10 AprRaphael Sbarge: Jane Espenson Q&A Part 1
Raphael Sbarge (Jiminy/Archie, Once Upon a Time) chats with writer Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time; Husbands; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so much more), in his latest audioblog conversation. In part one, they discuss how Jane became a writer.
Jane: Hey, Raphael.
Raphael: Hey there. So, thank you for agreeing to do this. How fun, to get a chance to talk to you about kind of what you’re doing. In the full disclosure of how this is, essentially, you and I are working together, obviously, on Once Upon a Time, but I know that you are working in other venues. I’m particularly interested in talking about what you think about what you’re doing with your Web series.
But I thought, to kind of just use … I wrote up some questions, almost like a blind interview in a certain sense – knowing some of the answers? But for other people who might not know some of the answers, sort of them getting a chance to discover you. If you’re game, then I can sort of jump in from that.
Jane: I think that sounds marvelous. I’m more than game; that sounds wonderful.
Raphael: OK, great. So then, let’s get started: For anyone who’s not aware of, from whence you come. I mean, I love this story – how you started writing, or how you came to it?
Jane: Yeah. I grew up in the Midwest, a professor’s daughter in the middle of Iowa – Ames, Iowa. And I knew I wanted to write for TV, but it didn’t seem doable.
I grew up watching a lot of TV; it was in some ways, a golden age. There was a lot of, sort of … The Odd Couple, and M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore, and like, Barney Miller – these amazing shows. There was also a lot of Welcome Back, Kotter and The Love Boat, and other shows that I loved equally well, and other shows that I loved equally well, and without distinction. And I just, I knew I wanted to write for TV. And I read an interview with one of the writers from M*A*S*H – a woman writer – talking about people sending in spec scripts. And I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
I didn’t really get a chance to try it — because it wasn’t clear how you did that important step of actually sending something in – until I was well into grad school. I discovered that you could submit scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation totally without an agent: You just had to send it into Paramount, and they would read it.
Raphael: That’s amazing. Is there anyone who still does that?
Jane: No – and nobody did it then! It was weird, then. Star Trek is, as far as I know, the only show that ever did it. The Star Trek shows always had that policy, and nobody else ever did. And right now, there doesn’t happen to be a Star Trek show on the air. So that door’s not there; but in fact, in a way, that step was kind of skippable.
Because what that program got me … I mean, I eventually got a sale. I sold the premise to them, which was $1,000, which at the time was like, some massive amount for me. But what it really got me was someone told me about the Disney writers’ fellowship. And so I technically could have done everything else the same in my career, without Star Trek, as long as there had been someone along the way to tell me about the Disney writers’ fellowship, because that’s what really allowed me to move to town and start doing this as a career.
Raphael: And what’s that, I guess? How does that work?
Jane: That still exists. It’s the ABC/Disney writers’ fellowship. If you just search ABC Disney writers or talent development, words like that, you’ll find it. It’s gotten a little harder to get in, because now they require some industry experience. But if you have that, if you have some industry experience, it’s become a much smaller pool, so it’s easier to get in. So that’s good.
But it’s a program that Disney runs here in Burbank, where they bring in young, aspiring writers, and you get a year’s training with them. They pay you, which is amazing. And you work with executives; you meet showrunners; you write scripts; and they place you – they do their very best, and they do a very good job at it, of placing you on one of their shows. … It’s to the benefit of the show-runner, because they get a writer whom they’re not paying – the fellowship pays for them – and it’s to your benefit, because you’re sitting there, in a professional writers’ room, just like the paid writers, and if the show goes and they like you, you will undoubtedly be hired, for realsies.
Raphael: That’s incredible – that’s incredible.
Jane: Yeah, it’s fantastic! It’s absolutely fantastic. And it’s made applying – or, it’s made getting into TV writing a little more like an ordinary job. It used to be that essentially you would get into a program – Disney has one, NBC has one – there’s a few, like Disney. You’d get into that program, and it was like you won the lottery. And it was about as easy – and, you know, it made about as much sense. It was just, the odds were so high, that of the thousands of scripts submitted, yours would be picked and you’d get to do this.
Now, it’s a little more like applying for a job; there’s steps to it. Generally, you move to L.A. You’d get some kind of job on the fringes of the business: You’re an agent’s assistant, you’re a set P.A. You’re something like that. You meet a couple people, you get a letter of recommendation, you can say you’ve got industry experience. You apply to the program; you’re applying against a smaller group of people. It’s a little more like trade school, now, where there’s actual steps that you do to get this job. So, in a way, it’s made it a little more logical.
Raphael: That’s great. And I’m sure you get asked all the time, “How do you become a writer?” I mean, I know I get that as an actor, like: “How do you/What do you do,” and it’s always a bit overwhelming because there’s no obvious road. It’s so zig-zaggy, in a way.
Jane: Absolutely. It’s much like what I’m sure you’re asked about: “OK, I know I’m good! How do I become a professional, Hollywood paid working actor?”
Raphael: Right! And of course, I wanna say, “Don’t! Just run for the hills!”
Jane: You know, a lot of writers give that advice. They talk about, “This job will make you cry. Only do this job if you can not sleep at night without writing. If you can do anything else, do it.” But I would tend to disagree and say that writing is the best job in the world. I have loved almost every minute of it. You’re paid very well, you’re working with exciting people. What’s the downside? You’d be crying at any job, you know? All jobs make you cry at some point.
Raphael: That’s really true! That’s really true. What was your first big break, I guess, in terms of moving up that ladder?
Jane: The first big break was that they liked my script enough at Star Trek to bring me in to pitch. Then that they bought something, then that I got into the Disney fellowship – that was a huge one.
But after that, I guess it probably was that a very nice showrunner at a show called Dinosaurs allowed this young Disney fellow to come clutter up his writers’ room at a point where they were essentially wrapping things up. They were pretty much putting the covers on the furniture. They knew the show was ending; they had to do the last eight episodes, or whatever, and they let a new person, this kid who didn’t know anything about the business – I mean, I just sort of came in, making every mistake in the book. And they let me come in, and sit in their room for that last month and get some room experience. And it was amazing, and I got a produced script, and there’s just nothing like that to help your resume start to look shiny. That was a big break.