Sleepy Hollow might be our favorite new pilot airing this fall, thanks to a note-perfect cast, some really funny writing and some edge-of-your seat scares. But how will this show distinguish itself from Tim Burton's iconic movie? And what's next for these characters? We talked to the show's creators and star, to find out.
We were lucky enough to have exclusive interviews with the creators of Sleepy Hollow: Len Wiseman, the show's producer and director of the pilot, and writer/producer Roberto Orci. We also talked to showrunner Mark Goffman and star Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod Crane, at Comic-Con.
Warning: Minor spoilers ahead...
The Tim Burton thing
When you hear the words "Sleepy Hollow," you probably think of Tim Burton's 1999 movie. "It's something that we all associate with Sleepy Hollow," admits Wiseman. "It's a hard thing" to differentiate yourself from. "I love Tim Burton's movie, as well. I love the visuals that come along with it. But I think we've carved out our own voice for it."
But he was attracted to the idea of trying to find a new take on this story and get back to its roots. "In the original Washington Irving story, the origin of Headless — he's created in a battle of the Revolutionary War, which is something that we were able to depict in ours. There's a battle scene." Wiseman feels like they've put a modern stamp on the Sleepy Hollow mythos, that's different enough from Burton's take.
Having fun with the material
This is a show about Ichabod Crane waking up 200-odd years later and fighting the Headless Horseman (and probably other monsters) in 21st-century America. So it probably couldn't get away with taking itself too seriously — but it doesn't even try. We asked what inspired this tongue-in-cheek tone, and if they ever tried to dial it back.
"You're dealing with a character without a head," says director Len Wiseman. "So you're already in an environment where you can't take yourself too seriously, and it's already set the stage for that."
"I think it's important that there's humor in a show like this," says Mison. "If it was really earnest, I don't think it would work. It's nice that the characters are in completely real situations where they're scared and they're trying to work out what's happening — but the show as a whole, the show gets the joke, even if the characters are completely serious. Which is a nice balance. And you don't see too many shows that are like that. Firefly was like that, but at the moment I can't think of many others."
But what really helps to ground the show, says Wiseman, is the main character, the police officer Abbie Mills, who "feels very real to me." Having a believable character like Abbie "gives us the freedom to be more outrageous with the things that are outrageous because I do believe that she grounds it."
"And she's responding to all the stuff that is outrageous," Wiseman adds. "As long as there is somebody within the show that feels grounded and is going, 'This stuff is fucking crazy,' then you're allowed to sit back and say 'Yeah, it is crazy.'" Because that element is being acknowledged within the show.
"We were inspired by what Len did on Underworld, where he modernized a lot of the old tropes of werewolves and vampires in a way that — if you just read it on paper, you'd say, 'I don't know about this' — but then he modernized it in a way that was so real and visceral. And that's why he was perfect for this. How do you do the Headless Horseman today? You know. And if the Headless Horseman is running around today, you might say, 'Well, do I believe that?' But then when you see what he did with that and the style of it, you go, 'Oh my god, that's so scary and so exciting.' Len was perfect for that. And so yes, we were worried about it. We were going, 'How do you do this?' And Len had great ideas about that."
"The nice thing about the pilot," adds Mison, is that "Bob and Alex [Kurtzman] and Len just tore up all the rules." The result is a show that can go anywhere your imagination takes you."
The Ichabod-Abbie relationship
One of the most fun things about this show is the relationship between Mison's Ichabod Crane and the tough cop, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie).
During the pilot, Abbie takes a lot of risks for Ichabod, including disobeying orders, because she believes he knows something about what's going on with the Headless Horseman. "She saw some weird stuff when she was little," notes Orci. So when Ichabod shows up and seems connected to that, it's like, "Maybe this guy is the validation of things I've denied my whole life." And she sees a chance to answer her "childhood riddle."
But we'll see her continuing to struggle with whether she wants to go down this road, in future episodes. She has to keep walking that line, says Orci.
"Because it's an unlikely duo [working] together, that's been a lot of fun for us," says Wiseman. "I love working with a 'Man from out of time' story, but this is a 'Man from out of time' story where he happens to know a lot more than we do. So he's a fish out of water, but also he has knowledge that we need, because he's from that time period."
How about an Ichabod-Abbie romance? "Nicole and I were discussing this earlier," says Mison. "If something happens with Abbie and Ichabod, is it Ichabod cheating when his wife's been dead for 250 years? It's kind of blurry. The rules are blurry. So we'll see what happens."
Ichabod is focused on "trying to survive in the 21st century," says Mison. And he's also trying to "get his witch-wife out of Purgatory," which he thinks will make for "great television."
Mison says that Ichabod will probably try and pretend to be more comfortable with 21st century technology than he actually is, "just because of his pride and arrogance. He doesn't want people to see that he's a Luddite and doesn't understand technology. So he's pretending that does more than he actually does." And hopefully within a few episodes, Ichabod will have an iPod and some big Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, and he'll be walking around listening to Lady Gaga. "I can't wait," Mison laughs.
How is this show going to play out over several seasons?
The show can't just be the Headless Horseman trying to get his head back every week — so how will the storyline play out? "Evil has a plan," teases showrunner Mark Goffman. "It has to happen over time. The initial Revolutionary War took six years, from 1776 to about 1782. It's started again, 250 years later. The Great Experiment is about to end. And I think that's going to play out over a period of years. It can't just happen immediately."
We asked Goffman whether it'll be a "monster of the week" type thing, or just the Headless Horseman trying different evil schemes every week. "We don't think of it that way," he responds. "We're telling a story about Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills and their adventure as witnesses in this incredible world."
"There are different monsters, there are different villains — but not every week," says Wiseman. "It's all under the umbrella of a bigger plan." Wiseman says he's really glad that "there's a bigger plan for what all this is heading towards, and what those villains are actually planning." He wants to have the fun of introducing different villains and monsters, "but if it's not all driving towards something, I would personally get bored with that."
How is this different from Fringe?
Orci co-created Fringe, a show about a no-nonsense female protagonist who teams up with a weirdo who seems to be connected to strange things that happened to her when she was a little girl. All of those things are true of Sleepy Hollow as well — so how is this show different?
"I think it's just Fringe without heads," jokes Wiseman. "I was reading [the script] and I kept saying, 'Bob, this is Fringe without heads.'"
On paper, this show might sound a bit like Fringe, but when you see it, you'll see that it's "quite its own unique thing," says Orci. In particular, instead of weird science, this show will be delving into the world's religions and mythologies, with a lot of supernatural weirdness.
Len Wiseman is putting his stamp on this show
Usually, when a big-time movie director like Wiseman directs the pilot of a new series, he leaves afterwards and is never involved again. But Orci says that Wiseman is a fully fledged co-creator of Sleepy Hollow. "Len has been there from the beginning, and he's there for the duration," says Orci.
"When you see the pilot, you'll see that there's visual cues in the series that [Wiseman] originated, that are going to be part of the show going forward. And so we're really lucky to have a movie director making our show look like a movie every week. And he's around, he's not going anywhere. We can't get rid of him, frankly."
Wiseman says this show is "the kind of thing that I would just love to watch as a fan." This business can get so stressful and political that it stops being fun — but Sleepy Hollow has just been a rare experience of pure fun, says Wiseman.