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Jenna Busch

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Writer Jane Espenson on Game of Thrones, Torchwood and Geek Girls

Posted: 06/01/11 10:51 AM ET

Jane Espenson started off her writing career by writing a spec script for M*A*S*H, and never sending it. Since then, she's been a writer and/or producer for almost every popular scifi/geek show out there. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Caprica, Warehouse 13 and more. (Take a look at her IMDB page and marvel!) She wrote the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, and critics across the board have called it the best episode yet. She's writing the next season of Torchwood for Starz and has just been named Consulting Producer on the new show, Once Upon A Time.

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Photo credit: Adam Bouska

I was lucky enough to get to chat with Espenson, who is on the top of my list of favorite writers. She weighed in on the recent geek girl discussion that made Twitter explode and what being one of the only women in a writer's room taught her. She also gave us a peek at what she watches in her downtime, her famous writing sprints, working on Game of Thrones, and the shows she's got coming up next.

Geek girls have been all over the news lately. There have been a ton of discussion about whether or not female celebrities are pandering to geek men, whether being a sexy geek (or having sexy geek characters) takes credibility away from the rest of geeks, whether or not labeling ourselves as 'geek girls' is a good thing... I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Wow, that covers a lot of different issues. First off, all the beautiful women "geeks" I know really are geeks, if we use that term to mean fans of sci fi and gaming and pop culture. Felicia Day, Ashley Eckstein and Clare Grant are great examples -- oh, and add writer Mo Tanchroen and editor Lisa Lassek... and lots and lots of others. If you look around at Comic Con, you see lots of pretty women in the crowd -- if they're represented in the audience, they surely can be represented in the process, right?

I like to think of sci fi fans as people who genuinely embrace the idea of infinite diversity in infinite combination. Diversity includes the sexy. It just does. There's no way around that. We are simply going to have to embrace the sexy.

Speaking about terminology, the term "geek" has never come naturally to me, but if the chickens aren't complaining, then why should I?

But honestly, has it come to this? That being a scifi fan is something of such prestige that we suspect people of lying to get into our club?! Yay us!

You are one of the few television writers who have name recognition. For instance, when people mentioned that there was a Jane Espenson-penned episode of Game of Thrones, the buzz was, 'it will be brilliant.' (It was!) What is it like to have that sort of following? Does it put more pressure on you or can you shut that out?

Well, it's name recognition among a very select crowd. I don't get recognized when I use my credit card at Macy's or try to make a reservation at a restaurant. In fact, it's exactly the right amount of awareness -- the people who I care about are the ones who care about me. Nothing could be better. It does put pressure on me, that's true, but not always. The guys at Game of Thrones are brilliant, and the source material was so damn strong, that I never had a moment of worry there. And it's the same at Torchwood. Everything that's already in place -- Russell Davies, John Barroman, Eve Myles, the Torchwood history -- guarantees I can't fall down too hard. Of course, you can't make everyone happy all the time. There will be episodes at some point in my career, I'm sure, that will disappoint people. I'm wincing thinking about it right now. Things happen -- a story collapses or a performance falls apart, or maybe I just write something stupid. I do often write stupid things, and I rely on others to point this out in time. So I'm sure it'll happen. I just hope that I'll have enough good work in the pot already to dilute it. And, besides, sometimes an episode that is derided at the time redeems itself later -- my biggest "miss" of an episode to date is probably the "Doublemeat Palace" episode of Buffy, and now there are people who love that one as I do! So, you never know.

Can you comment on the recent scifi show blood bath? So many amazing shows are gone. Is the trend changing? What would you like to see on television?

Pish! There will be more scifi and fantasy shows. Do not worry! Scifi and fantasy draws a devoted fan base -- they are the most likely shows to become "cult" hits. Networks like cult hits now more than ever. Right now, a show with a strong niche audience can thrive. I think we're about to head into a new scifi golden age. We just need to find the right shows, give them a chance, and they'll thrive. I would like to see more shows that mix humor and scifi - they often do really well. I just signed on to be Consulting Producer on 'Once Upon A Time,' and I think it has the right mix. It's got a great feel to it -- the characters in it are bringing reality into a sweetly idealized world and vice versa in a really compelling way.

