Let’s get this out of the way first. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie sucked (and that’s not even a bad pun…not intentionally anyway). On the other hand, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) gave us a feminist icon in the form of the lead character, and a cast led by Sarah Michelle Gellar that brought us back week after week for seven seasons. And for Joss Whedon, despite the Academy Award nomination for the original Toy Story, it was the show that put him on the map and led to all that has happened to him.
It seems kind of pointless to say this, but the show noted that Sunnydale, CA was built over a Hellmouth (a portal for demons to reach our world) and the only people that could stop them were Buffy, Angel, the vampire with a soul; the “Scooby Gang” consisting of Xander, Willow, and Cordelia; and Buffy’s “Watcher” (trainer/mentor) Rupert Giles. Together, they managed to save the world. A lot.
Not so long ago, Buffy celebrated its 20th Anniversary, and, not wanting to let the party end, we’re providing this exclusive look back at the beginning of the show from our old interviews.
Buffy, of course, began with Joss’ premise of flipping the idea of a young blond going into a dark alley and being attacked by a monster on its head, with blondie taking out said monster without so much as mussing her hair, and still getting home in time to do her homework.
JOSS WHEDON (Creator/Executive Producer): “The idea of the movie was that Buffy is someone who is completely ignorant to the world, who was never expected to do anything except be pretty. And someone who’s nice, but self-centered and kind of vacuous who learns about the world, basically because she has to learn about vampires and stuff and becomes a more mature person in the process. This Buffy is dealing with the same stuff, but she’s already a slayer and has been a slayer for a while. She is instinctively a hero, but at the same time there are some things she will always be dealing with: the pain of adolescence and growing up, but her journey is not quite the same. In the series she’s already empowered; she’s just trying to deal with how that empowerment affects her.”
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR (actress, “Buffy Summers”): “What we did was take the concept of the movie of this 16-year-old aching that everyone felt in their adolescence: Am I an adult? Am I a child? And, suddenly, she has to save the world. Now she’s an outcast. She doesn’t fit in. She doesn’t know if she wants to be a cheerleader or fight vampires, and that is what makes her interesting and believable. Junior high was my time to feel that I didn’t know where I fit. I tried to be a jock. I tried to be cool. And I couldn’t find my place. I think that is what Willow, Xander and Buffy were all going through. That’s what made them such wonderful friends — they helped each other to get through this time. High school is horrific! Let’s be honest — it’s the most horrific time in life. Kids are vicious for no reason. You’re labeled with your reputation as a freshman, and it’s virtually impossible to change that throughout high school, and you live like that.”
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JOSS WHEDON: “It’s also why I wanted to do the show. I wanted to do the movie, because I liked the character and I liked the premise, but that won’t carry a show. What carries the show is that it’s about high school. It’s not just in high school, it’s about the human relations that are going on in there. Those things are just blown so out of proportion that instead of having a sensitive heart to heart, we had to deal with a terrible, horrible beast.”
Once a pilot was greenlit for production, Whedon would ultimately shoot a presentation reel that was a relatively bare-bones affair with primitive visual effects and action. Stepping behind the camera to shoot it would be Whedon himself, but while the presentation was unimpressive, the writing and the casting were, which helped get the series on the air.
JOSS WHEDON: “I was very careful to make sure that my leads were really specifically drawn out so that they’re not so generic: ‘I’ll be pretty this week; I’ll be snotty this week.’ I hate that! You’ve got Buffy, you’ve got Giles, you’ve got Xander, and Willow, and what’s great about her is that she is also someone you just respond to emotionally whether she’s in jeopardy or being hurt, you’re just completely open to her in the same way that you’re open to Sarah.
