Fox’s Sleepy Hollow: Westchester’s New Starring Role

Speaking with co-creator Phillip Iscove about his new show, which premieres on September 16

If you were to drop off Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow today, chances are he wouldn’t recognize his hometown. Then again, if you were to introduce Washington Irving to the Ichabod Crane in Fox’s new primetime drama Sleepy Hollow, Irving might raise an eyebrow about what’s become of his creation, too. In the show, Revolutionary War hero Crane (Tom Mison) is revived in a modern-day Sleepy Hollow to help a local detective, Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), investigate supernatural goings-on—which might involve a certain Headless Horseman. If that isn’t fantastic enough, witches, Freemasons, the secret history of the United States, and the Book of Revelation are thrown in for good measure. We spoke with Phillip Iscove, the show’s co-creator and co-producer, and Aaron Baiers, manager of Television Development for production company K/O Paper Products, about reinterpreting Washington Irving for a new age. 

Phillip, the series was based on your idea. What attracted you to the Sleepy Hollow story? 
PI: It stemmed from a couple things. I really enjoyed the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow movie that came out in 1999—I just loved the look and the feel of it—and shortly after, I read the Washington Irving story and liked that a lot and wanted to do something with it. But I was also trying to think of ways of doing time travel without ‘doing’ time travel. When I was reading up on Washington Irving, with Rip Van Winkle I saw how we could let 200-some-odd years pass and get that fun fish-out-of-water, man-out-of-time story without doing time travel. The idea also came from Twin Peaks, which was also a small-town show. I love small-town stories and I wanted to play in that sandbox. 

When you re-read Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” what struck you about reading it in 2013?
PI: I would say that Washington Irving is a beautiful writer, and in the story there’s a foreboding sense of something always lurking out in the woods that stuck with me. 

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Were any scenes filmed in Westchester?
AB: We shot the pilot in Charlotte. We’re working with 20th Century Fox, so we have to shoot where the studio sends us. Charlotte has tax breaks, and the crew of Homeland was down there. So we went and borrowed the crew when they weren’t shooting Homeland. But, while we were there, we did send a producer up who did a pass on a helicopter to get some aerial shots. 

PI: Our show also has a lot of flashbacks. I’d say a third of it takes place in the 1700s, around the time of the Revolutionary War. That also became a factor in where we shot, because we wanted a specific look for the woods and the exteriors. 

So how did you try to capture the spirit of Westchester in Charlotte?
AB: Len [Wiseman, director of Underworld, who directed the pilot] has such a specific taste and vision. Len found parts of Charlotte with the small-town look, with narrow streets and architecture rich in flavor and history. 

The show seems to have a little of everything: There’s the supernatural, there’s time-travel, there’s American history, it’s a police procedural, et cetera. How do you balance all of those elements?
AB: That’s all Alex [Kurtzman, co-executive producer], Bob [Orci, co-executive producer], Phil, and Len. Everyone on the writing staff is skilled at taking these huge ideas that are out of this world and grounding them with the characters. Alex and Bob, for example—they wrote Star Trek, which is such a fantastical idea, but it’s grounded through the bromance between Kirk and Spock. With Abbie and Ichabod, supernatural things are going on, but Phil, Len, Alex, and Bob know how to rein it in.  

Tell me a little about your Ichabod Crane. Typically, he’s portrayed as a coward—he’s literally hiding behind children in the Tim Burton movie you mentioned—but he’s not that way in your show.  
PI: That was a very early conversation we had. We want our Ichabod Crane to be a hero.

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AB: We also want him to be a man’s man. He’s not the type of skinny guy who would go running away from a fight. 

PI: Tom Mison, who plays our lead, is so adept at playing the vast spectrum. He makes sense as a guy kicking ass in the Revolutionary War, but you also believe that he’s soulful and intelligent. There’s fun to be had with him as a man out of time. I don’t think we’re throwing away any previous Ichabod Crane, but we’re adding layers to him. 

How did you get into the headspace of someone who’s traveled 250 years into the future?
AB: I’m from the past. They just asked me a bunch of questions, and I drew a bunch of maps for them.

PI: You think about the things you take for granted—whenever the power goes out or the router stops working—and you can’t believe amenities you have around you. We have a scene where Crane is just fascinated with the window in Abbie’s car—the mechanism that makes the window go up and down. One of the early things we did was make a laundry list of things that would blow Crane’s mind, from modern medicine to something as simple as elevators. It’s a lot of fun. 

Sleepy Hollow premieres September 16, and airs Mondays at 9 pm on FOX.

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