‘Sleepy Hollow’ boss talks bringing the fun and the crazy to TV

"Sleepy Hollow" actors Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane and Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills, and executive producer Mark Goffman.
(Joe Viles / Fox)

It’s the show that has viewers holding onto their heads.

“Sleepy Hollow,” a quirky and modernized update on the Washington Irving horror classic, has been a bright star for Fox since its mid-September bow.

Starring Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane and Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills, the supernatural drama opened to 10 million viewers — making it the network’s most successful fall drama premiere since “24” debuted in 2001. While earning solid same-day ratings, the show gets a considerable boost from DVR playback, which lifts the freshman show to one of the top-ranked dramas in television.

As the show gallops to the end of its 13-episode first season, executive producer Mark Goffman, who shares showrunning duties with co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, reflected on the show’s success in a recent interview. “Sleepy Hollow” returns with a new episode Dec. 9.


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Before “Sleepy Hollow,” you worked on a couple of Aaron Sorkin shows (“The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). Quite the shift. How did you get into the business?

It’s funny. It’s a circuitous route, but one that I have no regrets about. I went to the Kennedy School of Government, and I was getting a masters degree in public policy, and I really thought I would go into speech writing. I loved public policy, I loved public service, and I wanted to work in Washington, D.C. I wrote a short story that found its way to the kitchen table at my brother’s apartment in New York. He happened to be dating a woman who was an agent’s assistant, who happened to read it. He was the only one reading my fiction at the time. She sent it to an agent in Los Angeles, who sent it to a producer. I was in the middle of finals in Boston, it was zero degrees, and I got this call to come out to L.A. to meet with a producer about doing a movie. I went out to LA and I met with this producer in Pacific Palisades, overlooking the ocean. I thought, “Wow, I can actually tell stories and I could write fiction” — which is something I always enjoyed, but I never thought I’d make it into a career.

From there, when “The West Wing” came on, it was really kind of the perfect show for me because it had such incredible characters, nobility and a sense of purpose. It’s ironic. I was actually offered a job to write for the State Department the same day I was offered a job writing on “The West Wing.” And I wound up taking the job on “The West Wing” because I actually thought I could be more truthful with the fictitious government than I could writing in Washington for the actual administration. I took the job on “The West Wing,” and I never looked back.

We’re in a moment where everyone is looking for, or looking to be, the next prestige drama. And even those shows that clearly aren’t sometimes take themselves too seriously. A lot of what people enjoy about “Sleepy Hollow” is that it embraces the camp, it embraces the crazy. Is there a freedom in that?

This show has an epic nature to it and the characters find themselves in constant peril, and yet they are aware of just how insane all of this might seem. We really try to approach this from a grounded perspective, grounding these characters based on how we would react in their situation. I think allowing the characters to have a moment where they could reflect on just how crazy what’s happening is, keeps us grounded. One of the words we use in the writers room a lot is “fun” — will this be fun to watch? We try to follow a scare with a laugh and a laugh with a scare. It is really freeing to just write and have fun with these characters and allowing this world to continue to tumble out of control.

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I read a fan comment that described it perfectly: “The crazy on ‘Sleepy Hollow’ makes ‘Scandal’ look like C-Span.”

Ha! Yeah, we try not to take it seriously but at the same time, the characters — we are in it with them. I think that’s a lot of the fun. I guess the line here is we are constantly teetering on the verge of “That’s just too crazy.” We really try to find that and, amazingly, I don’t think we’ve crossed it yet, but we certainly will push for it.

Is that so out of reach, though, considering all that the show integrates? There’s the bible, witches, George Washington--how long before it’s becomes unmanageable and a chore to rein in?

I think that’s what’s so exciting about the show is that we can borrow from so many different mythologies and cultures and religions, and we kind of match them together in a way that makes sense for our show. I find it really exciting to go back and look at the Revolutionary War and take some of these pivotal moments and battles and really meaningful debates that our founders were having and then spin them in just a crazy direction--everything from the Midnight Ride being about the Headless Horseman chasing Paul Revere because he had a book of secrets on how to defeat Molech and the devil to some of the things that we’re coming to in our finale.

It’s a fun recast of the Revolutionary War and what this country was built on.

