If you want to work in TV, you have to prove that you can write for somebody else’s characters. This can be difficult, especially when the characters are as beloved as the ones found on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and especially when the name of your speculative episode is “Xander the Slayer.”
It’s actually a well-known rule that you shouldn’t spec a show that you want to work on for exactly this reason: Showrunners and writers know their own characters too well to judge a spec fairly. There will always be something that doesn’t sound quite right. A line of dialogue that doesn’t ring a hundred percent true.
But don’t you dare tell try to sell that garbage to Steven DeKnight, showrunner of Daredevil and writer on Buffy and Angel. You see, early in his career, Steven wrote a Buffy spec script titled “Xander the Slayer” and found himself on the business end of a job offer extended by Joss Whedon himself.
The big idea
“Somewhere in a storage facility in LA is a copy of that spec script,” said Steven DeKnight when we asked him about it. “I have actually no idea what box that particular script is in, but it’s out there somewhere. It’s like the lost ark. Yeah, that was a crazy little story.”
Armed with the knowledge that you should always spec a show that you love, DeKnight’s main struggle came down to choosing between his two favorite shows at the time: NYPD Blue, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“I had ideas for both of them,” said DeKnight. “For a couple of weeks I went back and forth, and in a very fateful decision for the rest of my life, I decided to write a Buffy spec.”
DeKnight’s plan? To write a “swing for the fences” stand-out episode that couldn’t go ignored.
“What you need as a big idea,” said DeKnight. “You can’t write an okay spec for a spec to get attention. Not an okay episode. You have to really approach it like it’s sweeps week and this is the episode that’s gonna determine whether or not the show is brought back next season.”
DeKnight also explained that the ideal concept for a spec episode should be a “quick, easily explainable idea.”
Take, for instance, the script that DeKnight ended up penning as an example: “Xander the Slayer.”
‘Xander the Slayer’
“It’s an opening scene, Buffy and Xander are in a cemetery out on patrol,” describes DeKnight. “They get attacked by a demon that blasts Buffy, and in the blast her powers are shifted to Xander.”
It’s an episode that tinkers with the overarching mechanics of the show, which is typically a speccing no-no, but DeKnight had a device that would help him to work around that while staying true to Buffy‘s spirit.
“Later in the script, you find out that it was not an accident, that these demons were trying to kill the Slayer, but knew they couldn’t beat Buffy, so they thought they had a good chance of doing it if her powers were in someone else.”
Not just anyone else either, but Xander, a character affectionately known as the all-human, weak link of the group (at least when it comes to sheer power).
DeKnight had a reason for giving Xander the power of the slayer, and it was this idea that probably caught Whedon’s interest.
“It explores why men can’t be the slayer,” said DeKnight. “Basically, they’re too aggressive.”
In other words, men aren’t equipped to handle the immense power of the Slayer.
“Essentially, the dark side kind of takes over and Xander gets out of control,” said DeKnight. “I enjoyed the hell out of writing it, and it had a very somber ending.”
Going boldly where no spec has gone before
Writing something as potentially monumental as “Xander the Slayer” may seem bold for a typical spec, but according to DeKnight, he wanted to show that he understood the spirit of the show that he loved. Besides, at that moment in time, it was deemed “unlikely” that his spec would ever reach Whedon’s desk. Even if it did, surely Whedon would come to the conclusion that it was off-base, or that DeKnight just didn’t understand the characters like the creators.
“If I had ever received a Spartacus script that was anywhere in the neighborhood of being like the show we were creating, I would have hired that person in a second,” said DeKnight, “You’re trying to hit a very very small target, but even if you don’t hit a bulls-eye, you’ll have a piece of material that people can read and understand what you can do based on a world they’ve already seen.”
DeKnight acknowledges that the industry has shifted to favor original pilots over spec scripts, but he insists that every TV writer should have at least one spec script in their arsenal to prove that they can understand and imitate the spirit of a beloved show. Obviously, it worked out okay for him.
Funding a new kind of pilot
It’s one thing to write a pilot for a show, and quite another to create, fund, and shoot the whole thing yourself. According to DeKnight, Travel Boobs showrunner Jaime Slater has hit gold with her unexpected web series about three girls on the run with nowhere to go.
“The biggest compliment that I could possibly give to the show, is ‘this is a show I would watch,’ said DeKnight. “It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s unexpected, and I think people will really dig it.”
An unofficial part of the process from the beginning, DeKnight has been an incredible resource for Slater, who already has two episodes in the can.
“Jaime’s done a great job showrunning it,” said DeKnight, who is engaged to Slater, the showrunner and star of Travel Boobs.
“I keep telling Jaime that the three of them together is perfectly casting, perfect chemistry. If that’s not enough, if you end up being one of the people watching and supporting the show, eventually you’ll see me pop up!” teased DeKnight, who will be featured in an upcoming episode titled “Nip Slip.”