This week I was afforded the honour of questioning the life and career of US Television Writer, Producer- and Creator, Jane Espenson. A veteran of the industry, Jane has occupied many ‘Writer’s Rooms’ with many more teams of writers. As her own “Star” shoots off into the proverbial- partly thanks to the success of her online series; Husbands the Series, Jane made this Aussie’s day recently when she took the time to revisit various highlights- and lowlights- of her eclectic career thus far, including the age old question; can she Sing?! Useless disclaimer: Certain words jump between US and UK/AUS spelling based on the speaker.
Aaron Ware: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me; I'd like to turn back the clock, could you tell us a bit about young, school-yard Jane? Were you the quiet wall-flower or social butterfly?
Jane Espenson: Wallflower, absolutely. I lived very much in my own head, read a lot, watched a lot of TV, spent a lot of time with my parents. My best friend was much, much quieter and shyer and more intellectual than me, so I never thought of myself as terribly introverted compared to her, but I was absolutely on that end of the scale.
AW: Was it around that time that you started to take an interest in writing? Who were the people that inspired you to put pen to paper?
JE: I loved to read and my mom introduced me to Jane Austen pretty early while I was also reading spy thriller novels that my dad brought home from the library for himself. But I also watched lots and lots of TV and that's where I saw myself fitting in. The episodic TV thing, where you follow one set of characters through a potentially infinite series of stories – that encouraged me to make up my own stories in my head. So it was ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’, more than ‘Pride and Prejudice’, that led to me wanting to write.
AW: Did this include a teenage crush on the Barbarino?
JE: Ha! Definitely not. I almost never liked the alpha lead of a show. I liked the short funny guys -- Horshack forever.
AW: How much of your own childhood, your thoughts, feelings and experiences have you put into your writing? If any, could you name a particular moment/episode/scene that stood out?
JE: Hmm. Well, Riley Finn, the character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is from Iowa because I am. I was rewriting a scene very quickly – there was some kind of urgent need for it – and I didn't have time to make anything up, so I put an
experience in there. And sometimes if
I'm looking to give a character a last name, I'll pull one from my elementary
school, but that's tricky since the roster was pretty much: Espenson, Iverson,
Johnson, Benson, Swenson... Oh, and Dawn
liked anchovies because I do. But I
think you're actually asking a much broader question to which the answer is
"all of it." I think our basic
personalities are there from the start, and so everything I write is informed
by who I have been since childhood – my take on the world, the traits I admire
in people, my dislikes – they all find their way into the writing.
AW: Can/Does that also apply to dialogue, your own mannerisms in speech; would there be a character that has most sounded like you?
JE: Anya on Buffy sounds a lot like me -- there's a certain efficiency in her speech. And Brady on Husbands, probably. I think the character that's funny because they're a little bit literal, that's often me speaking.
AW: Having been motivated by the very idea in your youth, TV series such as MASH and Star Trek accepted unsolicited submissions for scripts. Do you think that's an avenue that modern productions should attempt, as a way of keeping their audience hooked and involved- Or do you think the sheer numbers of submission would be a turn-off for any series?
JE: My memory that MASH did this is entirely based off an interview I read when I was 12, so I'm not entirely sure about that. Star Trek: TNG and later Trek incarnations did this, but not with the intention of producing the scripts. The scripts were samples used to select writers to come in and pitch episode ideas. This was useful for an idea-driven show with a long history that had depleted its store of in-house ideas, but probably not very useful for any other kind of show. A character-driven show with a complicated story arc and a busy room, bursting with ideas already, would be slowed down by pulling writers from the room to hear pitches for other ideas. And I bet that on many shows a lot of prospective writers would come in with overlapping ideas, which could be a legal nightmare. For a certain kind of show, outside pitches could work well, but not for most of the shows that are working right now.
AW: Still within the area, with the communal aspect of the Internet and the oft-fast turnaround of many shows (Glee for example) do you think we'll ever see a long-running show on USA TV that is audience influenced- plot points, characters, cast etc. from voting online? Reality shows aside, of course.
JE: Oh, perhaps, but I dearly hope not. Having that kind of control sounds like fun, but imagine a roller coaster where you dictate each turn or swoop before it happens. I think you get beautiful shows like Battlestar and Buffy when you're treated to the singular vision of a smart creator. I think a ship without a pilot won't have the same soul.