GEORGE SNYDER (assistant to Joss Whedon): “With Giles, Joss knew exactly what he wanted. Tony just so nailed the part.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)
ANTHONY STEWART HEAD (actor, “Rupert Giles”): Early on, Giles didn’t have the faintest idea what he was doing. He just knew it was his duty and his life’s mission to find this girl and to teach her how to deal with vampires. Giles is the Watcher, so the fact that she had no desire early on to get on board was infinitely annoying to me. And the fact that is she was this young, American high school girl and I’m very English, so there was a lot of fun to be had. I read the Buffy script and it was really exceptional. You never know what will happen, of course, but I had never seen anything like it on TV before.
The role of one of Buffy’s best friends, Xander Harris, went to Nicholas Brendan, who began his career as a production assistant on the sitcom Dave’s World before securing a recurring role on the soap opera _Another World, and some stage work. Buffy represented his first genuine big break._
GEORGE SNYDER: A couple of guys came in to audition for Xander, but Nicky just hit it out of the park. He, like many of the characters, begged the question, ‘Which is more Joss, Willow or Xander?’ In a way, probably Xander, in another way Willow. There is some part of Joss in all of the characters.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)
NICHOLAS BRENDAN (actor, “Xander Harris”): “I was Joss Whedon in high school. I think what Joss wanted is a situation where he could completely manipulate and write the situation the way he saw fit. He played God. If he wanted that girl, by golly, by going through me he was going to get that girl. He could say all the funny lines and have all the retorts quickly, very witty and wry. I liked that.”
Charisma Carpenter, had done a guest-starring turn on Baywatch, which caught the attention of producer Aaron Spelling. Ultimately, Carpenter was cast as the bitchy Ashley Green on Spelling’s short-lived Malibu Shores.
CHARISMA CARPENTER (actress, “Cordelia Chase”): “I was auditioning for Buffy while I was doing Malibu Shores. I guess they knew it was going to get canceled soon. So I auditioned wearing overalls, a leather jacket and flip-flops. It was really a bizarre day. I was actually reading for the character of Buffy. Then they wanted me to read for Cordelia five minutes later. I did and I guess they really liked it. Joss Whedon was there and I didn’t know that it was for producers only. Cordelia was always looking for attention and never got it. The fan mail was disheartening too, saying things like ‘Are you ever going to be nice?’ My response is, ‘I am nice. They’re meaner to me than I am to them.’”
GEORGE SNYDER: “Originally, Joss was looking for a black actress for the role of Cordelia. But one of the stumbling blocks there was the way we knew Joss anticipated the relationships shifting and changing. There was some concern at the network at the time that interracial relationships would be problematic. At that point the WB was a different kind of network. I know that came up and Joss said, ‘I can’t have restraints on how I mix and match the dynamics. That’s part of the fun of the show, that Willow is in love with Xander, Xander is in love with Buffy, Cordelia can’t stand any of them, yet finds herself drawn to Xander.’ Joss decided it wasn’t worth fighting that fight at that particular time.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)
CHARISMA CARPENTER: “I was a series regular that wasn’t going to be in all shows produced, which is a fact my agent kind of left out of the equation and it wasn’t good news. I think they were really happy with me and decided to keep me, which is why they tried to make me a part of the Scooby Gang, if you will. They probably never initially had any plans to do that, which is why I never fully fit in, because the role was never meant to be like that. I think they finally started to develop the character a little more when she and Xander got together.”
Before landing the role of Willow Rosenberg on Buffy, Alyson Hannigan began her career in Atlanta, where she started shooting local commercials, moving on to such national spots as McDonald’s, Six Flags Amusement Parks and Oreo cookies. At age 11, she moved to L.A. with the hopes of breaking into film and television.
GEORGE SNYDER: “The casting of Willow was a problem, because the network said, ‘Why don’t we just get an Aaron Spelling girl and put glasses on her?’ The notion of casting a not classically beautiful girl — ‘beautiful’ in the television sense or Spelling sense of the word — was something Joss was absolutely committed to. He had somebody in mind that didn’t work out and then there was somebody else who didn’t work out. There was a lot of shuffling actresses to the network and the studio and finally, in the midst of it all, came Alyson. And that’s when he said, “You know, this is the one!” Fox got it, I think. The WB was a little reluctant at first, and her look — as you watch through the first season — changed a bit. Finally they began to realize that she had a look that was equally important. Joss basically said, ‘Trust me.’ The WB did, and she got all the prisoner mail in the first season. Actually, in the first season, her mail was second only to Sarah’s.”
