Creative Minds: Jane Espenson on 'Once Upon a Time' and 'Buffy'
Jane Espenson has been a writer or producer on numerous shows with huge fan appeal. From pitching stories to "Star Trek: Next Generation" to shaping the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" universe to helping make "frak" a household word (in my household) through "Battlestar Galactica" and "Caprica," she knows how to connect with viewers.
As well as co-creator of “Warehouse 13” and a writer on “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” Espenson is a consulting producer on the fairy-tale-based ABC series “Once Upon a Time,” which premieres Sunday. We asked her about the new show and what shaped her as a writer.
What was the first thing you saw on screen that really resonated with you?
I was very lucky that I grew up with absolutely top-flight comedy. As a kid, I grew up watching "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Bob Newhart" and "MASH" and "Barney Miller".... "MASH" was the first one where I remember putting pen to paper and saying, 'Yeah. I think I could write a sample of this because I want so much to be a part of that world and tell those stories."
So many current show runners graduated from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Why was it such a launching pad?
That show was done very top down: Almost every idea came from Joss [Whedon]. And we got to sit there and watch him come up with these ideas, talk about how he approaches a story. There was this notion that everything has to mean something in a story; never being tempted by a cool concept.... That was huge.
Magda Apanowicz, the actress from "Caprica," recounted how much "Buffy" not only influenced her acting and career choice, but her life as well. Do you still get a lot of that?
Yes. Actually someone tweeted yesterday that they wouldn't have gotten through high school if it wasn't for "Buffy." The people who are now saying that -- some are still in high school and some are much, much older now -- but the fact that they would remember is touching and amazing. But it's that "high school is hell" notion -- in a way Joss Whedon was ahead of the it-gets-better curve -- that the show was all about. It's just about getting through it and holding your head up while you're surrounded by the monstrosities of life being a teenager.
What appealed to you about “Once Upon a Time?”
These fairy tale creations cursed to live in the real world is just a fantastic concept. What’s the modern take on Jiminy Cricket and Rumpelstiltskin? What would their issues be in the real world? The beauty of the production, the care and the effort and, honestly, the expense that was put into it just made clear that was a project done with a lot of attention and love.
Yes. There are some directors I've worked with before. I have pitched a couple of actors for roles we haven't cast yet that are people I've worked with before, and I certainly hope that would happen 'cause I know they'd be fantastic. Characters that I've written for before? Yes, actually! I wrote an episode of "Buffy" that had Hansel and Gretel in it, and Hansel and Gretel are gonna show up on "Once."
You have these writing sprints on Twitter, in which you interact with fans in a productive/creative manner. And you've been involved with shows that have such intense fan followings. How much influence do they have on what you write?
You want to make the fans happy -- and I love interacting with them. Science fiction and fantasy have the best fans in the world. They're so passionate and so involved and so often have these amazing insights. At the same time, I think it's important not to end up being a short order cook and cooking for taste buds that aren't your own. Then it's like, "You said you wanted more of this. Does this taste right to you?" 'Cause then you're not tasting your own food and you're cooking for someone else. It's important to write what the writer wants to see because then you can write with great passion and confidence, because at least you're satisfying yourself.
You've also launched a Web series called "Husbands," which could be called the first marriage-equality comedy. Is this now the best medium for original content?
More of the providers of television are going to be turning to the Web as their delivery mechanism. But I actually think it's something broader than that. You don't necessarily need all of the money and infrastructure of a giant TV network anymore to make good entertainment. We were able to make "Husbands" a lot quicker and cheaper than we would on a network. Of course, if we wanted to make more we'd need some love from people with deeper pockets. The thing that I'm finding really inspiring, though, is that it was a great way to test drive a concept. 'Is there an audience for this content? Oh yes, there is!' It's a great way to take a concept that is somewhat niche and just say 'Let's find out,' without the expense of doing an entire TV season. And I think that could allow much more of a diversity of product out there. Even if this never became anything more than ... what is it called in baseball where they test whether a player is any good?
Triple-A or a developmental league?
Yeah, yeah. Even if the Internet isn't anything more than triple-A ball, it would already be incredibly useful because you'd have a place where you can make a show like "Husbands" that deserves to be made, but maybe you wouldn't ever think to make it because no one would think that there's an audience there.
-- Jevon Phillips
Photo: Jane Espenson. Credit: Myung J. Chun Los Angeles Times.