On the Set: Once Upon a Time Finds Magic in the Real Storybrooke

TV Guide

On Once Upon a Time's main street in Storybrooke, resident evil queen Regina sits in her car, peering into her side mirror with tears streaming down her face. The mirror's reflection shows Emma breaking bad news to Henry - someone has been murdered in Storybrooke, and all signs point to Regina as the culprit. As Regina realizes she's likely lost Henry forever and more tears fall, the director yells, "Cut!" With only a minute or two to spare before the scene resets, Lana Parrilla dries her face, peers up in the air in an attempt to stop crying before reapplying more makeup. It's time to do the scene again, and this time, it draws even more local looky-loos. That's because the Storybrooke set of ABC's fairy tale drama isn't closed to the public, but a real working street in Steveston, a town just south of Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.

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Filming in Steveston is both a blessing and a, ahem, curse. On the one hand, "All the world's a stage" takes on new meaning as the cast is literally acting live in front of adoring fans. On the other hand, those same fans are quick to snap a spoilery photo that will surely wind up on the internet. On this late October day, cast members Jennifer Morrison, Ginnifer Goodwin and Josh Dallas are filming this Sunday's midseason return (airing 8/7c on ABC), picking up shortly after the Charming family reunion, a major spoiler fans didn't learn about until the Dec. 2 winter finale.

"That does bum me out because I just feel like for me, as an audience member when I'm watching other shows, I don't want to know those things ahead of time. I enjoy the surprise of it," Morrison laments, noting that there's a different level of acting when in Storybrooke. "You're always on display. It's an interesting thing as an actor. What you aim for is to not be self-conscious and what it creates is a tremendous self-consciousness. It's a new challenge to find a way to do the best work you possibly can under those circumstances."

On the flip side, Goodwin says, "It's a good problem to have," since the attention means the fans are passionate about the series. "When we first came back in the summer, when school was out, we'd come up and literally there'd be 200 or 300 people here coming throughout the day just standing around watching." Dallas adds. "It became street theater. It's great and it just means, obviously, we're onto a good thing. I'm just glad that people are interested and want to come and watch."

No one is more sensitive about spoilers than Parrilla, who's had several spoilery scenes on the streets of Steveston this season. "I had that moment with Daniel [Noah Bean], when he stepped out in his fairy tale land clothes for that scene when he's on the corner," Parrilla says. "I stepped out and I went, 'Oh my God! What are you doing? You need to put a jacket on! We need to put a hood on him!' I freaked the f--- out. Everyone was like, 'Lana, calm down. Maybe it's a nightmare.' Oh right, that makes sense. But I panicked. I really do hate spoilers and I try to protect it as much as possible. It's not necessarily a bad thing. People aren't going to stop watching. They're going to tune in just as much because they'll want to see it."

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And that's exactly how the co-creators of the series feel when they experienced the plight of filming in Storybrooke firsthand.  "It's funny because obviously when we shot the pilot and the first part of Season 1, there's your normal looky-loos because you're filming, but when we came up for the finale, we were really concerned because it was the scene where Snow and Charming realize who they are when the curse broke and they run to each other," Edward Kitsis says. "We thought it would get out. Oddly, the truth is, it always gets out. Even on Lost, everything got out. There's not much you can do. You're worried and yet, at the same time, you're inspired."

"As far as spoilers go and the fans that are watching on set and leaking stuff, we're so appreciative of the interest," adds Adam Horowitz. "We know those who want to find out will, and those who don't, won't. Even those who want to find out are going to watch anyway to see how we do it."

Back in Storybrooke, bad news has struck as a beloved fairy tale character - whose identity you can learn in this video - has apparently died at Regina's hands. Unfortunate on many levels, obviously, but none more so than marring the long-awaited reunion of Snow and Charming, whose time together was short-lived in the Season 2 premiere.

"This will be the first time that they've been together in 28 years in their new amalgamated versions of themselves," Goodwin says. "There are new obstacles, but one of those is not that they are going to be immediately separated again. We're going to start to reexamine their relationship and figure out who they are now that they are a mix of these characters and they are going to be focusing mostly on what it is to be parents."

Finding out what it's like to be a parent will also be a challenge for Emma. "I think she's always going to be a little unsure of herself," Morrison says from a cold street corner in Storybrooke, with Emma's sheriff's badge strapped back on her hip - Emma and her father will act as a lawful tag team when the show returns. "She knows that ultimately, as long as she's there for him and she's supportive, she's not going to be perfect and she will make mistakes, but at least he will know that he's loved."

