Fox’s Sleepy Hollow (Mondays, 9/8C) is a show that blends Hawthorne, Rip Van Winkle and Revelations within a flexible cop show/semi-procedural format. It’s goofy, weird, scary and oddly compelling in equal measures.
Executive Producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci spoke with members of the press/bloggers earlier this week to tease the series and explain how its unique mix of elements came about.
Hi, guys. Thanks so much for taking the call today. Can you just talk about how you came up with the concept and how the whole thing came together?
Roberto Orci: Sure. Well, a young and very talented man named Phil Iscove, who at the time was an assistant at UTA, came in and said, “You know, I had this idea of doing a modern day Sleepy Hollow and maybe the way to get into modern day is to fuse it with a lot of the ideas in Rip Van Winkle, and, you know, the idea would be that Ichabod Crane was put to sleep in some way and woke up 250 years after the Revolutionary War,” and we said, “Where do we sign up?”
So from that point, we started developing it together over the course of about eight months. When we pitched it to FOX, they jumped on it right away, which was great because that was really our hope; it just felt like the exact right network for the show. They have been wildly supportive since we started and it’s been this kind of wonderful, crazy evolution to where we are now.
Let me preface my question, by saying that I am a really big fan of you guys work. I think that you guys are really the cream of the crop when it comes to producing. I’m wondering, though, what sort of has appealed to you of late about of these sort of nostalgic projects? When you look at a Hawaii Five-O, a Star Trek, a Spider Man, now a Sleepy Hollow, what sort of excites you guys about retelling or reimagining these already sort of popular stories?
Alex Kurtzman: Well, I think one thing is that so many of the stories that interest us tend to be timeless stories. They have existed and continued in different iterations over many generations because they say something enduring about the world that we live in and about who we are. Sleepy Hollow, particularly, was exciting to us because, speaking personally, Halloween is my favorite holiday. My house is basically like a Halloween 365 days a year with my son. And so the idea of getting to live in that kind of world and getting to live in that kind of universe is just sort of delicious conceptually. Bob and I are really excited by the idea of getting to fuse the horror genre with a cop procedural, which is such a staple of television, and bring kind of a new spin to it because we also get to tell much of our story in the past. So, on top of the cases of the week, the solutions to the modern day story is to look to the past, and he idea being that if you don’t learn from the past, you’re doomed to repeat it. So, we get to do flashbacks, we get to tell stories over different centuries and I think anybody who loves genre would feel that delicious prospect.
Yeah. You know, one of the things that I really liked about Fringe was that you guys sort of didn’t just go out and try to find the most famous people you could, as far as casting, but that you took a chance of some new and really talented actors, and it looks like you are doing the same thing here. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about this cast and what appealed to you about them?
Alex: Sure. Bob.
Bob: Because it is kind of a famous short story, but it is a short story with seventeen pages, to answer what you were saying earlier about adapting something, it had never been done modern day, so we came to the conclusion that we wanted you to meet these characters as though you had never met them before and let them take you into this world without any previous association. So it was nice to discover a couple of fresh faces, who have obviously built a fandom of their own, but who are not really as widely recognized in television. When you do that, you really get into their characters in a way that maybe you don’t if you’ve seen them play something else that you were super familiar with before.
In the case of Tom Mison, the idea of, originally we were not necessarily going to go for an English actor, but when we met him and saw him read, we realized that actually in the day of the Revolutionary War many of the folks fighting for revolution and for the independence of this country may have been recently arrived from the U.K. So the idea that this man with an eloquent accent is actually one of the first Americans who fought and almost died for this country was fascinating. The idea of someone with Tom’s intelligence, seeing what the country has become, both in all of its glory and also in some things that maybe are shocking to him from what he was expecting back in the day, just seemed like a very interesting thing. Tom is just; it’s a tricky part. It’s got to have a sense of humor, but it’s got to be smart; he can’t just be going around marveling at every new thing that he sees. He’s got to play his cards close to his vest, so he doesn’t seem like he is totally out of time. He’s trying to fit in and he has the intelligence to do so and so, Tom is great for that.