AW: Memory recalls an Aussie show called Fat Cow Motel, but I'm unsure of it's depth of interaction. In a way, it's a little bit along the lines of officially read/produced Fan-Fiction, was that something you enjoyed as a teenager? If not, what would be a TV-Show or Film that would've, even; would now inspire you to write fan-fic?
JE: The internet has made fan-fiction much more of a phenomenon. I have no trouble with it – after all, writing stories based on characters I didn't create is how I make my living. If I wasn't writing for Once, I imagine I might be somewhere writing Once fan-fic. Romantic stories are a great fit for fan-fic because the prose style lets you get into the characters' inner voices in a way you don't in a script.
AW: Speaking of the Fans, your past work in iconic, cult shows such as Buffy have afforded you a very loyal fan-base, many of whom you would meet at Conventions; what has been your most heart-warming moment meeting a fan so far?
JE: Oh, there are so many. Recently, I've been out meeting the fans of Husbands (HusbandsTheSeries.com), the online show I created with Brad Bell. That's a really heartwarming experience because here's this show that's a very pure representation of what we set out to do, and the fans who love it really connect with us. Initially our audience was very female, but in the last year it's really diversified and our favorite thing is when we meet someone who says her boyfriend or husband found the show first. That's lovely.
AW: That sort of fan reaction to Husbands must be the ultimate validation, especially given season 1 was self-financed, then the Kickstarter campaign for season 2- Is it the type of moment that makes you sit back and think "Wow, I'm so glad I followed my gut instinct!" - What goes through your mind during a moment like that?
JE: Well, my good gut instinct was to listen to Brad Bell, who has a great sense of story and also of the shape of things to come. I knew as soon as we landed on the idea of a newlywed comedy that the content would be good, but it wasn't until that season two Kickstarter that I knew for sure that we had reached people in the way we'd hoped to. Looking back, I'm so thrilled that we made Husbands – from the very beginning I kept using the phrase "a show that deserves to exist," and I believe it. It's been an adventure and a half.
AW: How would you describe Husbands the Series to the uninitiated?
JE: I like to just say it's a newlywed comedy and then let them gradually put together that both the newlyweds are men. It's a very traditional comedy – very funny, very romantic, and the whole point of it is that every new couple makes the same mistakes. In the end it all comes down to the love. It's a very sweet story. Brad Bell and Sean Hemeon, along with Alessandra Torresani are the core cast and they're amazing.
AW: The character of Brady (played by Sean Hemeon) is a recently 'out' Baseball player, was giving him such an -for lack of a better term- 'alpha male' occupation a deliberate choice to help bring home the message of Equality? Even today in 2012 there aren't as many openly Gay sportsmen as what there could be if many were comfortable in 'coming out'?
JE: Well, yes, we liked the idea of an out athlete because that would highlight that scarcity, but actually we were more focused on making a career choice for Brady that would generate the most diverse story options. If they were both actors, or even both performers, we would run the danger of having their issues be too similar. This way, we could tell stories that started from Brady’s unusual situation in a way that would be sure to be charged and full of conflict. Which is exactly what we did draw on as the starting point for season two.
AW: We've all recently enjoyed the Husbands comic series, published through our friends at Dark Horse Comics, if you could translate Husbands into a Broadway musical, which actors would you have playing the parts?
JE: The same ones! Sean, Brad and Alessandra can do anything!
AW: Will we get a DVD/Blu-Ray release?
JE: YES! We are getting ready to make Husbands DVDs available! Anyone who follows @TeamHusbands will be kept up to date on things like that.
AW: What sort of special features can fans look forward to? Do you find you have less or more deleted scenes being in control of your own project?
JE: We will have special features – an interview with Joss, all our backstage footage, even a thing or two that hasn’t been seen yet. We didn’t have any deleted scenes – we cut and trimmed the material in the normal way. The editing process was very similar to other projects I’ve been on – you keep trimming until the very best moments are left.
AW: Husbands was the first online show to be hosted at the
. Fan reaction aside, can you tell us what that
meant to yourself and Brad? Paley Center
JE: It was huge. We felt incredibly honored. They set up a gorgeous screening and event for us and we were grinning all night long. Ben and Jerry supplied free ice cream – it was a glorious launch for season two. I think Brad and I really looked at each other that night with a sense that this was a whole new deal – so much bigger than season one had been.
AW: With having full control of your own product, was there any times writing/developing that you found yourselves crossing the censorship line? Can you share with us anything juicy that was omitted?