ALYSON HANNIGAN (actress, “Willow Rosenberg”): “I almost didn’t get the part of Willow. My agent had submitted me, but for some reason, they wouldn’t see me. They had cast someone else for the presentation, but then she got fired when the show was picked up. I finally was able to get an audition for the recast… and I auditioned for what seemed like forever. Then I waited and waited, but didn’t hear anything. Well, I was at a 7-11 store one day when I got a page to call the producers. After all that auditioning and waiting, they told me I had gotten the part! I was, like, ‘Alright, cool!'”
JOSS WHEDON: “Alyson Hannigan played the shy, bookish one and what’s great about her is that she is also someone you just respond to emotionally. You’re just completely open to her in the same way that you’re open to Sarah. She brought a real life to the character and made her very much a part of the group. If these four didn’t have different perspectives on stuff, they were going to be boring.”
Aspiring actor David Boreanaz — who was making a living parking cars, painting houses and handing out towels at a sports club — was famously discovered by an agent while he was walking his dog. Joss cast him as Angel, an early protector of Buffy who quickly became her love interest, and revealed himself to be a very soulful vampire.
DAVID BOREANAZ (actor, “Angel”): “I wanted to be everything. I wanted to be the fire guy, I wanted to be the police guy, I wanted to be the cowboy, the Indian. I guess I didn’t say I wanted to grow up and study the Shakespearean art of acting. I’m not good at that kind of stuff. I love people. I love experiences. I love going out. I love traveling. I love adventure, I love learning, and I love involving myself in things where I’m going to learn more about people and seeing people. I understand the level it takes in order to achieve the impossible dream, and for me, the dream is, ‘Be very simple.’ And that’s very hard to do. It’s very difficult. It takes a lot of work, a lot of effort. I just want to work hard and do what I’m doing.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)
DAVID GREENWALT (co-executive producer): “That’s a hard part to cast, a young really good-looking guy who maybe isn’t a star yet, but probably could be one. I think it was about episode seven, somewhere around Christmas, where this first kiss between Buffy and Angel happened. I just said, ‘I’ll just write the episode.’ I didn’t know it was going to be that big a deal. It went on the air and, you know, the rest is history.”
JOSS WHEDON: “For my generation, before David Boreanaz, there had been one truly vulnerable vampire, and that was Frank Langella on Broadway as Dracula. He was the standard as far as I was concerned. He was younger, he was cooler. That, plus Interview With the Vampire, which really laid it home — the alienated human and how he deals with life as opposed to the blood-sucking thing in the shadows — really brought it up to date.”
GEORGE SNYDER: “Angel was not designed as an ongoing character. What would you do with Buffy and Angel? If we froze them in time, if we had stayed in high school forever, maybe we could have kept it going. Anybody else would have been tempted to stay in high school and stay with that unrequited love. What is more boring than that? Joss said, ‘No, at some point you’ve got to go to the next step. Up the tension and go for the dark.’ What’s the last thing you have happen? A slayer in love with a vampire! So you do it. But having done it, oh my God, now he’s bad. The mail came in: ‘Turn him back, turn him back.’ Then, of course, we did turn him back and he was redeemed. Then the question was, ‘Now what?’ Of course, that led to him being spun off into his own show.”
(Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox)
The producers couldn’t have hoped for better casting than when Sarah Michelle Gellar entered the process as Buffy. Already an acting veteran, having appeared in many television commercials, in 1980 Gellar moved over to the daytime soap opera Guiding Light, and guest-starred on William Tell, Love, Sidney and Spenser: For Hire. In 1989 she co-hosted the syndicated teen show Girl Talk before co-starring in the teen soap opera Swan’s Crossing. This was followed by a two-year stint on the soap opera All My Children, for which she was awarded an Emmy. As her tenure on the soap was coming to an end, Gellar went to the Buffy office to audition for the part of Cordelia, and walked out with the lead.
