Once Upon a Time premieres on ABC Sunday night amid a lot of fanfare (and fandom fare) and buzz. The fantasy-adventure series is a natural for children, but also very much for adults who love the fantasy and science fiction genres. After all, who doesn’t like a good, old fashioned fairy tale?
I’ve seen the pilot and it shows great promise, with fantastic movie-like production values and a fabulous cast, including, to name but two, Jennifer Morrison (House, M.D.) Robert Carlyle (28 Weeks Later, Trainspotting, The Full Monty).
Created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the series creative staff also includes one Ms. Jane Espenson, whose track record in this genre is pretty impeccable. Having written and produced on some of the best science fiction and fantasy-oriented television series in the past 15 years, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica (and its prequel Caprica), Game of Thrones, and Torchwood: Miracle Day.
I chatted with Ms. Espenson by phone the other day to talk about Once Upon a Time and her other endeavors.
I’ve had a chance to see the Once Upon a Time pilot and have been writing a series of articles about the show leading up to Sunday’s premiere on ABC. One of my readers suggested that I interview you. Up until that moment, I didn’t know you were attached to the show, but I thought “It makes sense.” Of the fairly small universe of television shows I’ve covered (and watched) over the past few years, you’ve been a writer/producer on so many of them, including Caprica, Torchwood, Game of Thrones, and, of course Buffy. I thought, “Oh my gosh, they’re all your series.”
Yep. Yes, you must just be sick of seeing my name.
No, not at all. And it’s funny, because among the interviews I’ve done over the past couple of years, I’ve talked with Katherine Lingenfelter, who worked with you on Caprica and Doris Egan who worked on Torchwood, and I thought, “Okay. So there’s got to be a theme here somewhere.” I just haven’t figured it out yet.
Oh, I love Kath. I adore, adore speaking to her. And Doris too. They’re both great women.
So this is the year of the fairytale on primetime TV with Once Upon a Time, and then Grimm is also premiering shortly thereafter. Why did that happen, do you think? Does it have to do with the whole True Blood and vampire and mythology thing, do you think?
Yeah, the vampires. The era of the vampire lasted for longer than I though it would. And I’ve been sort of waiting to see what would be the next thing. Because aliens, robots, and monsters, including vampires, all play the same role in fantasy drama. I’ve heard it expressed, and I think this is pretty smart, that in sort of Depression-era times, there’s something about fairytales that start to have resonance again, like the original [Disney] Snow White, the animated Snow White in 1937. There may be something there that makes a familiar tales of childhood resonate in dark economic times, and it may simply be that in these times, we need that next thing. There are only so many basic fantasy genres. And one of the genres is fairytales. And one is monster stories. And one is alien stories. And we happen to be in an era in which it’s just time for fairytales to cycle back around again. So it’s a really long-winded answer…
No, no. That’s a great answer. And it makes complete sense. Think about The Wizard of Oz. It came out in the late ‘30s, kind of in the waning years of the Depression, but still it was made during that timeframe. So, yeah, it makes a lot of sense.
So, Once Upon a Time airs evenings at the fairly early hour of 8:00 p.m. Is the series “family friendly,” or is there a darker edge to it?
It’s definitely got darkness in it. But it’s sort of a shivery darkness that’s very much at home with fairytales, which also have this sort of shivery darkness. The stories you heard as a kid about witches cooking children [as in Hansel and Gretel, for example]. So, if a fairytale is appropriate for kids, then this show is. It’s written with a light touch and humor and I think it’s going to have a really broad audience appeal. I think a lot of people are going to love it. And when I say the kids can watch it, I don’t mean it’s just for kids. It’s one of those shows that I think a kid would watch it [for one thing] and an adult would watch it and go like, “Oh, there’s an interesting story here; something complicated.”
Layering like that—writing on several levels—makes a television series so much, much richer.
Yeah. This is a really rich show. These guys [creators Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz] came from Lost, and they’re really smart about the storytelling and how to incorporate the flashback. Every episode is going to be told through two stories: one in fairytale land, and one in the modern world. And they will comment on each other in an interesting and elaborately structured way that’s really, really fun to write and really, really fun to watch.
Are you involved with all the scripts or some of the scripts?
As a consulting producer on the show, I’ve been in the writer’s room, involved in the breaking of all the stories. And I’m writing at least three of them. So far we’ve written ten; I wrote episode five and episode eight. And I will be writing episode twelve. Then we’ll find out if we get a back nine (an order from the network for nine more episodes) or not. So, they’re letting me do a lot of writing. Consulting producer is sort of a part-time gig, and that’s three days a week. So I’m not as totally involved in the room as I would be if I was there every single day. But I’m getting to write a lot of the episodes. So I think you will feel me in the series. I’m getting to some amazing stories. I got to write Jiminy Cricket’s origin story! That’s just amazing.
So do you have a favorite character on this show—one that you especially like to write for?
Jiminy Cricket is pretty fun. We have Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin. And that might be my favorite. It’s always fun to write the villain. And it’s fun to write someone with a really unique voice, and, you know, he’s Robert Carlyle! He’s magnificent.
That’s funny. When I asked the question I wondered if you were going to say “Rumpelstiltskin!” I adore Robert Carlyle. I’ve been watching an old Masterpiece Theater that he’s in. And he’s just phenomenal, if slightly creepy. And I’m looking forward to seeing him as Rumpelstiltskin. You’ve written for so many different series and great series. Do you have a favorite character that you’ve written—or favorite show you’ve written for in your career?
Oh, it’s very hard to beat Buffy. Buffy sort of made my career and taught me how to write and I loved it so much and I’m actually going to have dinner tonight with Mr. Danny Strong, who played Jonathan [on Buffy]. And I really loved that character. And so I don’t know. Every time I’m asked this question, I give a different answer. So sometimes it’s Starbuck (on Battlestar Galactica). She was an amazing character. But I think this time, I’m going to say Jonathan on Buffy.
I have to ask. Do you know yet if there will be another series of Torchwood?
No one knows for sure. And I know no more than anyone else.
Do you hope there’s another season of Torchwood?
Oh, yes. I would love to keep working for Russell [T. Davis]. I adore him so much. Russell T. Davis created the show. He’s a genius and just a mensch. He’s a good man and I love him dearly. And I would love to work with him again on Torchwood, or anything.
Game of Thrones is coming back for a second season. Are you going to be involved with that at all?
Well, they decided to hire a staff. I worked on the show as a freelancer [last season]. For this season, they need people who were available all season. So I don’t think I’m going to be involved in season two, unless they discover they need a freelance episode. I loved that whole experience [on Game of Thrones].
So is there anything that you think that, you know, viewers need to know about Once Upon a Time?
Yeah. I think that the creativity and magic that you’re going to see in the pilot—and the [movie-quality] production values will carry forward into the series. Often [after the pilot] in the actual series some of that stuff fades away. In this case, it won’t. And when you see in the pilot, the beauty and the complexity, it’s going to continue into the series itself. So, you know, this is one worth watching.
Thank you Jane and good luck with the series!
Once Upon a Time airs Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.