What Makes Buffy Slay?
By Mim Udovitch
The attitude? The fact that she saves the world every week?
Or is it just the hot, sweaty sex? Behind the scenes at the coolest
show on TV.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
is having one of her all-but-nonexistent moments off from filming the final
several episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the eponymous heroine
of which she is. She is sitting in a director's chair over by the monitors,
dressed, as Buffy, in a white sheer top over a black tank and pants. The
show, although it has drifted somewhat from the original Valley-girl tendencies
of the title character, consistently dresses its leading ladies in the
rockingest clothes on television - courtesy of costume designer Cynthia
Bergstrom, who seems to have much the same heightened sense of awareness
when it comes to catching small-designer-label trends that Buffy has when
it comes to fighting demonic evil. (And, as the Manhattan-raised and hometown-proud
Gellar notes, "It's very hard to be a show in L.A. and be trendsetting,
because the fashions are in New York, and you're competing with every other
show that shoots out here. Not to mention that most actresses are all,
give or take, the same size - we're all between five-two and five-five,
and between 95 and 125 pounds.")
Gellar, 23, who has played
the young woman whose lot in life is to battle monsters since the show
debuted as a midseason replacement on the WB in 1997, has been here on
the set in Santa Monica since early in the morning and will be here until
late at night. She has often said that the early assumption of adult responsibilities
is something she shares with her character - a former child actress (she
was discovered in a restaurant at age four), she has been a subject of
public scrutiny at least since her actual high school years, during which
she played Erica Kane's illegitimate daughter, Kendall Hart, on All
Whatever their source,
as Buffy and in person, she has a beauty contestant's smile and the hypervigilant
manner of a person who doesn't trust anyone who hasn't earned it but who
nevertheless needs your vote. She has a physical charisma that in itself
borders on a superpower. And at the moment, she also has a very realistic-looking,
carefully applied cut across her forehead. She speaks very fast, and her
rapid-fire delivery has served her well when negotiating the sentences
of Joss Whedon, the show's creator, which tend to be long and to contain
many clauses. She is considering the question: What makes Buffy slay? "I
think it comes more naturally to her than she'd like to admit," she says.
"She says, 'Ooh, I'm always having to do what's right,' and, 'Ooh,
it's so hard,' but really, that is her nature. The thing is, with this
show, you can identify with so many of the characters. You really take
an interest in what's happening to each and every one of them.
"And it's all in Joss'
brain. It's amazing to me that one day he had this thought and now he's
created this empire, this entire lot. Like, in a couple of days we start
shooting the last episode of the season, and no one has any idea what happens.
But Joss just keeps saying, 'Don't worry. I have it right here.' "
Joss Whedon has always
liked to create imaginary worlds. When he was eleven or twelve, for example,
he had one featuring hero Harry Egg, itinerant space traveler, and his
androgynous demigod sidekick, Mouseflesh. Ten or thirteen years later,
during which interval stuff happened - school, the writing of spec scripts
and eventual employment on Roseanne - he had another idea. It was
an idea that was more like an image, actually. "It was pretty much the
blond girl in the alley in the horror movie who keeps getting killed,"
he says. "I felt bad for her, but she was always more interesting to me
than the other girls. She was fun, she had sex, she was vivacious. But
then she would get punished for it. Literally, I just had that image, that
scene, in my mind, like the trailer for a movie - what if the girl goes
into the dark alley. And the monster follows her. And she destroys him."
And that pretty much is
what happens on Buffy. After three years at Sunnydale High School,
Buffy Summers has just completed her freshman year at UC Sunnydale. She
is a vampire slayer. In every generation there is one slayer whose burden
and skill it is to fight evil - primarily, but not exclusively, in the
form of vampires. Sunnydale is the center of an extra-heaping helping of
evil, because it is situated on a Hell mouth. If the Hell mouth were opened,
the world as we know it would come to an end, and demons would rule the
earth. Complications have ensued.
