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A Conversation with Jane Espenson: Part One

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Caveat Emptor: mild spoilers ahead.

When last I caught up with the very busy Jane Espenson, we were at Comic-Con in San Diego. We talked about Once Upon a Time, of course, and also about her delightful “marriage equality” situation comedy Husbands, which stars Brad Bell (also known as Cheeks) and Sean Hemeon, was about to start its second season of webisodes, which has now ended; Once Upon a Time was about to begin shooting season two.

So I thought, with the season premiere of Once airing this week, and Husbands about to launch into a new direction, it was a great time to touch base with Ms. Espenson, the great lady of genre television writing. (Name a quality, if not iconic, sci-fi/fantasy series of the last 20 years, and chances are that Jane might have had a hand in it along the way: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Caprica, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Firefly, Angel…the list goes on.) But Jane has also quite a comedy resume, having written for Ellen (the comedy series, not the talk show). So it’s not a complete surprise that she’s taken on creating a situation comedy—while writing Once Upon a Time being involved in other projects as well. When we spoke by phone earlier this week, we talked about Husbands and Once Upon a Time, and her new project related to Husbands—a comic book series.

Because of the length of the interview, I’ve broken into two parts, with, this one covering (mostly) Once Upon a Time, and Part 2 discussing Husbands

Having watched the Once Upon a Time season premiere, appropriately called “Broken,” I was a bit taken aback by the teaser, which seemed out of place for a typical Once episode. I had to do a bit of a double take, wondering if I’d I booted up the wrong screener on my computer. Jane laughed. “That’s what we wanted. We wanted you to go, ‘Wait. What is this?  Is this the show?’ That was a calculated effect!”

We are introduced in the first scene to a new character; we’re given no information for him, and no context. “This is someone you haven’t seen before,” she explained without elaborating. “You’ll just have to keep watching for awhile to find out who that is.” Of course I can speculate, and acknowledged Jane, so will the fans. (Could he be Rumplestiltskin’s long lost son Baelfire? Of course Jane gave me no clue. What do you think? Let me know after you’ve seen the premiere!)

The season premiere also introduces Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Sleeping Beauty (Sarah Bolger, Mary Tudor in The Tudors) into the growing cast of fairytale characters. “[Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have] brought in some new, amazing people. [Captain] Hook is going to be coming along in this season as well,” she teased. Rumor has it that Hook has a history with Rumple, something that Jane confirmed albeit slightly reluctantly. (It’s not a big stretch, though, since the promos have been suggesting some sort of connection.)

In “Broken,” Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and her mom Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) take an unexpected trip. (Because this is coming out before the premiere, I won’t disclose where or under what circumstances). It was an interesting direction to take the two characters—mother and daughter—at this point in their relationship. “That was a big idea that actually surprised me in the writers’ room. It’s one of those big ideas and I think it’s daring and ballsy and just awesome in a way,” Jane explained. “So often in [most] writers’ rooms, someone will throw out a big idea and it’ll kind of get pushed aside because it’s so big. People get kind of scared of the big, transformative ideas.”

But the writers’ room on Once is different, she added. “In this room we have Eddy and Adam, and they are so confident, and so smart, and so in control of the storytelling that there is—they are willing to take—they’re confident enough to make the big moves. And I think that’s part of what makes this show so special. You can tell when something is written from a place of confidence versus a place of conservatism and fear. And this show is written with tremendous confidence.”

That was abundantly clear at the end of the first season when they shocked everyone and broke the curse after only one season. Few would have predicted that after one season, the entire original premise of the series would be scuttled and taken in a different direction. “That move,” said Jane, “is a great example their confidence. They know these characters, they know the story; they know what is the show, and what isn’t the show.” Which, she explained, isn’t as easy as it sounds. “It isn’t often obvious at all when you’re actually running a show.”

The season one finale sets up a lot of conflicts for season two, but also some opportunities for unlikely confederations and shifting loyalties, depending on the adversary of the moment. The relationship between Emma and Regina (Lana Parrilla) is a perfect example of this. Are they enemies or allies?

Jane explained, “I think it’s situational. I think there are areas in their lives in which they are confederates and there are areas in which they are very much opposed.” Both believe, of course, that they have Henry’s best interests at heart. “But,” she added, “I think they would both probably give you a pretty different lists of things that would comprise that wellbeing. So that could turn into conflict. I’m reminded of Battlestar Galactica where we had so many characters, all of whom had these rich histories with each other in the body of the show.”

