David H. Goodman met Once Upon a Time creators Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis on the CW series Birds of Prey. Goodman was a staff writer at the time, and Horowitz and Kitsis were producers. “After that show went away, we went our separate ways. They went off to Lost and I went to, among other things, including a TV show called Without a Trace, where I was for five seasons.
Reading the pilot script for Once Upon a Time, he was “just sort of floored by the fact that it was, without question, the most interesting pilot that was being produced that year; and it was probably one of the most interesting pilots that had been produced in many years, just in terms of being sort of inventive and interesting.” He immediately wanted to be part of it, even more so after watching the pilot executed on screen. “And then, after I watched, I walked into their office and I said, “You’ve got to—please give me a job.”
Goodman spoke with me by phone last Friday to talk about his latest episode, “Nasty Habits,” which aired last night and what it is like to write for the successful ABC series. His comments on “Nasty Habits” are found in my commentary for the episode. But since our conversation went well beyond the episode, I wanted to share with my readers his thoughts on all other things Once:
On the enjoyment of writing for a show like Once Upon a Time:
It is as much fun as you can possibly have. I mean, we have every paint color you could want to paint with; in terms of creating stories here, we have it. We have magic. We have stories that everyone knows. We can give a story everyone knows a new take. We have dragons; we have swords. We have, maidens and knights, and maidens who act like knights. It is really a sort of limitless world, and just it’s been a lot of fun.
The bad guys are always lots of fun [to write]. And they’re so fun on this show because, to be honest, they get to do all the awful things that bad guys do; but unlike on a lot of other shows, they get to do many of the heroic things that typically just usually heroes on the show get to do. These villains are so well crafted. And I have done a bunch of Rumplestiltskin episodes and a bunch of Evil Queen episodes, and the spectrum of stuff you get to do with them, from the downright evil to the redemptive good, is really fun.
On surprises encountered in writing the show over its more than two seasons:
What I was surprised with, and I think we all were, was how quickly the show changed. I mean, the curse being broken at the end of the first season. A lot of shows would go five years without doing that. And would be terrified to do it. Adam and Eddy weren’t afraid to reinvent the show after one season. And then, even at the end of season two, going to Neverland and reinventing the show again. So, for sure, that was something that surprised me.
I also have to say, first season, I was amazed [by Emma’s story arc]. I always thought that [she] would have to believe very quickly, in terms of what Henry was trying to tell her, and that she would really have to interface with the idea that the audience was interfacing with: the fact that fairytales are real, and that if she didn’t believe quickly, the audience would be alienated. But the guys were really insistent on making that journey of her belief feel earned. And we went 22 episodes. And when she believed at the very end, it was such a satisfying journey because it did feel so earned, and the audience was along for the ride the whole time. So I’m surprised every day.
On keeping the “good” characters interesting:
I think the way you keep them interesting is you have them struggle with the cost of being good. You have them flirt with the idea of compromising who they are and doing things the easy way, which may have a price that they aren’t willing to take. And you play around with that. The perfect example that I know well, because I had a hand in writing it, was the season two episode where Snow is grappling with the decision of should they or should they not execute the Evil Queen. I think what’s so interesting about the story is, for the audience, seeing this story being told. It’s a flashback that sits in between other flashbacks that we’ve seen. We can understand that if she’d gone through and executed her, a lot of bad stuff that they know happens afterwards would have been prevented, so they know the cost of her making that decision to not do that is. But she’s really dealing with the emotional struggle of doing a bad thing potentially for a good reason, and feeling that fight and that struggle. And in that episode, she makes the right decision. In other episodes, we’ve seen her make mistakes, for example, being successfully used by Mr. Gold in order to bring about Cora’s demise and the kind of price that took on her. The journey she had to kind of take to get out of that.