Monday, January 9, 2012

Bent-Con 2011: Screenwriter Jane Espenson Talks About "Buffy" Comics, "Husbands" and "Once Upon A Time"

Thanks to the iconic TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Red Dot Diva was introduced to the talented writing skills of Jane Espenson.

She considers it a fortune to have met Jane briefly before at UK Buffy cons held in the early 2000's. Even after "Buffy" and spin-off series "Angel" were both cancelled, Red Dot Diva continued to follow Jane's writing career.

Jane Espenson is a prolific TV screenwriter/ producer and her long and amazing list of works includes scripts for "Battlestar Galactica", "The O.C.", "Firefly", "Gilmore Girls", "Jake In Progress" (Yes peeps! That's the short-lived series that starred the geekily-adorable and super-nice celebrity hunk Chris Gorham, who is now a regular in "Covert Affairs"), "Dollhouse", "Caprica" and recently, for HBO's wildly popular "Game of Thrones", "Torchwood" and ABC's "Once Upon A Time".

One thing Red Dot Diva has always wished, was to be able to interview Jane Espenson one day for the RDD blog. Even though, this has not yet come true to Red Dot Diva personally, she was glad that Twitter friend @TheReal_Rebel was able to catch Jane Espenson at an LGBT-centric convention in Los Angeles recently.

Here is @TheReal_Rebel's interview with Jane Espenson when she met the writer at Bent-Con 2011:

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I attended a convention called Bent-Con at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles on December 4-5, 2011.

It was probably the most important convention I've attended all year because it was a comic book convention that focused on graphic novels and other forms of media made by and targeted to the LGBT and LGBT-friendly communities.

The convention showcased a multi-ethnic spectrum of subject matter and styles for audiences ranging from children to teens to adults. Humor, romance, super heroes, noir, horror, science fiction, fairy tales - both modern and medieval - were well represented at the convention, along with angst-driven narratives reflecting a diverse community in both taste and interests.

One of the featured guests at Bent-Con was independent Graphic Novelist Wendi Pini of "ElfQuest" fame. At her panel, Wendi discussed her gothic romance based on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death".

Another treat for me at Bent-con was the opportunity to meet and interview well-known writer and fan favourite (especially in geek-based sci-fi/ fantasy circles), Jane Espenson.

TheReal_Rebel: I'm a great fan of your work in television, comics and on the Web.
Jane Espenson: Thank you.

TheReal_Rebel: But since we are at a comic book convention, I'd like to ask you about your work on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comic book. (Note: the one based on Joss Whedon's television series.)
Jane Espenson: The "Buffy" comic books? Yes! I love doing those! I'm going to be doing a two-part issue which I will be co-writing with "Buffy" writer Drew Greenberg for Season 9. I'm really looking to get involved in "Buffy" Season 9.
(Note: "Buffy" lasted seven seasons on television and continued in comics as Season 8 and beyond.)

TheReal_Rebel: Is the thinking considerably different between writing a script for a comic book and a script for television?
Jane Espenson: Yes! The amount of story you can get for a comic book script is is less. It can take several pages just to have people cross a room. I'm exaggerating but not by much. I'm always over-estimating how much story you can get into a comic book and I always have to scale it down. And it can't be dialogue heavy! Or it traditionally isn't dialogue heavy. You do see some comic books that are dense with text but I think a better fit for the genre is a lot of movement, a lot of action and less talk. So you have to think of how to pick a story that inherently has a lot of action or take a story that is about talking and find a way to make that talking happen while they're enough movement to make it worth telling in that form. 

I did a Buffy comic issue which was about a big adventure for Riley and his wife (Note: Riley Finn was an Special Ops Soldier who was briefly romantically involved with Buffy see Seasons 4-5). That was the first time I felt I had really picked a story that took advantage of the form so well. There was so much for them to do in the story that it made the conversations between them pop! What they were saying was helped both visually and thematically and in every way by the fact that they were doing these huge actions at the same time.

TheReal_Rebel: Has your experience writing the ("Buffy") comics made you interested in possibly doing your own?
Jane Espenson: Creating my own comic book? I thought about it. I had a notion, but I find my favorite part of writing is sitting down and writing dialogue. And that is the least thing you do in comics. So I feel that if I'm going to create my own thing I'm more likely to do it as a TV pilot than a comic book. I love writing comic books but I particularly like creating characters through their voices. Comic books make that seem less natural, I think. Maybe I'm just not good enough at comic books to know how to do that. But my gut instinct is always going to tend to lean towards dialogue.

TheReal_Rebel: You worked on "Game of Thrones"...
Jane Espenson: Yes.
TheReal_Rebel: ...and you worked on "Once Upon a Time". I'm wondering if this sudden move towards successful TV shows having fantasy or sci-fi/ horror elements, like "The Walking Dead", is something new? Or does this just come in waves?
Jane Espenson:  If you talk generally about fantasy, let's say "Lord of the Rings", if this is "sudden", it's been a long and slow "sudden". I think fantasy has always been with us. I mean, if you look at "The Wizard of Oz", it's fantasy. The big movie franchises have largely been fantasy or science fiction. 

I think the fact we're getting a number of fairy tale stories - that's more cyclic. This is an old idea. When I was first getting into TV there was a show called "The Charmings". It was very similar to "Once Upon a Time" in terms of story. It's a story that is out there in people's minds. People read fairy tale characters, they're going to put it in the same place as aliens, robots and vampires as the same thing that's been established in our world through fiction. But really it isn't of our world. It gives you a way to metaphorically talk about outsiders. 

There is nothing better for fiction than talking about outsiders trying to fit in, wanting to fit into society or wanting to get home. That sense of "otherness" is a scary thing, like in "The Walking Dead". Or "otherness" as us, our fear that we are different. I think it's so narratively powerful. 

