This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When Once Upon a Time launched in October 2011, few were predicting a fairy tale ending. “The show premiered against the World Series and football on a Sunday at 8 p.m., which everyone had titled ‘the death slot,’ ” says the ABC fantasy series’ co-creator Edward Kitsis. “We were predicted to be the first show canceled, so we, of course, believed it.”
Four and a half years later, the drama starring Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lana Parrilla and Josh Dallas is heading toward its 100th episode March 6. Though it’s no longer pulling 12 million viewers, nearly 8 million still tune in weekly, and the ABC Studios production has been licensed in 200 countries. And to the delight of executives at both ABC and parent company Disney, the synergistic series has continued to reinvent itself by repeatedly “borrowing the toys,” as Kitsis and his longtime writing partner Adam Horowitz put it, from Disney’s extensive library of princesses, villains and lovable sidekicks, ranging from Frozen‘s Elsa to Pinocchio.
Once Upon a Time‘s premise is considerably less bleak than that of Lost, where the partners who met at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made their names as writers (and eventually executive producers), but that, they insist, was by design. “We wanted to make Once about hope,” says Kitsis, 45, “because it was coming right after the financial crisis and everything just seemed so cynical.” He and Horowitz, 44, both married with children and jointly prepping a summer camp horror anthology series on ABC’s cable sibling Freeform, talked with THR about the characters still on their wish list, Simpsons inspirations and why Star Wars characters won’t be paying a visit to Storybrooke anytime soon.
Given all of the iconic Disney characters you’ve included over five seasons, ABC seems the only logical spot for this series. Had you pitched it elsewhere?
KITSIS At the time, we pitched this show to, like, 10 different places, and they all passed, so I think we went into it hoping someone would buy it. Now, we realize it could not be anywhere but Disney because we wouldn’t be able to have Grumpy, we wouldn’t be able to have Jiminy Cricket …
HOROWITZ They were so supportive of it because the idea was really about putting a spin on all of these characters, and they were totally game to do that. There are so many of these characters that are so iconic [during] all of our childhoods that we forget that their most iconic versions were developed by Disney.
What is the process like when you’re putting these classic characters into the show? Is there a point person at Disney who says yea or nay?
KITSIS Disney has people who protect the brand. The very first image of our pilot was when we put a sword into Snow White’s hands, which we didn’t realize was the first time that that had happened. We had this meeting with the people at Disney, and we said, “Well, in the original movie, she went into a dwarf’s house and cleaned up, but we wouldn’t want our daughters [to do that.] That’s not the kind of Snow White they want to see.”
HOROWITZ We talked about how we wanted to make these characters for a modern time and create what we like to call our Disney cul-de-sac, where we take the characters out for a little spin and then return them to the shelf.
Goodwin stars as Snow White.
What rules did the Disney brand management team lay out?
KITSIS The misconception people have about this show is that they think we get a call from Disney going, “We need you to use Cinderella this week.” They never once asked us to use their characters. We’re the ones who come up with the ideas and then ask them.
So, who do you call when you’re thinking about bringing on Cinderella or Jasmine?
KITSIS Mickey Mouse. We have a red line. (Laughs.)
HOROWITZ At the start of the season, we’ll say to our studio executives, “This is what we’re thinking for the coming season in terms of new characters that are either going to be introduced or reintroduced in a different way.” And then they will bring them up with the brand management people at the Walt Disney Co., and they pretty much always say yes. They know by now what we do, which is we put our spin on them. And the thing that was really the spark of the idea for Eddy and me was to find new ways to mash them up. It goes back to being kids and putting our Darth Vader doll and our Mr. Spock doll together.
KITSIS When Han Solo and G.I. Joe can hang out at the cantina, you know trouble’s going to happen, and that’s how we approach this.
Is there one character you had to push for more of what you wanted?
KITSIS Once they let us make Peter Pan a villain, it was kind of like everything’s on the table.
Who’s still on your wish list?
HOROWITZ Aladdin and Jasmine are characters we love. The Princess and the Frog is a movie we really enjoyed, and we think that there are wonderful characters in there.
Star Wars is now under the Disney umbrella. Will you try to incorporate those characters into Once?
KITSIS When people asked us the first year what our favorite fairy tale is, we always said Star Wars. Season one we stretched the show into Frankenstein. We’ve done a Franz Kafka reference before and Cuckoo’s Nest, but our audience really likes the fairy tales. So, as much as we love Star Wars, I just don’t think the Millennium Falcon works with the glass coffin.
“We jump through so many flashbacks, so it’s a very different thing to play Emma at 18 than it is to play Emma at 30, and all of the variations in between,” says Morrison.
You did a spinoff once before, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. With such a huge ensemble, have you talked about doing another one?
KITSIS We did try it once, and had that show [aired during] our hiatus, it would have worked better. But we’re really not thinking about spinning it off right now. For us, it was always our dream to make Storybrooke like Springfield in The Simpsons. The very first spec Adam and I ever wrote was for The Simpsons. We just loved how once a year you knew Disco Stu was going to come and you knew everyone at the school, and it had its own world. For Once, that’s what we always wanted to aspire to.
The show has several strong female characters at its core. How conscious a decision was that?
KITSIS We never wanted to do damsels in distress. Princess Leia didn’t need to be saved, and that was always inspiring. And we had always written strong women, whether it was Kate on Lost or Felicity [from Felicity]. For us, that’s what was interesting. We wanted princesses that kicked ass.
Co-creators Horowitz (right) and Kitsis (left) attend ‘Once Upon a Time’s’ 100th episode celebration Feb. 20.
You have four children between you. How often do they pitch you ideas for the show?
HOROWITZ When the show started, my twin girls were 2. Now that they’re 7, the conversations are, “When can I be on the show?”
KITSIS The truth is, when my son was 2, he walked into a room while I was watching a cut, and he saw Bobby [Carlyle] as Rumplestiltskin and it scared him silly. He hasn’t gone back to watch the show yet. When he ran out screaming — as any good father thinks — I said, “Well, this scene’s really working.”
There’s new leadership at ABC, with drama head Channing Dungey replacing Paul Lee. How will the shake-up impact your series?
HOROWITZ Fortunately we’ve worked with Channing for a very long time. She gave us what may have been the best note that we got on the pilot. In the first draft, Prince Charming died at the end. Coming off of Lost, it felt like a cool, dark twist that affected Snow White and the characters. Channing’s note was, “For a show about hope, it is a pretty bleak ending.” She was right. She came at it from a series approach and not just a pilot. That started to open us up to the mind-set of, what if this thing could go 100 episodes …
Now that you’ve hit 100 episodes, what future do you see for the show? Can this go to 200 episodes?
KITSIS There needs to be a conclusion. At the same time, it’s the kind of show that can go on for as long as people like it because there are so many characters still left to be explored. And there’s always the possibility that it could continue with different characters.