She recalled thinking, “my God, you can put any two characters in a scene and they’d have something fraught between them, some past thing from some other episode that’s still hanging out there between them, to either be a point of confederacy or a conflict. And I think Once is doing that same thing.” With a large ensemble cast of characters, many of whom have histories with each other and already in place, there’s a lot of rich material to mine without having to create quick devices for creating conflict for a particular story line. It’s already there, according to Jane. “Our characters have very good reasons already established for their conflict.”

Like the favor Emma still owes Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle), for example, which comes up in the premiere. “That’s right,” Jane said. “She still owes him a favor. That’s still hanging out there.” And of course, Emma has to deal come to terms with the fact that at last she’s found her parents, but the revelation is jarring to her, while not at all to Charming and Snow, who are thrilled to have found their darling Emma.

“And it’s beautifully unresolved. So often in the [writers’] room I find myself uttering the phrase ‘there’s a good conversation.’ Everybody’s got something, someone to deal with, yeah. And Emma’s parents are a great example. And these are the parents she spent years searching for, but also resenting.” And there’s plenty to resent from Emma’s perspective. Jane agreed. “Well, I mean, we know they put her in a box and shipped her to Maine (when she was a baby), you know? It was all for the good, but I could certainly see that there’s, as I say, there is a conversation to be had.”

And of course, there’s the ongoing conflict between Regina and Rumple. Lana Parrilla had told me during our interview last week that we’ll learn much more about her relationship with Rumple this year, going very far back in their history. “She is not wrong,” Jane said. “They had even more history and a different history than you might have thought.”

The season two premiere also expands on the reunion between Rumplestiltskin and Belle (Emilie de Ravin). “RumBelle,” laughed Jane, acknowledging the name given to the “ship” by the fans. “Yeah, I ship them, too,” she confessed.

That was clear from start of it all in her beautifully written episode “Skin Deep,” which framed the story as Beauty and the Beast. “You know, you’ve got a couple like that, you get two actors like that, yeah, how could you not?” I wondered if we might run into Moe French, Belle’s father, again this season. “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say,” she teased. “But I would say, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Dr. Whale takes quite a role in the premiere, but we still don’t know who he is in the fairytale world. “We will see more of Whale,” Jane disclosed. “And I believe [Eddy and Adam] have said that we will see who he is, so, yes.” It actually comes up in the premiere when he’s asked outright by another character. But he is as elusive about it as Jane. But there is more to come on Whale and his identity. “I think fans are going to be just plotzing. It’s so good.”

Currently, the series is shooting episode seven, and they’ve just broken episode 10 in the writers’ room. Jane’s next episode airs next week, the second episode of the season. (And she’ll be joining me for a chat with the fans following the episode.)

Once Upon a Time is a fertile ground for fan creations based on the stories and characters, whether it’s video mash-ups, fan art or fanfiction. I was curious how Jane, as a television writer, felt about fanfiction, taking characters she helped create and writing new situations and relationships for them. (Full disclosure: although I’ve never written Once Upon a Time fanfiction, I have written it for other series, including House, The X-Files, and Stargate Universe.)

She considers herself “a big advocate. I think that, a lot of times, how young writers get their chops. That’s the thing you do to get a job as a writer in Hollywood—you  write episodes of television shows [someone else has created]. And actually, the eventual job you get in television is writing for characters you didn’t create. I write fanfiction every day when I sit down to write something for the characters of Once Upon a Time in a way because I’m writing for characters that I didn’t create. I’m putting myself in Adam and Eddy’s shows and writing in as close to their voice as I can do. And that’s the same thing that fanfiction writers do.”

She feels its “the best training you could have to be a working professional television writer” and a huge compliment to a writer. “It is a sign that a character has been created that seems to the viewer to have a life beyond the edges of the screen. Nothing could be a bigger compliment to a writer than a character that other people feel that they can write for.”

The most famous recent work of fanfiction that’s crossed over into the professional realm is of course Fifty Shades of Grey. “Absolutely,” agreed Jane. “I mean, and I think there are probably other works that began as fanfiction that people just aren’t aware of because they, you know, change the name and cloaked its heritage so successfully that people don’t know, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a whole lot of romance novels out there that started as, Twilight or other fanfiction. I think if it helps more good fiction be out in the world, then yay!”

Speaking of reading, I asked Jane who she’s reading when not busy writing. “I read Gone Girl recently” by Gillian Flynn. “I was really, really impressed by that. It’s not genre, but it has, it employs some of the imaginative writing tricks that you often see associated with genre and I thought it was really brilliant.” She’s also reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right now.

Please join me tomorrow night after the season premiere of Once Upon a Time for an After Party right here on Blogcritics. Jane will also be joining me later in October on Blogcritics for a live chat with the fans.

 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.