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In every generation, there is a chosen one — and 20 years ago this week, Buffy the Vampire Slayer helped not only become a voice of a generation but also altered the television landscape.
Friday marks the 20th anniversary of Joss Whedon’s The WB Network-turned-UPN cult hit that launched Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan and a roster of other Scoobies as the gang that fought the forces of evil as well as the inner demons associated with being a teenager.
While Whedon is credited with turning the franchise from a B-movie into a series hailed for its groundbreaking portrayal of women (and LGBT characters, among others), that would not have been possible without Gail Berman.
Berman, now CEO and chairman of independent production company The Jackal Group (Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show), owned the rights to the 1992 Kristy Swanson feature and thought it would make for a great television show.
But like Buffy taking on any roster of big bads, the path to getting the vampire series to the screen wasn’t an easy one. Below, Berman — still the only woman to head both a film studio and a TV network — talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the passes that came from NBC and Fox before Buffy landed at a then-upstart WB Network, the role Gellar originally read for and if it could ever be revived.
What were the early conversations for adapting Buffy for TV?
It was all based on the script that I read of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie. It was before the movie came out. I thought, “This would make such a good TV show.” We let some time pass a couple years after the film opened and I had the idea to potentially do this as a syndicated series because it didn’t sound like anybody was interested in picking up the idea for this show as a regular series. I had never met Joss Whedon and contractually we had to offer this proposal to Joss.
I got in touch with his agent, [CAA’s] Chris Harbert, and he talked to Joss about it. Joss said he was interested in getting together and talking about what I was thinking and what he was thinking. What we were thinking was very similar. Eventually Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton in their roles at [production company] Sandollar Productions got involved because Sandollar had made the movie with Fran Kazui. Everybody came together and it sounded like a happy party, but it was not. It took a long time to put it all together.
What was the pitch process like?
With Joss and I it was really about what to pitch and how to pitch it. We first pitched it to Fox. They passed. They felt like they were going in a different direction. I was shocked because I thought it was such a Fox show. Then we pitched it to NBC, but we never thought NBC would buy it. It was not an NBC type of show. They were professional passes, but they were passes. What was interesting about the timing of all of this is that The WB [which launched in 1995] was an emerging network at the time and the Internet was an emerging platform at the time and all of those things came together. So we went to The WB and pitched it to Susanne Daniels [then-WB president] and Jordan Levin [at the WB Network]. They bought it in the room. But they just ordered a presentation, not a pilot, with Joss set to direct for his first assignment.
How hard was it to cast your Buffy and Angel?
Marcia Schulman was the casting director. We saw Sarah Michelle Gellar and thought she would make a great Cordelia, believe it or not! (Laughs.) We saw a lot of girls for Buffy. Eventually we saw Sarah again for Buffy and once we did that, she was perfect. [And then] there were the other castings and finding David Boreanaz. There was another actor that people were interested in to play Angel and I did not think he was quite the part. He’s still working today. I won’t tell you who it is, but he wasn’t Angel. Marcia and I were very tense and would fight about it. When David came in he was so young and just so new. He walked in the room and I thought, “This guy is it!”
So you’re Team Angel?
I am always Team Buffy and Angel! I am not Team Spike!
When did you know Buffy would be a hit? Did you think people would hold it in such high regard 20 years later?
No! It was an interesting time because the show started to become part of popular culture and I’m not sure that anybody initially involved with it, certainly not [producers] 20th Century Fox Television or Warner Bros. were sure where this was headed. Individuals inside these companies who really had their finger on the pulse of trying to do something new and different, they knew. Susanne, Jordan and [current Warner Bros. Television president and former head of 20th TV] Peter Roth were major components. When it all started, I don’t think anybody knew what this would turn into. Remember, we didn’t get picked up! The pilot did not get ordered! But Susanne and Jordan were convinced they could get it picked up for midseason. And they did. They understood we were doing something new and young. Joss’ voice was speaking generationally.
How much did Buffy change the career trajectories for those involved behind the scenes?