And, Nicole, you have a really strong woman, who when you are playing a detective, particularly as a woman, you either are going to embrace the fact that it’s kind of a man’s world you are jumping into or you’re going to ignore it. With Nicole, we are able to actually play the complexity of a little bit of an underdog, who is able to keep her own, she’s able to hold her own around her peers, and who, in meeting Ichabod Crane, in Tom Mison, has a sympathy and a connection to a guy who everyone else thinks is crazy because she, herself, has sometimes been an outsider. And yet, she is still able to keep a skepticism and a groundedness that is so key to the show, because the show is attempting to portray some pretty nutty stuff.
And so, Nicole brings an earthy point of view to it that allows you to see the thing through her eyes and enjoy it without letting yourself go nuts and without forgetting that, ok, I want to make sure these things are playing to me correctly or I’m not going to believe them. Nicole plays that beautifully.
Hey, so what do we have to look forward to with this first season as we go forth?
Alex: Well, my goodness, an enormous amount of fun, a lot of scares, a lot of humor. There is really nothing like it on television. You know, we tell our stories in the present and in the past, so the story telling spans over 250 years. Over 2.5 centuries. The other thing is that I think that television is in this remarkable moment right now, like some of the best writing, some of the best acting, some of the best directing is on television. It is really in this renaissance period and I think that one of the shows actually that I loved this year, in the last two years, actually, was Homeland. The thing that I loved about Homeland so much, one of the many things is that every episode could’ve been the finale; every single episode. You get to the end, you’re like, “Oh my God, how, that’s got to be the end of the season,” but it’s only episode two. It kind of set a new standard in the way stories were being told and I think we embraced that fully. So, we have jumped into the deep end of the pool knowing that our premise is sort of one molecule away from insanity at all times, but we are keeping it tethered to a grounded, emotional reality that I think hopefully allows you to buy into it and to really live in the world.
We have a tremendous cast. They certainly make it as credible as you could have ever imagined. The directing has been phenomenal. The show is massive. The line between movies and television is gone these days. It’s just gone. And so when people watch TV, I think they are, particularly in genre shows like this, I think they are hoping for a real cinematic experience and that is what we are intending to deliver to them every week.
I was watching the pilot episode last night and I really enjoyed it, it really keeps you going.
I was wondering, it has a lot of layers and it is very complex, but I don’t think it is quite as complicated as Fringe was. Was that a conscience effort on your part to make it more accessible to the average person who may not want to delve through all of that?
Bob: We want to have an equally rich mythology, but always as we learn more we are always looking for that great line between a show that you can step into at any time and catch up and yet, a full show that you can be rewarded for, for keeping track of it and that builds upon itself. So finding that fine line is one of our ambitions in television, and this is certainly an attempt for us to walk a finer line than perhaps we have. But again, we like rich mythologies and we like things to build, and we like the characters to have an emotional memory, but we are also dealing with a treasured short story. And so some of the elements are familiar to audiences and that allows us to anchor the show in something that audiences may already know about, and so it’s potentially easier to follow without necessarily being less rich or less dense.
Alex: So what that really means is that hopefully viewers will be able to come to an episode, if they have missed one before, and of course they won’t have, because they are going to watch every single episode, but if they have happened to miss the one before it, they are going to be able to catch up very, very quickly. That’s the key is that each episode needs to have a closed-ended story, but as Bob said, the emotional story telling is very serialized; the characters are carrying their experiences and building on their experiences episode to episode. So, look, I think we invite people into our living rooms every week through the television because we have emotional connections to them or they make us laugh or they reflect some part of ourselves that we want to live in, and so the key is to give the audience that experience but also to make sure that they are just not lost in story telling that is so heavily serialized that if you miss an episode, you just can’t catch up to it. So, we are very consciously making sure that each episode is somewhat of a standalone and if there is some serialized element to it, making sure that we reset the things that the audience needs to know at the top of the show, so that they can move forward from there.
You touched on this a little bit earlier when you called the show a horror meets cop procedural, but obviously, since we are talking private time TV, we can’t go too far down the horror road. In looking at the trailer, it seemed like it had kind of a National Treasure meets Time Travel vibe. What would you say the vibe is for the show?
