Fringe creators share the origins of their time-bending series Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow

Those Fringe guys, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, are at it again. Yes, they've developed a new Fox series, Sleepy Hollow, which they've reimagined from Washington Irving's classic short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and they promise it's just “one molecule away from insanity.” Sleepy Hollow premieres tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. ET.

“Well, my goodness, [it's] an enormous amount of fun, a lot of scares, a lot of humor. There is really nothing like it on television,” said Kurtzman, during a press call with Orci. “We tell our stories in the present and in the past, so the storytelling spans over 250 years.”

The series follows Ichabod Crane as he wakes up to find himself and his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, and let's just say that the Horseman has a chip on his shoulder. When the Headless One takes out someone important, Ichabod teams up with a local cop named Abbie Mills. It turns out his knowledge of the “real” American history comes in handy in hunting down clues to what's really going on, which has something to do with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The series stars Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills, Orlando Jones, Clancy Brown, John Cho, Katia Winter and Richard Cetrone as the Headless Horseman.

“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,” said Kurtzman.

The concept for the series was brought to them by Phil Iscove, an assistant at UTA, as a modern day Sleepy Hollow infused “with a lot of the ideas in Rip Van Winkle,” said Orci. The executive producers and co-creators mixed in a little National Treasure, the TV show Homeland (yes! Homeland!), along with more than a little biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse action. They also brought Underworld's Len Wiseman aboard to direct the pilot and help with the show's development.

Sleepy Hollow

While the original short story was just 17 pages, they imagined what the next chapter of Sleepy Hollow could be. “Like what if we 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,” said Kurtzman.

“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. [That] 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,” said Orci.

“We put it through the same filter with the Horseman. The truth is, he is really only described as a specter 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,” he said.

“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 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 [ideas]. 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,” said Kurtzman.

We want to have an equally rich mythology [to Fringe], but 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,” said Orci.

Kurtzman, who along with Orci has brought us not only Fringe, but new incarnations of Star Trek and Spider-Man, are excited by the idea of “getting to fuse the horror genre with a cop procedural, which is such a staple of television, and bring 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 the 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,” he added.

So they are 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 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,” said Kurtzman.

“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,” he said.

“I think that there is such a robust and exciting and complicated backstory 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,” said Orci.

“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 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 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,” said Kurtzman.

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