You’re skilled in setting the scene. Place me in the “Sleepy Hollow” writers room. What might I see when I open my eyes?

We have a lot of fan art up around the walls, which is great. We have really vested fans who spend a lot of time on art and thinking about the show and we try to honor that, so we have a lot of that up. We have a really great office here in Burbank that has a great rooftop deck, you can see the mountains. So we go outside when we need to loosen up. We have a lot of images of our shooting locations. And there are a lot of creatures and references hanging around. We do a surprising amount of research on the show. Writers have different backgrounds. Some have significant religious expertise, some have more genre expertise, others are more steeped in comedy — we really have a diverse room, which I think really adds layers to the show. It allows us to write in many different directions. I think that’s one of the many things people are responding to about the show — that we have fun and we can be funny, but we also have some nice heartfelt moments and dramatic moments.

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What’s your earliest memory of the lore surrounding the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane?

I remember as a kid, my grandfather actually read the story to me when I was about 7. He lived in Baltimore. I still remember sitting next to him on the couch and he read the story and I was just terrified of crossing this bridge. I remember how Ichabod had to race across the bridge before the Headless Horseman could catch him. That to me and the idea of the pumpkins, it really stuck with me. And when I heard about this project, those were the first images that came to mind. It immediately makes you think of Halloween and ghost stories.

While it’s fun to see a Headless Horseman who uses a machine gun, a lot of what makes this show compelling is the chemistry between Ichabod (Mison) and Abbie (Meharie). It sort of reminds me of the tension between Mulder and Scully on “The X Files.”

Oh, yeah. “The X Files” was a huge influence on me. I never missed an episode. That relationship between Mulder and Scully was just classic television. The interesting thing with Abbie and Crane, is that Crane is married. He is not on the market. But his wife isn’t exactly available to him, but he’s deeply in love with her. One of the really exciting things for us in writing the show is to discover new secrets about his relationship with Katrina — starting with the pilot and learning she was a witch, she had a role within the Revolutionary War that he was never aware of — he is constantly learning new secrets. In the most recent episode, he learned a pretty big thing: that he had a son. It’s leading to some really exciting storylines about Crane and his wife. And the person who is his confident, with him through this journey, is Abbie, so they’re naturally growing closer through all of this. And as Abbie goes through her trials (hopefully, we’ll have seven years of these), Crane is her confidant, learning and helping her see her greater truth, helping her mend her relationship with her sister and ultimately we’ll get to explore her parents and other family ties that she has. They’re sort of bound together despite that they are two centuries apart. They have both a unifying mission. And in a way they’ve both been a little bit alone in the world. They’re the only two people who they can go on this journey with together because, well, no one else would believe them, frankly.

There aren’t a whole lot of people you can share your day with when you’re Ichabod Crane.

And I imagine it must be fun in the writers room to come up with ways for Crane to be confused by the modern world, particularly technology. He had a great line in a recent episode regarding Amazon — which is more synonymous with shipping and handling than a rain forest in 2013.

He’s such a fun character to write for because it’s a great lens to see both our society and technology. To me, it’s not just about what modern appliance or smart phone he may encounter. When Ichabod is looking at communication or what we use our phones for, we can also take that as an opportunity for social commentary — that we are constantly looking at our phones or how we sometimes text people who are standing right next to us. He has the point of view of an 18th century man that is not only about “how does this gadget work,” but is a way of life. So, yeah, those are really fun lines to write, and really fun points of view to explore.

But the most important question: what about Crane’s clothing? How on earth does he get those blood stains out? Has he adapted enough in the short time to have learned how to use a washing machine? Is Abbie washing his clothes? Will we see him get a makeover?

Crane has learned about the dry cleaners. No, we have a couple of episodes coming up which will explore and expand his wardrobe. The important thing is we always remind ourselves that Ichabod Crane is out of place. He is 232 years out of place. His clothes are the only thing that he has that are some comfort to him in a world that is totally alien. And so as much as we want him to dress like us and expand his wardrobe, I think this character is clinging to them because they are one of the few things that he has that keep him grounded.

What can we expect when the show returns Dec. 9?

There’s a creature from the Bible that becomes the villain. We also will learn a significant amount about Crane’s son. And we’ll discover more witches in Sleepy Hollow.