Can you give us a hint about where Caprica would have gone? So many of us were heartbroken when it was canceled. What did you learn from that experience?

We had plans, but nothing had been absolutely committed to -- things like that tend to change a lot even at the last-minute, so it's hard to remember exactly what was nailed down. We were going to skip some time, go into some war stories, and do some crossing over with at least one of the Final Five cylons. Kevin Murphy gave a recent interview in which he laid out the plans in a surprising amount of detail - he remembered much more than I did. We were all trying so hard to make the "now" work, that I'm amazed we had any time to think about "then."

I'm sorry that people were hurt by the cancellation -- but I'm also moved that people liked it that much. I learned HUGE things -- some too huge to articulate, and some that I'm still processing.

You're famous on Twitter for your writing sprints. I join whenever I can. Is that always how you write? I know you've heard this a thousand times, but I'm always interested in what tricks people use for writer's block.

I don't think of the sprints as having to do with writer's block. I think of Writer's Block as a bigger issue having to do with some kind of mental aversion to writing. The sprints are just about overcoming ordinary everyday inertia. If I'm happily lazing around on line, why would I want to stop doing that and starting thinking really hard? That's just some good logic. So the sprints are about finding better logic -- If I can be done with this quickly, I can go right back to lazing around but with a clear conscience! And I realized a while back that I was getting more work done if I did it in concentrated bursts that were defined by time limits, than if I defined it by task. "I'll write until this scene is done," can make that scene take all day. But "I'll write until noon AS FAST AS I CAN," often results in getting three or four scenes done.

I'm amused that my big innovation for how to use Twitter is to get people to temporarily stop Tweeting. And I'm amazed at how much people are getting done -- people tell me they're writing novels, plays, screenplays, essays, papers, songs, dissertations... and that they're getting more done than they ever have. Some people who have given up writing for years are gong back to it. All of this means, of course, that the uninterrupted hour of work has become so rare that using it makes you an overachiever. Just like that. Isn't that amazing?!

I also love that people aren't just writing. If someone wants to take an hour to speed-clean their apartment or create an app or groom their dog -- well, these all make the world a better place with nifty apps in clean apartments full of trimmed dogs.

Talk about adapting an episode from existing material with Game of Thrones. How much license did they give you? Will you be doing any more episodes? If you've read the books, is there a particular scene you're dying to write?

I LOVED LOVED LOVED my experience at Game of Thrones! I was told which part of the book was "mine," and I tried to stick close to it. I had been given the BEST part, of course -- not just the crown, but the horse heart -- it was the horse heart that just blew me away as a reader. I knew they wanted to capture the book, but I was also given license. For example, there was very little if any Arya in that part of the book and in my initial draft I added some material for her, and David Benioff and DB Weiss were very happy with that and supportive of adding when it made sense. And of course, a scene that works in a novel needs to be selectively pruned and rearranged for the screen. That was fun -- finding a way that a two-page scene could capture the emotional depth of a scene that might have run five pages or more of close-packed dialogue and description in the novel. So it felt very creative, but there was also this massive sense of security because you know that the story works.

I'm not currently scheduled to write another episode, but I would do so in an instant. Those guys are marvelous!

For a large portion of your career, you were the lone female voice in the writers' room. (I'm always the only girl on set visits, so I know that's always an interesting experience.) How did that affect your growth as a writer?

That's an interesting question. It's really complicated. My personal belief is that men and women are so much more alike than people think. So all of this stuff about owning our differentness always leaves me a little confused. And that awful "women are actually smarter" thing has just resulted in a bunch of killjoy female characters who stop the men from doing fun things. I'm so delighted that Tina Fey has finally managed to write a woman who is so hilariously imperfect, but not imperfect because she's a woman -- imperfect because she's a person. God, that is the hardest line to walk. This is all prelude to saying that, especially early in my career, it was very hard for me to add depth to the female characters I was writing. If I tried, it was seen as being anti-funny, as having an agenda that was overwriting the comedy. So I was often frustrated at being the only or one-of-the-only female voices. But mixed in among those experiences were lots of great ones - some of them with lots of other women writers, and some where I was again a lone voice, but among cool guys. Battlestar was that way -- I was the only woman writer while I was there, but I kept forgetting that, because the guys made a point of not making a point of it. My whole career as a woman in a room has probably just made me extra aware of the need to make sure every character has as many layers as the others. If ANY character, male or female, feels a little papery, I like to get in there and give them something. Even just one unexpected line can do amazing things.

