If you have watched a TV show in the last 15 years it’s likely that Jane Espenson has been related to it in some way–the Kevin Bacon of writers, connectable to most actors, writers directors, and shows by her extensive resume. Espenson is more than prolific though, standing as a trailblazer for female writers, and a beacon of quality in a TV world that consistently seems to devalue it.
Truly interactive at a time when that virtue can be easily faked, Espenson agreed to this extensive interview about TORCHWOOD, her new web-series HUSBANDS (premiering September 13th), the fairytale drama ONCE UPON A TIME (premiering October 23rd on ABC), and her extensive career.
In the interview we touch on issues ranging from televisions cowardice regarding same sex intimacy (my words), and the difference between fantastical and reality based story telling. We also address such burning questions as which Avenger Joss Whedon will kill, and who is the bigger bad-ass: Buffy, Starbuck, Echo, or Gwen Cooper?
As the season draws to a close, what has been the most satisfying part of working with Russell T. Davies and the rest of the TORCHWOOD crew?
JE: I think that question answers itself – working with Russell T. Davies has been the best part of working with Russell T. Davies. I already like that part of my job is helping someone else realize their vision. And Russell makes that task even better by being so effusive when one of us gets it right. It isn’t that he’s easily satisfied, exactly – he can be very exacting. It’s just that he notices the thing you did get right in a scene and praises it, even as he points out the thing that needs fixing. He’s this big tall guy shouting HOORAY at me and I can’t get enough of it! I adore him!
There is a scene in the TORCHWOOD episode “Immortal Sins” where Gwen and Jack make it known to each other how far they will go to protect what they value most–That scene can’t be written by someone who doesn’t fully understand the history of TORCHWOOD and specifically those two characters. How do you capture a previously established voice so well?
JE: Well, I watched all the previously existing TORCHWOOD episodes, and I rewrote that Gwen/Jack car material over and over at Russell’s direction. He didn’t tell me exactly what he thought they’d be feeling, but he just kept telling me to go deeper. It was a great note. And, interestingly, I think it might’ve helped me that I hadn’t been writing them from the start, because Jack’s mortality made him a bit of a different guy in these scenes – we’d never seen him fighting so hard for his own life before. To see him with a horse in the mortality horse race was something new and one of the things that changed from draft to draft was realizing that I had to make him fight harder. Which meant she had to come back harder. The first draft of that script was much more about sadness, and every draft got angrier and craftier, and then it kind of earns the sadness at the end because they’re so damn exhausted from all the anger. Russell let me take the time to find those scenes. I wrote them; but I couldn’t have written them without Russell.
Would you consider coming back to TORCHWOOD if the show is renewed for a 5th season? A follow-up: if the unthinkable happens and TORCHWOOD isn’t renewed, can you see it living on as a comic book like BUFFY?
JE: I would go anywhere with Russell. If he does more TORCHWOOD, I would do it in an instant. I would also go anywhere with Joss, obviously, and will be doing more BUFFY comic book work. And if TORCHWOOD lived on with a comic, I would do that, too. I think TORCHWOOD would lend itself very well to that, actually. Joss has been great at finding BUFFY stories that would’ve been impossible to film, and that took the series forward – I can see Russell doing the same with TORCHWOOD. I have no idea if he would want to, but I think it would be very do-able.
Any chance you’ll also write for the ANGEL AND FAITH comic?
JE: I don’t have any plans to write for Angel and Faith, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
How did HUSBANDS come to be and when did you decide, “I shall rule the interweb with this”?
JE: Ha! It came to be because of my co-writer Cheeks (Brad Bell). He’s a talented performer and I’d seen his videos on YouTube. I was interested in writing for him and that sort of turned into writing with him. We came up with the idea for HUSBANDS together – let’s do a newlywed comedy with two guys – oh, and let’s say they got married before they meant to. And then we just really wanted to make it happen. It didn’t seem like something we could take directly to television, and Cheeks had experience with making things for the web, so we just decided to go for it, to make it the way we saw it in our heads. We brought in Jeff Greenstein to direct it and help us produce it, and the three of us went forward as a team. If people like it online, perhaps it’ll make the jump to TV, or perhaps it will continue online, or not – who knows? For me, it’s very satisfying just to look at this thing we made and say, yes, that’s what I wanted.
There are other shows that get lauded for the fact that they prominently feature openly gay characters and yet we see them hide from actual same-sex intimacy. You’ve said that HUSBANDS is “ready for television, but television is not ready for it”. Is Husbands built to change that?
JE: Television may have changed since I said that. TV executives can be pretty good at reading the public and I’m seeing signs that they may be readier now. We certainly hoped that HUSBANDS would help bring about that change by demonstrating that there is an audience for this kind of story. But if that change is already happening, then that’s even better!
