Interviewed by: Samuel K. Sloan (FarPoint Media Executive News Director)
Jane grew up in Ames, Iowa where she was often accused of watching far too much television. At age 13 she attempted to write an episode of “M*A*S*H.” That didn’t quite work out so she eventually attended college at UC Berkeley, studying linguistics as an undergrad and graduate student. While in grad school she submitted a specialty script for episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which allowed her to get her foot in the barely open door of show business. After winning a spot in the Walt Disney writers’ fellowship, she worked in sitcoms for a number years. Her first staff job on a drama was at the set of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” followed by a year as Co-Executive Producer at “Gilmore Girls,” and brief stints as Co-Executive Producer of the cancelled FOX dramas “Tru Calling” and “The Inside.”
Some of her other past works have included “Angel,” “Ellen,” “The O.C.,” “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Dinosaurs,” “Andy Barker P.I.” “Firefly,” “Serenity” and many others.
Jane is currently working as Co-Executive Producer with Ron Moore and David Eick on SCI FI Channel’s mega-hit series “Battlestar Galactica.”
I have been a fan of Jane’s work for a long time and when I was afforded the opportunity to ask her some questions recently, I was as giddy as a grade-school kid. Once I got my professional composure together I was able to ask her these following questions and Jane didn’t let me down, but lived up to my ideal of her with some really thoughtful answers.
Sam (SoSF:) Jane, first we want to thank you on behalf of all our fans for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some of our questions, and welcome you to Slice of SciFi.
I have just finished reading â€œSerenity Found,â€ the sequel book to â€œFinding Serenityâ€ that you edited and what a fascinating read it is. What compelled you to do a follow-up to the first successful entry?
Jane Espenson (JE): The idea for the second book came from the publisher, not from me. (I think that means that the first book must’ve made money!) From my perspective, I was happy to jump back into the project, since so much — i.e. the movie — had happened since “Finding Serenity,” and there was clearly more to be said. Also, even without the movie, I think television series simply enjoy a longer reign of relevance now, since so many people now discover them years later on DVD; it felt like there might be new fans with new insights.
SoSF: There are a total of 18 different essays provided in â€œSerenity Found.â€ Was it difficult getting a cross-section of busy and famous people, like Nathan Fillion, Evelyn Vaughn, Orson Scott Card, just to name a few, to come on board and take the time to write for the project?
JE: Most of those people were located and approached by the publishers before I got involved, but some of them have more personal connections — Natalie Haynes was personally recommended and put forward as a potential contributor by Joss himself, for example, and I recommended Jacob Clifton and Maggie Burns myself as writers whom I felt would have valuable contributions to make. I was involved earlier and more intrinsically in this book than in the first one, and I was really tickled to be able to help shape the profile of the book in this way.
SoSF: You begin the book with an introduction that gives readers some insight into your favorite moments while working on the Fireflyâ€ TV series and â€œSerenityâ€ the movie. Can you share one more with your fans that didnâ€™t make it into â€œSerenity Found?â€
JE: There are so manyâ€¦ recording DVD commentary for “Shindig” with Morena Baccarin and Shawna Trpcic, the costume designer, for example. It was fascinating just watching the playback with them and getting their angle on the production. And, another time, I remember going over prop playing cards to pick which ones would be used for the scene in which the crew members play Tall Card. I also remember when someone came to my office to tell me that I had to devise and write up a full set of rules for Tall Card. That was incredibly fun.
But the best and brightest memories of Firefly have to do with sitting in that enormous ballroom, watching them film the scenes from “Shindig.” Seeing the complex dancing live, with all those actual hoop skirts whirling around right in front of you — amazing. And there was a funny moment when I realized that I was going to have to change Kaylie’s line, “Oh! Pineapples!” Because there weren’t any pineapples. (There were mangoes.)
SoSF: For me, your work has always been brilliant, so extensive and crosses so many varied genres and topics that it is hard for fans and critics alike to pin you down as a certain kind of writer, which is one measure of your great success. In those quite moments of self-reflection, what kind of writer does Jane Espenson consider herself to be?
JE: Wow. Thank you! In terms of genre, I love it when a concept has a layer of metaphor to it — science fiction, supernatural or magical elements give you a way to write about small emotional moments, but magnified into bigger, splashier, funnier stories by the metaphor that defines the show. So, anyway, if I had to check boxes next to different genres, I’d check “Comedy” and “Sci Fi,” but like you say, I’ve crossed a lot of different lines, and I’d be willing — and eager — to try any style of writing as long as I felt there was emotion in the characters. My favorite thing is to take a scene that seems as if it’s going to simply be event-driven, or one that seems purely comedic, and then find a layer of actual feeling in it — at least that’s what I try to do.
SoSF: You have worked a great deal with Joss Whedon. Youâ€™ve written for shows like â€œBuffy, the Vampire Slayer,â€ Angel, as well as the aforementioned â€œFireflyâ€/â€Serenity.â€ Is there a certain kind of flow or creative chemistry between you and Joss that allows for such great material to be birthed from your collaborations together?
JE: I think I just like Joss’s style. He tells stories with great heart and imagination. He never is swayed by the coolness factor of some plot move — “It’s just moves,” he’ll scoff. He is totally directed by the emotional heart of the story. On my side of it, I’m not sure what I contribute that he likes except that I try to listen very carefully to what he wants, and I have some joke-writing experience. I also write fast, which is important when you’re working with Joss because he will never rush the breaking of a story, which sometimes leaves less time for the actual scripting.
SoSF: What project(s) do you have lined-up for the future that you can share with our audience of readers?
JE: Down the road some time, I want to turn my blog, janeespenson.com, into a “how to write” book. And, of course, if Joss returns to television, I would love to write for him again. And perhaps, if there’s continued interest, there could be a third book of Serenity essays. But in the more immediate future, I’ll continue to write for Battlestar Galactica, which I adore beyond the telling of it, for as long as it’s around. I’m also developing a pilot for NBC/Universal right now — something with a new take on modern magic.
SoSF: If some great all-powerful being stood before Jane Espenson and told you that you could no longer be a writer, but could choose to do anything else you wanted â€“ What would that something else be?
JE: Props are so cool. Maybe I could work in the props department. Or maybe I could raise baby animals at a wildlife preserve. Bottle-feeding an echidna — doesn’t that sound wonderful? I also would love to do something like archeology except not actually out in the hot sun — I think I’d like to work for say, the British Museum, and get to study all the new finds as they come in. I could still, like, write down notes, right?
SoSF: Jane, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and answering our questions. It has been a real thrill for us. Speaking as a fan, I know I look forward to your future projects and we wish you continued success.
JE: Thanks so much! These were fun questions!
To learn more about the life and career of Jane Espenson, click on the above image.
Want to meet Jane Espenson? She’ll be marching at Universal in support of the WGA strike.
Also be sure to tune in to Dragon Page Cover to Cover for our FarPoint Media interview with Jane.