Alex: I think that is fair. We said that there is, first, on the horror scale, there’s kind of a sensationalist, grotesque horror, and there is sort of suspense horror, so we fall more into the suspense horror element of it. But it does have a sense of humor, like some of the best horror has. Definitely has a secret mystery Da Vinci Code/National Treasure aspect to it, in that we are sort of rewriting history, or at the very least seeing what the parallel history of certain events were. One of the trumps that we like to use on the show is to revisit events that we all know; like Paul Revere’s famous riding warning the British are coming or The Boston Tea Party, or you know, the massacre that ignited revolutionary fervor. Revisiting those events and finding out what was happening on the periphery of those things leads to modern day discoveries.
There is an element of the treasure hunter element to it, but then obviously you are also in a race against evil when you’re doing that, and that’s where the horror element comes in. So it’s a complicated soup of many tones and hopefully when it is working, all those tones are harmonizing.
When coming up with the concept for this show and writing for it, I imagine your minds had to go down some crazy and dark places. So, what are some of the darkest places that you guys allowed your imaginations to go to?
Alex: That is an interesting question. Well, it’s interesting, because I think even following up a little bit on the last question that in our minds there is a very big distinction between cable and network in terms of what you can get away with, with violence and horror. Obviously, you can get away with a lot network, but in a weird way it’s almost a distinction between like a straight slasher movie and a psychological horror movie. We’re not aiming to do a slasher movie. And so I think that we always held in balance the line that we did not want to fully cross in terms of horror and violence and going to dark places.
I think that for us the thing that is more interesting than necessarily just dealing with demons or this sort of apocalypse mythology that has become such a part of the show, and that is enormously fun, but is really looking more into more of the dark spaces of the characters and how these demons reflect their own personal demons. The bad guy in any good story telling is always, in some weird way, a mirror for your hero’s journey and a mirror for the challenges that they are facing, and some weird sort of physical externalization of that fear that the character is holding on to that they have to overcome. So, all of our monsters are emerging from that, in terms of what Abbie and Crane have to face in themselves.
I think what you are going to find, over the course of the season, is that they are going to be battling their own personal demons and we are going to be finding out a lot of things about them that you may not know up front and that they may not be telling each other up front. Some of those places are darker, some of those places are lighter, and the fun for the audience is a guessing game of knowing which side is going to emerge.
Awesome. I’m calling on the behalf of my university, so if you could teach a college course, what course do you think you would teach? It could be something out of your creation or something already existing.
Bob: Of anything at all?
Alex: Oh, wow. Bob?
Bob: Well, if I had the credentials, I would teach American History. And to sort of answer your question, it’s easy to overreact to the things we learn in the history books as kids, in that a lot of it is not exactly fully accurate and that a lot of it is somewhat sugarcoated. And so it is easy when you find that out to react and maybe think more darkly about some of the historical things that we’ve been taught. However, the show attempts to revisit some of those events and still have a wonderment to this first American waking up in the modern day and seeing a lot of the great things that have sprung up in 250 years, and a lot of wonderful things about the country that he helped found. So, you have to be fair and balanced, I suppose, but yea, I would teach true American history, I guess.
I was wondering, in the pilot Sleepy Hollow has a kind of small town feel, but the set up shots often show a larger city. What is the setting for Sleepy Hollow and how does that play into the type of cases that Abbie will be investigating or working on?
Alex: Well, I think we wanted to make the town slightly bigger than the actual Sleepy Hollow, in terms of really kind of looking at it from a place of treasure hunting, that there are many, many secrets hidden beneath the surface of this perfect, quiet New England town. We didn’t want to go too small because we would’ve been limited in our options and we didn’t want to go too big because it would’ve felt ultimately really false. So, I think, Bob, what would you say our population is?
Bob: Actually, a biblical number of 144,000, which has some relevance biblically, but the idea is the pilot and the series, you are watching a small town with small town problems become a small town with big city problems.
Bob: So it had to be just the right size to have a familiarity with the habitants with each other, but not everyone knows each other by name. So, it’s between a city and a town.
I got a pair of questions for you, Alex. First of all, when you were looking at Ichabod Crane, one of the two main characters, when we’ve seen Ichabod Crane portrayed on television, films, he’s usually been tall, thin, foppish, and a little cowardly. What were you going through in terms of trying to picture your Ichabod and how did Mison get the role?
