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Jane Espenson GALACTICA.TV interview
Friday, 30 January 2009

When Battlestar Galactica co-executive producer Jane Espenson joined the show as a freelance writer in the third season, she was already well-established in science fiction television, having penned episodes of Dinosaurs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Joss Whedon's Firefly and Angel, and of course many memorable episodes of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Besides being an accomplished television writer, she's also one of those very lucky people who knew all along exactly what she wanted to do - write for television. Jane generously took some time out from rewriting a script for Whedon's upcoming series, Dollhouse, to share some thoughts with David Jimerson on her career and on writing for Battlestar Galactica.

 

;writer Jane Espenson

writer Jane Espenson

 

What about the Battlestar Galactica universe interests you the most?

Ahhhhh... the complexity, the absolute complexity of it. It never makes it easy, that notion of I don't know who I'm rooting for. It's just so wonderful to write towards. You never have to make anyone an unambiguous hero or a villain. Every scene you write has these wonderful shadings and takes these turns. It's just such a pleasure to write, because you don't feel any pressure to simplify. In fact, when you get notes to re-write, the most common note you get from Ron [Moore, executive producer] is just "more" - go deeper, tell me more about this, I think there is a deeper level here. But that kind of note, where you're just given absolute free reign to muck it up, to make it complicated and chewy, and to avoid anything that's a simple answer. As a writer, that's a huge treat. And it's very hard!

Comparing Battlestar Galactica to some of the other series on your résumé, including Buffy, in a way, Battlestar is one of the more realistic series that you've worked on.

Yes, I think Battlestar is less heightened than a lot of shows that I've worked on. Humor is more incidental to it than central. Characters are extremely real, and the situation is real. If you take it as an analogy or a metaphor for current world situations, then you realize that oh, all this stuff about space kind of strips away, that what's important are the big political dynamics and the people caught up in them. It's like that great Kirk line - "no, I'm from Iowa; I only work in outer space." These are recognizable humans who happen to work in outer space. It's incidental. It's not where they're from. It's not at the core of their being.

Are there a lot of real-world politics wrapped up in the scripts?

Yes, of course, absolutely. I mean, I think as soon as you say the words "suicide bomber" you know that you're talking about real-world events. But the fascinating thing about Battlestar is that you can't just make a one-to-one equation and go "oh, so this is about terrorist bad guys and non-terrorist good guys." We think, "who is the bad guy here? Roslin's the one fixing the election, and yet she's a character we identify with and love. Baltar just did a good thing, but I thought he was supposed to be the bad guy." There's this wonderful sense of "wait, have I been rooting for the wrong person all this time?" That threads all the way through Battlestar, and that's there because it doesn't just make it simple and easy. It makes very complicated equivalencies and comparisons when you lay it out against real-world politics. And in doing so, it allows you to take a more dispassionate look at what's going on the world, because people don't go "oh, these are the Democrats and these are the Republicans." Once the labels are taken off it, and you're stripped of that way to identify the players, you get to really look at these moral positions weighed against the priorities of the desperate situation. They all get a lot more interesting and a lot more complicated.

Were there any specific real-world events where the decision was made to put them into the story?

No, no; it's not that. I suppose you could say the Iraq war - I don't know, though. Certainly, in the room, I never heard "oh, the trains blew up in Spain today, so we're going to do that." No, there was never that. The equivalency was always much more general than that. It wasn't an event; it was more like world politics writ large, already built into the fabric of the show.

I suppose, if you look at the really specific political things, one of the more literal political things - this was done before I got there, and I'm fascinated by it - was the abortion episode. It was "OK, we're going to deal with a political question," in various literal terms. Someone wants an abortion, and this is something where Roslin's politics would have told her, yes, that should be a basic right. And then she has to reevaluate that in light of this tiny, tiny remaining population, and how she lives with that political/human decision. It raises all these questions of how much do you let your morality slide in the face of life and death. And then you think, "well, gee, is that kind of analogous to all the other rights we give up in the name of ‘national security'?" It takes you to all sorts of interesting political places, and it does it by starting in a very concrete, very specific place of a pregnant person. It's wonderfully complicated and has all sorts of levels of analogy to current situations. It's what makes the show endlessly analyzable.

