‘Sleepy Hollow:’ Can a ‘Transformers’ sensibility translate to TV?

The 7-foot-tall Headless Horseman gets breakfast during FOX's "Sleepy Hollow - Fan Experience" on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 in New York.
The 7-foot-tall Headless Horseman gets breakfast during FOX’s “Sleepy Hollow - Fan Experience” on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 in New York.
(Omar Vega / Invision for FOX / AP)

The fall TV season just getting underway is studded with some big movie names. “21 Jump Street” helmers Phil Lord and Chris Miller directed the pilot of cop sitcom “Brooklyn Nine Nine,” screen actors James Spader and Toni Collette anchor the dramatic thrillers “The Blacklist” and “Hostages,” and Joss Whedon created buzzy Marvel series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

But perhaps no show comes with a deeper cinematic pedigree than “Sleepy Hollow.” The Fox series about a Revolutionary War soldier who -- with his headless nemesis -- wakes up to fight out ancient battles in a modern-day small town, was created by the men responsible for some of the biggest movie blockbusters in recent years.

Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the first two “Transformers” movies, the two new “Star Trek” pictures and ”Mission: Impossible III,” while Len Wiseman, making his first foray into TV as a “Sleepy Hollow” director and executive producer, was the director of the first few “Underworld” pictures, the “Live Free or Die Hard” sequel and the “Total Recall” redo. (Cumulative global box office among the group: about $4.8 billion.)


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Blending those backgrounds into one coherent whole isn’t always easy.

“We like making things difficult for ourselves,” Orci said, half-joking, when I asked him the reason for the different sensibilities. He also noted the pace at which things move — both refreshing and a tad overwhelming for people more accustomed to spending months polishing a few pages of a script.

Wiseman, known as a stylist in cinematic realms, is already tried to go bigger with some of the designs used on the show. He’s often getting into conversations with some of the TV veterans about what is and isn’t possible. “Sometimes they’re good at just saying, ‘That’s a great idea, but our budget and time doesn’t allow it,’ ” he said. “Which is good, because I would just want to push it.”

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Still he said, he thought audience taste and screen innovations made the medium ready for the kind of visual ambition movies have long been known for. “I want the scenes to feel dark, but I still want you to be able to see it,” he said. “Too often on TV it’s frustrating that it just doesn’t look big or brooding enough.”

It’s still an open question whether a filmic vibe can work on the small screen. After all, there’s more room to maneuver across a couple dozen episodes, which means that things don’t all have to get crammed into one place in the way film types are used to. Already “Sleepy Hollow” may be showing signs of this. To say the pilot is overstuffed would be to understate it. Included in the episode: Freemason mythology, witch tropes, the apocalypse, detective stories, historical drama, fish-out-of-water comedy, Burton-esque brooding and Robocop referencing. If you look closely you could even see a bit of the kitchen sink peeking out.

But creators also say that all this filmic firepower -- the show also features as its lead actress Nicole Beharie, most recently seen as Rachel Robinson in “42" -- can achieve a balance with the more traditional TV creative types. The “Sleepy Hollow” credit sheet boasts small-screen veterans such as Ken Olin (former executive producer of “Brothers and Sisters” and star of “thirtysomething”) and Mark Goffman (longtime writer and producer on “The West Wing” and the show runner here). They provide a kind of TV-centric foil to the filmic-minded Wiseman and Kurtzman-Orci. As Wiseman said, “If this was just a bunch of feature guys getting together to make a television show, I don’t think it would work.”


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