Jane Espenson answers your Battlestar questions
Read on after the jump for your questions and Jane's responses!
From Ian: "What 'authority' does a new writer have to begin a new storyline, which might well need several eps to finish (or more). Or are ALL storylines mandated by the producers upfront?"
(Note from me: I believe that many shows keep a "bible" of sorts that more or less shapes the direction the producers want the show to head, which may or may not continue from season to season. Has that also been your experience?)
Generally, any writer, new, old or freelance, can suggest a new storyline, although it would certainly be a gutsy move for a freelancer to come in with a pitch for a whole new multi-episode arc. But if there ever was a show where this would have any chance of succeeding, BSG might be the place. Ron is unusually open to new directions from all sources. It's one of the reasons that the show feels so... I'm searching for a word here... alive? Yeah, alive.
Almost all show runners approach a season of a show with a definite direction in mind. The good ones certainly do. They know where they're sending their characters, and they know some of the stepping stones along the way. But I've yet to find a show where the story for every episode in a season is set down in advance. It's simply not practical for lots of reasons including the availability of actors and locations, as well the need to be able to accommodate brainstorms and unanticipated discoveries. This all means that there is usually lots of story room for a freelancer to wriggle around in when she comes in to pitch.
However, this does not mean that all episodes written by a freelancer originated with that freelancer. The story for "The Passage" had already been laid out when I arrived to write it, although I was allowed -- heck, encouraged -- to change it as I worked on it. Which I did, to some degree.
(Note that the term "Bible" is usually used to refer to a document that sets down the rules, characters and basic direction of a whole series. It's not specific enough to determine content on an episode-by-episode basis. There usually isn't a genuine single document that lays out the arcs for a single season. That's what the show runner's brain is used for.)
From Jennifer: "How much funny were you allowed to bring to this show, considering that your reputation is for funniness and this show isn't usually too high on the humor scale?"
...and on that same note, from Patrick: "This season of BSG has been particularly dark. Any thoughts on the importance and use of humor in a serious show like BSG? Perhaps to give viewers a little hope here and there (e.g., during the darkest hours of World War II, when the UK stood alone, and all seemed lost, Churchill was nevertheless somehow able to inspire by turning it around and calling this their finest hour)?"
Now, remember that the story was handed to me. And it's possible that the themes of the story weren't a great match with a very comedic approach. I learned this lesson writing the first draft of the Buffy episode "Gingerbread" in which I included too many jokes about dead children. At that time, I was going on the principal that anything can be punched up. It turned out this wasn't true. So now I approach darker subjects with more restraint and fewer "knock knock" jokes.
HOWEVER, there is a way in which some humans react to dire circumstances with humor. Or even a sort of giddiness verging on hysteria. And there are situations, even dark ones, that come with their own absurdities. I'm not above exploiting these.
On the larger question of the general darkness of tone that BSG possesses, I find myself thinking about that a lot. I generally gravitate to comedy, not just as a writer but also as a viewer. So why do I love BSG so much? Why am I not disturbed by its darkness? Maybe because so much of the show is about the human need to push back that darkness? So it becomes a show about optimism, about finding little moments of joy and humor? Whatever it is, I never feel oppressed by BSG.
From Raeann: "Hey, Jane! We met at the first Writercon but I'm sure it's all a blur to you, now. Anyway, was wondering, given the ensemble nature of BSG and the greater flux in character delineation if you found any character easier or harder to write (keep) in good voice? Also, Lord, I hope you brought some sense of fun back to the show...it surely needs it."
Hi Raeann! Good to meet'cha again. Um... dunno about the 'fun' -- guess it depends how you define it. *I* think it's fun! And I can promise you that the show is heading in some amazing directions that I think will delight the fans.
In terms of writing for these characters, I was just so thrilled, sitting at the keyboard, thinking, "I'm writing Starbuck now! Right now! Starbuck! Oh! And now I'm writing Kat! Whoo!" So they were ALL fun. In terms of voices I just plain loved, there was Laura. What a well-defined voice that is. You just know if you've got her right. My episode originally had a Laura story threaded through it that had to be cut in later drafts because there was just too much story in the episode as a whole, and I missed it, just because she was so much fun to write. And any character with a strong opinion on what's going on in the episode is always fun and easy to write.
The hardest stuff to write in this episode wasn't because of any hard-to-capture voices but because there was a big chunk of mission-planning exposition that had to be done as clearly and as quickly as possible. That is always the very hardest stuff to write, setting down the rules without sounding like a textbook. It was challenging, but so nice when I felt like I'd gotten it right.
Overall, the experience of writing this episode couldn't've been any better. I was fortunate in the story I was given, the staff was generous with their time and help, and Ron was, of course, inspiring.