A Night of Etheria: Amazing Advice from Jane Espenson

As you may already know, we not only love honoring women in film with our own little virtual awards show: The Legendary Lucindas, we also love discovering new talent, which is why we were thrilled when Lucinda Honoree Heidi Honeycutt invited us to cover Etheria Film Night earlier this month.

It was either a heavenly version of hell or a hellish kind of heaven. Either way, I was loving it. Yours truly was able to not only see and speak to fresh voices in film, but see a truly great pioneer honored (Jane Espenson! More on her below…) that ethereal night at The Egyptian Theater.

It’s a truly great space and I was intrigued by some of the upcoming second-run double features they host, pairing fantasies like Legend with Labyrinth and Return to Oz with the criminally underrated In the Company of Wolves. It seems they have a taste for the under-appreciated and I definitely respect that.

The official selections included one feature and six shorts. We’ll be posting reviews and interviews for each in turn, but let’s just start with the festival itself and our talk with Jane (!!!!). I was early and able to look around, enjoy the atmosphere and the soft jazz standards playing over the PA system (my music!). The main theater displayed a slidehow trivia on great women in horror, thrillers, and action (Ida Lupino, Kathryn Bigelow, and Mary Harron, to name just a few) before the feature and the shorts, making me feel rather nice at how far women in cinema have come even though we have a ways to go before equality.

Of course, I didn’t have much time to sit around marveling at that, considering I had so many women to talk to once the red carpet started and the crowd descended and, my past experience being mostly tv recaps (like these or these) and interviews over email, I was quite intimidated at the idea of meeting all these movers and shakers in the flesh, but I shouldn’t have been so silly. Every single filmmaker I talked to was engaging and approachable and open. I ran into Teresa Jusino from The Mary Sue (where we get a large number of the news items we share on Facebook). She was a real pro and very nicely advised me to put myself out there to get all my interviews (you can see her coverage here, here, and here) in the bustle of volunteers herding talent this way and that. If not for her advice, I might not have been able to chat with someone not on my list of interviewees.

The legend, herself!

That would be Jane Espenson. I thought the extent of my interaction with Jane would involve casting longing glances her way as she was hustled here and there, sighing and wishing I were scheduled for time with her. But as luck (or me hinting at several of our dear interview wranglers and her publicist) would have it, she was kind enough to sit down for a few questions.

I got my nervous giggles out of the way as we bonded over a shared love of vintage style dresses and Modcloth (a site that sells their items in and features models of ALL sizes. I just can’t say enough wonderful things about them, their products, and their philosophy). “Everything I have is from Modcloth, I don’t remember if this is,” she says, gesturing down to her silky, jade dress, “but it probably is.”

I fangirl for a moment because, as you may know, Jane Espenson is kind of a big deal. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Once Upon a Time to Battlestar Gallactica, her credits as a writer and producer are long and legendary. Of course, as a registered Game of Thrones superfan, I have to single out her work on “A Golden Crown” as having given us some of the most quotable lines in the series’ history.

“I do my best,” she demurs.

“Obviously. You’re being honored for your best right now,” I gush at her. But it’s true that her dialogue has a way of highlighting the characters she writes for and putting us right with them emotionally, while also being rather epic and quotable.

Syrio: There is only one god and his name is Death, and there is only one thing we say to Death: “Not today”.

She humbly puts it all down to the teamwork inherent in TV work. With a team having mapped out the story, “you get to really concentrate on the parts of the job that I love, which are the dialogue and finding those moments that you were talking about,” she says, getting into some great advice for aspiring screenwriters. “TV writing is a really good career for you if you like working as group. Most of your time is actually not spent out working on your own script, but sitting in the writer’s room with the other writers, breaking the episode that will be written next. And by breaking we mean breaking it down into its individual scenes that will tell the story. So as a TV writer, you generally don’t have to come up with the bare bones of your script yourself. The group does that and you contribute to it, but it’s handed to you already ready to be outlined. All the scenes in place. If that sounds like a dream to you, then you may be a TV writer because that’s what I love, is that I never have to face a blank page.”

“A dream isn’t a wish your heart makes, but a script is a wish your heart makes, where you can write any world you can imagine.”

“There is definitely a sense of teamwork and collaboration that I love. And then I think you get a lot more freedom in TV to really… Not only are you freed from a lot of the stricture of movies, a lot of that is dictated by the form and helped by the group, but it’s also because you get to capture more than their first or second hour of life. In a feature film, you only live with that character for two hours. In TV, this may be their two hundredth hour. You can explore and dig a lot deeper, I think.”