What do you watch when you get a chance to turn on the television? Is there a character out there that you'd love to give your take on?


Kurt Hummel and Sue Sylvester -- and they both live in the same show! So convenient! And I love the show Spartacus -- the world! The language! I love Community and Modern Family, but I love watching them more than I'd love writing them -- they're so good that I just want to drink them in. The fun thing is that this list got shorter last year when I was hired to write for Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper! And it got shorter before that when I got to write for Kara Thrace and Gaius Baltar. The best thing about a dream list is seeing it get satisfied. Now, how can I write for Kirk and Spock and McCoy?

Can you give us a sneak peek at the pilot you're doing for Syfy and the differences from the UK version? What is it about UK shows that makes everyone want to redo them with an American voice?

Ha! I don't know! I just know that SyFy came to me and Drew Z. Greenberg with this UK show 'Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased,' about a PI team, one of whom is a ghost. Now, we don't even normally write as a team, but that was part of the appeal, since we really do work well together. We looked at the show and liked it, and we considered various approaches, and ended up going with something kind of Battlestar-like in that we decided to really ground it. By that I mean that our questions all started with, "Okay, if this really happened...". In the end, we've come up with a very modern and believable version of a ghost. Our ghosts have some different rules than you've seen before, different motivations, and they fit into a realistic world in a different way. We're having fun with it and SyFy has been great at letting us explore this approach.

What new and exciting things are happening in the Buffyverse? Any chance you'd pop by to write an episode for Sarah Michelle Gellar's new show 'Ringer?'

I don't have any plans regarding 'Ringer,' but I continue to be involved in the Buffy comic books. And I'm going to be working with two Whedon alums on 'Once Upon a Time' - Andrew Chambliss was a writer on Joss's 'Dollhouse' with me, and David Goodman was an assistant-bound-for-bigger-things on Buffy. And if Joss EVER has anything where he needs my help, I would be there in an instant. He has my love and loyalty forever.

Can you tell us any more about Once Upon a Time?

I'd love to talk more about Once Upon a Time, but we haven't started work yet. I watched the completed pilot and had a really fun chat with Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. They were funny and smart and I liked what they were saying about their vision for the show -- they've got a real handle on the tone and content. I love the idea of a folklore or literary world intersecting with the real world, and I like the very grounded way they're going about it. But so far the only discussions we've had since I've been hired have been about ID cards and what kind of computer I want in my office! So it is, as they say, early days. I'm looking forward to this new adventure!

What can you tell us about Torchwood: Miracle Day? Shows on Starz have far more freedom in terms of real life situations. They don't have the same restraints on language, sexuality and violence. How has that affected your writing? Is it freeing? Does it change the way you approach a scene?

What can I tell you about Torchwood?! Well, I can't give plot spoilers, but I can remind people that it's not a reboot, or "American remake". This is the same show. The adventure brings our UK characters to the US and there are new US characters, but this is also still Jack and Gwen and Rhys and even PC (now Sgt) Andy. There are scenes set and shot back in Wales and lots of references to previous adventures. It's Russell's show as much as it ever was.

Starz certainly opens things up in terms of language and such -- I do find that freeing. If you're writing from life, trying to write like real, say, FBI agents would talk, you end up having to write *around* the expletives, which sounds fake. So it's nice having them there -- not to shock, but just to sound real. Come to think of it, the effects and explosions are exactly the same. The show totally worked with more modest effects. So we wrote the same show - a show that would work without them -- then had big explosions or big vistas or big sexy, or whatever, where it would make sense and be "real."

Check out the trailer for Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Is there a story you're dying to tell? If you were given complete freedom, ratings weren't an issue and there were no studio restraints, what story would you write? I do have such a story -- a comedy idea a friend and I came up with and co-wrote a little script for. It's something that I think would inevitably change with studio input, and I want to keep it clear in my head at least until we've captured our clean vision of it, so I think we will shoot it as a web series. Ask me about it again in about a month or so! 'Torchwood: Miracle Day' premieres on July 8, 2011 on BBC One in the UK and Starz in the US, and airs on Fridays at 10/9 C.
 

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