“Sleepy Hollow” Creator Roberto Orci Explains How To Pull Off An Improbable Idea

If you were skeptical of an ongoing network television drama based on a 200-year-old, 17-page short story about a headless horseman–set in the present day–you weren’t alone. Sleepy Hollow creator and executive producer Roberto Orci explains to us how they managed to turn that premise into one of this season’s best new shows.

“Sleepy Hollow” Creator Roberto Orci Explains How To Pull Off An Improbable Idea
[Images courtesy of Kent Smith | FOX]

When Roberto Orci came onto Fox’s Sleepy Hollow as executive producer and co-creator, all that the team had was a logline: “What if Ichabod Crane woke up today?”


That’s a proposition that could go poorly. Ichabod Crane, the lead character of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, is not necessarily the most compelling of leads, as he’s written in the 17-page piece of centuries-old fiction: He’s a strict schoolteacher, a selfish glutton, and a big scaredy-cat whose primary nemesis is a mythical headless horseman (who may just be the guy who wants to marry his fiancé in disguise), and who vanishes from his own story before the end.

But that image, of a headless horseman, is one that’s endured for centuries for a reason, and it’s given rise to a reinterpretation of Ichabod Crane in various media. So when Orci read that log line, he saw an opportunity that everyone from Disney to Tim Burton had taken, to create a new and compelling take on the Sleepy Hollow myth–for network television, in a series that takes its concept 100% seriously.

When you take an idea that weird to the middle America audience that watches Fox programming on a Monday night, you’re taking a big gamble–but the fact that the show was renewed for a second season as far back as early October shows that sometimes a big gamble can pay off, if you’ve placed the right bet. As the successful first season concludes (the finale airs January 20), we caught up with Orci to find out what it takes to make a weird idea work.

Figure Out What You Really Want To Accomplish

The Sleepy Hollow legend dates back almost 200 years, but in some ways, it’s tangential to what Orci and the rest of the Sleepy Hollow team (which includes co-creators Alex Kurtzman, Phil Iscove and Len Wiseman) are doing. All of the elements of the original story are present, but what makes Sleepy Hollow work is that they’re telling a story about America, American history, and the way American history is contextualized today. You don’t need to be a fan of an early American piece of short fiction to find that compelling–and that’s part of the broad appeal of the show.

For Orci, the desire to explore that sort of theme existed before he ever saw the “Ichabod Crane wakes up today” log line–and it made Sleepy Hollow a perfect vehicle for it.

“When I think of Sleepy Hollow, in my mind, I think about early Americana, so one of the things that attracted [co-creator] Alex [Kurtzman] and I to it immediately was the the idea of, ‘What would an early American think of modern America? What if we think of Ichabod Crane as one of the first Americans?'” Orci says. As a result, the show’s version of Crane is a revolutionary soldier who served under George Washington. “‘What if he knew the founding fathers? Knew the principles that this country was founded on intimately, because he fought and bled for them? What would he think about what’s going on today?’ That, ultimately, is the thing that made it a ‘why now’ story for me. Not every story is relevant to the now, but that one–there is so much awareness from audiences these days about the news and about our rights and about this country in a way that I haven’t seen, and it just felt like–if the first American wakes up today, what’s he going to think?”


Don’t be afraid to go really, really big

Part of the joy of watching Sleepy Hollow unfold is admiring its chutzpah. This is a show that’s not just about Ichabod Crane running around present-day New York and interacting with the locals–this is a show in which all of the main characters are actively trying to prevent the Headless Horseman from bringing about the end of the world. There are no half-measures on the show, which makes it a precarious high-wire act that, for at least the first season (assuming tonight’s finale doesn’t disappoint), it manages to walk effortlessly. There’s nerd catnip like “George Washington’s secret Bible” and haunted house episodes in which demons who threaten to destroy the world reveal that their plans started two hundred years ago. The result is a show that is decidedly epic in scope and bold in its storytelling, which makes the character moments between Crane and his modern-day allies more meaningful. So how does an idea that out-there come up?

“When you get excited about the idea, the creative process becomes what it’s supposed to be,” Orci explains. “So–okay, Ichabod Crane is going to wake up in the modern day. We know that one of the iconic elements of that story that we can’t do without is the Headless Horseman. But we also recognize that the original story was a 17-page short story. That’s not seven seasons of television. But history is written by the winners, and it’s always being revised. That led us to thinking, ‘What if the Headless Horseman was one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”, and to the idea of tying early American to the Bible to secret societies to this larger world.”