I'm sure, at some point, you've run into, maybe, two fans right next to each other who had vastly different concepts of what was trying to be said on the show?

Oh, totally, and that's another wonderful thing about the show. It can be in itself a Rorschach test of the people who watch it. I talked to a woman who was very interested to see how we were going to make clear that the Cylons don't have souls. I was sort of like "well, I don't know that Cylons wouldn't have souls," or does the notion of a soul even exist in this particular universe? But she was absolutely certain that that's where we were headed, that we were headed toward something about there being a God-given divine spark that dwells only in humanity and not in Cylons. Now, that's not exactly where we're going - but it's interesting! Run with it.

Jane grew up in Ames, Iowa, the heart of the Midwest and the home of Iowa State University, which she says was an excellent environment for an aspiring writer.

How much did growing up in Ames affect your development as a writer?

That's interesting. For one thing, you read a lot of Ray Bradbury, and there's so many references to Iowa, and then you find out Captain Kirk is from Iowa . . . there's a certain way science fiction and Iowa seem to go together [laughs]. But growing up, when you find science fiction, you find enough references to Iowa that you kind of go "this is not out of reach for a person from Iowa."

But I also think there are things of a totally different nature. You feel very safe. It's a college town, so you don't have that homogeneousness. You have loads and loads of foreign students who are there to study science - it's a science school. You end up with more exposure to a wider variety of cultures than you might otherwise think you would have . . . I think that's very helpful for anyone who's trying to grow up as an imaginative kid.

It was an excellent place to grow up, and you weren't overscheduled - there was just loads and loads of free time. As an only child, I spent many, many hours sort of lying on my stomach, kicking my legs behind me, with nothing in front of me but a notebook to write in, and hours and hours to do it in. I think having that kind of peace and quiet and time to think as a child was really great . . . something about the quietness of that life made you feel free to let your imagination roam.

How did you get started writing? Did you write from an early age?

Oh, sure. One of my first attempts at writing was when I tried to write an episode of M*A*S*H when I was a teenager. I was like 13 or something, and I read some article about spec scripts - and I thought, "well, I'm going to write an episode of M*A*S*H." I did, and it was terrible, and it no longer exists - but I knew even then that I wanted to write for TV.

Then, when I was in college, I found out that you could submit scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation without an agent. You just had to sign this Paramount release form. So, I went ahead and wrote three Next Generation specs. They called me about one of them, and they invited me to come in and start pitching. That's how I got my start. Through them, I found out about the Disney Writer's Fellowship, which still exists. Then I started getting actual paid work.

Jane Espenson is a television writer. She makes clear how important a distinction it is to her and her career, and why it was always the right choice for her.

When you started writing, what was your general attraction to it? Did you write a lot of fiction first, or did you start writing scripts?

I knew I wanted to write TV, but everyone has those periods where you think, "well, maybe I'm cut out to be a novelist - or short stories! That seems easy!" But TV was always my first love. Other kids, and some colleagues of mine, would see movies as the ultimate thing. I think that's because they were those kids who sort of hung out in a movie theater, and that was where they did their dreaming. I was always one of those kids that was in front of the TV, and to me, TV always seemed so much more important and interesting and more part of your life than movies ever did. That was always what I wanted to do.

That's interesting; a lot of aspiring writers or filmmakers seem to want to get straight into feature films and sort of look down on TV.

I really think that for so many people, the experience of sitting there in the dark and having this all-encompassing story for two hours is so important, that I think most TV writers - even though TV writing is a better gig - I think most TV writers are thinking "maybe someday I'll get to do a feature." I think that is still seen by many, many writers, more than not, as the ultimate success.

I don't get it. You know, has there been a better legal thriller in the last ten years that's as good as your average episode of Law & Order? And you have much more control [as a writer] in TV. I just think TV is better.

I would imagine that in TV, you've got a lot more than two hours to explore everything you want to explore, and you really get to know your characters and your universe. Would you say that's one of the things that attracts you to it?

