For most kids, television is a welcome distraction from homework. But for screenwriter Jane Espenson, watching television as a kid turned out to be a crystal ball into her future. Her writing credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, the web series Husbands, and ABC’s newest hit, Once Upon A Time. Recently, we chatted with Espenson about her background in television, why she is drawn to the sci-fi genre and what she learned from scientists along the way.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to pursue a writing career in television?
I was raised in the middle of the country, with no connections to entertainment, but I watched a lot of TV and always knew that I wanted to be a TV writer. The Odd Couple, M*A*S*H, Barney Miller, Mary Tyler Moore … it was an era of inspiring TV and I wanted to be a part of it. I did not see a logical path to getting there, so I attended UC Berkeley, studying computer science and then linguistics, but always keeping an eye on Los Angeles, hoping to find some kind of open door. Eventually, I found one – Star Trek: The New Generation used to accept script submissions without an agent. That was my start.
You have been part of quite a few science-fiction/fantasy shows. What drew you to that genre?
I was already a fan of sci-fi, including Star Trek, and that coupled with its miraculous open door policy, made it a logical place to start. But I had actually largely imagined myself as a comedy writer, so my early jobs in Hollywood ended up being on sitcoms (Dinosaurs, Monty, Me and the Boys, Something So Right, Ellen). It was only when I realized that I was not contributing the way I hoped that I took aim at getting a job on a show I was a fan of – Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That led to other sci-fi/fantasy jobs, which is great, because I do think it is a good fit for me. I love the idea of looking at our world through the lens of metaphor, which is what these genres allow you to do.
Your latest project is ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Do you think your love of science fiction work its way into future storylines of the series or do you see science fiction and fantasy as completely separate genres?
I do not think those questions are opposites – I guess I would answer “no” to both of them. Sci-fi and fantasy are different, but I would not say they are “completely” different. I can think of a lot of places where they overlap – Battlestar Galactica had elements of both, for example. But Once Upon A Time is not a vehicle to allow me to write a show I have already written. The thing I love best about TV is that you are writing something new all the time – the fun is in writing to the aesthetic of the new show.
As a screenwriter, what is the advantage of talking to scientists? Have you learned anything from your interactions with scientists?
My father is a scientist – chemist James Espenson – so I was raised among his students and colleagues, and I know how easily a cocktail party turns into passionate discussions of chemistry. My childhood friends and college friends also became scientists and I studied a lot of history/philosophy of science when I was in graduate school. So I feel connected to that world, although I really know nothing. At Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, we relied a lot on science advisers. Kevin Grazier was our advisor on Battlestar Galactica and his input was crucial. He even determined the placement of the planets in the characters’ home system so that we could make Caprica possible. It is easier to be sloppy, but it is satisfying when you do your best to get it right.
Is there a science subject you have a particular fondness for?
Hmm … biology makes me light-headed and chemistry is smelly. Let’s go with physics.
Thinking of the next generation of TV writers and producers – what message would you like to share with them?
Write what you want to watch. That is what makes it fun and ultimately that is what makes it good. Do not think of some audience with different taste than your own, or with lower abilities. That also keeps you from writing down to anyone – assume an audience is as smart as you are. And do not be afraid to lead the crowd – my web series Husbands starts in a world in which there is national marriage equality. Does that make it sci-fi? I do not think so — just smart enough to see where we are going.
Any final thoughts you would like to share?
It is amazing to watch how fast science and technology are moving these days. I hope that this is resulting in a generation of kids who are excited about science. Science reality looks a little like science fiction these days, which is marvelous. When a Star Trek communicator goes from fiction to reality, it forces us writers to reach out a little further – and I love that.