Alex: I think, first and foremost, we love, literally, every iteration of Sleepy Hollow, but we didn’t want to do what had come before. The whole reason to do the show for us came in the fact that we were doing a modern day version, even though we have a lot of our storytelling rooted in the past, so that gave us a reason for being. And because those iterations of Ichabod had been done, again, through the filter of how do we do it differently and yet, pay homage to all the things that are so wonderful about the short story, we said, ok, what’s a different version? He is a school teacher, so we did keep that, he was a professor of history, and yet, he fought in the Revolutionary War. So in a weird way, it allowed us to have our cake and eat it too because he is definitely a more robust sort of man of action than he was certainly in the short story.
But, I think you will find that we’ve tried to put a spin on every character that is familiar from the short story – sort of tip of the hat to the thing that you could recognize about them and yet, find ways to make them different as well. It felt like just a more accessible way to play Ichabod now.
This is not the only program you are working on. You’ve also got the program for Robert Rodriguez…. Anything new about that? Can you say anything about where that is at?
Alex: We are in the middle of writing a pilot.
I wanted to find out if maybe you could talk a little bit about shooting the pilot. What sticks out most in your minds about that experience and also what maybe where some of the initial challenges you found bringing your story to life for the small screen?
Alex: The first challenge is that we tend to not think of the small screen as a small screen.
Bob: Yep. Good point.
Alex: We have just tremendous ambition, and that’s why we were lucky to team of up with, once again, Len Wiseman, who has had now experience on both the small screen and the big screen. Just our ambition was the biggest problem because we wanted to make sure that we really set the tone of a cinematic, theatrical experience every week. You see this thing and it looks like a movie and you want to set a template when you produce a pilot that is ambitious, but repeatable visually that it really sets a tone and you are not just pointing the camera anywhere.
Len did a great job of marking some of the signatures of the show like the fact that the way Ichabod Crane looks at the world and it’s unfamiliar, you choose different angles than you would choose if you were shooting a modern person because we all take those things that we have seen for granted. So, almost like the objects are watching him, putting a camera on the car door as it closes on him and having the camera turn upside down whenever we are about to encounter the supernatural, kind of a crossing of thresholds. All these little queues that you might not be able to articulate unless you have such an experienced director to sort of articulate them to you. We were really taking the time to find those moments and to give the show a signature look and style.
Then second to that, we are going for a lot; we have period, we have super natural, we have action, then we have modern day. It’s a big thing to bite off and you don’t want to skimp on any part of it, so you have to do a lot of planning in a short time, which that is one of the things. The small screen may not be the small screen anymore, but it is certainly is a small schedule and that is the thing that you always have to overcome in terms of how many days to get to prep and how many days you get to shoot. You’ve got to really plan it ahead.
You spoke about the pilot story being set in the past, which I think is a really neat idea to mix in with the show, and just a general question, what did you guys enjoy most about writing those scenes, those period pieces and again, bringing them to life, would you say?
Bob: Very fun about writing for period. It’s not something you get to do very often in television. I think that there is such a robust and exciting and complicated back-story in the show. And seeing Ichabod Crane and his wife Katrina and the headless horseman, who may not have always been headless, and all the different characters and what their lives were before modern day – the premise of the show obviously was that there was the Revolutionary War you read about in the history books and then there was another secret war going on the whole time that nobody knew about. Truly, the show could just be that if we wanted it to be, but I think we felt like it was really fun to use it as a touch point to what was happening now and tether the past to the present, so that every time you have to solve a case or murder or kidnapping or a weird anything, the key to it is looking to the past and then the past provides you with these flashbacks. So, it’s difficult, honestly, to decide which is a more fun ritual to write, the past or the present, I think that is what makes it great.
Alex: So let’s talk about the past, you get to be a little bit more literary and just use different words than you’re used to using in modern verbiage. You What’s fun about the past, is that you get to be more a little bit more literary and just use different words than you are used to using in modern verbiage. You kind of put on a different hat and you are able to articulate different things, and you can’t rely on some of the gimmicks of modern storytelling, like a cell phone. People have to look each other in the eye and there’s just a different flavor to the whole thing that is a nice exercise and a nice difference.
You kind of touched on this is a couple of previous questions, but I wanted to get a little bit more specific. We are so used to reboots and modernizations in movies and theatre, but with shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, Elementary and Sleepy Hollow, why do you think there is such an interest in adapting classic stories and characters, specifically on television recently?