Oh, totally. I think that movies - and I'm not the first one to make this analogy - movies are short stories, and television is a novel. You're writing the next chapter of a novel, and that's a lot more satisfying, I think, than writing a short story where the characters will live and die in two hours. The idea of writing the next hour in the life of a character that has all the complexity of a TV series - I think that's much more interesting. And I prefer novels to short stories as a reader, so I guess that's not surprising.

Jane writes a personal blog -- www.janeespenson.com -- dedicated to helping aspiring TV writers understand the process of writing for TV, from formulating and writing a script to finding ways to get started in the business themselves. Her best advice for someone looking to break into TV writing may be surprising.

Don't get into TV writing because you have a dream project and you feel that you could sell this show and run this show. You get into TV writing because you want to be in a room every day with smart, funny, brilliant people working on projects that are not yours. You have to be just as happy just writing television. You shouldn't feel that you're doing it to get your project made. I think if you want to be a TV writer, that should mean you want to write for TV even if it's not your brainchild, because 90% of the time, that's what it is. There is great joy in contributing to these great, wonderful, glorious projects like Battlestar and Buffy. You have to want to do that, and not just see it as a way to bring your project forward.

That said, if you really love television and you really think that this is the life for you, then absolutely try to do it, because people have always said "oh, that's such a hard job to get" - and yet, every year I see new writers showing up. They're getting in, so why not you?

Is there anything in particular that you wish you had known when you first started out?

No, I don't think so - because I think it would have scared me! If people started to list all the obstacles, and all the stuff I was going to have to learn how to do, and be drawn into doing, I would have been terrified. I was surprised, often, by how hard some of this stuff is. It's been really good, because it forced me to just get in and swim, and that was perfect. I'm glad I knew as a little as I knew, because I never could have asked for a better path than what I've had. How could it have been better?

Jane herself climbed up the ladder from being a freelancer who sells one-off scripts, to being a member of the writing staff of several TV shows, and up through the producing ranks. She sheds a little bit of light on the particulars behind the titles she's held and what's involved with them.

It's a very automatic process, actually. Your first TV job, your title is "staff writer." The next job you get, your title is "story editor." Then you're executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, and if you're running a show, you're executive producer. So, it happens very automatically; it's built into your contract. If you get hired for a second year, your title bumps up. And those titles are very nonsensical. There's nothing a "story editor" does that has to do with editing stories. You do exactly the same thing you did when you were a staff writer; it just means you're a staff writer with one more year's experience. So, the titles don't tell you much. I think that people sometimes feel, going into TV, that they're automatically going to be on set a lot. But that's not necessarily the case.

Line producers, non-writing producers who are involved in the production side and not the writing side, have that same title, "producer," and that's when you'll see that "produced by" credit, and that's not generally a writer. The degree to which you [as a writer] do "producorial" things depends totally on the show that you're on and the degree to which you're asked to do those things, or volunteer to do those things, sometimes.

I never was particularly interested in what was going on on stage; I was very much about the page, not the stage, so I never took on any of those duties on Buffy. I was on set sometimes, when my episode was being shot, but I was much happier in the writers' room. I had a very high title, but without ever having done any sort of producing stuff. But then I got to Battlestar, where it was much more part of the job. So, OK, you go up to Canada when they're shooting your episode, and you go to the production meeting and you look at the props and decide which gun they're going to be holding, and you look at the locations and you go to the casting and you do all those producer things. Which mostly involves pointing at things and saying "this one, not that one - I want this costume, not that one; this gun, not that one, this actor, not that one." And it's not as hard as I feared it was going to be! Though, it can be very hard. It's so fluid - it depends on how much you as the writer want to do it, and how much your show runner wants you to do it, how much hold the director has over it, all sorts of stuff combined.

With that in mind, she described a typical day at work for her as a co-executive producer for Battlestar Galactica.

The typical day at work was spent in the writer's room; there was always some story that needed to be broken. We tended to have very late-starting days; we'd get in at ten, or even more often, eleven, and we'd go to the writer's room and work on some story. The stories tended to break pretty quickly. It would only take two or three days of working through a story before we felt we had something we could pitch to Ron. The days weren't too long. They were sort of intense, because we'd be in the room thinking really hard [laughs]. We had lunch every day there at the commissary, right next door to where we were working. We'd work until 1:30 and walk over and get - well, 1:00, exactly, actually; we would have been chewing the floor by 1:30! - we'd go get our lunch and then come back and work some more, and then take breaks so people could answer e-mails. It was a pretty easy day that somehow managed to be productive nonetheless. They were great workdays.

