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[whitespace] Slayer Ride: Ex-Banana Slug Marti Noxon strikes a pose on the set of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Lady and the Vamps

'Buffy' writer and UCSC alum Marti Noxon knows that when your Valentine sweetheart is a 240-year-old vampire--well, love hurts

By Mary Spicuzza

CLOSE UP, Marti Noxon looks like a perfect angel. Smiling sweetly, she fixes her eyes on the heavens and cradles her hands like a choir girl bearing a candle to the altar. Softly, she launches into the refrain of "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know."

But a wide-angle shot undercuts the reassuring words of the old hymn. The tiny blonde stands waist-deep in a massive carved sarcophagus. Thick cobwebs surround her and trail off into the darkness of a dank, tomb-littered crypt.

As she takes a step forward, a sudden, sharp sound reverberates through the gloom. She bends down, vanishing momentarily, and reappears with a crumbled Balance Bar wrapper.

"Damn hungry demons," she mutters, in a mock-scolding tone.

Noxon, one of the writers and the supervising producer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is standing in hallowed ground, by TV cult standards. She spends her days working on the set where, in the premiere episode--which aired three years ago last month--Buffy Anne Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) came out to her friends as the Slayer, the teenager destined to battle the vampires and demons swarming around the hellmouth beneath Sunnydale High School.

Since then, the musty crypt has hosted dozens of showdowns with the minions of evil--some physical, some psychological, some sexual. With its clever use of vampire-movie tropes as a way to explore some of the all-too-real traumas of high-school and college life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has become a richly layered success with 5.3 million viewers each week, making it the second-highest-rated show on the WB. The show sucks in teenagers, who see their angst turned into a hip pop-culture metaphor, as it intrigues adults seeking modern mythology complete with wit and humor.

Cult of Buffy

I FIRST LEARNED about the resurrection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in December 1996. My niece Stephanie and I were flipping channels together when we stumbled across a preview for the pilot episode on the then-unknown WB (Warner Brothers) network. The 1992 film of the same name, well-written by Joss Whedon but directed by less-visionary Hollywood-types, wasn't exactly a masterpiece. Still, Steph's eyes widened as I told her tales of a butt-kicking heroine who stakes vampires by night after long days navigating the real dangers of high school cliques and boy troubles.

The TV show, a purer Whedon creation, has more than lived up to its promise. My niece and I now live in different states, but across hundreds of miles, we discuss the Buffy gang's growing pains, decipher their slang and catch up on our favorite slay-wear.

Then, while watching this fall's second episode, we caught some vaguely familiar names. Having graduating from Sunnydale High School (in a ceremony that left their alma mater burned to the ground after the principal morphed into a snake dragon and tried to eat the departing class), Buffy and her pals moved on to UC-Sunnydale, whose dormitories include Stevenson and Kresge halls.

As a UCSC product, I had spent time at both Stevenson and Kresge colleges--was I slipping into that delusional realm where obsessed fans dress up as their favorite characters and speak in secret code?

But Buffy herself has said she doesn't believe in two things--leprechauns and coincidence. A quick call to the show's Santa Monica-based production site confirmed that, indeed, banana slug alum Marti Noxon had scripted the "Living Conditions--Attack of the Killer Roommate" episode.

Since then, UC-Sunnydale's Porter dormitories have hosted a big beer bash complete with kegs, demons and dead bodies.

Noxon's co-workers say that she does far more than weave Bay Area references into the show. They attribute much of Buffy's often painful, always passionate, heart and soul to Noxon--especially the tortured, ill-fated love between the slayer and her vampire-cursed-with-a-human-soul ex-boyfriend, Angel.

"I relate to Buffy a lot. I understand her attraction to the mythic, the bad boy," Noxon says. "There's that longing, that intensity."

She adds, "I like to go deeper, to tell some kind of truth, to make it hurt."

"She's our chains-and-pain gal," show creator Joss Whedon says proudly.

Noxon and Whedon, for instance, scripted "The Prom" episode, in which Angel tells her that he is leaving Sunnydale. Explaining that love can't conquer all, he cites a 200-plus-year age difference and his inability to have sex without turning evil as some major relationship obstacles.

Angel: This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after.

Buffy: No. When you kiss me, I wanna die.


L'amour Fou: Love Lines From 'Buffy.'


