In their office just down the road from Walt Disney Studios, “Once Upon a Time” writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis paper their walls with their own past (“Tron: Legacy” and “Lost” posters) as well as their influences (“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and a large, light-up poster of George Lucas’ Death Star). “Star Wars,” Horowitz says, is “one of the most iconic pieces of storytelling ever. It was inventing a fairy tale that also felt like it had always been around.” Fairy tale invention and reinvention are the duo’s focus goal these days as they break the story for the first season finale of “Once upon a Time.” Tonight’s episode, meanwhile, is “Skin Deep,” which takes on the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” and reveals more about how much Mr. Gold/Rumpelstiltskin remembers of his life in Fairy Tale Land. During an interview with Hero Complex writer Emily Rome, the tandem talked about the future of the show.
ER: Do you two feel like human encyclopedias of fairy tales now? Are you fairy tale experts after all the research you’ve had to do for the show?
EK: I can honestly say that Adam and I feel that we are experts in nothing.
AH: Actually, I feel like the Blue Fairy [laughs]. No, I would say that we feel certainly immersed in the world but part of the fun of the show for us was taking these stories that were so formative for us and saying, “What’s our spin on them? What’s the stuff we don’t know about them? Let’s not retell them. Let’s find something new.”
EK: There’s definitely people that know way more about fairy tales than we do, but we love to just kind of get in and say what’s our spin on “Well, why did Grumpy become Grumpy?”
ER: When writing your characters, how do you decide how much to turn to the original fairy tales versus the Disney version?
EK: Sometimes it’s what’s most iconic. The reason we chose to open up the pilot with Snow White was because if you were going to show a curse that took away a happy ending, take away the happiest of them all, which is Snow White being woken up in a coffin. So for us there are certain iconic touchstones, like Cinderella with a glass slipper. But how she got the glass slipper, we chose Rumpelstiltskin to have kill her fairy godmother. That’s the part of the story you didn’t know.
AH: We’re sort of trying to build out our own world and use these characters as the jumping off point for telling this larger story that we’re trying to tell about what is essentially a new fairy tale character – the child of Snow White and Prince Charming, Emma Swan, and how she gets embroiled in this huge battle of good versus evil.
ER: Tell me about the choice to have a lot of the costumes, like Cinderella’s and Belle’s in Sunday’s episode, be so influenced by their costumes in the Disney animated movies.
EK: We call it fairy tale couture. Eduardo Castro, who did “Ugly Betty,” does all our costumes. They’re one part Disney and two parts Alexander McQueen. We’re always trying to do something a little forward with them. I think that we use Disney because when Adam and I were growing up, that’s what inspired us. Because they inspire us and because we love them and they’re iconic. We are Disney, so we can use them. It’s really cool to be able to kind of get to play in that sandbox that Disney’s allowed us to. Just personally as a fan, if I’m watching a show I would rather see Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful than three names we made up.
ER: How different would the show be if it were on another network?
AH: It’s funny because it’s the only place we took it. We’ve been working with ABC/Disney for many years now. I guess it’s a good thing they went ahead with it, because if they didn’t, I’m not sure where we could have done it with the same amount of latitude that we’ve been given. The brand management people at the Walt Disney Company have been great. From when we first pitched the idea, they’ve been very supportive of allowing us to play with their icons and kind of re-invent them.
EK: I mean, we killed a dwarf. We had a pregnant Snow White. We had Cinderella promising somebody her first-born. So they’ve been really great in allowing us that freedom.
ER: Tell me about your approach to the Evil Queen/Regina. There are some moments when you feel sympathetic toward her, but she’s also this despicable villain. How do you decide how much to stay true to the traditional, straight evil villain versus making her more complex?
EK: We have a phrase that you’ll see in later episodes, “Evil’s not born – it’s made.” What we love about Regina is she’s very tortured. And you understand that there’s a hidden pain inside her that is causing her to do these things. We’re just not going to reveal it till the end of the season.
EK: So by the end of the season we’ll learn what made her so evil?
AH: Prior to the end of the season, well before the finale. That question of being evil, what happened between her and Snow that we’ve kind of hinted throughout the season is one that we see a few things before the finale.
EK: Episode 18, I believe.
