Writing Hit US TV: ‘Husbands’, ‘Buffy’, ‘Angel’, ‘Firefly’…Meet screenwriters Jane Espenson & Brad Bell

Blog by Q-ell Betton

On the 28th October, on a somewhat over hyped, weather wise, blustery day, I and a collection of would be screenwriters, filmmakers and other excitable persons headed to the Phoenix Arts club in central London for a Q and A session with Brad Bell (Husbands, Pop Up Video) and Jane Espenson (Buffy, Gilmore Girls, Battlestar Galactica) It proved to be an interesting and informative hour. Here are ten things I took away from the session.

1. Just. Do. It. - this was more of a reinforce than an actual takeaway, but it bears repeating. Jane, a veteran of many a successful show, financed the first season of 'Husbands'. Rather than use her reputation or take an 'easy' job on another show, she along with Brad, went and made the show they wanted. That is a powerful thing for a writer.

2. Have confidence in your writing. - there is a reason we write. We believe that we have something to say and, hopefully, want others to hear it, or more pertinently, see it. If we don't believe in what we are doing, why should anybody else?

3. Just because they say 'no' does not mean it is so. - with the success of 'Husbands' and the cost of production, it made sense to seek the backing of a bigger entity; the studios. What was related and to hilarious effect in episode of 'Husbands', where a Joss Whedon cameo explains how America cannot handle gay sex, was some want it to be different but....the same. This scene, Brad and Jane related to the session, was taken verbatim from one of their conversations with a studio. Brad and Jane did not compromise their vision.

4. Be pragmatic - another reinforce. Personally, I have an idea for a television series that I think would be awesome. It involves spirits and super fx and sprawling exterior locations....and would be extremely expensive. 'Husbands' was shot in one location. One. Different rooms, redressed, shot from different angles. Cost effective and time efficient.

5. You are not alone - writers, by virtue of what they do, tend to be a little insular. For writing a book or articles that is fine. In terms of filmmaking it is not the best trait. Film and television production is collaborative. Highly collaborative. Brad and Jane employed a line producer in an effort to get their project organised and ended up with a crew of forty! All of these people contribute to the 'vision'. If you're thinking that you will write and walk away, returning at some later date to see your 'vision', think again. If that is your dream, write books.

6. It's not all about courses - interestingly, Jane alluded to the fact that, unlike Brad, she was not a film school graduate. She had learned a lot working with great people and just doing.

7. Say what you want - the need to write something, to tell a specific story, can sometimes get lost in the want or need of compromise. You want to get a screen credit, but it is not a story you want to write. You want to write about a flying zebra, but unicorns are what the studio or money men want. Jane was especially clear on finding your own story or voice as a writer.

8. Put yourself out there - Jane discovered Brad online. He was writing and presenting his own skits and content and Jane saw a kindred spirit in his writing style and choice of subjects. You never know who is watching and listening.

9. You can teach something new - Jane and Brad both alluded to how studios and agents wanted writing which reflected an 'accepted' view of society. They would agree that you had a talent; humorous, edgy, sharp, but it still needed to the 'same' but different. Why can't it just be different? It can and, if it is good enough, people will watch it and appreciate it.

10. Back in my day....- Brad mentioned how he kept coming up against the barrier of 'but aren't you online?' As if to say online was not real programming. For a fair few of us, the memory of three channel television and the test card and celebrity being feted on those who actually acted or performed professionally, is a distant, yet vivid, memory. The avenues to get into television or film were few and expensive. Now you can get on the 'inter-web' in ten minutes with a mobile phone and a YouTube account. The golden age of television is now.

Q-Ell Betton

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Comments: 1
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