Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a new weekly feature where we speak in-depth with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These conversations will range from analyses of their current projects to a look at the lives they lead outside of comics.
Andrew Chambliss’ first job as a writer was on the 2007 television series “Bionic Woman,” though the series died before his work aired. Chambliss would go onto write for “Dollhouse,” “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” and “The Vampire Diaries” on TV, and in comic books he wrote stories for the “Heroes” comics and co-wrote the recent “Dollhouse: Epitaphs” miniseries for Dark Horse Comics.
Chambliss’ current day job is co-producer and writer on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” and when he’s not doing that he writes the monthly adventures of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for Dark Horse. Chambliss recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak to us here at the Sunday Conversation.
CBR News: Andrew, I know that you live and work in Los Angeles but your phone has a New York area code. Is that where you’re from?
Andrew Chambliss: I’ve been in LA for eight and a half years. I went to school in New York and got my first cellphone there. When I moved out here it was like, “Oh, I shouldn’t change my number.” Then I got to the point where I wanted to change it, but then it probably actually would be too late, so I’m just stuck with it. I feel like people are becoming much less attached to the geography of their cell phones.
I think that’s true. Part of that is just because you have to dial the area code just to make a local call now.
Yeah, especially in LA. I don’t even know how many area codes there are.
So you went to school in New York. Did you grow up there?
No, I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania just outside of Scranton, which no one ever knew where I was from until “The Office.” [Laughs] That of course led to questions like, “Is that really what it’s like?” and all that kind of fun stuff. At least people now have heard of Scranton when I say it.
There’s a context for it.
Yeah. Maybe not the best context, [Laughs] but context nonetheless.
I went to NYU and studied screenwriting and TV writing there. I loved New York but when I graduated I wanted to get into TV, so I knew I had to come out here. Literally, two days after graduation I packed up everything worth packing up, took it to UPS and then got on a plane and came out here. I got my first job here as a page at NBC, which was fun. [Laughs] NBC sitcoms seem to be a good reference point for me, because everybody is like, “What’s a page?” I’m like, “You know Kenneth from ’30 Rock?’ Same thing but in LA.”
Coming out here and being a page was kind of a perfect first job. I didn’t know anyone out here and it was a bunch of 22-23 year olds so it was like instant friends because everyone was in the same boat. It was a good way to be introduced to LA because LA can be tough if you don’t know people. I mean, I do love LA. Not to knock it.
It’s a city that grows on you.
Oh yeah. It does. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I would consider living here nonetheless. Especially when I think about going to Pennsylvania and dealing with real winters or at least more than rain every couple weeks. Every time I go home for the holidays I step off the plane and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I don’t have a winter coat.” There’s something nice about not having one, but there’s a two week window when I hate myself for it. [Laughs] I’m a definitely a fan of LA.
Just based on what you’ve spent your career writing, I’m guessing that you’re a big genre fan.
Oh yeah. It’s something that I grew up with. I think most genre writers would say this but I grew up with “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and I grew up always being the geek and now it’s nice that I can make a living continuing to be a geek. It really was always about the idea of building worlds and doing something a little bit greater than the real world. It’s hard to imagine, on the television side, going into work and talking about a medical show or a lawyer show or a cop show. When do we have the magic come in? When do the aliens land? [Laughs] It seems like it could get pretty boring if you couldn’t pull out all the bag of tricks we have in the genre world.
What was your first geek obsession?
I’d have to say, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I remember my mom made friends with the manager at KB Toys and he would give us a heads up when a shipment of figures would come in so we could be there on the day they were unpacking the boxes. [Laughs] I mean, I don’t know what cartoons are like for kids these days but being someone who grew up in the ’80s I think I was very lucky being able to watch “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “G.I. Joe” back-to-back every morning before I went to school. [Laughs] Hopefully that hour I got up early before going to school is paying off now. I also have to thank my mom for letting me watch an hour of TV before I even started my day.
Most of us had to wait until after school, finishing our homework or doing chores.