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Meanwhile, her TV son, Jared Gilmore, is as inquisitive as his Once counterpart. Gilmore walks down Storybrooke's main street, heading for the only building actually owned by the show, Mr. Gold's Pawn Shop, which always stands "dressed" with an array of props ranging from boxing gloves and a fencer's mask to little toy robots, musical instruments, bikes, bird cages and a canoe - possibly an indication of people, places and things we may see in the future. Unfortunately, Mr. Gold's pawn shop - which will later be used in a sweet Belle (Emilie de Ravin) and Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle) scene that's interrupted by Emma, Snow and Charming - is currently locked. "I have an idea," Gilmore says, jokingly prepping to kick down the front door.

"I have a lot of favorite stuff in here," says Gilmore from inside Mr. Gold's. (He snuck in the back door!) "I like all the robots and then I like that little cannon, the telescope and samurai swords. Then there's this really cool rifle back there. Whenever I shoot in here, I can't help but touch everything I see."

Gilmore's Henry won't be happy for long considering his adoptive grandmother, Cora (Barbara Hershey) has come to Storybrooke alongside Captain Hook (Colin O'Donoghue). "She's a shape shifter and therefore a bigger threat, I think, than some of our other villains have been," Goodwin notes. "Magic is here and magic works differently than it worked anywhere else. It's not just that we have Cora and Hook here, it's that waiting here are Rumplestiltskin and Regina, who do have a different version of their magical powers back, but they do have something and they were willing to do anything to keep Cora and Hook from coming here."

"We've clearly established that Cora is incredibly powerful," Morrison adds. "I don't think any of us have really dealt with the depths of her darkness. To have that suddenly enter humanity is definitely going to be interesting to watch and see what comes of all that."

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Back on the road, Storybrooke's library is still boarded up, with newspaper on the window. Earlier, the production team went through added signs throughout the street, including Storybrooke dental, Storybrooke hardware and Storybrooke bakery, though the latter's owner likes to keep the sign up all the time, hoping to attract fans of the show in for warm bread. Just around the corner stands The Buck & Ear, which sounds like a place Captain Hook would frequent - but it's actually a real bar and grille not used in the series... yet!

When scenes begin shooting, a production assistant politely asks people not to cross into frame, while down the street a cop diverts traffic away from the seemingly quiet, yet bustling town as the crew waits for a helicopter to fly over before commencing. Parrilla still sits nearby in the car between takes, with fans looking in.

"I see these people watching me," she says. "It doesn't bother me. I have a gift. I work hard. They've come to watch, and I'm going to give them the gift. It is like theater. That's what I loved about theater is you feel the energy of the people and they do feed your soul and they do change how you're going to say the next line because the energy is ever-present. You can't deny that. It's funny because I looked at all of them after the first or second take and I smiled and I let them in instead of pushing them away and it made my performance richer, I think."

Parrilla has dealt with quite a few emotional scenes recently, most notably when Emma and Snow returned. "It's a double-edged sword," Parrilla says of the event. "It's like, 'I wish I could have just f---ing left them there because it would have made things a little bit easier.' She is thisclose to getting rid of both of them and David and Cora and just wiping them out completely. But then what is she left with? Henry, who would hate her. At the end of the day, I go, 'What makes this boy so special?' Look at what he's done. She just wants to be accepted and loved by him. And she still loses him."

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Surely there will be more of those emotional moments ahead with the arrival of her mother. "I think there are going to be moments when she does kind of revert back to being that little girl," Parrilla says of Regina eventually crossing paths with Cora. "It's now the adult knowing how f---ed up her mother really is and how she's f---ed her up. And then there's going to be moments of the Evil Queen. "

And the Evil Queen may have already reared her ugly head, possibly claiming the life of yet another fairy tale character. "I think it makes the series, ultimately, far more compelling because it just means no one's safe," Dallas says from across the road, jumping around in the below 50-degree weather to get warm and taking a moment to soak in the sun that filters in between the brick buildings. "That's another great thing about our storytelling. Just because someone's gone doesn't mean that we can't ever revisit them again. So he may be gone, but maybe not forever."

Adds Dallas' on-screen and real-life love, Goodwin: "It's important to keep the stakes high in that way and realize that though in theory we are immortal in that we are sort of ageless, we all have Achilles heels and there are ways to off us. I think it's really important that they keep reminding the audience that there are really dire consequences to magic."

Once Upon a Time returns Sunday at 8/7c on ABC.

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