JOSS WHEDON: “Sarah Michelle Gellar embodies Buffy extraordinarily, and she brings an intelligence and depth to the character that I certainly couldn’t write. She is so incredibly sympathetic — she’s somebody that you just love to watch — but she’s also this extremely intelligent actress who thinks her way through everything. So she makes Buffy an emotionally very-connected character, which is huge.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “My manager spoke to the WB and they mentioned they had this show. He thought it would be a great opportunity to use my Tae Kwan Do and do comedy and drama. He tells me I nailed it, but I still went through 11 auditions.”
JOSS WHEDON: “There was no second place. We read tons of people and several were staggeringly untalented. Buffy is a tough part. It is a character actress in the part of a leading lady. This girl had to look the part of the blonde bimbo who dies in reel two, and yet she’s not that. Buffy is a very loopy, very funny, very strange person – kind of eccentric. Sarah has all those qualities and you don’t find them in a beautiful girl very often. She gave us a reading that was letter perfect and then said, ‘By the way, it doesn’t say this on my resume, but I did take Tae Kwon Do for four years and I’m a brown belt. Is that good?'”
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “When I was growing up I watched Mallory worry about her dates and her boyfriends on Family Ties. I watched Blair on The Facts of Life. There were no strong female characters. But with Buffy, we were showing real situations. Buffy was not the prettiest girl in her school, she was not the smartest. She made mistakes, she made good decisions and bad decisions. She was dealing with real situations that we can put on a fantasy level. I think Buffy was an amazing role model, because the one thing that I was able to do at my high school was to be an individual. The problem with most high schools is they don’t stress individuality. Buffy showed girls it’s okay to be different.”
GEORGE SNYDER: “I think Buffy was different from other high school-based shows in that it allowed its characters to move through their grades naturally. They all got to grow up. A decision Joss made early on was he didn’t want 40-year-olds in high school.”
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “It’s always interesting when you go from being a child actor to an adult actor. All My Children was really that transition for me. Buffy was a really wonderful opportunity for me to play someone a little closer to myself and the situations I’d been in. Minus the vampires.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
JOSS WHEDON: “We had scenes where we’ve shot her reaction and she makes the entire scene even if she doesn’t have a line. I was the luckiest man in show business.”
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “Usually, you’re doing one thing on television, you’re funny, it’s action, and there were few shows on television where all of us get to do all of it. We got to be funny, sad, we got to fight. As an actor that’s your dream, to get to do all these amazing things.”
When the show was given the green light, the plan was for it to debut midseason in 1997, which meant that Joss and the cast would be producing the first 12 episodes without any feedback from anyone outside the network.
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “We finished the entire first season before we went on the air, so we were able to do it in a bubble without having anybody on the outside interfering. When I was in North Carolina shooting I Know What You Did Last Summer, we didn’t get to see it, because it was on a cable channel we couldn’t get in the town we were in. I was able to avoid the craziness, although Alyson called me every week going, ‘You don’t understand, every time you go past a grocery store there’s a Buffy billboard.’ We sort of felt it was time for the show, because the network wanted to do the exact kind of show we wanted to make. And they were interested in making it with us, which is good. I sort of figured they would say, make it stupid. But they didn’t. It pretty much went the way we planned except it dug down a lot deeper. And we just didn’t know we could put so much pain up on the screen and how good it would make us feel.”
JOSS WHEDON: “I don’t think we would have existed anywhere else. No one else would let us do it, they wouldn’t have been there with us, they’d try to micro-manage it into something they understood.”
SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: “I remember all of my friends felt sorry for me, because I was on a midseason replacement show, on a network no one had heard of. People would look at me and go, ‘At least you got a pilot your first time out! That’s great! Next year you’ll get one that’ll go.'”