Writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz may be grown-ups, but they’ll soon be spending an awful lot of time in Neverland. That’s because the creators and executive producers of ABC’s Once Upon a Time are pulling the iconic world of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan into the hit fantasy drama when the third season premieres on Sunday.
Last season ended with the beginning of a strange new voyage, as young Henry – the boy who largely connects to the various major players of the fairy-tale world – was taken to Neverland by a pair of conniving non-magic folk. This prompted the unlikely family of his mother Emma, stepmother Regina the Evil Queen, grandparents Mary Margaret and David (aka Snow White and Prince Charming) and grandfather Mr. Gold (aka Rumpelstiltskin) to board Captain Hook’s ship and journey to the ageless island to rescue him.
The series will focus on the team’s journey through the more sinister Neverland on a path toward a Peter Pan more like Colonel Kurtz than Mary Martin. That story will occupy the majority of screen time in the first 11 episodes of the season, which will run without breaks before taking a hiatus ahead of a second novelistic run later in the year. Spinoff spoke with Kitsis and Horowitz about their plan to mesh the home of Peter Pan with Heart of Darkness, the ways in which Neverland will test the beliefs and reveal the secrets of its main cast and why they mysteries surrounding Henry won’t stretch out the way Lost did.
Spinoff: Gentlemen, let’s start by talking broadly about where the characters of Once are at right now. Over the course of Season 2, it was revealed that, more or less, all of the main cast are related to each other. That means everyone from Emma to Mr. Gold are part of one big, extended family. How much of that had you mapped out early in the life of the series versus things you discovered as you went along?
Edward Kitsis: I think right from the inception, we always thought of this as a dysfunctional family [and would ask] “How did they come together?” That was explored by the end of the year, when they’re all in a boat leaving to get Henry. But for us, it is a show about family. And it’s much more interesting as writers to be able to write about people that don’t like each other and then find out that they have a familial bond than it is to write about total strangers. For instance, last year we found out that Henry’s father also happened to be Rumpelstiltskin’s son, and for us that’s a much more interesting conundrum for the characters than if it was just some guy named Jeff who worked at a closet store in Milwaukee.
Adam Horowitz: And that has been part of the DNA of what we were trying to create from a very early stage. At the start of Season 2, the first shot of the season was showing this guy in New York. We knew that was going to be Rumpel’s son and that he’d be Baelfire but that he’d have connections to Emma as well. We wanted to layer that stuff in and hope to pay if off as we went along.
For Season 3, you’ve set this whole family out on a quest to Neverland together. In the past, we’ve ventured to the more traditional fairy tale lands, but Neverland seems to be significantly different even for the magical characters in the show. Why choose that as the place this family must journey to?
Horowitz: Neverland to us is a place of belief and magic, and in our take it’s a little more serious and maybe a little more dangerous than we all expect. The impetus for bringing our characters there was that we saw this arc as a way to kind of peel back the layers on the characters and make them face their true selves. As they go into a journey into our heart of darkness in Neverland, they’re made to confront who they really are, who they once were and who they want to be. And that’s all viewed through the prism of insanity and magic that is Neverland.
Let’s pull the thread of Neverland being more dangerous a bit. I’m sure that you go back and read the original source material when adapting it to the Once world. Was there something about Neverland that provided a particular in for you?
Kitsis: For us personally, we just thought about the character of Peter Pan. There have been so many great interpretations of it, and we looked at a lot of them. And in the end, what it came down to was “What if Neverland was the heart of darkness, and what if Peter Pan was Kurtz and we had to go up the river to find him?”
Horowitz: We also felt like in exploring our version of Peter Pan, one of the most interesting things was “What does it mean if you actually want to never grow up and stay young forever? What would that do to someone?” There’s a dark side to that.
This season’s first half is playing out as its own kind of super-story over 11 continuous episodes, and that format had me thinking about Lost, which you both worked on. I’m sure you’ve seen over the years people who hound Damon Lindelof about what exactly was going on with Walt that we never got an answer to. Now you’ve got a story where there’s a prophecy surrounding Henry that involves Neverland and his grandfather and all these different pieces. Are there any lessons you learned from how Lost built that kind of story that you’ll be applying here?
Horowitz: We learned so many amazing lessons from our experience on Lost. Working with Damon and Carlton there helped us become whatever kind of storytellers we are now, so we try to take from that experience all the time. This show is a very different thing, though we owe a lot to our roots. And what we’re doing with Henry will reflect that.
Kitsis: I think it’s a very different story. So although we wrote on Lost, this is a different thing unto itself.
Horowitz: When you see this premiere, you’ll see that we very quickly get to what’s going on with Henry in relation to why he was taken. That’s become the heart of this thread in the first half of the season. It’s about trying to rescue Henry, but it’s also about showing why Peter Pan wants this boy. And I’d say the first clue of it all is the episode’s title, which is “The Heart of the Truest Believer.”
You’ve talked about belief a lot in regards to this season. The characters obviously know what’s real for themselves now much more so than when the series began, but what is the nature of what they have to believe? Are there certain characters who have to take a hard look at themselves and maybe dig at some secrets we might not expect?
Kitsis: I think that all of them have secrets that are going to come out. For us, Neverland is a place with no future because you don’t grow older, so it makes you confront your past. You’ll see a lot of the characters dig deeper into themselves by virtue of the effects of the island. Our goal for this first eleven has been to dig deeper into the characters – to find out what makes them tick and what their problems and fears are.
In terms of that 11-episode arc, this is obviously a reward for a full pickup based on the success the show has seen so far. Has it changed how you write the show in a significant way?
Kitsis: Yeah! For us, we really lobbied for this, and we’re so grateful that ABC got on board immediately. It’s like we’ve got two seasons. And that frees you up as a writer because you can plan the beginning, middle and end for the first eleven and then a beginning, middle and end for the second. I think because of the way people watch television now and because of scheduling, it’s really hard to tell 22 episodes when you have to be off for three weeks or two months or one month. You have to ask people, “Remember what we did five months ago?” We also feel like one of the lessons we learned from Lost was that when episodes aired straight through, people really got to see what we were doing.
There’s two things that happen every year on the show that people get excited for: the introduction of new characters and the fate of old ones. With the first, we’ve already talked about Peter being a more shadowy, sinister figure, but you’re also introducing Ariel from The Little Mermaid here. How did that particular fairy tale fit into the Neverland story?
Kitsis: If you go back and read Peter Pan, there were the mermaids that were only nice to him, and so we knew that it was a place that had mermaids, and that was a perfect place to introduce Ariel. And Tinker Bell is iconic to the story, so we had to find a place for her as well as the Darlings. But I think what you’ll see in this season is that when new characters are brought in, they all have a special connection to the core characters that we’ve watched for two years. They inform our characters rather than just going, “Hey, here’s the new people!”
On the other side, the family on the boat is not the only core Once cast. We know that Belle has been left back to protect Storybrooke, and meanwhile, Rumpel’s son Neil has washed up with Mulan and Sleeping Beauty. With the Neverland cycle coming on so strong, will we get to see these characters sooner or later?
Kitsis: You will actually see that we aren’t going to Storybrooke for a while. We will be going to Neverland and going on this journey fully, but in episode seven, we’ll tell you what happens to Storybrooke and go back to see it. But in the first batch of episodes, we’ll be in Neverland trying to save Henry.
Once Upon a Time’s third season sets off to Neverland on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.