Once Upon a Time Creators Talk Willingham, Lindelof and Icons
Although it’s been building an audience of dedicated fans in its Sunday time slot on ABC, the fairy tale-themed drama Once Upon a Time has been scrutinized in comic book circles for its perceived similarities to Vertigo’s Fables. But with a recent call for a new appreciation of the show by none other than Fables creator Bill Willingham on CBR last week and a shocking end to last week’s midseason finale, many viewers may be taking the time to watch Once for the first time ever this holiday season.
To unpack the concept, the comics talk and the cliffhanger, Spinoff Online spoke with creators and head writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz about how far the show has come and where it might be headed next. In part one of our interview, the collaborators explain their own introduction to Willingham’s essay, their Easter eggs for former Lost boss Damon Lindelof, the challenge and rewards of writing deeply iconic fantasy characters and how Once Upon a Time will be more than a one-mystery show.
Warning: Potential spoilers follow.
SPINOFF: Gentlemen, we may have the chance here to start off our discussion in historic fashion for interviews about your show, because I believe this may be the last interview where you guys get asked about Fables. In a recent piece on CBR, the writer of that Vertigo series really dove in to the comparisons between his comic and the show, and he seemed very supportive of you guys and interested in driving his fans to Once Upon A Time. Have you had a chance to read the piece, and what’s been your response on all this?
Adam Horowitz: Of course we have, and Bill had actually reached out to us prior to giving you guys the piece. We had a very casual e-mail exchange with him, which was really great and pleasant. It was really great to meet him that way.
Edward Kitsis: And you even retweeted the article, right?
Horowitz: Yeah, I tweeted it out to all of my followers to tell them to read it. We thought it was a wonderfully written, excellent piece.
I think when the show came out, the first question I had beyond anything to do with Fables was one of the premise and the hook of the pilot. I wondered how you’d find a way to sustain the particulars of the “they don’t know they’re fairy tale characters” idea over a whole season. What do you feel about the challenge of not making this a one mystery show?
Kitsis: I think for us, the thing we strive hardest to do is make it a character show first and do the mythology second. The mythology laid out is, “This town is cursed, and they don’t know who they are.” But as people, you’ve got to see what the void in their heart or in their lives is to care about them. So in fairy-tale land, Gepetto was a guy who was so lonely that he carved a boy out of wood. In Storybrooke, he has no son, so how does that get replaced? How does he deal with that on a day to day basis? For us, this was as much about the character journeys and seeing what was ripped from them in coming to Storybrooke – going at it that way as opposed to making it the “break-the-curse show.”
Some of those characters, such as Gepetto, have a natural human hook to them. Have you had trouble with any others adapting them to the modern day because the original stories are so archaic or specific to their time?
Horowitz: I think it’s less about that than it is that there’s a challenge with everyone. A lot of these stories are very iconic and well known, but to take them to a level of reality where we want to turn them from icons into flesh and blood people is the challenge – no matter how iconic or not the problem of the character is.
Kitsis: For instance, the evil queen is the evil queen. She could just be evil because. But we wanted to ask why she’s evil and make her much more tortured. At the end of the day, the evil queen is just looking for love like the rest of us, but she’s also filled her heart with vengeance. So for us this is about complicating the emotions and kind of putting our spin on these iconic characters. If we dig beneath them, why is Grumpy actually grumpy? Why is the evil queen evil? We start from that place and hopefully the journey to the answer becomes something people want to watch.
There’s a lot of play in the show about the expectations people have for who these characters are at the same time, and a lot of that comes from the kind of explicit references you’re able to make to the Disney versions of these characters since ABC is part of that corporate structure like having Maleficent be the name of the witch from Sleeping Beauty. At the same time, you seem to play with the “Lost” connection you guys have creatively in the show with some explicit references and even some indirect ones. I knew I had a great laugh when Damon Lindelof’s Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk comic popped up.
