By Zach Van Norman
Jane Espenson has just arrived for our interview at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. She looks very much like a modern Cinderella, wearing a metallic blue dress that shimmers in the light as she makes her way down the stairs in the small screening room set aside for us. I hand her a bag of popcorn and compliment her on her dress. “Thank you,” she says as she prepares to sit. “It doesn’t allow for much popcorn but I’m going to eat some anyway.” It’s a humble moment from a television writer whose work is comprised of pop culture staples like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and Torchwood.
Having cultivated such an impressive portfolio of writing credits, it’s arguable that Jane Espenson can be referred to as an icon. Her aforementioned humility continues as we begin speaking and Jane proves herself oblivious to her status. “I didn’t know I was an icon,” she replies when asked about the topic. “That’s even more disorienting. I’m not primarily a creator. I haven’t really created a lot of things. I co-created, where I co-created Husbands with Brad Bell, but mostly I have been someone who steps into a show and… I get to play in the sandbox that someone else has created, which is the thing I always wanted to do. It’s the best job in the world.”
While it’s true that she hasn’t created many of the characters she’s written for, Jane’s work has shepherded characters through many varying story arcs, filling in the outlines of their humanity with colors of her own choosing and showcasing how life isn’t always black and white. Jane’s stories are a journey to emotional truth, and they have been of such quality and such impact that she is being recognized with the Inspiration Award at Etheria Film Night 2015. Etheria Film Night is an annual event recognizing women for their contributions to the entertainment industry, and includes a showcase of genre films created by women filmmakers. Receiving the Inspiration Award is an honor that Jane describes as “thrilling, overwhelming, really nauseating, because it’s a lot of attention, you know? It feels gratifying, let’s go with that. That’s better than ‘nauseating.’”
Gratifying is the best way to describe Jane’s ascension in the world of television. She grew up in Ames, Iowa and submitted scripts for M*A*S*H* and Star Trek: The Next Generation as a teenager. She went on to join the Disney ABC Writing Program and spent a few years writing on comedy shows including Dinosaurs and Ellen; during this time her desire to write a Star Trek script was fulfilled when she penned an episode for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Jane’s first staff position was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where her talents were put to use in crafting a show with a major impact on its audience. Reflecting on why Buffyhas resonated with so many people, she says “I think it’s because people see themselves in a character like that. People don’t see themselves as a perfect hero or heroine, but every little boy or little girl could see themselves in Buffy or see Buffy in themselves.” Jane continued writing in the sci-fi/fantasy genre with scripts for Firefly and Angelbefore revealing the complexities of pilot Kara Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, the death of a prince in the “A Golden Crown” episode of Game of Thrones, and letting Belle sing on Once Upon A Time; Jane wrote the Beauty and the Beast-themed episode “Skin Deep,” an episode which consistently takes the top spot in viewer polls for favorite episode. She has also expanded her horizons into the world of producer, creating the one-season spinoff Once Upon A Time in Wonderland with Adam Horowitz, Eddy Kitsis and Zack Estrin, as well as Warehouse 13 with D. Brent Mote, and producing Husbands with Brad Bell.
Husbands in particular is unique due to its independence and source material, as it started on YouTube and eventually transitioned to The CW’s Seed online platform. Her interest in the project was primarily the idea itself. “Brad Bell, who started that project, it came out of a character he had developed online. He and I were friends and we started talking about what we could do together, and he had the idea of taking that character and putting him in a marriage equality world,” Jane explains. “It was the fact that that idea deserved to live and breathe, and that we weren’t at a time that network TV was going to do it, so we did it online because that was the only way to get it done.”
Since Jane’s ability to get things done is why we’re here, it was appropriate that, after our conversation, Jane was presented with the Etheria Film Night Inspiration Award by Amber Benson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica. In her speech, she mentioned Once Upon A Time and offered her perspective on a familiar saying: “You know that phrase from Cinderella, ‘a dream is a wish your heart makes’? I always thought it was the strangest phrase. If you take it literally, a dream isn’t real, and if you take it metaphorically then a dream is a wish and it’s redundant.” She went on to say that “a script is a wish your heart makes” and encouraged the audience to write stories, write scripts, and get their work out there.
And in this moment, Jane Espenson embodies the spirit of the accolades that she has received: using her speech about the Inspiration Award to provide inspiration for others and turning her Cinderella moment into a vessel for hope for those who yearn to write stories of their own. Jane may have been honored for her contributions to television, but really it’s the audiences who have watched Jane’s stories that have been honored with her complex characters, engaging dialogue, and emotional truth of the human condition. We are so lucky that she brought us along on her magic pumpkin ride.
Thank you to Heidi Honeycutt, Melanie Marquez and Jane Espenson.