At its core, what has been your mission statement with this show?
KITSIS: It is what Snow White said in the pilot about believing in the possibility of hope is a powerful thing. When we started this show, it was in the wake of the financial crisis. Everything felt very cynical in the world, everything felt very dark. Adam and I really wanted to capture a show about hope. What we loved about fairy tales was the idea that your life can get better no matter how dark it seems at the moment. I think that’s what we’ve tried to make the show about, and that’s what started it. That was our mission statement.
HOROWITZ: It was also about the show can be dark, but we never wanted it to be bleak. We always wanted there to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We always wanted there to be this sense of hope and that things can get better, and that there is joy and love to be found in life.
As you mentioned, a lot of critics did not think you would even make it this far. What was that feeling like in the beginning when the show really started picking up steam?
KITSIS: I’ll tell you the moment I knew, because I have to tell you literally every critic was like, “This is the first dead. It’s debuting against the World Series and football on Sunday night. Sunday night has always been [Extreme Makeover: Home Edition]; it’s dead, it’s dead.” So Adam and I were like, “Okay, well, we’ve been on enough failed shows to know you really usually get pulled around episode 7,” so we were like, “All right, we have an opportunity to do seven cool episodes.” But the night we aired, we were all sitting in the bar at the Sutton Hotel, the cast and crew and everyone after the premiere party, and someone was like, “Holy sh—, Rumplestiltskin was the No. 2 Google search of the night.” “Of all of Google?” They’re like, “Yes,” and I thought, “That’s a good sign.” The next morning, when we premiered, we had a high debut and we were shocked and stunned. At first, we were like, “Now, not everyone can be wrong, it’s one week,” but when we held the number in the second week, that’s when we started to realize this thing was taking on a life of its own.
HOROWITZ: When it started to hit me that we might actually be doing this for a little while was later in the season, in January after we had been off for about a month or six weeks. We came back with “Desperate Souls,” an episode in mid-January. I remember thinking, “We did so well in the fall, but we were on every week. We haven’t been on in six weeks, maybe they forgot about us, maybe they don’t care.” The show aired and we came back to numbers as big as anything we had done in the fall, and I was like, “Wow, people seem to want to watch this show.” That was super exciting and super daunting, but at that point, we started to really realize that we’re eight episodes into this, let’s start to think a little bit more long-term.
In the pilot, you did something a bit unthinkable at the time, which was having an original Disney princess pick up a sword. She went from damsel in distress to true heroine. How difficult was that initially to reconcile with Disney, and did they come to trust you more as you made more twists on beloved characters?
KITSIS: When we wrote it, we didn’t realize. We had just assumed that someone must’ve put a sword in Snow White’s hand [at some point]. We had this meeting with franchise, and we were naïve at the time and didn’t understand that this was Disney franchise. We just thought it was an internal ABC meeting. We explained to them that in today’s world, we don’t want our daughters to watch Snow White come in and clean a dwarf’s house. We wanted her to pull a sword and not be a damsel in distress, and that is what people respect about Snow White is she’s a fearless warrior for good. They said, “We agree, that’s great, go do it.” From that moment on, when they started to see that we weren’t trying to just replicate the movies, but we were putting our own spins on them, the spins were hopeful and positive, they really started to support us in a way that is incredible. We’ve had so much support from Disney in everything we’ve done. When we did Merida, Pixar sent us her tartan. We’ve met with animators. Disney opened up the shelves to us and really allowed us the resources to do anything we wanted. We were just shocked and surprised and thank god they did that, because that’s what made this show so special, being able to say Jiminy Cricket and Grumpy, as opposed to The Cricket and a Helper.
HOROWITZ: When we pitched the show, conceptually they were on board with the ideas we were doing, and then when they started to see it as we went along, they got more and more excited. They’ve never been a roadblock; they’ve always been an aid. They’ve been supportive of our ideas and given us their resources to execute them. So every time we’ve come to them and said, “Hey, what if we did Frozen? Or what if we did this?” not only have they embraced the idea, they’ve been like, “Okay, why don’t you talk to the people who worked on these movies, and see what they thought about the characters?” It was an incredible learning experience for us to see how so many of these stories and characters originated so that when we would do our own spin on them, we’d be able to do the Once Upon a Time version in our own unique way.
What’s one character you always wanted to do, but couldn’t get or couldn’t find a way to fit into a story?
KITSIS: We have three episodes left, but for me, it has always haunted me that I’ve never done Mr. Toad. I know he’s obscure, but I always like the idea of the Mr. Toad, but we just never found the right story.
HOROWITZ: I definitely agree with Eddy about Mr. Toad. We never figured it out. But you know what? I’m going to say flat-out no. I think we got to do all the ones that were at the top of my list. There’s no regrets like, “Oh, I wish I got to do this,” or whatever.
KITSIS: We pretty much swept through them all except for maybe Country Bear Jamboree. [Laughs.]
How does it feel to have been at the forefront of the trend of reimagining Disney characters in live action?
KITSIS: It was great because we pitched this idea in 2002 or 2003 to eight or 10 places and everyone passed, because they were like, “We don’t do fairy tales or ensemble shows with all these crazy things.” Then, after Lost, people were more interested in hearing from us if we had any crazy shows with ensemble casts. We’ve always loved fairy tales, and I think what was great was we always believed in it, and when we came out, we were pretty much the first. The reaction was so strong that you realized that a lot of people didn’t even realize how much they loved fairy tales and/or didn’t realize how much people loved fairy tales. So to have an idea that we had and have it passed on, and then have it come back and actually be great timing was a dream come true that I’m not sure I’ll ever get to experience again.
HOROWITZ: When we pitched it and were making the plot, there had been no live-action Snow White movies from Disney, no Cinderella, no Maleficent, no Beauty and the Beast — none of those movies had come out. We hadn’t seen anything.
KITSIS: I think Maleficent was in production, and that year was like Snow White and the Huntsman, and we were just really fortunate that we had an idea that we believed in and that timing caught up with us.
It’s early, but is there anything you can say about the series finale’s tone or what you hope to leave fans with?
KITSIS: We are not trying to replicate what we did last year. We feel like that was a perfect ender to that book. We think we are going to wrap up the threads that we have introduced this year, and hopefully give people a big Once finale sendoff in the grand traditions of when we do alternate world endings.
HOROWITZ: We’re having a lot of fun with what these last few episodes are and we hope they leave the audience with that sense of fun, and with that sense of hope and optimism that come hand-in-hand with Once, so that everybody can walk away with a good feeling.
Looking back on the series, what’s been your point of pride? And is there anything you would’ve changed?
HOROWITZ: I’ll start with the second part first, which is I wouldn’t change a thing. That’s not to say that we were perfect — far from it. I would say that the process of learning and making mistakes is not something I could ever replicate. It’s unique to the experience of doing Once. Anything that worked, great, and anything that didn’t work is great because it helped us get to the stuff that we did next.
HOROWITZ: As far as point of pride, putting that sword in Snow White’s hand and having that be the first time, for me, that’s a real point of pride.
HOROWITZ: I’d have to agree with Eddy on that. Being able to take an iconic character like Snow and do something that we didn’t even set about to do, it’s just what felt right for us, and it didn’t even occur to us at the time that it was a big deal, but it is. The original Snow White is a brilliant movie and a product of the time, and we hope Once Upon a Time is, in its own way, a product of this time in a positive way.
Once Upon a Time will return for its final run of episodes Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.