It was always the excuse of, “But I’m eating breakfast and something’s got to be on in the background.” [Laughs] Hopefully when I’m a parent, my kids won’t ever see this interview and use it to blackmail me. [Laughs]
[Laughs] So when you’re not at work, what’s your current obsession?
In the past year or so I’ve become obsessed with architecture in LA. I find LA to be such a fascinating city because we’re kind of famous for tearing everything down and rebuilding, but I think in a way you can see the different imprints of very specific time periods. I find it fascinating that you can have this Spanish Colonial next to a really cool mid-century house and they just go together in LA. I think in a lot of other places they’d look out of place. I’m going on walks around my neighborhood on the weekends and literally using it as an excuse to nose around people’s houses and be able to say there’s a really cool house two or three streets over this way tucked away. Luckily for me it’s coincided with the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions all over town in the past six months. It’s celebrating all the development of modernism in Los Angeles and it’s definitely given me more of an appreciation for it and seeing how something that’s so local was also global at the same time. All these people from all over the world coming here to work in design and that goes hand in hand with technology and industry.
Ever since Julius Shulman died a few years ago, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in LA modernism and mid-century architecture.
I definitely agree with you. I think there has been a bit of a resurgence and appreciation for it. Have you see that Julius Schulman documentary,”Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman?” It’s on Netflix now. They shot it a couple years before he died and even though he’s in his nineties, he’s this tour de force. He’s going back and photographing houses like going back to Stahl House, his most famous image, and redoing it. It’s really cool to see him reminiscing about everything and he remembers everything about the day that he took that iconic photo.
My girlfriend’s English and we had some time off so we went to England to visit her family and went down to Paris for a little bit. We went to this massive flea market that they have out on the periphery of the city. It’s funny to see their take on modernism and how it’s like ten degrees off what was done in California, but then it’s also funny to see at the flea market all this modern furniture and then the next stall is stuff from the 17th Century and stuff we’re so used to seeing as part of history.
It’s interesting because you were talking about genre offers something more than the ordinary and now we’re talking about architecture and the juxtaposition of history and different elements.
Yeah, the thing about genre writing is you can do that. You can start with a lawyer show and put in some sort of genre element. I think sometimes it’s easier to see when you have the contrast of something that’s not in a real world in contrast to that things that are real stand out. I think that’s why people love Joss [Whedon’s] work so much. When I sit down to think about “Buffy,” I’ll talk about it to my girlfriend. She’s like, “That sounds crazy,” but you pitch the emotional core of why you’re telling that story and using that genre element and having that out of this world thing in a way makes the relatable thing in the story stand out all that much clearer. I think there is a parallel in bringing out contrast between things that are so different that you don’t see when they’re by themselves.
I think architecture in LA is like that. There’s so much hidden in plain sight.
Yeah. I actually experienced something similar when I was in England with my girlfriend. She grew up there and to her it’s normal to be walking by buildings that are five hundred years old. She’s taking me to all these old towns and showing them to me and through my eyes is able to see all of that history that she had never thought of before. We went to Whitby which is this little seaside town that happens to be the town where Bram Stoker set Dracula’s landing in England. Before we went there, because I have to be a geek about everything, I got out the whole passage about the landing and talking about the abbey. I’m even laughing at myself, of course. I find some fictional fake tourist reason to go somewhere instead of the actual reason that this abbey existed. To me, the fact that Bram Stoker had been there one hundred years ago or whatever and had thought about it being such a cool place to set this fictional world and here I am one hundred years later having read it. I’m seeing this real place and I feel like I’m inside of his head and his imagination in a way that I hadn’t felt before.
I’m curious about your take on London, because like Los Angeles it’s a place where different time periods and styles of architecture are side by side.
Especially now because they’re building so much stuff for the Olympics. It seems like they have a ton of work left to do. In a way I feel like that just because we’re not used to having stuff so old. LA is not a good example, but on the East Coast something two hundred years old is historical. You would never build a super-modern building within ten feet of it but maybe because they’re so used to it over there. They also don’t have much of a choice because they don’t have that much space, but they’re okay with that juxtaposition. One of the things I was thinking about while I was over there was that there’s a building that was built in the 1600s and there’s a Victorian building. When that Victorian building was going up I wonder if they were thinking the same way about building right next to something that was three hundred years older that we are today building whatever steel and glass structure they’d be putting up in London. It’s that weird thing of one day we are going to be history and everything we’ve built will blend right in just like everything else. That was kind of my favorite part of going over there. It made everything I’ve read about it come alive in a way that it hadn’t before.