In the real world, Whedon,
35, is sitting in his office in a building on the studio lot in Santa Monica
where much of Buffy, currently concluding its fourth season, is
shot. He is wearing jeans, sneakers, a corduroy jeans jacket and a blue-and-white
striped shirt, an ensemble that makes him look sort of like a hip-hop Dennis
the Menace. A graduate of Wesleyan who grew up in Manhattan and went to
boarding school in England before following in both his grandfather's and
father's footsteps as a writer for television, thus forming a direct line
of descent from The Donna Reed Show to Buffy, Whedon was
not himself a happy adolescent. "I was one of those kids who no one pays
attention to, so he makes a lot of noise and is wacky," he says. "But I
was funny; I wasn't totally annoying. I decided early on that my function
in life was to walk into a group of people, say something funny and leave
while they were still laughing. Which is pretty much what I did, only now
I get paid for it." (And in the case of Toy Story, which he co-wrote,
Academy Award-nominated for it. Other credits include Alien: Resurrection
and Speed, as well as the 1992 feature Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
When he speaks, he tends
to look off into the middle distance, as one whose habitual eloquence doesn't
make him any less habitually shy. He is also wearing a slightly pained
expression, maybe because he still hasn't written the last episode of the
season; maybe because, what with Buffy and its spinoff, Angel, he
bears the weight of imaginary worlds on his shoulders; but probably because
he had an emergency appendectomy earlier in the week.
"Then I wrote my little
movie," he continues, playing what appear to be imaginary arpeggios on
the arms of his chair, "which was sort of fun. And then they made my little
movie, which was sort of less fun but had a very small fun degree. And
then this, which wasn't my idea. After the movie, a TV production executive
said, 'This is a TV show.' So I thought, 'Well, a TV show needs something
that will sustain it, and a California girl fighting vampires, that's not
enough. So I thought about high school and the horror movie, and high school
as hell and about the things the girl fights as reflections of what you
go through in high school. And I thought, 'Well, that's a TV series.'"
But just barely. "You
try being on a midseason replacement show on the WB called Buffy the
Vampire Slayer and see how much respect you get," says Gellar. Ten
or thirteen episodes later, however, during which interval more stuff happened
- stuff in the way of character and story development, of a depth and texture
that the show's title did not suggest - it was a whole imaginary world.
And, outside of The Simpsons, it was the coolest show on television;
in fact, it was cool for some of the same reasons as The Simpsons
- because it was writer driven; because it was increasingly ensemble driven;
and because, at first glance, it was of a genre so fundamentally silly
that it could get away with murder. "You can get to the emotional truth
of things almost by sleight of hand, while people aren't really looking,"
says supervising producer Marti Noxon. "It's sort of like, 'Here, look
at the shiny vampire,' and behind that, there's something really raw going
And, often, there is -
for one thin, people's feelings get hurt on Buffy, and when they
do, instead of the usual resolution in the final act, it resonates over
whole seasons, and beyond. For another, Buffy is one of the
most sexually blunt shows on the air and, for its family-hour time slot,
almost subversively so. You have only to look at the parallel suggested
by the imagery of Sunnydale, the fictional town where the show takes place,
being situated on a Hellmouth, a portal that has to remain sealed to avoid
dire, world-changing results, to see that it's not a show that takes the
consequences of sexual activity lightly. "It's something we deal
with," says Whedon. "Because it's something that's on people's minds.
But on a horror show, if you do something - anything - you are going to
be punished for it. I'm not out to say it's bad. And I'm not
out to say 'Everybody go have sex now.' The fact is, people do have
sex, and sometimes it gets complicated, and that's what we want to get
Anyway, the characters,
most of whom graduated from high school last season, have sex, and some
of them have plenty of it, and that's not even the subversive part.
The subversive part is how integrated the characters' sexuality is - and
not just on the obvious, symbolic level, where teenagers and vampires are
united in being ruled by forces within them that they can't always control.
What really makes Buffy subversive, especially in its depiction
of female sexuality, is that where, say, Ally McBeal wants a boyfriend!
or doesn't! or, wait! she does! - and hats off to that show for examining
the situation of a single woman who wants! or doesn't want! a boyfriend
from every conceivable angle, plus the opposite one - the characters have
sex consequences, school with consequences, popularity with consequences,
even endlessly repeating replays of Cher's "Believe" with consequences,
positive and negative. (Except the Cher thing. That was just
On one of the three soundstages
in the lot that Buffy built, the four cast members who have formed
the nucleus of the ensemble since the first season - Gellar; Alyson Hannigan,
who plays Willow; Nicholas Brendon, who plays Xander Harris; and Anthony
Stewart Head, who plays Rupert Giles - are gathered on the set of Giles'
apartment, rehearsing a scene in which they are discussing their battle
plan for confronting Adam, the demonoid (like an android, only demon rather
than human in basis) who has ended up as the ultimate villain in this season's
Head, whom the scene calls
upon to move from the couch to the bookshelf and back, flubs a line and
improvises a new ending - "As a matter of fact, you are," he says, adding,
"Could I suck any more?" Gellar, her blond hair styled into modified
of Light curls, is sitting on the floor whittling a stake. She
wants to know whether the plus-size medicine bag full of weapons at her
feet is the bag she will now have to carry through the rest of the episode
("I was hoping for Prada"). Hannigan, the only cast member in the
clothes she will wear for the actual scene - a pink-and-white baseball
shirt with a kitty cat on it and gray jeans - sits on the couch bouncing
a small rubber ball up and down her arms. Brendon, who is wearing
an oversize blue sweater and baggy pants, is having minor trouble with
his lines. Like much Buffy dialogue, they conflate exposition
and wisecrack. He changes a joke about why Buffy should regret having
taken Spanish instead of Sumerian to one about why she should regret having
taken French instead of Sumerian. "Spanish," says Gellar as he concludes
the speech. "No, it's French now," he explains, "because you already
established that you spoke French." "Ooh, watches the show!"