Kitsis: We actually put that comic book in as a surprise to Damon, and we wanted him to see it [when the show aired.] But of course, at 5:15 PM [Pacific time] he’d gotten all these e-mails about it. [Laughter]
But what has it been like to have that very specific base for characters and world to build on. People really know the ins and outs of these versions of things. Does that make storytelling any easier for you, or do you want to go in and reestablish a bunch of the ground rule?
Kitsis: I think it’s a mixture of both. What Adam and I really tried to set out and do was not just tell the stories you already knew but tell the ones you didn’t know. That’s why we started the pilot with the end of Snow White and then saw what took place after. It’s the perfect example in how we open on the glass coffin since it’s the most iconic image ever, but then we take you into the relationship between her and Prince Charming. There are certain stories like Cinderella or Hansel & Gretel that have such iconic elements to them, but then the challenge becomes revealing a piece you never knew before or putting a fun twist on it.
Let’s talk about Emma as a character and the changing force for the town. When we meet her, she’s untethered. She has no friends or family on her own, but then has a huge impact on the lives of these characters almost immediately. What does that change do to the people of Storybrooke, and how does it reflect back on her own character?
Kitsis: Well, the thing with Emma for us is that we always said she’s a character looking for home, but because she’s never had one, she won’t know what it is until she finds it. And that’s at her core what she is. She’s somebody who has large walls around her, and she’s frightened of being let down so she won’t let anybody in. But if there’s one thing that we love about Emma it’s that she hates bullies. She may not believe in the curse. She may not believe what Henry’s saying. She may not understand what’s going on. But she does understand that this is a town that is kind of under the thumb of what she thinks is a bully, which is Regina. So in a lot of ways, a lot of these times she helps people because it relates to something in her past. But a lot of the time, she’s just sticking up for the little guy.
Is something like that part of the charm of a storybook series for you guys? In other words, you don’t always seem to get to write characters who are virtuous on TV like you can in this world.
Kitsis: Yeah. It’s fun because the reason we were attracted to this world to begin with – and the reason we had so much fun on Lost really – is because you get to write virtuous characters and evil characters and selfish characters. That’s what the fun of the show is, and you can kind of take that anywhere.
Looking at the more recent developments of the show, last week’s episode ended with the death of a pretty major player in the cast with the Huntsman/sheriff. Up until this point in the show, we were discovering the characters as they’ve been held in amber. Were you working to get to this death, and now that we’ve hit it do you feel like the show has past a certain crest in terms of dominoes falling over?
Horowitz: From the moment the show was picked up, this was our plan in terms of what we were going to do with the Huntsman. And it was all about setting forth the stakes of the idea that if the final battle is going to start, it has to have tangible stakes and a real cost. This was a conscious decision on our part that at this point in the season when there is a break, the audience should know that the battle is going to get more intense and that there are real life and death stakes at play. While we can continue to tell stories in Storybrook and fairy tale land as well, all of that is infused with a sense of danger and reality.
And the line that stands out from the episode is the queen talking about Snow White when she says, “I shared a secret with her, and she couldn’t keep it … and that betrayal cost me dearly.” When can we expect some more revelations on that particular story thread?
Kitsis: That is kind of an extension of when in episode two when the queen is talking to Maleficent about how she lost someone she loves. There, we kind of understand that Snow White had something to do with this, and it’s a question of “Is this why she hates Snow so much?” I can tell you that that is a question we hope people are asking because it’s one we plan on answering this year.
Horowitz: And it goes right back to that question of “Why is the queen evil?” and taking an iconic character and making her as real as we can. Something happened to this woman to make her want to do these things. Something happened to make her hate Snow White, and the “fairest of them all” story that we all grew up with is only the tip of the iceberg for the story we’re telling. In the Hunstman episode, that line is the beginning of us digging beneath the surface of what exactly happened in the past to create this situation – which we will be getting to this season.
Catch up on “Once Upon a Time” over the holidays, and come back to Spinoff Online in January as Kitsis and Horowitz reveal their big plans for the rest of Season 1. “Once Upon a Time” returns with new episodes on Jan. 8.