Once the show wrapped for good, they knew what they didn't want to do. "We weren't going to write the cheesy [procedural, i.e.], 'Young D.A. balancing her life and work, here is the case of the week,'" Kitsis said in an interview in the pair's Los Angeles office two months ago. "We don't think that way."
Instead of going that route, they revisited a fairy-tale script that they had first shopped around many years earlier, way back when they were staff writers on 'Felicity.' Nobody wanted it then, but ABC eagerly bought their revised pitch for 'Once Upon a Time,' which premieres 8PM ET Sunday, despite the fact that, as Horowitz joked, the pilot script is a compendium of elements that often make network executives freak out.
The shooting script for the pilot, which takes place in both a recognizable reality centered around the small town of Storybrooke, Maine, and in an alternate universe that explores the lives of fairytale characters, "involved dwarves, kids, dogs, special effects, night shooting -- just about everything you're not supposed to do," Horowitz said.
The end result is a project that stars recognizable actors like Ginnifer Goodwin, Robert Carlyle, Lana Parrilla and Jennifer Morrison but is unlike anything else on television. Sure, NBC's 'Grimm' also has creatures that harken back to European folk tales, but that show is an unfortunate case of a network shoehorning a fanciful concept into a familiar, if not tired, procedural format. ABC has flailed with its post-'Lost' shows, but to the network's credit, they didn't try to make Kitsis and Horowitz slice, dice and otherwise mutilate the unconventional idea they had in mind.
Whether 'Lost' fans will flock to 'Once' is an open question. The dual storytelling streams, which harken back to the flashforwards and flashbacks of 'Lost,' are among the obvious connections between the projects (and there's more on those parallels below). But some viewers, whether they were 'Lost' fans or not, may think they know all they need to know about Snow White, Prince Charming, the Evil Queen and other fairytale characters. Still, both Kitsis and Horowitz (who wrote 'Tron: Legacy') said they'd rather take "a huge swing," as Kitsis said, than put their film-writing career on hold for a safe TV project.
"I don't know if people will like it, but as long as we do 12 episodes and we walk away saying we left it all on the field, that's all we care about," Kitsis said. "At the end of the day, we'd rather do something different and unique and roll the dice."
And as they're learning, running their own show is so difficult and time-consuming that to expend all that effort on something they didn't believe in would be, to quote 'The Princess Bride,' inconceivable.
"The way I describe it is, you know that scene in 'The Abyss' where they tell you ...[even with the breathing apparatus] you feel like drowning and you have to get used to it? That is what be a showrunner," Kitsis noted. "Even though you have been on staff, even though you have watched it, the minute it's your job ...you feel like you're drowning and you realize it doesn't go away. That's why you have to try and to do something that creatively rewards you, because the job is too hard."
Kitsis and Horowitz certainly made their jobs more difficult by plunging ahead with this unconventional show, which requires them to not only create two very different yet believable worlds, it also demands that they give mythical characters compelling emotional lives while still supplying a tale that feels epic and visually grand. You have to wonder some times if they yearn for the prosaic world of the perky district attorney.
"That is one of the great challenges of the show -- how do you make the show emotionally real and accessible, but also have this big epic, giant canvas feel to it?" Horowitz admitted. "That's what we're trying to do with these stories, and for us, unless we find an entry point to each episode that is completely emotional and relatable in a real way, then all the other epic stuff doesn't have a purpose."
And the way to make the characters' lives feel fresh is to explore what the fairytales don't tell us. As Horowitz put it, "Happy endings are just one little chapter in people's lives."
"If I was a viewer, I would want to know why does [the Queen] hate Snow White so much, how did she become evil, why is Grumpy grumpy, why is Geppetto so lonely that he had to build a boy out of wood?" Kitsis added. "That is what we want to tell. We're not interested in retelling fairytales. We're interested in the parts that have holes that need to be filled in or things you've maybe never thought about."
What won't be new is the experience of reading message boards once the show has premiered. As you might expect, they called 'Lost' devotees "the greatest fans in the world," but those fans could be quite vehement about things they didn't like.
"I've cried many times from a message board," said Kitsis. "All you need to read is, 'Oh the guys who wrote the worst 'Lost' episodes and ruined 'Tron,' count me out' and you're crying, but that's the game."
For both writers, though, the approval of 'Lost' fans has always meant the world, and they know they'll have to work hard to get it.