The Ascension

AS WITH THE career paths of most writers, especially those who graduated from liberal-arts-loving UCSC, Noxon's route to success on the Buffy set wasn't exactly a straight shot. When Noxon left her L.A. home in 1983 and settled into the Oakes Apartments on the UCSC campus, she set her sights on the anthropology major.

"I wanted to be Margaret Mead," Noxon remembers. "But then I realized that I want to manipulate reality, not record it. I want to live in this fantasy world."

When I confess to being part of the almost-anthro-major cult, I explain that it sprang from a youthful desire to become the next Jane Goodall. After watching one National Geographic special devoted to Goodall, I was ready to hang with the chimpanzees in the African wild.

"Oh, I think my dad did that one!" Noxon says.

Indeed, Nicholas Noxon wrote, produced and directed many of the classic National Geographic specials, and headed the society's television-specials department for many years until his recent retirement.

"I was definitely turned onto this whole thing by him," Noxon says. "But I didn't like the 'waiting for animals to do stuff' aspect of documentary. I wanted to give them direction. But the drama of writing and film-making came to me from watching him. He is a beautiful writer ... his narration is just gorgeous."

Abandoning anthropology, Noxon changed her major to theater arts. At the time, UCSC didn't yet have its official film and digital media department, which began this school year.

"I think I mostly wanted to be a film writer," says Noxon, who graduated in 1987. "Particularly coming out of Santa Cruz, I had my own snobbery about television, even though I loved TV. It had nothing to do with what I actually did in my life, and much more to do with lofty aspiration."

"You see yourself as a certain kind of person," she continues, "and I thought I needed the freedom of expression of film. And the reality is that there is an incredible amount of freedom of expression in television, at least on the WB."

Noxon's script-savvy ways--and a hamburger--helped trigger her Hollywood ascension. While working as a waitress in L.A., she noticed one of the regulars reviewing a script.

"I checked back and asked, 'How is it?' " Noxon remembers. After director Rick Rosenthal said the burger was fine, she asked him about the script.

Noxon worked as Rosenthal's assistant for several years before becoming the assistant of Barbara Hall, now the executive producer of the popular series Judging Amy.

"She's an amazing woman. I was so used to noncompetitive UCSC. Then Barbara drummed it out of me and turned me into a competitive animal!" Noxon says. "She taught me you can still be a woman and still be soft ... but be tough."

As if on cue, Noxon's assistant peeks in, asking her to field script questions. Noxon hops up to answer the phone--it's one of the new actors playing a fraternity boy who is part of a secret military demon-hunting group.

"I wouldn't get too conversational because this is a fairly serious situation ... I mean, you've got a dead person," Noxon explains patiently. "Contractions are okay, but don't get too casual."

Fatal Attraction: Getting a prom date is the least of Buffy's high school problems--relating to vampiric, but basically souful, Angel, is the real challenge.

Photograph courtesy of Warner Brothers

Welcome to the Hellmouth

IN THE WAKE of multiple schoolyard massacres, the idea of a high school atop a hellmouth seems not so much metaphor as news flash with production values. Last spring, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fictional conceit veered disturbingly close to reality. In an episode titled "Earshot," Buffy gains telepathic powers just in time to hear an anonymous threat of mass murder echoing through the school.

The episode was set to air the day after the Columbine High School shootings, until the network opted to postpone it. Censorship advocates blamed music, horror movies and especially television shows like Buffy for the tragedy.

Yet fans know the series emphasizes empowerment and well-placed anger more than it advocates senseless violence. For many women, not just Buffy, martial arts serve as self-defense in an already violent world.

Gellar masterfully blends power, beauty and sensitivity into a perfect role model for the modern young woman. The Slayer may possess superhero strength, but she still carries inside her plenty of fear, confusion and emotional baggage. And as Buffy battles natural and supernatural demons, young women learn that they can as well.

"There's a great way that the notion of empowerment is literalized in this work," says Scott Bukatman, professor of popular culture at Stanford University. "It's a metaphor [for the fact] that girls now do feel more powerful than their mom's generation. I think it's a sign of increased comfort, rather than anxiety and fear."

Perhaps the show's popularity stems from its ability to raise comfort levels by showing that the terrors of growing up can be faced and overcome.

Bukatman suggest that I title my piece "From Carrie to Buffy," tracing how teens use fantasy and supernatural powers to deal with the very real horrors of high school and college life.