says Gellar, mock impressed.
"Buffy," which by its
very nature involves a lot of stunt work, visual effects, makeup and difficult-to-deliver
dialogue involving things few actors have reference points for in their
real lives, such as the history of the Feast of St. Vigeous, is an ambitious
and complicated show to execute. The cast - which has developed a
policy, not always supported by Whedon, that the first person having a
line including something like, say, the Sisterhood of Zhe gets to establish
pronunciation - appears as weary as you would expect it to when shooting
the twenty-first episode of a twenty-two-show season on a week when the
boss, who is not known for delivering scripts at anything much sooner than
the second-to-last moment when he hasn't been unexpectedly hospitalized,
has had emergency surgery.
Like the sources upon
which Whedon draws in creating the imaginary vistas of Sunnydale, the actors'
origins are far-flung. Hannigan, like Gellar a child actor, grew
up in Atlanta ("Where I'm from, the biggest deal was, like, 'Hey, we got
a national commercial, whoo-hoo!'") and has the sweet, smarter-than-she-thinks-she-is,
goofy-sexy charm of her character. Brendon, who grew up intending
to play professional baseball ("But when you throw hard, the tendon that
connects your elbow to your shoulder completely stiffens up, and that doesn't
happen with acting. So I have more fun with acting."), had done only
a line or two as an extra on sitcoms before landing his role on Buffy.
And Head, who was previously best known in America for his part as the
guy in the serial-seduction Taster's Choice commercials of some years back
("I wasn't born to fanciness. I achieved it through a commercial
that paid well"), has a résumé that encompasses everything
from stage work in London to, well, Taster's Choice commercials.
After the scene in which
the mysterious plan for foiling Adam is devised, Gellar departs to study
lines for her next scene, with Marc Blucas, who plays her new boyfriend,
Riley Finn, a UC Sunnydale student who is also a demon-fighting commando
with an underground paramilitary organization called the Initiative.
(Buffy's previous romantic interest, the soulful, good-guy vampire Angel,
played by David Boreanaz, had to move to Los Angeles so that she could
have a more normal life and he could have his own show.) That Blucas,
as Riley, has carved out a place for himself in Buffyworld at all is a
tribute to his own charm, which has a polished quality similar to Gellar's
one-two punch of guardedness and gleam.
It being a beautiful afternoon,
Brendon and Hannigan, who are done with their scenes, repair to a picnic
table in the mock graveyard, where, along with Head, whose family lives
in England and who is trying to conduct some of his personal life via cell
phone from his trailer, they have agreed to take part in a Buffy roundtable.
What are your favorite
episodes? I like it when you get to be bad Willow, with the major
HANNIGAN: I enjoy it
as well. Nick and I had a lot of fun with that. I had inserts
that are made of...
human breasts. It's part of the donor program.
Have you tried those Water Bras? I don't usually wear a bra, but
a friend of mine convinced me to try it, and I wore it for the first time
the other day. I couldn't stop squeezing my boobs. It was cool.
BRENDON: And they have
ones with nipples now, right?
HANNIGAN: You know, what's
really great about those things is, when you take them out, they get a
little sweaty and you can stick 'em against the wall.
BRENDON: It's like spaghetti.
What do you feel you
personally contribute to the show?
BRENDON: I've pretty
much taken away. I've sucked and sucked and sucked. We interpret.
But then Joss comes down and says, "No, do it this way." So I think
the fact is that we all take direction well, when it counts.
HANNIGAN: I can hit a
mark. I can find lens like nobody's business.
BRENDON: I don't even
know what a lens is. I started at twenty-five. I'm like, "What's
a mark? Light?" I don't understand that stuff. Like what was
it yesterday - "action"? What's that supposed to mean? Yup,
I'm ready. Just say, "Go."
