We’re taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming for an interview with TV writer Jane Espenson. Check back next week for the third chapter of my Hollywood journey.
Though her literary travels have taken her to the rim of space, TV writer Jane Espenson is far from the rim of Hollywood. This genre-hopper’s credits include an impressive array of shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls, Firefly, Angel, Andy Parker, P.I., and Ellen.
Her success and talent alone serve as a great inspiration to young female writers, but what makes Jane particularly unique is how she has reached out to aspiring TV writers on her blog. At JaneEspenson.com, she offers free daily spec-writing lessons, providing guidance to those still learning to navigate the Hollywood terrain and encouraging budding talent to apply to the Disney•ABC Writing Fellowship Program, where she got her start.
Jane graciously agreed to answer some questions for PinkRaygun as she promotes her new book Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe, the sequel to Finding Serenity, which was released last year. If the untimely demise of the Firefly series and the lack of promise for a Serenity sequel has got you down, exploring Whedon‘s short-lived universe with the likes of sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card, our favorite space captain Nathan Fillion, and, of course, Jane herself, will help tide you over while the strike delays the release of Whedon’s latest creation, Dollhouse.
Appropriate for Jane’s e-book tour, here is my e-interview with everyone’s favorite writer-producer-blogger hyphenate.
Why did you choose to edit Finding Serenity and now its sequel Serenity Found?
I was approached by the publisher, BenBella Books. They had already set up the first book when they contacted me about guest-editing it. My involvement on that one didn’t begin until all the essays had been collected. I was more involved on the second one, helping select some of the contributors and giving more detailed notes on the essays. In both cases, I wrote introductions for the books and for each essay. I loved the work — getting to read Nathan Fillion’s essay in progress, for example, was a blast. Oh, and by the way, you can buy the book here.
How did you find the essays for the book?
For those contributors I selected myself, I simply contacted the writers and explained the project. They then wrote the essays from their own experience or expertise. I think the collection turned out to have a great variety of points of view on the show and movie. It’s not a dry academic text. It’s a fun read, and I think some of the inside insights are going to increase your appreciation of the show. I hope so, anyway!
If there were another book in this series, let’s call it Serenity’s Sequel Greenlit, what are some other topics you’d like to see explored? Are there any particular writers you would like to see contribute?
I would love to hear from Joss himself, of course, and from some of the other writers, actors, directors and crew people. I once got to participate in a DVD commentary session with Shawna Trpcic, who did the Firefly costumes, and she was absolutely fascinating. I’d love to read something detailed from her about the experience of working on the show. Tim Minear, I’m sure, could also contribute something sharp and hilarious.
How do you think things have changed since you broke into TV writing? Do you have any advice for handling these new challenges?
Well, there are a lot more opportunities to write for wonderful, imaginative cable shows now than there used to be. And there’s a lot more content being written directly for the internet. There are opportunities for writers to learn how to tell stories through editing in the world of reality television. But, really, the basic job hasn’t changed one bit. If you work on a television hour or half-hour show, the job still involves sitting in a room with other writers, breaking story, and then writing the script. The challenge is simply met by being able to work with others, and being able to turn in good solid writing under a deadline. I think if you took a good writer and plunked ‘em down into Hollywood, they’d make their way, no matter what decade you plunked ‘em down into.
Do you have any Hollywood horror stories or funny anecdotes you can share about breaking in or moving up staff ranks?
Well, the first thing you have to learn is what those ranks are. Your first writing jobs are the only ones in which your title is “writer” or “staff writer.” As you move up, you’re a “story editor,” but your duties don’t change. You don’t edit stories. You’re a writer. Next year, “executive story editor,” then “co-producer,” “producer,” “supervising producer,” “co-executive producer,” and then, when you’re creating or running your own show, “executive producer.” The higher titles sometimes, but not always, imply expanded duties. But you’re still a writer.
I remember being told that if a show won an Emmy, all the writers with producing titles would get a statuette. At the time, my title was “co-producer.” So I grinned. “If our show got an Emmy, I’d get one?” No, I was told. Co-producer is not a producer. How is that possible? “Oh,” I was told, “Co means ‘not’”.