Do you think it’s a disservice to the story when the choice is made to avoid intimacy and a full portrayal of a same-sex relationship? I mean, going back to TORCHWOOD and “Immortal Sins“, if we hadn’t seen Jack fall so fully in love with Angelo wouldn’t that have limited our understanding of how deeply affected Jack was by his betrayal?
JE: Yes, certainly, it was always our intention that we had to make the audience sense the love between them, and that we wouldn’t skip over anything that you wouldn’t normally skip over in a love story. But I actually think the even more revolutionary thing happened in episode three, “Dead of Night,” in which we saw a male-male sex scene inter-cut with a male-female one. That’s an implicit statement of equality that’s pretty hard to miss.
Many know Alessandra Torresani as Zoe Greystone on CAPRICA. She’s just a teensy bit different in HUSBANDS. Is that how the character is written, or is there room for input and improvisation?
JE: Oh, Haley is written very differently than Zoe. Alessandra contributed a huge amount in terms of insight and physicality and commitment, but the lines mostly remained as Cheeks and I wrote them. Alessandra really is a madcap 1930s comedy blonde with no filter and a giant sense of humor, so this part is great for her. I hope people see what a comedy natural she is as a result of this part.
You’re involved with ONCE UPON A TIME on ABC. From what I’ve seen that’s a show that will look to tell a story with some rather big and fantastical elements whereas HUSBANDS is grounded in reality. Do you prefer one type of storytelling over the other?
JE: That’s a fascinating way to look at it. I think most people would characterize it the other way – ONCE is an hour with as many dark elements as it has light ones, while HUSBANDS is a half-hour comedy soufflé. But I think your point is valid, too. ONCE has scenes set in a literally fictional world, while HUSBANDS is set in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I love writing all of it – one of the things I’ve been fortunate to be able to do in my career is to vary the genres I write for. I’ve written for comedies like ELLEN and DINOSAURS and ANDY BARKER PI, and for light dramas like THE O.C. and GILMORE GIRLS and for sci-fi and fantasy shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUFFY and TORCHWOOD. HUSBANDS and ONCE both represent chances to try something new.
Tell us a little more about Once Upon a Time. How did you come to be involved with that, and what kind of stories do you want to tell in that world?
JE: I’m Consulting Producer now at Once Upon a Time and I’m loving it. The guys who created it and are running it — Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, come from Lost and they’re very smart guys. They happened to be Buffy fans and they brought me in to look at their pilot and meet. I loved what I saw and was very happy to be involved. Technically, I’m part time, but I’ve found it hard to stay away. We’re writing really unusual and complex and funny and dark stories using iconic fairy tale characters. When do you really get to talk seriously about Snow White? I think it might be huge.
Do you prefer working on a show from the beginning or joining an established show midstream?
JE: They both have their upsides, but new shows are so often difficult because they take a while to find their feet. It’s exciting, but it can be stressful.
You’ve worked on some brilliant shows that never found the success they deserved; is there one you miss most as a fan?
JE: As a viewer I miss ANDY BARKER PI, the last Andy Richter half-hour. I loved that show. It was very funny and very smart and had the most amazingly high-powered writing room. I think it deserved more. And there was a lot more life left in two space-based shows I’ve written for: FIREFLY and BATTLESTAR. As a fan and as a writer I mourn those both.
Many of your contemporaries and former colleagues have explored film, most recently Marti Noxon with FRIGHT NIGHT; do you have a desire to tackle that medium as well?
JE: I think I would love doing punch-up on features. Just pitching jokes in the last phase before filming. And with the right project I might want to write a screenplay, but it’s not high on my list of things-I’m-burning-to-do. I like smaller scale things – in fact, the smaller it is, I might like it better. I really liked working on HUSBANDS because I could grok the whole thing and could help control it. On a feature the writer seldom has much control.
If you were Joss which Avenger would you kill?
JE: Oh boy, I’m not going to second-guess Joss.
Bigger badass: Buffy, Gwen Cooper, Starbuck, or Echo?
JE: That’s tough. Buffy’s got magic-strength which would kick the butts of the other three. But… hm…Gwen has righteous Welsh anger. Ultimately, though, I’m going to go with Starbuck. Buffy would beat her in a one-on-one fight, but Starbuck would never ever ever give up, even in the face of that certain knowledge, and I think that might make her a badder ass. But on any given day, the math may work out differently.
What’s your favorite question, “Will there be a sequel to SERENITY” or “What do you think of the Joss-less BUFFY reboot”?
JE: Ha – I actually don’t get asked the first one that much. I get the second one a lot. Right now, they’re both being beaten by “Will there be more TORCHWOOD?”