How would you say writing for television is different from other kinds of writing?

There are definitely all sorts of skills that go into being a successful TV writer. And I don't even have all of them! I've got some of the skills and not others, and that's another great thing about TV writing - because it's a group activity, you don't have to always be the master of everything.

What do you feel is your strength?

I think I am a great writer of characters, more than I am great at structuring stories.

As a writer of character on such a character-rich show as Battlestar Galactica, which do you find to be the most interesting?

It depends when you ask me! I mean, it's hard to beat Baltar, because he's our most comedic character, and he's incredibly complex because he has to live in such denial, and that always makes somebody interesting. He's a lovely, extreme character - so much fun to write. And I say "extreme," but he's still our most human, the most prone to these very human foibles; he's wonderful. But my gosh, Starbuck - what a unique character she is, just fantastic to write. And the sheer authority of Adama, coupled with his great vulnerability - of all our great leaders or great captains I can think of on television, I can't think of one who is as vulnerable, yet still commands this great respect and authority. Roslin - she's incredibly morally complex. She's done some very wrong things, and she'll admit that she has to do the politically smart thing even though it's the wrong thing. There's Adama's point of view that humanity has to earn its survival, versus Roslin sort of saying "yes, but first you must survive." What a fantastic character she is.

It's just so hard to pick one. Every scene I sit down to write, I say, "oh, this scene has my favorite character in it," but then I realize I just said that about every scene.

Are there any characters that you feel, as a writer, you've made major contributions toward?

That's interesting. Well, I guess because I got to do these webisodes [Face of the Enemy], where I got to take some secondary characters, Gaeta and Hoshi, and then give them this relationship which had not been explicit before, that was like "OK, that's my little mark on the world" - that's a thing that came from me, that I found was right for these characters; there's a little more we know about them and I'm very satisfied with it.

I got to write an episode with Laura Roslin, called "The Hub," where Roslin makes this decision to let Baltar die, and then backtracks from it when she has these revelations about what this will cost her. I really like that I got to take Roslin to such a complicated place. I think it's something that any of the Battlestar writers could and would have done, given the opportunity, but I was lucky enough to get to be the one to write that.

That was pretty exploratory of what Roslin actually thinks about Baltar.

Yes, very much, and it's always an interesting question - what do these characters all think of each other? One of the most interesting things about Battlestar is that if you take any two characters and put them in a scene together, it's already charged. The characters have such a fraught history with each other that any two characters are going to have some gratitude or resentment or serious issues with each other right from the outset. You don't have to go into a scene and think, "well, what interesting attitude should I give this character toward this other character?" They come ready made with an interesting attitude toward that other character. Laura and Baltar are great examples of that; they've got so much background and so much history together that it's always going to be interesting.

When working on Battlestar, especially coming in on the third season, I'm sure the actors had a pretty strong conception of the characters they were playing?

Very much so!

How much interaction do you have with them when writing the characters?

Lots and lots. Not when you're writing the characters; they're in Vancouver you're in L.A. But when you're up there producing the episode, the writing doesn't stop, really. You do a lot of rewrites . . . and that is very collaborative with the actors, moreso than any show I've been on. They will say, "well actually, if you look back at this moment, you'll see that this character and I already had this discussion" - and thank goodness, they really know it. It's a very complicated show to keep track of, particularly as a newcomer, so there were definitely mistakes I made in characterization or history, where it was very helpful having these actors who are totally on their game, and they saved me from a lot of bad mistakes.

Television and film are collaborative media; many people contribute creatively to the final product. The writer tells the story, but sometimes what the audience watches isn't quite the way it started on the script page or in the writer's mind.

Have any of the episodes you've written ended up, on screen, different from what you imagined when you wrote it?