When you have a show that becomes a cultural phenomenon, the lives of all of the people involved change. The success story of it was great for the company I worked for, Sandollar. I left Sandollar to just be involved with Buffy and Angel for a while, then I would leave that to go to Regency. [Berman served as the founding president of Regency Television, the studio created in 1998.] But it was just a moment in time that you never get back in your life. You don’t think about it when it’s happening. Our studios were in Santa Monica. They weren’t really even studios! They were really old, rat-infested warehouses. Nobody really thought anything of this thing so putting us into warehouses in Santa Monica didn’t seem like that big of a stretch. Because everyone thought, “Well, how long would we be here?”
Why do you think Buffy resonated so much at the time — and still does 20 years later?
Joss created a language that was entirely relatable to young people. He created a metaphor for teenage years. And teenage years remain the same and vampires remain the same in all of the difficulties that Buffy faced. That is an enduring notion. The idea that you can sum up the difficulties of that time in young people’s lives and their feelings and their hurts and the deepness of their feelings and play it out metaphorically, not only did he do it, but it still resonates with people. People talk to me about it virtually everyday. It’s timeless. I had a front row seat to watching Joss emerge as an artist. That’s the most wonderful thing about all of this.
There weren’t a lot of empowered young women on TV at the time. For those of us who thought that was an important thing, me, it was really important. This was before Xena. You really have to look back and say, “Wow, there really wasn’t a lot on TV at the time that was about female empowerment.” Or the notion of women being able to take care of themselves. As a woman, as a mother, these were values and notions that really were important to me. This show was important for female storytelling, for genres like Twilight and anything that came after Buffy. It changed storytelling. One of the great things that Joss does is he’s creating another language. I don’t know many writers capable of that.
And there were other stories and characters that were also ahead of their time.
Willow [played by Hannigan] was one of the very few Jewish characters on television at that time! I got a lot of questions about that. A young girl being a Jewish character on television was not very common. There were a lot of young girls who loved Willow for that. She was also just such a great friend, so smart, so devoted.
And Willow’s coming out helped break down the doors for other LGBT characters and relationships that weren’t often seen on the small screen.
That was groundbreaking. I don’t think there’s anything about the nature of the show that was not groundbreaking. It always seemed so natural. It’s not like the intent was to shine the light on anything and yet the light was shined on just about everything.
How did some of Joss’ stories impact you personally?
When I heard the story of the “invisible girl” [from season one’s 11th episode, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,”] that’s something I could understand, very well. It was my favorite early story because I totally understood that a girl who felt invisible and no one paid attention to would ultimately become, invisible. There was just so much pain and anger in that story. It was so impactful to me. And the invisible girl was named after my assistant Marcy Ross, who is now the president of [production company] Skydance Television (Netflix’s Grace and Frankie). Marcy and I are probably the only ones who would say that’s our favorite episode, but there’s a real reason for it.
You have told THR recently that in terms of reviving the show you are just waiting to hear from Joss. What would that conversation be like? Will a revival ever happen?
(Laughs!) I would be really happy to get the call from Joss. I have my own thoughts of what it would look like, but my own thoughts are not important. It would be what he thought. I will always let everyone know this is all about Joss. I did everything I knew on how to to be supportive of that, but the stories, the direction, the writing and the tale telling, that’s all Joss.
How would a revival have to be different to fit today’s culture and TV landscape?
Joss is so adaptable. You saw what he did digitally with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog [which he conceived, self-financed and self-distributed as a web series during the 2007-08 WGA strike]. He knows where his audience is. He knows where to find them. By the way, they know where to find him. He was communicating with his audience right away. He didn’t hide. No one was doing that.
How do you plan to celebrate the anniversary? A rewatch?
I’m going to see my daughter, who is the No. 1 biggest Buffy fan on earth. She was Buffy for Halloween and introduced the show to so many of her friends. I have a feeling we will toast to our dear friend Buffy.
What does Buffy mean to you? Sound off in the comments section, below. Check back to THR’s The Live Feed through Friday for more Buffy at 20 coverage.
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