"Adam and I don't assume just because we wrote on 'Lost' that [those fans] are going to watch our show. We feel like we have to earn it the way that 'Lost' had to earn their fandom to begin with, because we're starting over," Kitsis said. "We're proving ourselves. We don't have ['Lost' executive producers] Damon [Lindelof] and Carlton [Cuse] to hide behind. It's us now, so we have to start over and we know that like we have to basically say, 'OK, here is what we're trying to do and if you like it, great.'"
But what are the ways in which 'Once Upon a Time' is different from and similar too that much-loved, much-discussed, much-analysed show? If you want to know how it'll recall and diverge from the island chronicle, read on.
But before we get to that, here are the first nine minutes of 'Once Upon a Time':
The Ways in Which 'Once Upon a Time' Is Like 'Lost'
1. There are parallel and connected realities, as noted above. Horowitz: "The typical episode will be a version of a story in Storybrooke, Maine involving the characters you have met in the pilot and focusing probably on one of them, and taking us into the fairytale land where we see a version of [that character's] story, and there is hopefully some thematic connection with what is going on" in both places.
2. What the show is really about is not very high-concept. Kitsis: "That was what was so funny about 'Lost' -- everyone was like '[It's] high concept!' Not really. A plane crashed and now they're stuck." Similarly, 'Once' can be stripped down to very basic themes of loss, acceptance, community and connection. Horowitz: "Ultimately, it's about these people in this town -- what are their conflicts going to be, how are they going to find love or not find love, how are they going to find happiness or not find happiness." Kitsis: 'Lost' "was not 'Let's come in and start pitching craziness!' It was character. Hurley was a guy who was frightened of change in any form, so every episode, we were like, 'Well, what is he frightened of in this one?'... It's character first, mythology second."
3. There's a mythology, but each episode will work on its own. Horowitz: "There will be an ongoing story, but ...each episode is a self-contained. ...But if you're watching the show, you'll also be enjoying Emma's ongoing struggle against Regina over [Regina's son] Henry and there will be those [continuing] elements."
4. Storybrooke isn't an island, but it might feel like one at times. Kitsis: Fairy tales "were moral tales to teach children, and in a lot of ways, 'Lost' was about redemption. For us, 'Once' is about hope and that's what we're interested in [exploring] ... It's about an enclosed group of people trying to get over things."
5. It's ultimately optimistic about the possibility of change and redemption. Kitsis: "What I love the most about fairy tales ... is, it's why you buy a lottery ticket. It's that your life can change. One day you're Cinderella and you're sweeping up for your evil stepmom and then the next day you get everything, and that's what I love about these stories. When Charlie gets the chocolate factory... what I love about writing is it's wish fulfillment. We try to write in a real way, but like at the end of the day, I want the chocolate factory and I want the golden ticket and we wanted to write a show about hope, especially in a time where I feel like it's needed."
6. It won't be perfect. Embracing mistakes as learning experiences was one of their chief lessons on 'Lost.' Horowitz: "Anything that someone else may look at and say 'Oh, that didn't work' or 'It was a problem' or whatever, to us simply was part of the journey. It was part of how we got to the endpoint that was the show. So there is nothing from the show I would say 'Oh, I didn't want [that],' because it all organically [allowed] us to get the whole thing to be what it was."
7. One of the show's wizards is named Lindelof. Kitsis and Horowitz said that Lindelof was a huge help when they were working on 'Once Upon a Time.' Kitsis: "His name is not on this pilot, but he is in the DNA of it in the sense that like he has really helped us realize our vision of our show."
The Ways in Which 'Once Upon a Time' Is Not Like 'Lost'
1. Horowitz: "We're not bringing Nikki and Paulo onto the show." Kitsis: "Yeah, not yet." Horowitz: "Season 3, episode 5."
2. There are no polar bears, hatches, Others or downed airplanes. Kitsis: "For us, you can't repeat 'Lost' because 'Lost' was its own unique thing, so why would anyone try?" Having said that, eagle-eyed fans will be able to spot little shoutouts to 'Lost' in some of the details of the Storybrooke world.
3. Their storytelling surrogate is a 10 year old Storybrooke boy named Henry (Jared Gilmore) who's really nothing like Hurley (or Walt). Kitsis: "Henry is us at 10, who's into things that no one else is. ... All the things that later in life, people celebrate about you are the exact same things that made you eat lunch alone when you were young, and that's what we write about because that is where we came from."
A few notes: My review of 'Once Upon a Time' will be posted Friday. You can see the first nine minutes of the pilot here. Also, the show has quite an intriguing roster of upcoming guest stars, including David Anders, Alan Dale, Emma Caulfield and Kristen Bauer van Straten. Recurring guest star Giancarlo Esposito ('Breaking Bad') talks about his 'Once' role here.
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