Lost and TRON: Legacy writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz spoke with reporters over the weekend at Disney’s D23 fan expo in Anaheim, California, about their new ABC drama Once Upon a Time, which puts a modern-day twist on classic fairy tales.
Premiering Oct. 23, the series stars Jennifer Morrison (House) as Emma Swan, a bail bonds collector who’s in for a shock when Henry (Mad Men’s Jared Gilmore), the son she gave up for adoption 10 years earlier shows up on her doorstep and reveals she’s the missing daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming.
It turns out there’s a small town in Maine called Storybrooke where fairy tale characters live under a curse, forgetting who they really are, believing themselves to be ordinary people. Returning with Henry to Storybrooke, a disbelieving Emma begins to unravel the mysteries surround the town, setting the events of the series in motion.
Diving right into the biggest controversy surrounding Once Upon a Time, Kitsis and Horowitz immediately addressed comparisons made between their show and Fables, the Vertigo comics series also about fairy tale characters hiding in the real world.
“We’re aware of it and we think it’s fantastic. We think we’re telling a different story with different characters, but we understand how people were like ‘Wait, why this one?’” Kitsis said. “We’re trying to do our own take on fairy tales and that mythology and try to create our own mythology.”
“If we get a tenth of the audience they get we would be very excited!” Horowitz added with a laugh.
The creators told reporters that while they enjoyed exploring the ideas and themes surrounding fatherhood on Lost, and that in Once Upon a Time themes about family and motherhood will take center stage. Kitsis also emphasized that despite the fairy tale material, the female characters in Once Upon a Time are not passive princesses or damsels in distress.
“Right away, the very first thing we wanted to do was go from icon to real person,” Kitsis said. Touching on Morrison’s Emma Swan he continued, “For us it was important that she’s not a damsel in distress, that none of the women are, that they’re strong women, that they’re inspirational, which is why in the pilot you see Snow White with a sword when the Evil Queen comes in instead of hiding behind her husband.”
Horowitz added, “Every character on the show, male or female, we approach in the same way, which is, ‘How do we make these icons real, make them relatable?’”
While the pilot features many famous fairy tale characters from Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) to Prince Charming (Joshua Dallas) to the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), the creators promised more will make appearances in subsequent episodes. “One of the things we are doing on the show is that we’re sort of telling mash-ups,” Kitsis said. “So if you notice the pilot there’s a war council with Grumpy and Gepetto and Pinocchio, so we’re kind of presenting to the world a mash-up.”
Horowitz agreed, elaborating that, “One of the fun things for us coming up with these stories is thinking of ways these different characters can interact in ways they never have before.”
Explaining that they considered Once Upon a Time a character-based show, Kitsis clarified that he and Horowitz were not just interested in retelling the stories for a modern audience but intend to dig deeper into who each fairy tale character was and why they acted the way they did.
“If you watch the pilot, we open after the happy ending,” he said. “We’re interested in either telling the origin stories or the real character things. Like, why is Grumpy grumpy? Why is Geppeto so lonely he carves a little boy out of wood? Why is the Evil Queen evil? To us, that’s much more interesting, exploring the missing pieces rather than retelling the story.”
Horowitz also said the series is a great opportunity to get people reacquainted with the fairy tales and storybook characters of their youth.
“For us these stories are so well known and they are shared throughout cultures,” he explained. “But with that said, while everyone may know the name Rumplestiltskin they may not remember the story completely, and one of our goals for the show is to be able to bring these stories to life to people who many not be as familiar with them.”
Bringing this point back around to the show’s basic character-study premise, Kitsis added, “But also we’re saying here’s the real story about Rumpelstiltskin, so you don’t have to worry about if you’ve read it.”
While the two creators would love to see Once Upon a Time continue for several seasons, they understand they may have only 12 episodes to tell their story.
“Right now ABC has ordered 12 episodes, and all we’re concerned with is doing the best we can with those 12,” Horowitz said.
“We have a plan for the first 12,” Kitsis added, “but we’re not assuming there will be a full season, so we just want to make those 12 be awesome.”
Writing partners for years after they both met in a college film class, Horowitz and Kitsis said the original idea for Once Upon a Time came to them after the The WB drama Felicity ended in 2002.
“We came up with the idea that the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming would come to this small town that was actually the enchanted forest and there was a curse,” Horowitz recalled. “We went out and pitched it to networks and we were like ‘,Here’s this really big idea and it has fairies and dwarves and children and everything you’re not supposed to put in a pilot.’ They looked at us and said ‘No way!’”
“When we got on Lost we started to realize the way we thought about telling it wasn’t right, so it was a good thing it didn’t sell,” Kitsis said. “I think being on Lost, and being under Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, we started to look at story in a different way.”
Despite their appreciation for Lost, Kitsis and Horowitz quickly clarified that Lost and Once Upon a Time are completely different series with different goals and focuses.
“We don’t want this to be a mythology show,” Kitsis said. “It’s about characters and characters first.”
Touching on the main characters, Kitsis and Horowitz then said the first 12 episodes will jump back and forth between the real world and the fairy-tale world, and that Episode 2 will explain the motivation of the Evil Queen and the mechanics of the curse. “You’re going to get some insight into why she is so angry at Snow White, what she had to do to enact the curse,” Kitsis said. “But you’re also going to see her on the Storybrooke side being a single mom feeling threatened by this woman coming into her town.”
When it came to casting Once Upon a Time, both creators said they were extraordinarily blessed in that all of their first choices said yes.
“We were like, really?” laughed Kitsis. Horowitz and Kitsis also said they wrote specific parts with their actors in mind.
“We actually wrote the part of Snow White for Ginnifer Goodwin,” Kitsis said. “We’re both huge Big Love fan. And Robert Carlyle -- we loved from the moment we saw Trainspotting. We tried to get him on Lost all the time, so we wrote Rumpelstiltskin for him.”
Bringing the discussion to a close, Kitsis and Horowitz laughed when asked if viewers might see any Lost alumni showing up on Once Upon a Time.
“I would say, we’ll see,” Kitsis teased.
“With the right opportunity,” Horowitz said. “We have incredible fondness for all of them. If the situation were right we would love to do that.”
Once Upon a Time premieres Oct. 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.