ER: As we’ve moved beyond Prince Phillip saving Aurora and are now post-Ariel, post-Belle, post-Tiana, with modern fairy tales the damsel in distress-type female characters are a thing of the past. Is that type of character something you’re actively trying to avoid and turn on its head?
AH: I’d say from the first scenes of the pilot, that’s what we were trying to do. Snow White pulls out a sword. We did not want to have the damsel in distress. We did not want to have the princess who needs saving.
EK: The perfect example is how they met. Snow meets Charming because she steals from him and then knocks him out. We weren’t interested in writing damsels in distress. We were interested in writing really tough women that were not afraid to use power because we feel like that’s what’s relevant today and that’s what’s interesting as writers.
ER: You also have women in the three lead roles, something you don’t see very often on TV.
AH: I don’t think we consciously set out to do it that way. It’s one of those things where it was a very organic process of developing the story for the show, and it became – it’s very much a story about mothers.
EK: In the way that “Lost” was about fathers. It’s a family dynamic. Fairy tales are about family, so for us it just felt natural. It’s funny because our wives will watch an episode and be like, “How do you write that? Why aren’t you that at home? Why aren’t you that understanding at home?”
ER: You have an interesting relationship between Mary Margaret and Emma, who are actually mother and daughter but often act more like sisters. How do you figure out that kind of relationship when a mother and daughter are the same age?
AH: That was one of the fun things for us, saying, “What do you do when a mother and daughter are contemporaries?” It’s a fascinating thing for writers to explore.
EK: Mary Margaret will very much act like Emma’s mom in certain situations, and in other situations you see Emma being her big sister. Emma has always been looking for home, but because she’s never had one, she doesn’t know what it is when she finds it. She comes in very tough, walls up and Henry’s the first one to poke at it. You’re going to see as the season goes by so does Mary Margaret.
ER: In episode 7, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” we finally got to see a Storybrooke character remember who he was in Fairy Tale Land. As we see more of those realizations on the show, how are you going to make each one uniquely rewarding for the audience?
EK: That’s what keeps us up at night!
AH: Telling that story relatively early in the season was a way for us to tell the audience, “This is what can happen here.”
EK: And that it’s real. It’s not in Henry’s head. Don’t worry – we’re not going to wake up and Henry’s going to say “You were there, and you were there, and you were there.” It’s real.
ER: How long do we have to wait until another character remembers?
AH: All I’ll say is as a viewer, I’d be pissed if it was a really long time. There’s hints of it coming soon. There are levels of seepage that occur.
EK: Levels of awaking for different moments.
ER: Can you tell me what the visual effects budget is like on “Once”?
AH: There is no budget. It’s all done with magic.
ER: I thought magic always comes with a price! Isn’t that what Rumpelstiltskin says?
EK: Yes, it does! We’re not a cheap show. But we’re not the most expensive show.
ER: There have been mixed reactions to the quality of the effects on the show. I don’t think a lot of people are really fooled into thinking any of the green screen is real, but you do completely create this great mystical world.
AH: It’s one of those things where when you’re a first season show and you’re hoping to be more than a first season show, you learn what works and what doesn’t work.
EK: Sometimes your ambition doesn’t match technology. And then you say, “Well, do we lower our ambition or do we go for it?” And sometimes when you go for it, there are effects that are much more successful than others.
AH: We give [Zoic Studios, which does the show’s visual effects] a big screen-possible task each week, and they really kind of push the limits. Everyone – not just on the effects level but on every department of the show from the story to the costumes to everything – everybody is learning and growing as they move forward, and hopefully we’re getting better.
ER: I wanted to ask about the inevitable comparisons to Bill Willingham’s comic series, “Fables.” Did you see the post he wrote about “Once” and “Fables”?
AH: He actually sent that to us before [he published it]. He was really lovely.
ER: Many suspicious of the similarities point out that ABC was developing a pilot for “Fables” back in 2008.
