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Reinventing Fairy Tales: An Interview with Once Upon a Time‘s Jane Espenson

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Jane Espenson is well known to fans of the science fiction and fantasy television genre. A 20-year veteran television writer and producer, she has written for some of the best, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Torchwood. She is also the co-creator and executive producer of Husbands, viewable at http://husbandstheseries.com. Currently Ms. Espenson is a writer/producer for the new hit series Once Upon a Time, which airs Sunday nights on ABC.

She wrote the recently aired, “A Still Small Voice,” which explores Jiminy Cricket’s (Raphael Sbarge) backstory, and she’s also written the upcoming “Desperate Souls.” I last interviewed Ms. Espenson just before the series premiered back in October, and she was kind enough to chat with me again, in advance of her latest episode, airing just after the show comes out of its brief winter hiatus.

I’m really excited to see your next episode, which, I understand reveals more about Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle).

Episode 8 is called “Desperate Souls,” and it does reveal more about Rumple.  Lots more.  You’ll learn about where he comes from and what drives him.  It’s also got a fun Storybrooke story where we see more of how Emma is going to fit into this wonderful insular strange little town.

In “That Still, Small Voice” we got a glimpse of Rumpelstiltskin (I have to find an easier-to-spell nickname for him) in his home. I think you learn an awful lot about a character by his (or her artifacts) and I love that the character is surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. What sorts of books are on those shelves, I wonder?

Try “Rumple.” And yes, he has lots of books.  Full of spells and secrets, and, I would guess, a lot of names.  This is man to whom names are very important.  Even more than to Santa.

In “Still Small Voice,” Geppetto’s parents (rather, the carved puppets they became) are sitting in Mr. Gold’s pawn shop. There are, in fact, lots of interesting looking items in there, do most of those items have potential significance in future stories? Is the pawn shop a hotbed of clues?

Well, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s there.  Sometimes it’ll be a nod to something you saw in the pilot (like the glass unicorns from baby Emma’s mobile) and sometimes you will see something that will be important later.  Our show has an amazing production design team that’s great at keeping track of things like mystical objects, whether we indicate them in the script or not.

I read a poll the other day on some fansite, and interestingly Rumpelstiltskin was far in the lead as favorite character. He’s certainly my favorite character, but I’m not sure why that is. I don’t usually find myself drawn to “villains,” but is Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold a real villain? After all, he did bring Henry to Storybrooke (and helped Snow White and the Prince save their baby).

We are fortunate to have two amazing villains in The Evil Queen/Regina and Rumple.  And I really love how both of them can justify their own actions.  Regina has a yet-to-be-revealed beef against Snow, and you’re going to learn a lot more about the source of Rumple’s dark energy soon.  And, yes, you’re onto something.  Rumple’s agenda is very complex.  Look not just to episode 8, but to episode 12 and beyond to learn more about it.  You’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s evil or not.

You probably won’t tell me, but I have to ask: how much does Mr. Gold actually know about the curse?

Regina retains all her memories.  Mr. Gold certainly seems to know something, but we won’t be telling you more than that for a while.

As That Still Small Voice unfolded, Jiminy eventually found his real voice, perhaps his true self. Would that have happened had Emma not come to Storybrooke? Is this sort of self-discovery part of the curse’s unraveling, like a small piece of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle put into place?

If Emma had not come to Storybrooke, the town would have continued in its “frozen” state of repeated non-progress.  Henry had presumably tried to change things without much success.  Emma’s arrival is changing everything, and so, yes, Archie’s change was only possible because she was there.

The series is a big hit, ABC’s success story of the season. Is there a concern at all about revealing too much too soon about the characters or the overall story? Is there an overall narrative arc all planned out to bring the series to an eventual like a novel?

We have a lot of stuff worked out in advance.  I like the way our showrunners Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz are making sure these characters are complex enough that we can keep going back into their stories and finding new rich episodes within them.

We have so far been introduced to Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jiminy Cricket, Rumpelstiltskin the Dwarves, Geppetto, Evil Queen, Maleficent, Little Red Riding Hood…Is this the core of fairy tale characters, or are are more on the horizon? Who else will we meet from Fairy Tale Land?

There are MORE!  Belle, Hansel & Gretel, and more.

Does the premise that these characters all inhabit same universe make your imagination run wild with ideas for how to create intriguing mash-ups and pairings? Which of the characters (who wouldn’t ordinarily be in the same story) would you like to write (or plan on writing) into encounters either as allies or enemies?