JE: I don't think we've ever omitted anything for that reason, but we moved something. There's a punch line, "no gag reflex," in season two, that used to occur much earlier in the script. It was our brilliant director and EP Jeff Greenstein who suggested that it might be a little off-putting so early in the story before the viewers were invested in the characters. We saw that he was right and reordered some events.
AW: Who would be among your ultimate guest stars for Husbands?
JE: Well, we were already so thrilled to get Joss Whedon and Jon Cryer and Mekhi Phifer and the rest... It's hard to imagine anything better. I guess I'd love to give them a cadre of out celebrity friends – Johnny Weir and NPH and Jesse Tyler Ferguson... that would be fun!
AW: Does your writing style change - writing for something that is very quick-witted, but also in such short form, compared to writing for shows such as your current hit, Once Upon A Time?
JE: Well, sitcoms rely on what are called "hard jokes," – set-up followed by punch line, and almost every line is either one or the other. In an hour drama that pace would feel forced. But other than the density of the jokes, I think it's very much the same. You're still listening to the characters' voices and finding the rhythm of the scene and making it all as emotionally true as you can.
AW: It's my knowledge that there wasn't as many hidden messages within Buffy- even Joss' work altogether- than his fans seem to find; OUAT seems to be littered with them- Are as many deliberately placed by the production team as have been spotted? I realize a lot has to do with the connection to LOST, something which seemed to have equal parts deliberate and mistaken hidden messages.
JE: If people do see more than we intended, are they wrong, or are they spotting things our subconscious impulses make us do?
AW: Suddenly I feel discombobulated; Coming up with those moments at the writer's table - even the more intricate plot connections; is there a sense of "Light bulb above the head" - or does having a room full of writers take away that almost-self-surprised element?
JE: Not at all – it isn’t lost at all. It happens all the time that one person at the table will have that insightful moment and will solve everything all at once. That’s why it’s so useful to have a full staff; you maximize your chances of a light bulb moment.
AW: Was it your idea to put Buffy's Scythe in Rumplestiltskin's collection?
JE: Yep. That was me.
AW: Nice work! If you could cross-over OUAT with another, completely unrelated show, which characters would you have the most fun uniting?
JE: Hm. Well, Once is already built on crossing characters over – it's our premise, but it sure would be fun to see the Husbands guys move to town!
AW: The cross-over of F'tale characters is what inspired the question- Would Brady and Cheeks befriend our heroine Snow White, or would they swing towards the dark side?
JE: I think Brady would love Snow White. Cheeks… I can see him more likely to team up with
Regina. But I’m sure they’d work through it as a
AW: Heroic TV characters, especially ones with a shady moral compass, still (mostly) end up with their happy endings each episode- is there ever the urge to write negative outcomes for characters that are loved by the fans- or perhaps just 'too nice'?
Buffy was one moment where we were delivered that, but are there instances when
you're writing that you get that urge to teach them a definite lesson or two?
JE: Hm – I can think of many, many episodes where you give the hero a disastrous ending. Overcoming those moments is what makes them a hero. In terms of punishing the nice – I'm reminded of Melanie in Gone with the Wind -- I guess that's a thing a writer can do. But of course it was the writer who chose to make them nice in the first place! Moral complexity is generally something you want your characters to have. If I had a character who was "too nice," I'd sooner write them a little more complicated than kill them. But that's not the only reason to kill a character.
AW: I guess I'm reminded of Buffy- in the end she may have saved the day, but you guys certainly made it difficult for her along the way; - Angel, Riley, Spike- the arch with Faith didn't really have the happiest of outcomes until she returned rehabilitated- Was there many arguments about "No! Stop! She's can't take anymore!" in the writer's room, or was the trust in Joss too strong though her roller-coaster ride?
JE: I trust Joss, always. And the more a character overcomes, the bigger the victory.
AW: Still on Buffy, If you were tasked with creating a new Slayer- What would her name be, and what would she be like?
JE: In fact, I just did this. His name is Billy and he’s the first male Slayer. He wasn’t “chosen,” isn’t part of the Slayer mythology, but has made that choice himself. He’s very brave and was inspired by so many young men who have told me how the Buffy saga helped them.
AW: Of course! Billy! You've mentioned previously that working on BTVS was an excellent training ground- with lessons each writer took into their future work; What would be the device/lesson you've most commonly used?
JE: The best advice from Joss is to always know why you’re telling the story. To know what you’re saying with the story. That is absolutely crucial and I take it with me to every project.
