When approaching the third season of ABC's fairy-tale drama Once Upon a Time, series co-creator Edward Kitsis knew he wanted to tell two longer stories.
"We wanted it to be [essentially] two seasons this year. In the fall, we wanted it to be darker and moodier. Then we wanted the spring story to be a little more fun,” he told a group of reporters at WonderCon Anaheim, where he was joined by co-creator Adam Horowitz to discuss their approach to this season and to tease the May 11 finale.
"It is a two-hour movie," Kitsis said. "It's not two episodes back to back. It is written like a movie, and I think it might be the favorite thing we've done." Of course, he then qualified that statement by saying every episode is his favorite. However, he promised the finale will take the audience to a place where "you have no idea where it's going."
"We just got out of the editing room on it and we're so excited for the fans to see it,” Horowitz added.
"We're giving the fans something they always wanted but didn't realize," Kitsis continued.
Will it concern the unborn child of Mary Margaret and David? The two executive producers wouldn’t say, although they noted the May 4 episode focuses on the couple and their baby. "In the Rapunzel episode, we got a glimpse into Charming's soul, and he's focused on the thought that 'I failed the first kid. I failed my wife.' He doesn't want that for this child," Kitsis explained. Although the episode reveals there is a lot of angst behind the child, the show’s creators hope viewers see a little joy.
Joy seems to be a guiding principle, as a recent episode saw Regina reaching for it in the form of Robin Hood. The producers offered a glimpse into their thought process for Regina's story. "It was important for us to earn the day for this to happen," Kitsis said. Starting as the show's primary antagonist, it took the creators time to reveal the character’s tragic past and put her in an emotional state where she could actually pursue a little happiness.
"Regina [has these] walls up when it comes to letting others in,” Kitsis said. “For Regina it was always whether she will let them down to let someone other than Henry in. We feel like what we want to do is show you what it would look like and what it would take."
Those stakes would also seem to include a final showdown with Wicked Witch Zelena, recently revealed to be Regina's half-sister. Asked to elaborate on where the season will take them, Kitsis quipped, "When you're the Evil Queen, you should always be wary because someone wants you dead."
Looking back on the season, the producers admitted they were surprised by fans’ desire to see Storybrooke more often during the Neverland arc, designed to fulfill both the writers' and the audience’s wishes to spend an extended time away from the town. "For us, we wanted to go somewhere different and that was Neverland," Horowitz said. "Even going back to the first year, people wanted the fantasy world. Well, here it is!"
Once the writing staff also felt Storybrooke was missing, it was decided to give it more of a focus in the second half of the season. "Storybrooke is really getting explored right now in terms of what it means to Emma and what it means to us," Horowitz explained. "Storybrooke is always in our minds and we think it's the heart and center of the show."
"Storybrooke is in the DNA of the show from the pilot," Kitsis added. "It's a huge part of the bigger story we're trying to tell which has to do with all the fairy tales and realms that we go to, but it's grounded in this small town in Maine."
Looking further into the future, the producers are in the midst of story conferences to get a sense of where the show will go in Season 4. "We have the big picture idea of where we'd love the show to ultimately end, whenever that would be," Horowitz explained. "Then we attack it year by year."
"At the end of each season, we look forward to see the pieces we want to attack for the next season. We try to design the storytelling for that," he continued. "This year, we had a very set place where we wanted it to end with regards to the mysteries we laid out [in the season]. At the same time, there were the little germs of where we want to go."
Even with all that planning, the producers leave a certain amount of leeway in their plotting. "If we all said we're going to New York on a road trip and pass the world's largest potato that looks like Abe Lincoln and you want to stop, we have to stop!" Horowitz said.
Will that sightseeing stop include recent additions to the Disney family, like Elsa and Anna from Frozen? "It's our favorite movie of the year. It is in our wheelhouse," Horowtiz replied. "The genius of our job is that we get to play with these great toys like Snow White and Peter Pan. So we'd love to get into that someday."
But even characters the pair desperately wanted to include from the start took time to add. "We wanted to bring in Ariel [since the pilot] and it took us two years to get to her just because we knew Neverland, with its mermaids, was the perfect place to do it," explained Kitsis.
"We debate what can fit into the bandwidth of the story we're telling," Horowitz added. "It's never done for the sake of 'Oh, we gotten bring in this realm or character!' We're trying to weave a coherent tale."
Kitsis did identify one fantasy character he would like to bring to the show: "I've always liked Mr. Toad because he feels very relevant for our times; a person living beyond their means and he's very decadent. Decadence is something our show handles, but we just haven't gotten to it."
When Horowitz was asked if he had a fantasy character he wanted to introduce, he joked, "Chewbacca!" Although Star Wars is part of the Disney family, the team doubts they will ever do more than sneak in a handful of references to the sci-fi franchise, like the Sarlacc Pit cameo in Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. "I do like to believe we live in a world on Once Upon a Time where the Sarlacc exists,” he said, “but we're not going to Tatooine anytime soon.”
Once Upon a Time airs Sundays on ABC.