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.
On the writing process for the series:
The process of breaking a story and coming up with a story on this show is very intensive. It involves everyone—obviously, and most importantly, Adam and Eddy. And when we break a story, we talk about it in great detail. And a writer, or the two writers who are going to write it, don’t go off to write an outline until pretty much every scene has been talked through and we’ve had kind of the collected wisdom of the group being able to pitch in on it. Then the writer or writers go off and write an outline. They’ll get notes, and then they’ll write a script, and then they’ll get notes again. But it really is—particularly also because the story is so serialized—it is kind of a group effort at the beginning to try to figure out what’s going to happen there; and because of how it’s going to affect the episodes that go before and obviously the episodes that go after.
On keeping the decidedly non-linear story straight:
There is a giant board on a wall of our office that we use keep track of the timeline, and we will often go out to consult it to try to figure out what slice of the story we’re telling. And more importantly, if we’re telling the Snow and Charming story, and knowing where that story falls in the timeline, it’s really about finding out, well, what was Rumplestiltskin doing at that point in the timeline? If we want to have a run-in with him, is it possible? Was he in the prison in the mines at that point or is he out and about? And all kinds of questions like that. It’s complicated.
On the new series structure of two mini-seasons of 11 episodes each:
Yeah, for sure. I think it allows us to tell a very intense story. It allows us to not have to stretch a story maybe longer than it needs to be stretched, or kind of overstay our welcome in a story. It allows us to tell only the most important sort of exciting parts as opposed to trying to fill things in.
On what we can expect in the coming weeks (no spoilers):
I honestly don’t know what I can tease to you. I mean, what I will say is that the way that Neverland is shaping up, it is a place where really all of our characters, all of the characters that we’ve seen that have come to Neverland, really are going to have to sort of face themselves as much as they have to face Peter Pan. And whether that’s Mr. Gold in this episode or our other characters coming up, Pan really has shaped up as a villain that holds a mirror up to these characters and makes them stare at themselves in the face, and stare at their weakness and stare at their strengths. And so it’s been very gratifying, and a neat way to kind of dig deeper with these characters having them go up against a villain like this.
Goodman has also promised to visit with me again, after his next episode (episode eight), live on my Blogtalk Radio show, Let’s Talk TV Live, which airs Monday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET. Tune in tonight for more on Once Upon a Time. Be sure to follow me on Twitter for the latest on Once Upon a Time and more.