This season, even with a sprained arm and in the midst of a mid-freshman-year identity crisis, Buffy effortlessly throws a stake into the heart of a bitchy college vampire. But in following episodes, she falls for a smooth-talking upperclassman who immediately dumps her after she sleeps with him. Whereas Buffy's first sexual experience caused Angel to lose his soul, her one-night stand with the slimy college boy teaches her that some guys never had a soul in the first place.

With the tentative exception of Xander (Nicholas Brendon), none of the main characters on Buffy has been able to sustain a serious relationship--either due to fights, death or lycanthropy. And Xander is dating Anya, a former man-killing demon trapped in human form. (Noxon tells me that while writing "The Wish," Anya's premiere episode, she was inspired by the goddesses discussed in Bettina Aptheker's Introduction to Feminism course at UCSC).

Whether directly or metaphorically, the show delves deeply into sexual angst and coming-of-age woes. Once again, Noxon earns praise for capturing how badly both humans and the undead can hurt the ones they love.

"She is so plugged into the emotional heart of Buffy. A lot of the Buffy and Angel stuff is Marti," says Doug Petrie, executive script editor and fellow Buffy writer. "She'll say something in a story meeting, and I think, 'What do I know? I'm just a big dumb boy! We just blow stuff up!' "

"But it's not like Marti just does the emotional girlie stuff. She can eviscerate a demon as good as, if not better than, anybody," co-producer Jane Espenson adds.

"I look at her stuff and mine, and it's like I just write pornography," Petrie says.

Good Eggs

DURING A SCRIPT MEETING, the Buffy brain trust alternates debating which character should battle the demon du jour with choosing a dress for Noxon's upcoming wedding. In a true Buffy romance, Noxon met and fell in love with fiancé Jeff Bynum while he was working for Whedon's production company, Mutant Enemy.

"He was the boy down the hall," Noxon confesses. "There was a lot of making excuses to go over there. Like, 'Do you have a pencil sharpener?' "

Wielding toys ranging from bouncing hedgehog heads to hammers and Star Trek-inspired musical hand gear, the Buffy writers probably wouldn't fit in very well in a more conventional cubicle-stocked software firm. But the team players are no slouches.

As they discuss plot development and characters' roles, they grow intensely focused on their characters. They debate the effects of sudden fame on a former loser, Buffy's identity, group politics dividing the gang and different characters' existential crisis.

In one meeting, they manage to juggle discussions about love, averting the Apocalypse, sex and demon-skewering. And they have warned Noxon away from a wedding dress that resembles a really ugly lampshade.

"We are highly paid individuals who get paid to do this," Noxon jokes, later explaining she thought hoping to make a living as a writer was as unrealistic as asking to be the Queen of Small Adonia. "And we want to make more!"

Facing Her Demons

IN LAST YEAR'S SEASON FINALE, "Graduation Day," Buffy forces Angel to feed off of her, not knowing whether saving his life will mean ending hers. She pushes Angel's fangs into her neck and makes him drink her blood. He falls to the floor on top of her. And at the climax of the feed, the slayer thrusts her legs out and crushes a nearby table to bits. No wonder the show, which broadcasts at 8pm, is labeled "Not suitable for our younger viewers."

"They let Joss do some pretty radical things. It's a pretty unconventional show that has found a pretty unconventional audience," Noxon says. "There are a lot more frontiers in TV now compared to when I started writing. Then sitcoms were sort of ruling TV."

Considering how many times Buffy has pushed TV to new limits, and been awarded with critical acclaim, some might assume Whedon has quite the fearless crew.

Noxon says not even close. At least when it comes to getting feedback about her writing on the Internet chats about Buffy, which recently won the 1999 Yahoo! award for television's most-talked about show online.

"I am an absolute chicken," Noxon admits. "Some of them will turn on you in an instant. One week, they'll love you, and the next it is, 'What's wrong with Marti, she used to be the best and now she sucks!" The love is intense, and the hate is intense."

The image of an endless supply of web chatter from an international circuit of critics sounds as fun as being sucked into the hellmouth.

After Noxon wrote the "Bad Roommate" episode, which mastered housemate-from-hell tales and perfectly captured some enduring college clichés (the vamps have an ongoing game to see whether their victims favor Gustav Klimt or Monet prints), she says she was too scared to go online.

But after an especially empowering Buffy show, Noxon cruised the web and found tons of positive response. Then there was that one lone critic.

