Once Upon a Time creators and showrunners Ed Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are infectiously passionate when speaking about their fantasy-based shows. There’s plenty of intrigue ahead in Once Upon a Time‘s third season, including most of the cast’s voyage to Neverland in search of Emma’s son, Henry; it premieres on 8 p.m. on Sunday on ABC.
The duo is extra-busy now in their storybook universe; they have a new sister show, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, set to premiere on October 10th at 8 p.m. It stars John Lithgow as the White Rabbit and newcomer Sophie Lowe as Alice, and is intended to be a separate narrative that feels inviting for unfamiliar viewers while also offering some extra tidbits from the main show.
Kitsis and Horowitz sat down with Rolling Stone talk about fairy tales, Easter eggs and getting Iggy Pop to voice a druggy caterpillar.
You’ve had two great seasons of Once Upon a Time already. What can fans look forward to in season three?
Kitsis: I think what we’re really excited about in season three is that we’re on an adventure to Neverland and we’ve got the Fairytale Avengers off to battle an evil Peter Pan and save Henry. We’re very excited for people to see Neverland, meet Peter Pan, and we think the show is going in a really fun, magical and yet emotional direction. We’re doing the seasons in two this year. We’re writing eleven episodes in the beginning and eleven in spring, so this first section is Neverland and we’re really excited about it.
Were you guys nervous about making Peter Pan evil?
Horowitz: Honestly, we’re nervous about everything, but that’s sort of our approach to storytelling. We like to find ideas that excite us and, if they make us a little nervous, then we head toward that rather than away from it. But as for Peter Pan being evil, our Peter Pan is not, as you’ll see, a black-and-white creation of good and evil, just like we like to think all of our characters aren’t black and white. What we’re excited about is peeling back the layers on our version of Peter Pan so you can understand why he’s doing the things that he’s doing, starting with taking Henry from our heroes.
Kitsis: We always try to put our own twist on it so, for us, it wouldn’t be fun to just do another version of Peter Pan – just like last year, our Captain Hook is a lot different than other Captain Hooks.
Without going into spoiler territory, we know we’re going to see Peter Pan and Neverland as well as Ariel, and obviously there’s the Once Upon a Time in Wonderland spinoff happening. Any other characters or fairy tales that might be weaved into this story?
Kitsis: We’re going to be seeing Tinker Bell and we’re going to be doing a version of the Pied Piper.
Horowitz: As well as continuing to explore Robin Hood.
Are we going back to Wonderland at any time, like in previous seasons, or are you going to leave that to the new series?
Kitsis: We’re going to leave that the new series.
Horowitz: Wonderland will be strictly the domain of the new series. You may see something familiar from Once on Wonderland, but really, the intention is that both of these shows will be their own separate entities.
Kitsis: They exist in their own universes.
Horowitz: The stories that are taking place on each show are not dependent upon each other.
Kitsis: Yeah, we don’t want to overwhelm the viewer.
So there won’t be any crossovers at all? I know, for instance, that Once Upon a Time in Wonderland starts in Storybrooke.
Kitsis: There will be a couple that start in Storybrooke and we will see maybe one or two flashbacks.
Horowitz: The streams will cross in some ways that are hopefully fun for fans of Once Upon a Time that are watching Wonderland, and hopefully the fans that come to Wonderland will get a self-contained experience that will have things that we hope will please fans of the greater franchise.
Kitsis: We really wanted to make sure that people who hadn’t seen Once didn’t feel like they couldn’t watch Wonderland because they hadn’t seen the other show.
You conceived Once prior to working on Lost, but after working on a show like that with such a deep, rich serialized mythology, did you feel allegiance to that kind of storytelling?
Kitsis: We had this idea when we were coming off of Felicity, which was around 2002, but we didn’t know how to tell it. We had a good idea, but we didn’t know how to execute it. It really wasn’t until we got to Lost that the writer’s block went away and we started to realize how you do a show like this. I would say Lost is kind of where we found our sound and we applied it to Once.
As on Lost, there are tons of Easter eggs dropped throughout all the episodes. Do you guys follow that stuff online and continue to add them to play with the audience a little?
Kitsis: We try to write the show so that if people want to just lean back, have a beer, and watch the show, they can enjoy it, but we’re also fans in our own right so we also try to reward the people that want to lean in with a magnifying glass and see the Easter eggs. It could be as simple as an Apollo Bar or it could be hints we gave season one about Pinocchio, that he kept lying about having lemurs somewhere or something. So we do try to reward both viewers.
Are there any in particular that you’ve dropped that you don’t think someone has picked up on yet? Something that has made you say, “I can’t believe they missed that!”
Kitsis: We’ll do random ones like when we called our werewolves episode “Child of the Moon,” which was after the Rolling Stones song. We called the original Dark One “Zoso” after Led Zeppelin, and those don’t get picked up as easily as when the clock said 8:15 [which is a reference to Lost].
That could be an issue of the age of your show’s audience as well.
