In fairy tales, one “once upon a time” frequently begets another, so it should come as no surprise that ABC’s hit drama Once Upon a Time is expanding beyond Storybrooke this year.
While the core TV series has set sail for Neverland in its newly launched third season, tonight sees the premiere of the franchise’s first spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. To anchor the series, creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz have found faces new and old (and sometimes computer-generated), including Sophie Lowe as Alice, Lost alum Naveen Andrews as Aladdin‘s Jafar, and Keith David, Iggy Pop and John Lithgow as the voices of a trio of Wonderland creatures.
Spinoff Online spoke with Kitsis and Horowitz, who explained that, while Wonderland is a spinoff, it will stand firmly on its own with an ass-kicking Alice who rides the line between crazy and crazy in love, a Jafar who frightens as he charms and a cast of critters that deepens the world of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel.
SPINOFF ONLINE: With Wonderland, you guys have a spinoff from Once Upon a Time, which seems only natural given the storybook nature of the show. But what was it about Wonderland as a place that made you feel like there was enough story to hang a whole other series on?
Edward Kitsis: For us, we never wanted to have the Drummonds drop off Mrs. Garrett and just do a straight-up spinoff. Plus, we wanted Wonderland to have its own story, its own vibe and its own tone. Yes, it fits under the Once franchise, but we wanted to write it in a way where if you’ve never seen Once, you could jump right in without missing a beat. At the same time, if you’re a loyal Once viewer you’ll be rewarded.
And every time we go to a different land – whether it’s the Enchanted Forest or the Land Without Color from Frankenstein – they all have their own vibe and their own tone. So we wanted to honor that here, and even though it’s a spinoff we thought of it as its own show with touchstones to the mothership. When you see it, you’ll know you’re on a new journey with new characters.
We’ve seen a tease of Wonderland in the original show, and from the teases of this new series, it seems to be visually very intensive and different. Doesn’t this show ask for a lot more CGI?
Adam Horowitz: Yeah, there’s a lot of CG in the show. The look of the show goes hand in hand with the storytelling, meaning we’re building a world with character, story and a physical world simultaneously. We’re trying to take the Lewis Carroll stories everyone loves as a jumping off point and create our own version of that world which is hopefully as exciting and wondrous as anything you’ve seen on television.
Alice in the book went to a place where everyone was mad, and she starts the show in an insane asylum. How does that crazy tone affect the series from soup to nuts?
Kitsis: We do meet Alice in an insane asylum, and she is broken, but what we realize is that she is a very strong, kick-ass warrior in her own right. I’d say that her goal is extremely personal in that she is fighting to find the love of her life who she thought was dead. We realize she was in an insane asylum because her father didn’t believe her. She’d gone to Wonderland as a little girl, and she returned a broken woman. It isn’t until she’s recruited on this mission that we see her spirits renewed again.
As the story evolved in the writers’ room, it seems like you put the characters on one big path together for the whole season. How has that concept grown in the telling?
Kitsis: When you see the show, you’ll realize that all the characters are going to be deepened. Naveen Andrews plays Jafar, and we’re going to get his story. There’s the Red Queen and the Knave of Hearts. We’ll see the hookah-smoking caterpillar voiced by Iggy Pop. And what we did intend to do with those characters was give them a beginning, middle and end. We wanted to tell a complete story like you’d see in a movie, and if people dig it and like these characters, then next year we’ll put them on a different adventure and quest.
Horowitz: We’re making a contract with the audience. This is an adventure that stands alone – an epic romance with lots of excitement. And by the end of the season, you’ll have all the answers you could possibly want. But if you love these characters and you want more of them, then we’d be happy to bring them back next year. The analogy we use is that it’s like the Star Trek movies. You see them on one solo adventure, but as the movies go on with standalone stories, you get to watch the characters grow.
Sophie Lowe plays Alice, and I think she’ll be a new face to a lot of people. And as you say, Naveen, who you worked with on Lost, is playing Jafar. What is it about those two performances that forms the basis of how the whole cast interacts?
Horowitz: They’ve been great. We’ve been really lucky to get such an amazing cast. Sophie is an actress where, as soon as we saw her read for Alice, we knew she had something special and could really bring the character to life in a unique way. And Naveen we worked with for years, and as we were developing our take on Jafar, we just kept saying, “It’d be like if Naveen played it.” When we got to the point of casting, we said, “Maybe we should just ask him.” We were so delighted he said yes, and what he’s done so well is that he can be incredibly terrifying but at the same time incredibly human. We think that makes for a very interesting cast.
On the other side, you’ve got a huge voice cast for the CG characters on the show, including Iggy Pop, Keith David and John Lithgow. What do they bring to the show that’s unique from Once, and is there a chance they could ever become physical, human characters in the real world like we see in the original show?
Horowitz: There’s always a chance of that, but the real joy of it has been that these actors are immensely talented and unique. They each came in and brought something of their own to these iconic characters.
Kitsis: We were very lucky that each voice was exactly what we wanted. For the White Rabbit, we thought of John Lithgow. And when you see Iggy to the hookah-smoking caterpillar or Keith as the Cheshire Cat, you’ll see how the fun of the performances is bringing to life these iconic images. It makes this really Wonderland.
Overall, what’s the challenge like of working on this show at the same time as Once? Are you getting a handle on how that works with the shared writing staff?
Kitsis: I don’t know if we’ve ever had a handle on anything! [Laughs] But right now the only writing working on both shows besides us is Jane Espenson, and I think really what this is is not a job but a lifestyle. We’re fortunate enough that our job is working in Neverland and Wonderland, and we love. We go back and forth. We spent the morning in Neverland, and now we’re about to go watch a cut of Wonderland, so we can go back and forth, but it’s a dream come true. We’ll do it as long as we can until someone takes it away from us.
Once Upon a Time in Wonderland premieres tonight at 8 ET/PT on ABC.