And that really comes out when in a place where the streets have laid out the same way for centuries in front of the same buildings and you’re walking down those streets where so many other people have walked.
Whereas here, I don’t know if you’ve seen the aerial footage that people took of LA eighty or one hundred years ago, you see the intersection of Fairfax and Olympic and it’s literally just fields. It’s kind of insane that in such a short period of time after WWII, it just exploded into what we have today. And also how quickly all that stuff changes. I don’t know if anyone ever anticipated that LA would be such a huge sprawling place right after WWII.
It doesn’t seem like anyone thought about it. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Definitely. I think about that every time I try to make a turn on Sunset Junction and I’m wondering, this can’t be part of some grand design.
What do you do in your free time, besides sleep?
[Laughs] Honestly the past year, during the week is pretty much work full time and that sometimes spills into the weekends too, grabbing whatever night here and there and whatever time on the weekend to work on “Buffy.” I live by Griffith Park. I’m a fan of hiking. That’s one of the reasons I like LA because there is that kind of stuff you can do. It’s a ten minute walk for me to end up in the park to go hiking. I can get in my car and be at the beach in — I was going to say half an hour but let’s be honest, an hour hour and a half if I’m in traffic. Like I said I’ve also been doing the flea markets a lot on the weekends. It’s a good way to clear my head. Sunday morning going and being outside and looking at all these physical objects that aren’t just existing in my head, it’s a good way before I come home and try to write in the afternoon.
You’re writing “Buffy” each month. What is plan for the rest of Season 9?
Jane Espenson and Drew Greenberg are doing a really cool two-issue arc for #14-15. I’m working on issue #17 today and we’ve got the rest of the season all outlined. The plan is for me to do the last eight more to go and I’m talking about Joss about the arcs that will end the season and depending on his schedule what would be great is for us to write stuff together. I’m sure the fans would love that too, but he’s a very busy man and given everything I’m hearing about “The Avengers,” he’s probably about to get a lot busier when that comes out.
I have to ask what working with Jane Espenson has been like on both “Buffy” and on “Once Upon a Time.”
Jane is absolutely fantastic to work with. I’m always impressed at how good her writing is and she’s such a fast writer too, but on top of that, she’s just the loveliest woman. I worked with her a bit on the first season of “Dollhouse.” She came in for half the season so I knew her from back then and just knew her socially. It was about the time we both got staffed on “Once,” right before the season started up, that we were doing the summit at Joss’ house for “Buffy.” It’s also great being able to go into the office and see her every day, since she is such a big part of Buffy, she’s someone I can go to and bounce something off.
I’ve enjoyed Season 9 so far, because in the same way the early seasons captured high school and college, this season captures that twenty-something sense of feeling adrift.
I’m glad you feel that way. That was our intention. When Joss and I first started talking about it, he wanted to go back to smaller stories where Buffy could experience things that aren’t overshadowed by the end of the world. Not that there aren’t stakes in this season, but she can have those moments of asking those questions that we do in our twenties. I turned thirty last year and feel like I have come out of that journey of saying, what am I doing? What do I really want? Am I happy? So it’s fun, since I am so close to that journey, to be able to take Buffy through it.
Do you have a dream house or dream style for your ideal LA home?
I think my dream house would be a [Richard] Neutra in Silver Lake, but we’ll see about that. [Laughs] It would be awesome. I would love to get a house like that that needed to be restored and to be able to do the whole thing of going through archives finding old photos and the plans for the house and trying to get it as close to what he intended as possible. Right now I’m looking at open houses whenever a Neutra goes on sale, but that would be my dream architect style of house. Hopefully one day. The good news is there are a lot of them in Silver Lake. He was kind of an East Side guy.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Andrew Chambliss’ run on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9” as well as his upcoming TV projects.