Kitsis: That could be. They’re not as big Rolling Stones fans as us. [Laughs] I will say, though, that they get everything. When we did August W. Booth, we named him after the guy who coined the term “unreliable narrator” and, we started to having him lying in scenes. Our audience is so clever and they’re so smart that they immediately picked up on it. So unless it’s some sort of weird, obscure rock reference, and they even get most of those, they get them. It’s great because you put something in and our audience is so smart that they get it immediately. And, by the way, there are things that you think you’re being clever and the audience figures it out a year before, so by the time you reveal it, they already know. Like when we revealed that Henry’s dad was Rumpelstiltskin’s son, we had that from Season One and we thought we were clever, but by the time we got to it, most of our audience were already anticipating it.
With some of the changes that you make to these fairy tales, is there anything in fairy tale land that you think is just off-limits? Are there any stories that you just wouldn’t feel comfortable changing?
Horowitz: It’s funny because we try to challenge ourselves to find the coolest spin on these stories, and the things that excite us the most, but we haven’t thought about it in terms of something being off limits. It’s more about thinking about what’s the surprising way into these stories.
Kitsis: Right, so for us when we first chose Wonderland, we went through the Mad Hatter to find out how he became mad. Once we added an eighth dwarf and killed it, at that point, we realized it was just a matter of finding the right story for the right character. It’s taken us two years to do Ariel, but that was because we always wanted to save her for Neverland, where we know there are mermaids.
I’m not sure if you saw it online, but Kelly Clarkson is super excited about Ariel.
Kitsis: We love Kelly Clarkson and she has been our biggest supporter since day one. We are so honored because at first. I heard that and I was like, “That’s not true!” and then someone sent us a tweet we got from her and I said, “Oh my God, really?”
Seems like the perfect time to ask her to do a guest spot.
Kitsis: We will take her! Any time she wants to come to Vancouver, we have got a spot for her.
One of the things that makes the large ensemble of characters on Once Upon a Time work is that all the various threads have some type of connective tissue. Do you ever worry about introducing too many fairy tale characters into this mythology?
Horowitz: Absolutely. You don’t want to overwhelm the audience and you want to, most importantly, care about the characters. For example, this season is very much focused on that core group who’s on the boat as well as Belle, who’s left behind in Storybrooke, and telling their story. What we always strive to do is, when we introduce new characters is find the way that they are connected to them, so that it’s not feeling like an island or a tangent. Rather than being a tangent, it actually enriches the story of the regulars.
Kitsis: That’s why we were so excited, this year, putting those characters on that boat to Neverland and watching because, at the end of the day, Once is the story of a dysfunctional family. For us, we love seeing everyone come together and what we love so much about Neverland is really kind of seeing this core group get into it. Like Captain Hook, last year, was a new character but now, coming into Season Three you forget that he wasn’t in the pilot. For us, we always say it’s like Desmond and Ben Linus on Lost. You don’t realize they weren’t on the plane.
Rapid-fire question time: Is Rumpelstiltskin ever going to get to just be happy with Belle?
Kitsis: You know, if we answer that. . . I can tell you that Rumpel is searching for his happy ending and just because villains are villains doesn’t mean that they don’t want a happy ending. I can say that he is striving for that, but it is going to be very difficult and, where we last left him, he was on a suicide mission to save Henry. But that was, of course, before he knew his son was alive, so he’s going to keep striving.
Are we ever going to get to see Maleficent out of that dragon state?
Horowitz: What we’ll say is that Maleficent’s presence will be felt again on Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.
I know this is akin to asking you guys to pick your favorite child, but are you more excited for fans to see what’s new in Season Three or for them to check out the new series?
Kitsis: Both! (laughs)
Horowitz: I would say that it’s an equal amount of excitement and nervousness. We’ve been living with both [Season Three of Once and the first season of Wonderland] since May as we’ve been cooking up and writing these scripts, so now we’re right on the cusp of everyone getting a peek at them and it’s like sending your children off into the world. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and we can’t wait.
Kitsis: We’re so excited for Season Three and Neverland and, for us, we feel like it’s some of our best episodes yet. We’re the most excited for Neverland. At the same time, we love Wonderland. It’s so much fun. It’s a great new cast with new stories and it’s got its own vibe and it’s really like a trippy, dark psychedelic romance and we’re excited for people to get into it. I mean, the recent news is that Iggy Pop is going to be voicing the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Plus, John Lithgow as the White Rabbit. How can you beat that?
Can we please get more Red Riding Hood and more Aurora and Mulan?
Kitsis: Aurora and Mulan, we are definitely going to get more of them. We have a great arc for them in the first eleven episodes, and Ruby will be coming back in the second half because she’s on Intelligence right now but she is definitely a part of the show and she will hopefully be back in the latter half of the season.
So exciting. Those characters, and the talented actors who play them, are great.
Horowitz: Yeah, we’ve got some stuff that we’re very happy and excited about for Aurora and Mulan and you’ll see them very soon.
Kitsis: In the season premiere even!