hyperbole. It’s underground; you can’t burn it to the ground. There would be a big dead patch on the U.C. Sunnydale campus! So, we do the best we can but I’m very proud when we remember our history.

So, when Buffy ends and you move on, what do you want people to remember about the show and the legacy it leaves?

I want people to remember Buffy was a well-written and well-designed show that did new and different things. It was about something, it had a theme. It had something to say to women and girls. I want people to remember that no one ever resented Buffy for her power. They may have resented her because occasionally she was cold or closed-off but that just meant she was human. I want people to remember that original group - Buffy, Xander, Willow and see how they’ve walked through the fire. And I want people to look back on it like it was a world and not a series. If they look back on it like a series, I get more acclaim [laughs] but if they look back on it like a world, that means I did a better job.