You don’t have a very teachable history.
“What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” “Well, first, have your father and grandfather be in the industry so you know it backwards before you ever set pen to paper.” “Oh, okay, thanks.” I’m well aware when they fired the starting gun I was halfway down the track, but I still ran as fast as I could for 25 years.
There’s a story you’ve told about working on Roseanne. After a round of tabloid attacks, Roseanne yelled at the writers, and it taught you that “every time somebody opens their mouth they have an opportunity to do one of two things—-connect or divide.”
It’s been as big of a game changer for me as anything. Because her preamble was “They’re all out to get us,” she created this cocoon of safety. Then she ended with “And if any of you ever talks to the press, I’ll f- - -ing fire you.” I was like, “Wow! That was like a twist ending! I didn’t see that coming!” That’s when I realized this is not the Saint Crispin’s Day speech. This was a threat. I was so in her corner because her life was insane and her work was groundbreaking as a feminist. A lot of us would have followed her straight into battle and taken that hill, but she turned us away.
You actually wanted to be a filmmaker more than a writer, which was how the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film script came about. You wanted a script that you could direct.
But nobody would [let me]. I was doing well in films, selling things, rewriting things. And then I’d say, “I’d like to direct,” and they’d look at me like I’m saying “I’d like to give babies more cancer.”
I love that the first draft was titled Martha the Immortal Waitress.
It was the idea of somebody that you discount that has a secret and the weight of wisdom. I always wanted the person who nobody pays attention to to have a cool secret. It’s so obvious. I’m so obvious. Subtlety is for little men. And I look back at my work and see a rage-filled hormonal autobiography that spans over four different series—five now—and several films. There’s lots of fear, lots of love and confusion and sex, and deep-seated anger at the bullies of the world, be they corporations or demons. I don’t have a ton of enemies. I get along with people pretty well when I’m not annoying them to death. But there’s a lot of inarticulate emotion that I articulate pretty well when I’m in the guise of a teenage girl.
You’ve said, “I talk better through other people.”
As I’m proving in this interview!
When The WB was interested in a TV version, they begged you to change the title from Buffy. I’m amazed you had the clout to keep it back then.
This is something that I do consider to be good advice: I took my first paycheck and I put it in the goddamn bank. Then I took my second paycheck and put it in the goddamn bank. I had seen the roller coaster of my father’s career—top of the world, then unemployed, top of the world, then unemployed—and I never wanted to take a job because I needed money, and I never have. I saved my money, so when I went, for instance, to The WB with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I said, “This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you want something LIKE Buffy the Vampire Slayer, God bless, I’m outta here. If you want THIS, this is what I’m doing.” The one thing a creator can bring to the table when everybody else has all the money and power is a centeredness and the ability to walk away. Never sit at a table you can’t walk away from.
It’s the one superpower a Hollywood writer has.
I look back and think, “I could have been more confrontational, I could have been more rebellious.” I have a pathological fear of confrontation. I’m working on that. Dollhouse was the one time I looked around and said, “I don’t know what show I’m making.” It had sort of been eaten away from the center. I loved the show; we got to do some beautiful work. But it was the only time I felt like, “Am I steering this ship? Our ship? Are we the iceberg? I don’t have a metaphor here!”
Because Fox was uncomfortable with exploring some of the basic foundations of the show—about a group of young women programmed to fill the needs of wealthy clients—in terms of sexuality–
They were totally comfortable with it until [Fox owner News Corp.’s then president] Peter Chernin said, “This sounds like prostitution.” Then Fox did an about-face that was dazzling in its speed and precision.
Buffy, along with a couple other shows, pioneered the modern serialized drama. Do you feel it gets the credit it deserves?
Well, you just said that, so it’s getting some! There are so many things that influenced what I was doing. The idea of wrapping up a story [each week] but keeping a through-line for the characters involved—I don’t think I came up with that. But every now and then you can’t help [feeling like] bitter, petty people: “Oh, another metaphorical monster show about teenagers and their emotions. Well, fine.” But honestly, if anybody should be paid royalties for things they didn’t make, [The Silence of the Lambs author] Thomas Harris should probably be paid by every other TV show for the sexy serial-killer concept.
When Twilight and The Vampire Diaries came along, what did you think about them?
A small part of you is like, “Well, you know, I did that first. I liked that band before they were popular.” The thing about Buffy for me is—on a show-by-show basis—are there female characters who are being empowered, who are driving the narrative? The Twilight thing, and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive or not really knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s incredibly frustrating to me because a lot of what’s taken on the oeuvre of Buffy is actually a reaction against it. Everything is there except for the Buffy. A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.