[At this point, Head
arrives, looking miserable.]
HANNIGAN: But Nicky was
nominated for a Saturn Award. In fact, everyone in the cast except
for Tony and me was nominated for a Saturn Award.
What's a Saturn Award?
BRENDON: They're the
sci-fi and fantasy awards. But let's talk about that. Why didn't
we get any Golden Globes?
HANNIGAN: The Golden
Globes is because we served them [the Hollywood Foreign Press Association,
who is responsible for this particular honor], like, frozen lasagna.
HEAD: [To Hannigan]
You know that SFX voted you and me the second-sexiest people in
HANNIGAN: But we didn't
get nominated for a Saturn Award. We're the second-sexiest people
who can't act.
HEAD: But we're never
going to get a bloody award, because they don't know whether we're a comedy
or a drama, and you have to be one or the other.
How about the subtext
of the whole thing? Do you spend much time considering the subtext
of the whole thing?
HANNIGAN: No, not really.
We spend most of our lives doing the text.
"For me, the show is about
a young woman finding herself," says James Marsters, who plays the punk-rock,
currently vampirically impotent Spike, of the subtext. Others also
made this point, but I just wanted to mention Marsters because he is so
incredibly good and I don't have room for him anywhere else. Likewise,
a shout-out to the impeccable comic timing of Emma Caulfield as Xander's
love interest, the 1,100-year-old former vengeance demon Anya; and the
tentative, centered appeal of Amber Benson as Willow's love interest, Tara.
(Willow used to date Oz, who was played by the peerless Seth Green and
was a rock musician and a werewolf, but she is now having an affair with
a woman, who, like her, is a Wicca practitioner. Did I mention?)
For all that these matchups
are often played for comic effect, they are at least as often played, as
Whedon notes, in almost embarrassingly deadly earnest. Most often,
it's both. (As in the last episode to air before May's season closers,
in which the Buffy-Riley love connection unlooses the retributive spirit
of past adolescent sexual trauma on a fraternity party, causing Xander
to exclaim, "There's ghosts and shaking and people going all Felicity
with their hair! We've gotta go in there!" - which is extremely funny.
But the episode is also a perfectly constructed meditation on the role
of sexual desire as it is reflected in the relationships of the show's
various couples. Plus - Giles sings!)
In fact, although rarely
does an episode pass when at least one vampire doesn't get dusted, and
the show may never win a Golden Globe, when it comes to dealing with what's
inside you that you can't control, Buffy is the most realistic show
on the air, and Buffy, who spends most of the above-mentioned episode having
unusually sweaty sex for prime time, is one of its best role models.
"She's driven by her emotions, and she doesn't always make the right decisions,"
says Marti Noxon. "But she totally believes in herself and her own
abilities, when it gets right down to it. And I never had that when
I was growing up. It was, like, Susan Dey. There's a lot of
Buffy's empowerment that's about learning to deal with sexuality - that
if you open up to something, it will probably make you stronger, but it's
going to hurt. Other shows that take themselves very seriously in
dealing with the real pain of living can put people off, because that's
all they're dealing with on the very surface of things. It can also
grow very tired, because, I mean, how many times can a character have leukemia?"
"I definitely think a
woman kicking ass is extraordinarily sexy, always," says Whedon.
"If I wasn't compelled on a very base level by that archetype, I wouldn't
have created that character. I mean, yes, I have a feminist agenda,
but it's not like I made a chart."
So what makes Buffy slay?
"Basically, a sense of responsibility," says Whedon, "and a need to deal
with her excess energy. I know it sounds cheesy, but that's in her,
the way that I have to write. It's just in her blood." Maybe
sort of like leukemia. "Basically, high school is all about alienation
and horror," says Whedon. "And I was very unhappy in high school
all the time, so it was the great well from which to draw. I think
a few people were happy in high school, and I revile them, although I married
one. And it didn't start getting easier in college, for me anyway,
so I knew I wasn't going to run out of pain. It isn't like, 'Well,
high school's over, problems solved.' People never really get over
it or they wouldn't respond to the show the way they do."
"That's the whole point
of the show," agrees Gellar later, over the phone, in another of her all-but-nonexistent
spare moments, when asked whether Buffy has developed trust issues from
the fact that if she trusts the wrong person, the whole world comes to
an end. "When someone breaks your heart, it feels like the world
is ending. And in Buffy's case, that's true. But everyone feels
that. And that's the whole point."