AW: The following Joss' work gained through BTVS seemed to be the first time in a while that the writer's room seemed to be receiving as much attention as the actors- Did that feel like it was the case on your side of the proverbial fence? That the writer's room suddenly gained a mass of fans and respect?
JE: Absolutely, the Buffy writers were recognized and celebrated by the fans. Part of this, I think, was that Joss was a very early adopter of the kind of fan contact you now have routinely over Twitter. There were online message boards at a site called The Bronze, and there was even a yearly party where we could go meet the fans. But even without this, I think science fiction and fantasy fans are more aware of the writers, of the whole process, than a lot of fans in other genres, so a certain amount of curiosity about us was natural. And wonderful – my life has been vastly enriched through contact with viewers.
AW: When hearing audience reactions- which do you most enjoy; having made people Laugh, Cry or Hide-in-Fear?
JE: Laugh. I love to make people laugh. That’s my fave by far.
AW: Ditto; What characters have been your least favourite to write for?
JE: The more complex a character, the harder they are to write for, since their reactions are more nuanced and hard to predict. Buffy was a very, very complicated character who was a lot harder to write than, say, Anya. It’s hard to call someone “least favorite” when writing for them is pure joy, but she was certainly a challenge sometimes through her sheer number of layers.
AW: As a writer, how do you feel about 'Spoilers'? Once upon a time we were able to watch Buffy and be surprised weekly, 10 or so years later and it seems no matter the twist, a preview or social media user will spoil the plot-point; does that ever get frustrating or does it make you want to work harder to shock/surprise us?
JE: It’s frustrating – to the viewers and us. I think you do have to work harder, to make stronger misleads, and to avoid being led by the fans instead of leading them. It’s all harder, but the trade off is getting to see the genuine reactions in the moment, and right now I think it’s a trade off worth making.
AW: Long-term employ aside, you've written 1 or 2 scripts for a number of shows such as The OC and Dinosaurs (nerdvana for me), is there any series which you would still actively consider yourself a fan of?
JE: Game of Thrones, I’d say. What a wonderful show! I was very fortunate to have been involved.
AW: I’ve still yet to get through the pilot of GoT! Warehouse 13 is another show you've created, that has also received a cult following- any word on a 5th season?
JE: I was only involved in the pilot, the show marches along very well without me. I don’t get any inside word on developments like renewals.
AW: Oh, well there you go, we’ll move on then to an upcoming project; can you tell us anything about Star Wars: Detours?
JE: Sure! I was invited to get involved by old buddy Seth Green and it was a magical adventure! It was incredible getting to write for the iconic characters whom I’d loved since I was ten years old. There’s nothing like writing a bit of dialog for Han Solo to make you very happy with your life.
AW: If you could pick any actor, living or deceased, to devise a television series for- Who would you pick, and what would the show be like?
JE: Brad Bell. And it would be Husbands. He’s a very talented actor – he has that trick of making a performance look absolutely effortless, but when you’re in the editing room you can look carefully and see all the little things he’s doing.
AW: What would be on your ultimate Road-Trip Mix CD?
JE: A lot of Weird Al Yankovic. And audio books. I love to be read to!
AW: I am right there with you on both of those! Any desire to move into live theatre? Your quick witted style would be highly suited to Musicals as well as Plays.
JE: I love the theater and adore musicals, but TV is what I grew up watching and it’s really very much my love.
AW: OUAT is Disney made, or at least supported- how much closer are we to hearing Lana Parrilla belt out something like Poor Unfortunate Souls in a Musical episode? I know it's been asked before- I am very much anticipating it!
JE: Musical episodes are amazing. They are very difficult to do.
AW: Are you much of a singer yourself?
JE: Not at all. There’s a reason that Buffy writers Marti Noxon and David Fury are in the Buffy musical and I am very much not.
AW: Are there any musicals you're a fan of?
JE: Into the Woods is amazing. Book of Mormon. And all the old MGM movie musicals, too.
AW: I should have seen Into the Woods coming! Finally; If there was a Musical written about the life of Jane Espenson, what would it be called, what style of music would it be in, and who would you like to play you?
JE: Oof. That sounds awful. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable! I guess it would be all bubblegum pop and novelty songs starring Bernadette Peters and called “An Anagram for Openness” in reference to my last name.
Husbands the Series – Watch for FREE now at www.HusbandsTheSeries.com