What makes Buffy slay?

By Mim Udovitch
From Rolling Stone Magazine

The clothes? The attitude? The fact that she saves the world every week? Or is it the hot, sweaty sex? Behind the scenes at the coolest show on TV.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is having one her all-but-nonexistent moments off from filming 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 from the original Valley-girl tendencies of the title character, consistently dresses in the rockingest clothes on television -courtesy of costume designer Cynthia Bergsrom, who seems to have 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 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 My Children.

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 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 traveller, 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 alway more interesting to me then 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’s 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 Hellmouth. If the Hellmouth 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 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 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 hasn’t written the last episode of the season; maybe because, what with Buffy and it’s 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 to 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 highschool. And I thought, ‘Well that’s a TV series.'”

But just barely. “You try being a 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 the same reasons as The Simpsons – because it was writer driven; because it was increasingly ensemble driven; and because, at first glance, it was a genre so fundamentally silly that it could get away with murder. “You can get to the emotional truth 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 on.”

And often there is – for one thing, people’s feelings get hurt on Buffy, and when they do, instead of the usual resolution in the last act of the episode, 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 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 at.”

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 intergrated 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 it’s 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 the single woman who wants! or doesn’t want! a boyfriend from every conceivable angle, plus the opposite – the characters have sex with consequences, but they are not defined by that alone. They also have friendship with 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 negative)

Special thanks to Angle Man for transcribing this article.