When you get to a certain level as a writer, you're also a producer, so you're actually on set and you can see what's happening, so you can control that. But, "The Hub" is actually a good example of that, where it was edited totally differently from the structure that I wrote. I had written it very much distorted in time where the first thing we saw was her taking the bandage off Baltar, and then the rest of the episode is sort of "how did she get to that point?" It was all flashbacks, and it was structured totally differently. I never saw a cut where it was structured that way. Apparently, they looked at it and instantly said "this is incredibly confusing; it's impossible to follow." So, it was restructured much more linearly. And it works great - I'm really glad there were smart people there who were able to figure out how to rescue it, because sometimes you'll try something on the page and it looks like it'll work, and you don't know until you cut it together that a thing that seems clear totally isn't clear when it's on the screen. Every act break is different than how they were indicated in the script; everything happens in a different order. It works great. I certainly have nothing but gratitude for the people who restructured it. But that was one that shocked me when I saw it. It was like "that is so not what I wrote." But it's great - I love it. I was very happy.

The story arcs on Battlestar Galactica are planned well ahead - was that something that was top-down, that Ron Moore and David Eick had in mind from the beginning, or was it something which evolved more through the input of the writers?

I don't know how much it was planned in the beginning, because I didn't join until Season 3, and I wasn't on the staff until Season 4. But this is an area where Battlestar and Buffy were most similar. There would be periodic - on Buffy, we called them "onions," short for "state of the union" - big periodic meetings where the entire staff would sit down and work out the arc for the next set of episodes. On Battlestar, it would usually be a chunk of ten or twelve episodes that we would do in row. It would be, generally, Ron saying "here's what I have in mind - what do you guys think? Does this work? What would you add?" So, it starts with him coming in with something laid down, but then it very much turns into a free-for-all of everyone saying what they would like to see, what they've been thinking about, where they'd be hoping the show would go. It turns very collaborative, very quickly. It would turn into a big discussion. It's then the show runner who ultimately says, "OK, discussion is done; here's where we're going.

You obviously can't reveal anything specific, but how much did influence did the writing staff have on the ultimate resolution of the show, whatever that happens to be?

The ultimate resolution of a show is often in the creator's mind when they first pitch that show. I know that Joss knew that Sunnydale was going to collapse into a crater into the ground for a very long time. We knew that was going to happen, and it was always sort of there as a thing to get towards.

On Battlestar, certain things were known, and certain other things weren't known, and beyond that, I cannot say. But certainly he [Ron Moore] had some specific images in mind for a long time.

Of course, Jane's boss on Buffy is a genre living legend in his own right. It was only natural to ask...

Is Joss Whedon a fan of Battlestar?

Yes, he's a huge fan of Battlestar. He's such a fan of Battlestar that I wouldn't even be able to say to him what I said to you about the writing processes [on the show], because he so does not want to be spoiled, and step outside of Battlestar and think of it as a TV show that's written. I think he would very much not want to hear any of that, that he wants to experience the show perfectly purely, as if it's really happening in space.

As Whedon and other fans wait for the resumption of Season 4 and the series climax, for the staff, production has wrapped. But Jane is already very busy working on other projects.

Are there any special projects you'd like to do?

Yeah, I've got an idea for a pilot of my own that I think I'm probably going to write as a spec pilot, rather than pitching [the series concept] to someone. It's one of those things where I think you won't get it unless you actually see it on the page. Sometimes things are hard to articulate; they're better written. I keep sort of thinking, "ah, I've got a break coming up, and then I'll write it," and then the break keeps getting filled with more TV shows [laughs]. So I haven't had time to write it, but it's a project of mine.

I'm doing a five-issue Oz arc for the Buffy Season Eight comic, for Joss. I'm looking forward to this Christmas break, so I'll finally have time to sit down and really, really apply myself to that.

So, yeah, I've got stuff I want to do, but right now, I'm so happy to be working projects that I believe in. I'm able to work for Joss; I'm able to work for Ron. I don't feel the need to being doing anything else right now other than the stuff I'm already doing.

Are you going to be involved in Caprica?

We shall see! I cannot say because I do not technically know.

I do appreciate the time that you took for this interview; I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Thank you so much!

 

 

For all the fans / writers out there who'd like to give a stab at this themselves, read David Jimerson's article: "Writing For Television - What It Is, How It's Done, and How To Get Started" on the DVXUser website -- the online community for filmmaking.

 
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