BWW Interviews: SLEEPY HOLLOW Creators On Why Headless Horseman Is a Sign of Apocalypse
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A modern-day twist on Washington Irving's classic, Sleepy Hollow follows ICHABOD CRANE (Tom Mison, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen"), who is resurrected and pulled two and a half centuries through time to unravel a mystery that dates all the way back to the founding fathers. To save the enigmatic town of Sleepy Hollow - and the world - from unprecedented evil, Ichabod pairs up with Det. ABBIE MILLS (Nicole Beharie, "Shame," American Violet"), a young cop whose own upernatural experiences help the two form an unlikely bond.
Heading into the Monday, September 16 9:00 PM ET premiere on FOX, BroadwayWorld participated in a discussion with series creators and Executive Producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.
Most recently, the two produced the feature films NOW YOU SEE ME and STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS which they also co-wrote. The duo also produced the feature film ENDER'S GAME, which will be released in November. They are currently in production on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, which they co-wrote and executive-produce. As writers, Kurtzman and Orci are responsible for some of the decade's biggest films, including STAR TREK, TRANSFORMERS, EAGLE EYE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III. They also executive-produced the romantic comedy hit "The Proposal." Their writing and producing credits have earned more than $3 billion worldwide.
The duo co-wrote and produced PEOPLE LIKE US, which marked Kurtzman's directorial debut. They created and executive-produced the hit FOX show FRINGE, which ended its five-season run in 2013. Their current television slate includes HAWAII FIVE-0 and TRANSFORMERS: PRIME an original computer-animated series.
This conversation does include spoilers about the Series Premiere, so read at your own risk!
Can you talk about how you came up with the concept for Sleepy Hollow and how the show came together?
R.O.: 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.
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?
A.K.: 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 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.
One of the things that I really liked about Fringe was that you didn't go out and try to find the most famous people you could, but you took a chance of some new and really talented actors, and it looks like you are doing the same thing here. Can you talk a little bit about this cast and what appealed to you about them?
R.O.: 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 (Ichabod Crane), 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. 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.
Earlier, you mentioned the show combines horror and a police procedural, is that how you would describe the vibe of the show?
A.K.: First, on the horror scale, there's kind of a sensationalist, grotesque horror, and then 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.
How does the setting of Sleepy Hollow play into the type of cases that Abbie will be investigating or working on?
A.K.: 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.
R.O.: Our population is actually, a biblical number of 144,000, which has some relevance biblically, but the idea in the pilot and the series, you are watching a small town with small town problems become a small town with big city problems. 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.
When you were looking at Ichabod Crane, we've seen him portrayed on television, films, as 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?
A.K.: 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.
We are so used to reboots and modernizations in movies and theatre, but with shows like Grimm and ONCE UPON A TIME, Elementary and now SLEEPY HOLLOW, why do you think there is such an interest in adapting classic stories and characters, specifically on television recently?
R.O.: 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.
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?
A.K.: 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-conscience 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.
R.O.: 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.
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?
A.K.: 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 horseman, 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.
R.O.: 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.
A.K.: 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.