When Lost was on the air, pilot season was always abuzz with the question, “What’s gonna be the next Lost?” Now that that show is over, the question has become all the more incessant, since many of its writers are free and now pitching new shows: Surely they know the secret to giving us an addictive new series dense with mythology! One pilot in development by Oceanic alumni that’s currently being closely scrutinized and prayed for by Lost fans is ABC’s Once Upon a Time. It’s written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who earned a rep for scripting some of Lost’s funniest (and often most touching) episodes, like the season-three hour in which Hurley successfully started an old VW van on the island. Once Upon a Time (on which Damon Lindelof is also consulting) has a twisty, dual-plotted premise reminiscent of their previous gig: A young boy lives in Storybrooke, Maine, where he’s convinced things aren’t what they seem, and we also get glimpses — through flashbacks? flash-sideways? — of a fairy tale land where familiar evil queens and dwarves with sharply drawn personalities are quite real. Though the project is still early in its development and might not make it to air, the Lost-size hole in our heart propelled us to call up Kitsis and Horowitz to get some early details.
What is Once Upon a Time about?
Kitsis: What we want to do is take a look at well-known characters and stories and kind of dig deeper than what you know, and say, “Here’s what you didn’t know.” We want to try to bring [the characters] out as people instead of just metaphors to deal with our fears
Horowitz: For us, first and foremost, this is a character show. We want to take the iconography that we’ve always loved and find find a new way to look at what makes these fairy-tale characters tick.
How was this idea born?
Horowitz: It was eight years ago. We had come off Felicity. And we got into a discussion about the kind of show we’d like to do, and why we write. We started talking about the myths and fairy tales that had inspired us, which led to, “How do you explore that in a new way?” We had no interest in retelling every story everyone knows.
Kitsis: And we started to say things like, “What if you were the evil queen? How annoying would it be to live in the enchanted forest … [and] you have no hope of a happy ending?” It was that kind of weird take on it. We were younger writers, so people weren’t in such a hurry to buy a crazy idea from two guys who were very young in their career. But the idea stuck with us.
Horowitz: The six years of Lost were rather intense and didn’t really afford us the opportunity to develop it.
Kitsis: Then when Lost ended, ABC came to us and asked if we wanted to do our own show. We said we’d like to do this. They immediately said, “Great.” And the very first thing we did was go to Damon and said, “Here’s this crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy idea. Is this a show?” He’s really been a godfather to us in helping us shape this.
In the pilot script, you cut between two worlds — Fairytale Land and Storybrooke — and two different times. Lost didn’t invent flashbacks, of course, but it definitely seems you’re borrowing a technique that’s worked before.
Kitsis: After six years of Lost, the DNA of that show is in us. We just found it to be an effective way to tell this [story]. The Lost pilot was wide enough and included enough things so that when season five came, and we spent half of the year in 1973, nobody cried foul. It felt like it was already a part of the DNA. We want to go into battle with as many tools as we can so we can tell as many stories in as many ways as possible.
Horowitz: This [technique] was the best way of telling the story in the pilot. If we’re lucky enough to move forward, we’d love to explore many different ways to tell stories.
Will this be a show, like Lost, that you need to watch religiously to fully understand?
Kitsis: There will be self-contained stories in each episode. [And] there will be a larger mythology at work. But it’s not like if you miss an episode one week, you can’t catch up.
Tell me more about how Damon has been involved with the development so far.
Kitsis: He’s been great in every situation. We can go to him and say, “We just got this phone call [from the network] — what does it mean?” And he’s able to translate that because he’s been through it all. What Damon has been really great about is helping us find our vision for the show.
Will we see other Lost-ies pitch in on Once Upon a Time? Maybe Michael Giacchino doing the score?
Kitsis: I would love to have Michael for the score! I would kill for him. But I think he’s a little busy right now doing movies. There are some things that might pop up. Geronimo Jackson might appear on the show at some point.
Trying to tell stories with characters we all know could be tricky, especially when it comes to bringing humor to stories. Things could easily get cheesy or corny real fast, right?
Horowitz: It really comes down to grounding it in real characters. If what the characters are doing is real, you have license to be as funny as you want to be. On Lost, Hurley was very funny, but he never told jokes. He never had pratfalls.
Kitsis: The two favorite episodes of Lost that Adam and I wrote were “Dave,” which was where Hurley has an imaginary friend, and “Trisha Tanaka is Dead,” where Hurley finds a van and starts it. That feeling you got when the Three Dog Night song plays, and Hurley gets the van started — that’s what we wanted this to be. It’s funny like that. We don’t want it to be “Wink, wink, aren’t we clever.” We want it to feel real and emotional. We want people to be swept up in the story and stop saying, “Hey, there’s Pinnochio!” and instead say, “Oh, there’s a child with a problem.”
So this show won’t be afraid to get a little twisted?
Kitsis: We’re not doing the 12-year-old kid version of this. We’re gonna tell stories that are dark and complex and emotional. They’re not going to be lowered for younger people. Because at the end of the day, we want to do something that doesn’t suck.
Horowitz: Not sucking is very, very important.