A prolific and highly creative writer, Jane Espenson has worked on both situation comedies and serial dramas. She was writer/producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and shared a Hugo Award for penning the episode “Conversations with Dead People.” She served as co-executive/executive producer for the series Caprica, wrote an unforgettable episode of Game of Thrones, and joined the writing staff of Torchwood. She is currently consulting producer and writer on Once Upon a Time, and has co-written and produced her first independent original web series with co-creator Brad Bell, entitled Husbands. I recently sat down with Jane to discuss her past and present involvement in the shows we love to watch.
You are an absolute wizard with words. How do you develop a scene or sequence?
Jane Espenson: First off, you want a really detailed outline. When Brad and I write together, we both have very similar instincts, but Brad really forces me to think about what each character wants in a scene. It’s weird because while I have more writing experience, I’ll sometimes fall in love with a funny line and Brad will say, “no this has to be on scene and on point.” I think the trick is to know that there’s always another joke. You almost have to write the line not funny first, and make sure it’s saying exactly what you want it to say. You can always find a funny way to say that thing. It’s so easy to fall in love with the funny, but you can be subtle and still have it be a joke. So don’t write the joke first, write the scene first.
When you were writing for Buffy, there was teen angst, humor, and horror—how did you balance all those things and still make it work?
JE: I didn’t always do that balancing act so perfectly. My second script was called Gingerbread, which had a lot of horror elements in it. I wrote it as if it were a flat-out comedy and Joss (Whedon) pointed out that you have to balance them. So I learned how to do that. To a certain extent, the director does a lot of that work for you. You can write a scene with a lot of funny lines and have it be terrifying. As long as it’s directed with a certain look, feel and pace, the horror will come through. The comedy will do the job of making you realize these characters are joking, that they’re not really scared. Like, when do you make a joke like that to raise your spirits? When you’re really scared. So there are many different ways to use humor. You can find a good balance without having to throw any jokes out the window.
One of my favorite Buffy episodes was Hush. Were you involved in that episode?
JE: I was there when it was written, and I remember Joss saying, I’ve always wanted to do this gag where someone’s looking out the window at something really far away, and you’re leaning in trying to see what they’re seeing and IT’S RIGHT HERE! He had so much fun writing that episode. It was the same thing with the musical, Once More, with Feeling.
Ok, so you’re now involved with Game of Thrones. What can you tell us about that?
JE: I just wrote one episode of Game of Thrones in season 1. It was an amazing experience. They needed a freelancer. They hadn’t hired a staff yet—now they have a staff of writers. So I came in to write one. It was a great scene where Daenerys eats the horse’s heart and her brother is killed by molten gold. They gave me the best chapters of the book. I was thrilled.
Were you always a fan of shows like Game of Thrones?
JE: Absolutely. I really like sci-fi and historical dramas. I’ve never been a huge fan of things like Lord of the Rings’ sword and sorcery. To me, Game of Thrones feels more like historical fiction, like reading about ancient England—and I love that.
So you’re permanently on staff for Once Upon a Time. Can you talk about that a little bit?
JE: I can’t talk about what’s going to happen, but I can tell you that it’s a great job. We’re doing Frozen this season. Everyone at every level wants to do Frozen right, including the people at the very top. There will be no effort spared to make sure that we’re doing justice to Frozen.
The Miller’s Daughter episode, where Rumple teaches young Cora to spin straw into gold was sensual and mesmerizing. How did you approach that?
JE: I loved writing that episode! It was a little bit of a wink at the movie, Ghost.
When a director says, I want you to write this scene or this sequence, how do you approach that?
JE: InTV, we have a different director every week so we’re sort of their bosses. We write the episode, then we’re introduced to the director and we tell the director how we see the scene playing out. The director may or may not employ storyboards— often they’re just used for action sequences. In TV, you have to do everything very quickly. The person who first gives me instructions is the head writer—usually the person that created the show. On Husbands, it’s Brad. He’ll say, “I want this scene to have a certain feeling.” So I’ll write it, tailor made to have that feeling. Then we’ll meet with the director and tell him to shoot it to incorporate that feeling. So it all comes down to the writer.
So what’s going on with Husbands?
JE: My friend, Brad approached me with this idea to do an online sitcom. We started playing around with the concept and we ended up with the idea of same sex newlyweds. They don’t want to get a divorce, since it’s bad for the cause. They got married too soon and it’s about how they’re going to make it work. It’s so clearly a throwback to shows like I Love Lucy and Ned and Stacey—that sort of accidental marriage—which is a staple of romantic comedies. To employ that into an entirely new world of gay marriage seemed natural and a no-brainer. So we made it. And by making it, we were able to demonstrate that there was an audience for it.
Are you a dialog writer or an action writer?
JE: I can do both. What I don’t do great is structure. Dialog is probably where Brad and I both do best. Our strengths and weaknesses are about the same. I don’t like thinking about, should we play this reveal so the audience is ahead of us? Or is this a better act break than that one?” I don’t care; I just want the lines to be good.