Inside the Writers’ Room: Jane Espenson

GIM: The differences (or lack thereof) in the roles of a TV writer are fascinating, and you’ve been through nearly all of them. What was involved in your bump from freelancer to staff writer, then staff writer to story editor? What kind of extra responsibilities did that entail?
JE: The title jumps are built into the contract. You get a three-year contract on a show and it says that if you are there for a second year your title goes up to X and then to X-plus-one the year after that. There is not necessarily any change in your duties. The titles are more like rings inside a tree trunk: approximate indicators of how many years you’ve been around.

“Showrunning doesn’t leave a lot of time to write. I missed writing.”

GIM: Is that true of the whole staff writer-story editor-producer-exec. producer-showrunner hierarchy? Could someone ever be hired straightaway as just a co-producer, for example, and not a writer? Or is writing the foundation of working above the line in TV?
JE: Generally, writers are hired for the first time as a staff writer, then they climb up one rung at a time: story editor, exec story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer. Above that, it gets messier. Showrunner isn’t really a title, it’s … I guess it’s a set of duties performed by an executive producer. And creator isn’t really a title either—it’s a “created by” credit that’s given to the person who came up with and developed the series idea. And there are consulting producers, who are often high-level writers helping out part-time on a show. But it doesn’t really get messy until you have less experienced writers who happen to sell a pilot. In that case, they are creators, but might work on the show with a title that puts them under the show’s exec producer who is running the show. I guess the point to take away from it is that it’s not like there’s a rigid tree-shaped structure into which they slot people. It’s more like there is a configuration of people involved with a show and then they put titles on them as best they can.

GIM: Tell me about that pivotal move from Ellen to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Were you recruited? How did you come on board?
JE: Oh, I was certainly not recruited. I had to make a big effort. I had to convince my agent at the time to put me up for drama jobs. I had to write a new writing sample (a spec NYPD Blue). I had to meet with people who worked for [Buffy creator/showrunner] Joss [Whedon] and impress them, and finally I had a meeting with Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt where I had to pitch story ideas. Luckily, that went well and I pitched an idea about a coffee shop with coffee that made adults act like teenagers that evolved into “Band Candy,” the first script I wrote there.

GIM: Why NYPD Blue?
JE: My thinking was that I needed a one-hour sample and that I had produced comedy episodes that already demonstrated joke writing. I liked NYPD Blue and had a good idea for an emotional Sipowicz story and a funny Medavoy/Martinez B-story. And although Buffy was the dream job, I still needed a versatile spec that could work at lots of different places.

“Writing a sitcom scene
is like building
a suspension bridge”

GIM: Have you reached a level where you don’t have to go into specific shows to pitch ideas before you’re hired?
JE: You always meet at a show before you’re hired unless it’s people you already know. My reputation might tell them they’ll probably like my writing, but they need to make sure they like me.

GIM: Now that you’re a creator yourself, with Warehouse 13, what kind of lessons from Joss Whedon have you taken with you?
JE: Warehouse was an odd situation, because I just worked on the pilot and haven’t been involved with the continuing operation of the show. The amazing Jack Kenny runs that show. So I haven’t had to apply any Joss-lessons there. Mostly, I emulate Joss when I’m developing a story and writing it—I think about the reason for telling the story and the impact on the main character with far more attention than I ever did pre-Joss.

GIM: Can you talk about what happened with the Caprica switch-up? Was showrunner just not something you took a lot of joy in?
JE: Showrunning is very hard and it doesn’t leave a lot of time to write. I missed writing. I can see running a show again, especially with someone sharing the job. I’d want to have it set up so that I could concern myself primarily with the scripts, which is very much the system we eventually arrived at with Caprica. Kevin Murphy ran the show at the end, and I wrote lots and lots of material. That worked really well.

GIM: You can be a showrunner without being the show’s creator (as you did on Caprica) but can you be the creator but not a showrunner?
JE: Sure. Anyone who writes a pilot script but doesn’t end up running the show is a creator but not a showrunner. I should also point out that I don’t have sole “created by” credit on WH13. The original script was written by a fine writer named D. Brent Mote. He actually has (and well deserves) the larger share of the credit. I haven’t had anything to do with the show since I made my contributions to that pilot, although I love the writers there.

GIM: How do you stay present, mentally, in your environment? I can imagine working writers live in their own heads a lot, thinking about act breaks and story possibilities.
JE: In a way I think that kind of thing is probably more all-encompassing for aspiring writers than working writers. Aspirings are thinking about their potential golden ticket.

GIM: Tell me a little bit about your writing habits. Do you work mostly from home? Do you ever get nervous handing in that first pass?
JE: Generally writers go to the office when they’re on staff, to sit with the other writers to shape arcs and stories. But when you’re “out on script,” you usually are excused from the room. But this varies a lot from show to show. When I’m out on script I work from home—as I’m doing today, although I also love to print out the current draft and take it out to a restaurant to work on it with pen in the margins. Sometimes I’ll work in concentrated many-hour bursts, usually in the evening, but I’ll always dip in for many shorter sessions during the day. I get nervous about whether I’m working at the right pace to get done in time, but I always do. I get nervous turning in the first pass of the first script for a new boss, but after that I figure they know what they’re in for, so I don’t worry as much.

GIM: Do you think it’s possible, with the exception of fellowships, to get a foot in the door of TV outside of Los Angeles?
JE: You can get started outside L.A.—I was in Berkeley, flying down to pitch and writing specs and applying to Disney. But you have to be in L.A. to work. And since working in the business is a good way to make connections, this is a good place to be in general. Also, it’s beautiful here.

GIM: Do you see writing or directing feature films in your future?
JE: No. I’ve never had much of an interest in features. And even less interest in directing. I just want to write for television. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I’ve been lucky enough to have that happen. I’m having the time of my life at Torchwood. A great show with a strong vision that needs a lot of scripts written? Perfect! I also loved writing the episode of A Game of Thrones that I wrote recently. I’m getting to do a lot of pure writing now and I’m thrilled.

GIM: What’s something you’ve learned in the field that you wish you had known going in?
JE: I think it’s better not to know about the hard parts in advance. It would be very easy to decide the whole job is too hard and to never try. The job is 95 percent dream job and the other 5 percent is lesson. It’s all worth it.   Get In Media

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Espenson Really Advanced the Genre

It seems to me there has been an incredible uptick in the quality of writing over the years in the Sci-Fi genre, specifically with shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica. BSG specifically represented a move to themes and character development that rivaled (and in many people’s opinions, eclipsed) any other earth-bound drama out there. Really cool to hear the career story of one of the primary writers behind that.

Fun Fact

According to IMDB, Jane is also responsible for creating the name Zima for the beverage while working at a marketing firm. Wonder if that’s true.