Bob: You get to do so much character stuff on television that, that’s the one advantage television has, hands down, over a movie, is that if you have a good basis of characters, then you get to explore them potentially for years. Something you are not afforded in a feature film. So, there’s just a different pace and level of revelation and interactions of characters and development and mythology that you can only get by living with something for awhile.
When you live with it for awhile, and we have a great, talented group of writers that we are working with, you have a bunch of minds kind of sleeping on Sleepy Hollow for all day, sleeping on where the stories are going to go and getting to know it better and better, and we all sort of become more proficient at what the best version of this would be, hopefully in an ideal situation when you have a show that works. So you really get to get into it more like a novel than, say, a comic book, you know, if a movie is a comic book; a television show is a novel.
Really cool. One of the things that really interested me about what I’ve heard of leading up to the show is that Washington Irving’s original story doesn’t exist in your universe. Why did you guys decide to take that step and what has that allowed you to do differently with your storytelling, as opposed to if everyone in your universe had known about Ichbod Crane and the Headless Horseman before?
Alex: Well, I think the easiest answer is that I think we felt it could be a little cute; that oh wow, the Headless Horseman was real and Ichabod Crane, you are this guy. It felt like it weirdly broke a wall for us that we didn’t want to break. It’s almost like it becomes this meta, very self-conscious commentary on the storytelling. And I think our objective is to just make sure the audience loses themselves completely in the reality of this world that we are representing, and it’s definitely a crazy world. So I think our worry was that somehow having it be real was going to make you question the premise. You know? We didn’t ever want the audience to feel that; we wanted them to just forget about it and obviously know that this was this beloved short story that has become such a staple of American literature, but, ultimately, just a jumping off point for our series.
Bob: We are trying to create kind of a very unique hero here. You know, no one tells Spider Man or Batman, “Oh, you’re that Spider Man or Batman from the Stan Lee comic.” You want to experience it as the world and the audience experiences something like that within the movie, and that is to experience this character as he or she comes, for the first time, with no preconceived notions.
Thanks for doing this, guys. I loved the pilot. It felt very seamless, the shifts back and forth in the timelines and everything. But on reflection, the leap to connect Hawthorne and Revelations seems like quite a big one, so how do you jump from Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle to the Four Horseman? What was that process?
Alex: I think the word is “horseman.” The minute you have a headless horseman, that seems like a rather ominous, powerful, and in our minds, became a biblical thing, so when we were imagining what the next chapter of Sleepy Hollow could be, be it a seventeen page short story, like what if were to extrapolate this, and not only in what happened in the past, but into this idea that came to us of him waking up in the future, we thought of, what if the Headless Horseman got a little more connected than you ever imagined. Actually, he is only one of four horsemen, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and it was through the connection of the antagonist of the original short story that we thought maybe that’s the larger mythology that the original short story could have been embedded in and we kind of ran with it from there.
Bob: I think in an effort to say we’re going to pay homage to these beloved characters, but also add our own spin on them so that they feel fresh, so the audience is getting a different experience, led us to really asking questions about how we were going to present these people. So whereas Ichabod Crane obviously is described as a very bookish schoolteacher in the short story, the truth is that we’ve seen that version already many, many times. Obviously, Johnny Depp played his own version of that in the movie. So we said, okay, how do we obviously tip our hats to the short story? Well, we made him a professor at Oxford.
In the past – and we sort of put it through the same filter with the horseman. The truth is, he is really only described as a spectrum who haunts the woods in the short story, and what was interesting is also that he is described as having lost his head from a cannonball. That led us to thinking about the war, and that led us to thinking about the premise of a secret war going on underneath it, and one day we were just sitting in a room and someone said, “Well, what if he was one of the Four Horsemen from the Apocalypse?” And it really felt, like oh my God, that’s absolutely what you don’t expect, but somehow it was that Lego click you always look for that feels exactly right and it fits.
Alex: And that allows the show not to be every week, the horseman is chasing Ichabod Crane. It enters you into the world’s myths and the world’s religions, and the cast of characters that populate these myths as being on one side of good and evil, and sort of saying that all world’s religions are potentially a loving shadow of the truth of a one world religion, that kind of thing. It just led us to just a lot of rich, we are going to be able to explore lots of different cultural myths through this and not have it just be the horseman of the apocalypse every week.
Photos by Michael Lavine and Brownie Harris/Courtesy of Fox