Since I have a periodic obsession with Ken Levine’s (pronounced LEH VINE, not LEH VEEN, Jane helpfully informed me) blog with all the great BTS insight and writing advice, I have to ask Jane if she’s thought about blogging. She has in the past. “I have Janeespenson.com, mostly archived in the advent of Twitter, but the writing advice is still intact. I do want to eventually write a book about writing, but that also includes sort of reminiscences about the business.” I’d definitely be in line to buy it if she does, but we can follow her on Twitter here until that day arrives.

Jane between Amber Benson and Tricia Helfer, who introduced her.

Later, at the awards ceremony before the shorts commenced, Amber Benson (who we’ll also be posting a fun and insightful interview with very soon) and Tricia Helfer were there to help her accept the super cool, rocket-shaped Inspiration Award with kind words of their own and a speech from a regrettably absent Juliet Landau.

“She is a force of nature, a trailblazer with extraordinary vision, boundless imagination, and awe inspiring creativity,” Tricia read for Juliet. “She is a brilliant writer, creator, producer, as well as a brilliant human being. Jane creates material actors dream of saying. Her work beautiful explores human conditions, humor, and pathos, delving into what it means to be a alive or, in my case, undead.”

Juliet Landau as Drusilla, courtesy of the Buffyverse Wiki.

“Or in my case, a robot,” Tricia adds on her own part. “When you see Jane’s name, you can be sure not only that a show will be great, but will open your eyes to something new. Jane Espenson is an inspiration to all creative people in the industry, but especially to women. I feel very fortunate to be part of presenting Jane this award.”

“We are here to celebrate an amazing, creative individual: Jane Espenson,” Amber began. “I’m not going to talk about her specifically because she doesn’t like that.” I had to laugh. She does seem humble for a woman who’s achieved so much or, as Amber put it, “a general in the army of women who are out there working in the industry to open the door for the rest of you to go out and create… She is a journeyman creator.

Amber Benson as Tara, courtesy of the Buffyverse Wiki

“She goes into a room and she gives voice to female characters that are not just two dimensional girlfriends, wives. They are those things, but they are more than that. They are totally three-dimensional. She makes real women. She makes real men, too, but she makes real women. And that is the beauty of what Jane Espenson does. She makes real characters. That is what we are here celebrating, that she is a woman, but she is also a creative person and she is a way for the rest of us to get in there and have our voices heard and that is why I love her. That is why I enjoy being a part of all the creative things that she does, whether it’s Buffy or Battlestar or Game of Thrones or Husbands, she is a diverse creative voice.”

Tricia Helfer as Number Six, courtesy of the Battlestar Wiki

“The onus is up to me to come up with something new because, between Amber and Juliet, they pretty much said everything, that I was going to say,” Tricia says with a laugh. “I had the pleasure of working with Jane on Battlestar Galactica and also on Husbands. You put me in a pillow fight,” she accuses Jane. “She’s evil, just so you guys know. No. Jane is the epitome of professionalism, experience, class, and insane imagination. And somebody that you aspire to be and to work with.”

Image courtesy of Whedonopolis

As for Jane — thanking the ladies for their speeches as well as Heidi Honeycutt, Stacy Pippi Hammon, and Kayley Viteo, “the organizers of this wonderful event” — she remained true to form in keeping the attention off what she’s done and on what others do. “Etheria Film Night is clearly a worthy and wonderful organization that is promoting diversity in the ranks of writers, producers, directors and all those wonderful things. It’s so important, the work that they’re doing and I’m very honored they chose to recognize me. I also want to thank the showrunners and creators that I have worked with and for who have let me… I’m not primarily a creator. Mostly I go and I work on shows that other people have created and they’ve let me play in those sandboxes and write for those amazing characters and do my best to give them voices. And so I want to thank them for letting me write for characters like Jack Harkness on Torchwood and Starbuck on Battlestar and Tara and Buffy and The Evil Queen and Tyrion Lannister.

Lana Parilla as Regina aka The Evil Queen courtesy of IMDB

“Because I’m on Once Upon a Time now, I want to mention a quote from Cinderella. You know you’ve heard that ‘a dream is a wish your heart makes.’ I always thought that was a very silly thing to say because, if you’re taking the word dream literally, it’s not true and, if you take the word dream metaphorically, that means wish, so it’s redundant. A dream isn’t a wish your heart makes, but a script is a wish your heart makes, where you can write any world you can imagine and have the loss of limitations on what you can put in. A whole new culture that you can create with different limitations, but at least without the limitations of our world, you can start to try to make a change in our world…

So go out there, write scripts, direct and produce them, create them. Women, men, everybody, just start creating and let’s create a new world.”

You can follow Jane on Twitter here and read her archived insight on her website here.

Etheria Film Night is accepting film submissions for 2016 beginning on July 1, 2015. Check their website for more info here. You can also follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook. And feel free to like the Egyptian Theater on Facebook here.

Next up: A talk with Amber Benson about her delightfully dark Shevenge.

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