Oh, yes, you’ve seized on something important there.  We LOVE to cross these characters into each others’ stories.  So I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the Evil Queen was involved in a story like Hansel and Gretel, for example.  And we’ve recently learned that Jiminy became a cricket very early in our Fairy Tale timeline – he was around all those years while Geppetto aged.  Where was he during those years?  Who did he help?

I have to admit that the one thing that I’m not crazy about is that the Fairy Tale Characters all look like they’ve broken the fourth wall of their respective Disney animated films. I realize that ABC is owned by Disney, but what’s the reasoning behind making that Disney connection?

Really?  I love that!  I love it when characters are recognizable – that jolt of recognition.  If we’re telling a totally new take on Cinderella, and the Cinderella in our land not only is doing different things than Cinderella, and doesn’t look like or dress like Cinderella, then at a certain point it’s kind of meaningless to say it’s Cinderella.   And I adore that we can write for characters like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, who isn’t part of the original story, but is an all-time favorite of mine.  Being part of Disney gives us that opportunity that no one else would ever have – I think that makes us very lucky.  And I’m so happy with the amount of access that we’re being given to those characters… oh, and the music.  When you hear our Grumpy whistle “heigh-ho,” it’s like… shivers!

Can you take me through the creative process on the series? How does it compare, say with Buffy or (more recently) working on Torchwood?

Torchwood was a very different process from everything else, since it functioned as a sort of hybrid version of the UK system – less room time, more one-on-one with the showrunner.  Once is more similar to Buffy – we work in a writers’ room figuring out the story, and then we take turns writing complete drafts that are then polished by Eddy and Adam.  And, also like Buffy, we’re being allowed to make the show that the guys envisioned.  It’s a very smooth and very productive process.

Does the fact that Once Upon a Time is on one of the “big three” networks (not to mention for Disney, ultimately) have an impact on any phase of the creative process for you?

Well, the budget’s bigger, so the show looks amazing – I can’t believe how gorgeous the dailies look.  And we get eight days to shoot each episode, which also helps it look rich and full.  But the biggest difference is just in public awareness.  It’s nice to be able to say the name of the show and have people recognize it.  That didn’t happen even at Buffy or Battlestar as much as you’d hope.

With Once Upon a Time being shot in Vancouver and you’re being based in LA, do you get a chance to be on set during filming of your episodes?

No.  Eddy and Adam go up fairly often, but the rest of us stay in Burbank.  There is always something going on in the writers’ room, so it’s probably good that we’re all in town, available to start work on figuring out that next story. 

It’s fairly early in the series, but what do the actors bring to the process—do you write to their strengths? What is their input in the creative process, especially with the very established actors with which the show is blessed?

Our cast includes Ginny Goodwin, Jennifer Morrison, Lana Perilla, Robert Carlyle… how do you write to strengths where there aren’t weaknesses?  We really can give this cast anything and they’ll make it sing.  I have the impression that they’re happy with the collaboration between writing and acting.  I know we are!

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about fandoms, social media and their effect on television series. Twitter (and to a lesser degree, Facebook) has opened up a conversation between fans and the series. For example, Once Upon a Time has used Twitter to directly connect the actors with fans via Twitter chats during episode broadcasts, which is great. It makes actors, writers, producers much more accessible to fans, also presenting the series creative team with immediate (and unfiltered) feedback—some constructive and nice, and some downright nasty. How do you think Twitter changed the nature of the relationship between a series and its fandom? Will we see (in general) more of this kind of interaction or is there a downside, do you think?

I have had only positive Twitter interactions with Once fans.  (Follow me at @JaneEspenson.) They seem to love the show and they’re asking all the right questions.   I think there is a danger (not at Once, but in general) that we might start trying to cater to the viewers and writing to order instead of coming up with a story from our own hearts.  I think the second course of action is more likely to lead to something truly inspired.

 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Lisa

    Barbara, Thanks for another great interview with Jane Esperson. I love Jane and the show.

  • Sharon

    Nice interview. I’m really enjoying Robert Carlyle and Lana Parilla, and am happy to hear we’ll see more of the Rumple/Gold story.

  • Pat Gorman

    Love the show. Just love it.

  • http://barbarabarnett.com Barbara Barnett

    Thanks guys! “Desperate Souls” will be a fantastic entry–I can feel it in my bones :)

  • Michelle

    Great interview. Awesome show. Best Drama on tv. Good writing,and storytelling. The ratings say it all.

  • Brighid45

    Thanks for the interview Barbara. As long as the writers continue to write from their hearts as much as possible, I’ll continue to watch. :)