The only horror story I can think of is that if a writer moves from being a half-hour writer to an hour-long writer, or vice versa, they often have to start over with a lower title, because the jobs are considered so different. Perhaps this has changed; I see more writers moving back and forth between the two camps now, but when I went from half-hour to hour, I definitely was considered a new entity in my new world, and had to start over, building my reputation.
What are some pitfalls and roadblocks aspiring TV writers should watch out for?
Don’t gripe and don’t settle. When you get your first job, it might not be on your favorite show, or even a show you’d ever watch. It can be tempting to distance yourself a little from the work, to gripe with some of the other writers about the project. Don’t do it! Work hard, help your show runner, be positive! You don’t gain points by being too good for the work, especially if it’s your first work. At the same time, don’t just assume that since you’re working, you should just sink into that first show like a hot bath and not try to plan your next steps. If you want to move on to someplace with a richer pedigree, write spec scripts that position you as a higher-class writer than the show you’re currently on. That’s right — writing specs doesn’t stop when you’re working. Keep striving for the job you really want, then let yourself be happy when you get it!
You have worked on many shows featuring strong female characters. What is it like as a woman behind-the-scenes of these shows? Have you experienced any difficulties as a female writer?
The writers’ rooms of these shows tend to be more woman-friendly than the writers’ rooms of shows with a misogynist bent, simply because it’s the show runner’s personal beliefs that set the tone for the show. Joss ran a room in which everyone felt equally valued. So does Ron Moore at Battlestar. And in the Gilmore Girls room, women were the overwhelming majority, which was unique in my experience. I’ve worked at a few shows where I’ve been made conscious of the fact that I’m a minority presence, but I’ve rarely felt that the room was a hostile place.
The set, I’ve found, is more likely to have a more traditional macho atmosphere, but I’ve never felt so dismissed that I haven’t been able to do my job. And, interestingly, it seems to make no difference there what the tone of the show, or the gender of the on-screen hero is.
It is often said that a sitcom writer’s room is a tough place for women. In your experience, is there a difference in the gender dynamic of the sitcom vs. the drama environment?
The sitcom room requires assertiveness. I think as younger women come to the job — women who weren’t raised with an assumption that they should defer — they’ll find themselves mystified as to why the room was considered difficult for women.
Have you had the opportunity to work with a writer, actor, producer or other artist that you particularly admired or were a fan of from afar? Can you share your fangirl experience with us?
Oh, man, Amy Sedaris. She guest-starred on the Andy Richter show I worked on last season, Andy Barker, P.I.. I adore her work, and I was so petrified to approach her and talk to her. I eventually did, but was so overwhelmed that I’m not sure I really made clear who I was or why I was hyperventilating. I think I actually used the word “fangirl.” Geez.
I also had the opportunity, years ago, to work on the series finale of Ellen, a show for which we invited, and got, a ridiculous number of stars to come in and do little cameo fake-interview bits. We had Bea Arthur and Jennifer Aniston and Jada Pinkett Smith and Woody Harrelson and Diahann Carroll and Glenn Close… it was something. Among other bits, I got to write a little joke performed by Tim Conway. That was crazy insane cool. I grew up watching him on the Carol Burnett show, and then to get to hear him using my words… holy cow. I don’t think I talked to him much. That wasn’t the point. It was about watching him work.
News that Sci-Fi ordered the two-hour pilot penned by you, Rockne O’Bannon, and D. Brent Mote left many fangirls jumping for joy. The concept is intriguing. Can you give us any juicy tidbits about your new dramedy Warehouse 13?
Oh, I wish I knew myself! I was neither the first writer on that project nor the last. The script (and the show) is in Rockne’s hands now, and I’m confident he’s doing a great job. I can tell you that I was proud of my draft, and that I believe in the project wholeheartedly.
And, so we’re sure to get some exclusive content, what did you have for breakfast?
Breakfast: left-over cold peanut noodles from Chin Chin. Yummy!
Juliana Weiss is an aspiring Television writer in Los Angeles. She currently works as the head of the web content department for the star of an Emmy-nominated reality series. In this column, she will share with you her experiences, thoughts, and theories about making it in the business, as well as the stories of other women who are working to make it-or have already made it-in Hollywood.