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Most people think fairy tales are for kids, but ABC is hoping to prove them wrong Oct. 23 with the premiere of the new fantasy Once Upon a Time. Creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, best known for their work on Lost, offered fans at New York Comic Con an early screening of the pilot on Friday, and afterward fielded questions from the audience.
The plot centers around Emma Swan, a bail-bonds collector who’s whisked away to Storybrooke, Maine, by a mysterious boy named Henry who claims to be her long-lost son. When she arrives in the town, she’s greeted by all manner of strange occurrences, such as clocks that never move, oddly protective citizens, and a white wolf that seemingly tries to prevent her from leaving. The conflict of the pilot comes between Emma and Henry’s adoptive mother, who resents Emma for suddenly coming back into the life of the child she gave up.
A secondary plot involves classic characters in a fairy-tale kingdom preparing for the coming of the evil queen. Snow White and Prince Charming shunt their newborn baby to our world to protect the child from the queen, who fears a prophecy that it will one day defeat her.
The two plots are not immediately connected, save for the fact that the same actors portray characters in both worlds. Snow White is a teacher, Rumpelstiltskin a businessman and Prince Charming a coma patient, while the evil queen is Henry’s adoptive mother.
The pilot drags at times, the writers depending heavily on allusions to fairy tales to flesh out their characters, but high production values and some great performances make it a winner overall. Of particular note is the performance of Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin, who reaches out of the screen and grabs you by the throat for every second of his creepy, but unfortunately short, time on screen. Hopefully he’s given more to do in future episodes other than merely sliding in and out of the main characters’ tales.
After the screening Kitsis and Horowitz briefly discussed the show with the audience, revealing Once Upon a Time will include many Easter eggs from Lost. They specifically cited Emma Swan as being named after the island’s Swan Station, the town clock being stuck at 8:15 (an allusion to Flight 815), and a character’s house number being 108 (the sum of the six recurring numbers from Lost). “There’s more to come in the show,” Horowitz teased.
Discussing the show’s format, Kitsis said future episodes will resemble the time-jumping format of the pilot, with one plot set in the present and a subplot flashing back to the characters’ fairy-tale lives. Episode 2 will focus on the evil queen, with future installments centering on Snow White, Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket and Rumpelstiltskin.
“The idea is to take these characters that we all know collectively and try to find things about them that we haven’t explored before,” Horowitz said. “Sometimes it’s a story point, sometimes it’s a thematic connection, sometimes it’s a dilemma they face in both worlds that is similar. We are not generally retelling the exact same story as the fairy tale world.”
Asked if this type of story engine was inspired by the final season of Lost, Kitsis joked, “It came more from drugs in college.”
More seriously, he said the inspiration came from just thinking about why fairy-tale characters behave the way they do, such as why the evil queen is so evil in the first place.
“It wasn’t until after we finished on Lost that we realized that this is the way to put the story together,” Horowitz said.
Kitsis said the role of Rumpelstiltskin was written specifically for Carlyle, even though they never thought they’d get him to take the part.
Future guest stars included Emma Caulfield of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame as the blind witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” John Carlo Esposito from Breaking Bad as the magic mirror and Lost alum Alan Dale as Prince Charming’s father.
One guest star they couldn’t get was Lady Gaga as the Blue Fairy. Kitsis said it wasn’t a joke, and that they had made a formal request to her management but never heard whether she even considered the offer.
Speaking about the first-season story arc, Kitsis said that, “One of the lessons we learned on Lost is that character has to trump mythology,” and that they won’t spend the entire season going over the first few minutes of the pilot.
When asked by a fan about the similarities between Once Upon a Time, NBC’s Grimm, and and the Vertigo comic series Fables, Kitsis responded, “I haven’t seen what the movies are doing and I haven’t read those scripts. … For us, this is our interpretation of this world. Fairy tales have become a genre the way science fiction is a genre, and I am always up for watching someone in a spaceship heading somewhere on a mission, and this is our version of that.”
Once Upon a Time debuts Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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