"Almost everybody else really liked it. But that one posting, that one person in America saying something negative, and I wanted to write her. I wanted to call her and discuss it, and ask, 'What exactly made you feel that way? Is there anything I could learn from this experience?" she laughs. "Like, 'Why are you doing this, Joann Schmithers of Boise? Why? Love me, Joann!'"

Although she makes fun of her difficulty dealing with criticism, she perfectly portrays the effect nasty critics can have on people. "There are always the rogues, the people who will drive by and just say something horrible. And those are the people you'll obsess about, the person who just went off their medication and is looking to cause some trouble," she says. "What's so frustrating about that is you know you're just giving them this power. So I'm careful and I really only go on when the reaction is generally positive."

She laughs, "And that just shows you that I'm deeply insecure and need some serious help!"

The Bronze Age

IT'S BEEN A LONG DAY on the set. More than 12 hours earlier, we had taken over Noxon's living room and subjected her, her fiancé and Finn--their handsome black pup--to a photo shoot.

After many actors' auditions, including one in which a character-hopeful propped his feet on the furniture and pulled out edible props, Whedon opts to send everybody home for some rest before regrouping early in the morning. He and Noxon are wrapping up loose ends, and chat with the costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom about a victim-to-be's outfit.

"I'd go for more utilitarian kill-wear," Whedon sagely advises.

The executive director has been going for hours but walks us over to the set of the Bronze, Sunnydale's coolest nightclub, to shoot some more photos. When I ask about his first impression of Noxon, who was convinced she hadn't landed the job when she interviewed in 1996, Whedon hassles her like family.

"She had lots of spec scripts and dark scripts about suicide," Whedon says with a smile. "So I thought that we'd hire suicide gal."

Now, he adds, "She saves my life over and over again."

Photograph by George Sakkestad

The Write Stuff: Noxon and fellow writer David Fury plot Buffy's next brush with death and midterms at UC-Sunnydale.

Getting Cryptic

JUST ABOUT everybody has gone home. The fraternity house set, the cover for the secret military demon-hunting operation, has hushed from a frenzied chatter to a calm talk about lighting.

Noxon climbs out of the sarcophagus and brushes the tomb dust off her black slacks. It's close to midnight, and she's alone with near strangers in a dark crypt, but Noxon is still game for a late-night snack session.

"When I was young I carried the weight of the world. If my mom would fly, I would worry about all the bad things that could happen," Noxon remembers. "And I was so afraid of ghosts. We found some stuff in the attic that belonged to a woman named Bertha--old dresses, letters and stuff. I thought she lived in the house. So I was afraid of the natural and the supernatural."

Noxon may not be fearless, but her fears clearly haven't crippled her. With Whedon and the Buffy crew, she is forging a powerful heroine for women of all ages, and serving as a role-model in her own right.

Plenty of people undoubtedly told Whedon that launching a show from a mostly forgotten movie was an invitation to a second career in dinner theater. And others warned Noxon to take a safer job on a more-established sitcom.

"I thought I didn't get the [Buffy] job, so I took a job on another show," Noxon says. "Then Joss called me and said, 'That show sucks! Why are you doing this? Come work with us.'"

As a result, Tuesday nights have never been more blissful. The ritual begins before Nerf Herder's Buffy theme song even kicks in, and it continues long after the now two-hour event, thanks to the new spin-off Angel show, when my niece and I email each other to discuss the characters' agonies and ecstasies.

We may be separated by hundreds of miles, but our Buffy briefings inevitably bring us closer together. Through Buffy, we trade adventure stories from both journalism and junior high school.

I don't know if my niece realizes that, because of her age, she's on the cusp of experiencing high school hellmouth. Or that for me, the memories of teen terror are a decade in the past. Buffy reminds me of how real they were. The universal theme makes our years apart irrelevant.

The characters may take some serious hits, whether sparring or dating, but they always try to do the right thing. Week after week, they battle fears real and supernatural. And they inevitably kick ass.

"Buffy is cool. She's just different than the other girls on TV," the now 13-year-old Stephanie says. "Buffy has to face a lot of demons, and she kills them all."

Marti Noxon will screen a favorite episode and talk about the wild world of 'Buffy' on Monday, Feb. 28, at 2pm in the Recital Hall, UCSC campus. For more information, call 831.459.2495 or 831.459.3277.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer airs every Tuesday at 8pm on the WB network.

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From the February 9-16, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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