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March 6, 2000

The horror of it all: Alumna tells tales of vampires, film classes, and a career in television

By Barbara McKenna

For most of us, high school had its undeniably traumatic times. If it wasn't a giant pimple on prom night, someone was spraying Cheez Whiz into your locker, or the assistant principal could run faster than you. But those experiences pale in comparison to the troubles faced by poor Buffy. During her high school career, Buffy lost one principal to a rampaging pack of teenagers possessed by hyena spirits. Then she had to fend off a 500-year-old Incan mummy who wanted to suck out her soul with a deadly kiss. And her heartache is still fresh from her ill-fated romance with Angel, a vampire with good intentions but a nasty bite.

Photo: Marti Noxon
UCSC alumna Marti Noxon, creative producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Photo: Barbara McKenna
This season Buffy, the main character in WB Network's hit show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," grew up and went to college. And local viewers began noticing some strangely familiar names: Buffy's college is UC Sunnydale and various scenes have taken place in dorms with the names Stevenson, Kresge, and Porter.

The person behind those local references is writer Marti Noxon, the show's supervising producer and a UCSC alumna (Oakes '87). Noxon, who majored in theater arts with an emphasis in film, came back to campus last week to speak about her career. Noxon drew a substantial crowd of students, staff, faculty, and Buffy fans who reportedly traveled from as far away as San Francisco and San Jose to attend the lecture.

Along with screening an episode of the show, Noxon reminisced about her days on campus. "When I went to film school here, we were using Super-8 cameras that we mounted on shopping carts," she recalled. But things have changed since Noxon's day--[http://arts.ucsc.edu/filmvideo/index.html] the program, which used to operate as a part of theater arts, is now an autonomous department. The program also changed its name recently from "film and video" to "film and digital media" (reflecting changes in the technology) and now boasts state-of-the-art equipment and facilities and a talented and greatly expanded faculty.

Like most UCSC film students, Noxon learned both production and theory. And, although film and digital media professor Eli Hollander remembers Noxon's student film as one of the best of her class, Noxon says that, as a writer, the study of film theory was what really made a difference to her when she began writing and selling scripts. "That orientation gave me the perspective to understand the show and get the job. It helped me grasp Buffy's character and to understand the metaphorical context of her experiences with these demons."

After ten years in the business, Noxon had heartfelt advice for her audience: "If you get discouraged easily, a career in film and television is not for you. I know a lot of genius writers who could blow me off the screen, but they don't have the doggedness to hang in there. Look how long it's taken me. A lot of writers my age are just getting their break after ten years of trying."

After Noxon graduated from UCSC, she began writing in earnest and tried to sell a screenplay she'd written in college. It was what Noxon describes as a "comedy about a mean-spirited family." It wasn't well received at the time but a few years later, after The Simpsons came out, Noxon said the work received a lot of positive feedback.

Eventually she sold a freelance script for the show Life Goes On And after that she didn't sell anything more for seven years. During that time she worked in two different jobs as a director's assistant. The work wasn't exactly glamorous--Noxon did everything from getting coffee to picking up her boss's children. "In Hollywood, assistants do everything for our bosses," she said. But, she added, there is general recognition in the business that people take assistant jobs as a way of getting a foot in the door and a supportive boss is willing to read scripts and help their assistants (at least the talented ones) to get agents.

When Noxon was offered the job as a writer for Buffy in 1996, she turned it down. She'd simultaneously received an offer for a similar position with the show, The Pretender. And the premise of melding a high school drama with a horror show seemed a little, well, iffy. "Fortunately," she said, "the creator (executive producer Joss Whedon) called and told me 'You need to take this job. I'll make you a better writer.'"

Four years later the show is the second most popular on the WB Network and was Yahoo!'s award winner for 1999 for the television show most talked about online. Noxon has moved from the lowest writer on the rung to supervising producer, making her second in command in the show's writing hierarchy. This means that she has input not only on the scripts but, to a degree, on film editing and directing. Also, no one edits her scripts except Whedon. "I can't tell you how many times people tell me they love a particular line in the show and I have to say, 'Oh, thanks. Joss (Whedon) added that,'" she said with mock chagrin. Humor, she admits, is not her forte. "Melodrama is my specialty."

The work of writing a show is intensive. At the beginning of the season Whedon tells the writing staff of six the general direction of the show for the year and then the group plots out the details episode by episode. Plotting out each episode can take as little as a few days but, more typically, takes about two weeks. Then the writer who is assigned to actually put the words down has roughly a week to write the 50-to 60-page script. Noxon says that the lag time between the writing of the script and the time it airs is about six weeks.

Noxon's "doggedness" has paid off in many ways. She's finally getting paid to do what she loves to do--write. And, along with her work on Buffy, she has been contracted to write a screenplay for Universal. "It's a romantic comedy with monsters in it," she revealed and then added with a laugh, "what a surprise."

Noxon told her audience that she recently took another look at the movie she'd made at UCSC. Although she wasn't overwhelmed by her artistic vision, seeing it reminded her of the feeling that has kept her going through the challenging times in her career. "The process of going from conceiving something to writing it to actually seeing it is wonderful. It's very exciting to see an idea go all the way from your imagination to the screen."

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