That's universal and that's always going to be represented in popular fiction in some way to represent the outsider. Whether its a current craze to to do them as an alien, robot, a monster or a fairy tale character. That's just fashion and that cycles around.

TheReal_Rebel: You've pretty much done every genre from science fiction to sitcoms, so I'm assuming that you don't have to worry about being pigeon-holed. Was that a conscious decision?
Jane Espenson: At a certain point it became conscious. Actually I think I do get pigeon-holed some. I've done enough sci-fi and fantasy that it's starting to be how I get referred to - as "genre writer." By which they mean, a sci-fi/ fantasy writer. In order to keep all the plates spinning, my next project should probably not be that. Maybe that's what my web-series "Husbands" will do. That's a return to my comedy roots with no sci-fi/ fantasy elements in it.

TheReal_Rebel: Tell me about "Husbands".
Jane Espenson: Oooo! I'm so proud of "Husbands"! "Husbands" was a web series I did this year with some friends of mine, Brad Bell, Sean Hemeon, Jeff Greenstein and Alessandra Torresani and we had an idea to do a "Mad About You" style newly-wed romantic comedy but with two guys.



In the age of marriage equality, it seemed like a natural fit. So Brad and I wrote this script which we think is very, very funny and we put it through a mini-version of the Hollywood development process where we had sitcom writers come in and pitch their jokes at it, the way you would if you were really writing a TV pilot - you'd have your friends come in and help you with some extra jokes. 

We hired a producer Elizabeth Hughes, and she brought in a crew and we spent four days shooting this twenty-two minutes of material and put it online. We've had a huge response to it. People love the characters and they love the story and it feels like a story whose time has come. And it has been amazing for me to get back to my comedy roots and do something that is a real product of my heart and see people respond to it. I'm really thrilled with how it turned out. 

I've been working in television for twenty years and to have a project come out they way Brad and I envisioned it from the first time we talked about it and see it come to fruition....You don't often get that in TV because the creative process is so complicated and there's so much input, and there's all those people working together to make it great, but there's nothing like saying, "Yeah, that's how I hoped it would look!"

TheReal_Rebel: "Husbands" is clearly your baby. Was the "look" of the series also your vision?
Jane Espenson: We had a Production Designer, Greg Aronowitz, who also did the "The Guild". Our producer did location scouting for us so we found a hotel in West L.A. that looked like a Vegas hotel because it was set in Vegas. So we did some set-dressing to make the hotel room look more "Vegasie" and we used a friend's house to be their house. We ended up with was a look that was very close to what I had envisioned. And certainly the tone and feel of "Husbands" is exactly what I hoped it would be.

TheReal_Rebel: I have to ask how you as a writer operate within adapting the huge text of "Games of Thrones"? What kind of leeway, if any, are you given?
Jane Espenson: I was a freelance writer on "Game of Thrones" so I was not part of the creative team. I was just brought in and was told I was writing a particular episode and told "Congratulations, you've been given the best episode" - which was "A Golden Crown" - an amazing scene in the first book. 

They (the producers) pretty much told me, "Your episodes go from this page to that page." This is the only time I've ever written from an established text like that. So the first thing I did was transcribe all the dialogue from the scenes from my part of the book. Then figured out how to shape those conversations into scenes so they would fit as a TV conversation. Because a scene in TV goes no longer than a few pages. Whereas if you write out all the dialogue in George R.R.Martin's book you might have 9 pages of that. So trying to figure out what gems to keep and which gems to throw away was the main part of the project, because it was already there. It was just a matter of cutting it down to TV size. I tried not to diverge and stick to the original text as close as I could because it was brilliant.
TheReal_Rebel: I certainly hope in the future you get to do more work on "Games of Thrones".
Jane Espenson: I would love to! But now they've hired a staff for a full season of work and I'm more of a freelancer for that purpose.

TheReal_Rebel: In "Once Upon A Time", I found it very interesting that the antagonist and the protagonist are both women - something I haven't seen in awhile.
Jane Espenson: Right! We not only have Emma and Regina but Mary Margret or "Snow" (Snow White). We have Jennifer Morrison and Ginnifer Goodwin and Lana Parrilla. Three amazing women at the top of our cast! Of course, our guys are amazing, too. We have Robert Carlyle and Josh Dallas. But you're right, the women are leading the show. Boy, we are passing the Bechdel Test all over the place!
TheReal_Rebel: What is the Bechdel Test?
Jane Espenson: Its a test for checking sexism in motion pictures and screenplays. Is there a scene with two women talking and if so, are they talking about something other than about a guy. And to find two scenes were they are not talking about a guy is almost prohibitively difficult in screenplays and TV. It's just that those scenes occur very, very rarely. We pass the test! Our female characters often talk one on one and are not talking about a guy. And I'm very, very proud of that.

Check out the trailer for "Once Upon A Time" starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Robert Carlyle, Lana Parrilla, Jamie Dornan, Jared Gilmore, Josh Dallas and Raphael Sbarge:


TheReal_Rebel: That's wonderful. So do you have any new projects coming up or anything else you'd like to let people know about?
Jane Espenson: Well, "Buffy" Season 9, "Once Upon A Time" and "Husbands". Those are the projects I can talk about.
TheReal_Rebel: But you have other things you can't talk about?
Jane Espenson: (Laughs.) I might have one or two things I can't talk about yet.
TheReal_Rebel: Well, thank you for talking to me.
Jane Espenson: Thank you!

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Thanks to @TheReal_Rebel for the article and Jane Espenson for taking the time to do the interview!

Go follow Jane Espenson on Twitter!

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