EK: We had no idea about the “Fables” development when we started our show. Things are developed every year. But immediately when our show came out, of course, the boards lit up with “How dare they, those thieves! How dare they take public domain characters –” We think that Bill Willingham, what he did on “Fables” is amazing, the scope and the characters. It’s amazing, but what’s even more amazing about him is that he was generous to us. At an early time when we felt like there were villagers ready to knock down our door, he stepped in front and said, “It’s OK. There can be two different things.” And I truly think that now, after seeing 11 episodes, people realize that there is probably still room for a “Fables” TV show out there that can still exist in the same world as “Grimm” and “Once.”
ER: So you think “Fables” could still developed and picked up while “Once” is on the air?
EK: Sure, why not? They’re two totally different things. If “Chicago Hope” and “ER” can exist at the same time, I don’t see why not.
ER: The promo for the “Beauty and the Beast” story in this Sunday’s episode says, “It’s different when the beast really is a monster.” Where did the idea for this take and to have Rumpelstiltskin be the beast come from?
AH: For us it’s like, “Who’s the character on the show who thinks he’s a monster?” Rumpelstiltskin. You’ve seen him enjoy being the monster in episode four when he’s stealing babies. And you’ve seen him as the village coward in episode eight. For us it was natural to use that as a way to really learn more about the character.
ER: It’s still unclear whether Mr. Gold remembers his life as Rumpelstiltskin in Fairy Tale Land. When will we find out just how much he knows?
EK: You know what? I would be so pissed if I watched this weekend and that wasn’t answered. I want to know what that guy knows, and I just hope to God that I get it Sunday night, but you know, that would mean I don’t watch the Grammys, but I guess I can TiVo the Grammys.
ER: What was your approach to Belle’s character?
AH: With Belle, it’s not just that she’s beautiful, which she is, but she’s a beautiful soul in every way. And it’s what happens when you put that up against one of the darkest elements of our show. For us that was really exciting to kind of explore.
ER: Tell me about casting “Lost” alum Emilie de Ravin as Belle.
AH: We love Emilie. We were so thrilled that she wanted to do it. All those qualities about Belle being smart and empowered and strong, those are all things that Emilie embodies, and we’re really excited for people to see her take on the character.
EK: We loved writing for her on “Lost.” There’s such a strength to her. The way she would have those scenes with John Locke and never be frightened of him.
AH: It’s only natural to put her next to the Beast.
ER: Is there something more to Emma’s last name? Is there an ugly duckling or swan princess connection for her?
EK: We chose the name because it’s the metaphor for her journey, to become the swan. And right now I don’t think she is. The funny thing about Emma is theoretically, if she truly believed what’s going on, she’s a princess. But if you told Emma Swan she was a princess she’d … laugh at you.
ER: What were your favorite fairy tales growing up?
EK: “Peter Pan.” The ability to not grow up is still to this day what I want. I love the magic of that. I love the magic of leaving through a windowsill and going to a place called Neverland and never having to grow up.
AH: My favorite was “Snow White.” It was the first one I ever heard of, it was the first one I ever saw. I think it was the first time I was ever terrified. The first time I was introduced to such a magical world.
EK: But honestly, I think one of our favorite fairy tales is “Star Wars.” What is a better fairy tale is there than a young orphan learning that he has a special power to rise up and take down the evil forces?
AH: To me, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of storytelling ever. It was inventing a fairy tale that also felt like it had always been around.
ER: Mary Margaret says in the pilot that stories are “a way for us to deal with our world.” Do you think that’s what it boils down to or do you have any other theories on why these fairy tales continue to capture our interest?
AH: It’s a way for us to deal with the world, and I would also say they’re also the first stories we hear. I’ve got twin daughters who are three, and I’m starting to read to them. They’ll start reciting “Rapunzel” to me. It’s how they’re starting to understand how to communicate.
EK: For us, “Lost” was about redemption, and “Once” is about hope. Fairy tales are a way to deal with our world, but also as dark as they are, they give us a little bit of sunlight. It’s interesting because in 1937, “Snow White” came out in the height of the depression. So, why now? Look at the times we’re in. To us fairy tales are like a lottery ticket. Why do buy a lottery ticket? So you win so much money you can tell your boss to go to hell and you can retire to an island that you just bought. Isn’t that Cinderella’s story? But through that journey you have to realize there aren’t shortcuts. There are these morality tales that have to be told. That’s what’s fun about fairy tales – they’re kind of like CliffsNotes for life.
– Emily Rome
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