The concepts might be far-out, but if you take far-out concepts and commit to them, you can sell people on the idea in ways that only happen when they’re on board partly because they admire your ambition. “The Horseman was the key,” he says. “Just saying the word, ‘Horseman, horseman, horseman, horseman… Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! It was funny to us–we would sometimes pitch this idea to family and friends, and they’d say, ‘Was that in the original Sleepy Hollow story? Was he one of the Four Horsemen?’ Because it sounded so natural. It sounded like, ‘Why not? Death riding around with an axe and no head.’ Suddenly, when we thought, ‘Let’s marry religion and revolutionary history together,’ we had an inkling that we might be able to generate a rich world.”

Make sure your big idea is grounded in something real

The big idea of Sleepy Hollow might not fly if the show weren’t grounded in characters that the audience can genuinely care about. According to Orci, that’s something that’s embedded in the show’s DNA. “We learned a long time ago that some of our favorite genre things are stories in which crazy things happen, but our heroes don’t lose their fear or their humanity. They’re not winking at the audience going, ‘Aha! Isn’t that clever?’ They still have their wits about them and their sense of humor–but they have to, in some sense, react the way that you and I would react. If you have that as a guiding principle and you face head-on the absurdity of an absurd situation, that tends to be, for us, an interesting way to tackle things,” Orci says. “By trying to keep their reactions real and open, and not be Mr. and Mrs. Tough Guy, we can show emotion and surprise at what’s happening–that tends to work for us.”

There may not be a better example of that approach to that idea on the show than with the character of Captain Frank Irving, the Sleepy Hollow police captain played by Orlando Jones. Orci explains that the character evolved dramatically when Jones auditioned, a happy accident that allowed them to ground the show in something other than just cop-show cliches.

“He came in to read, and he was so smart and clever,” Orci says of Jones. “We thought that often, you get the captain of the precinct or whatever–the character who does nothing but disbelieve you and get in your way. When he was reading the pilot scenes, it sort of inspired us to go, ‘What if this character, unlike what you’ve seen in other shows, actually knows that they’re on to something?’ He’s learning along with them, and that required a warmth and a twinkle in the eye that he inspired us to bring to it. Otherwise, that character might have ended up going through the series as simply the gruff captain who you have to totally lie to, and that’s not what happens here.”


Extend your bold vision by embracing diversity

It’s no secret that, as rare as shows based on 200-year-old pieces of short fiction that conflate religious apocalyptic themes with American history might be, network television shows where the vast majority of the cast is made up of actors of color are even less common. But Sleepy Hollow is unique in this way, as well: Aside from Tom Mison, who plays Ichabod Crane, and Katia Winter, as Crane’s fiancé Katrina, few of the regular and recurring cast are white. That cast–which includes Nicole Beharie as Crane’s partner, Lt. Abigail Mills; Orlando Jones as Cpt. Irving; Lyndie Greenwood as Mills’ sister; Nicholas Gonzalez as a police detective; John Cho as a villain; and Jill Marie Jones and Amandla Stenberg as Irving’s ex-wife and daughter–makes Sleepy Hollow unlike almost anything else on network television.

While Sleepy Hollow isn’t a show that’s about race in any significant way–it’s about a small town police force fighting the apocalypse with the help of a revolutionary soldier from the distant past–Orci explains that committing to diversity opened up storytelling potential for the show’s creators, as well as just providing a more realistic look at an America that’s full of more than just white people. “You always want the best actor, and in a way, that’s the bottom line. On the other hand, I too have found myself as the only Mexican-Cuban on a staff, so I’m certainly always looking for a more clear representation of my experience and the world that I’ve lived in,” he says. “It turned out too that it suddenly fit story-wise–the idea of what happens when our hero who came from a time in which slavery was real finds himself teamed with powerful people in his life who, when he was around, had no power. That’s a great dynamic. For us, it wasn’t just about having diversity, it was about using it, and about making a point of the fact that, when you are someone of color or a minority, which I am, it’s not that it’s invisible in your life. It actually has effects, and there’s commentary about it. If you put it into the DNA of the story, it can actually become fascinating, and a great, honest lead for storytelling.”

Commit fully to what you’re trying to do

“Every time we do something, whether it succeeds or fails, I try to learn what it was about it in each case,” Orci says when asked why a show with so many idiosyncrasies is succeeding in a way that is usually reserved for, say, shows about doctors and lawyers. “Normally, you learn more from failure, because success is hard to analyze. But Sleepy Hollow is one of those things where I think that all of us behind the scenes just loved it from the beginning. I do think that makes a difference.”

In other words, if the people behind Sleepy Hollow treated the show as a weird quirk-fest that they couldn’t believe was on television, they might have ended up creating something that didn’t last long. But because they’ve bought in to trying to make Sleepy Hollow one of the best shows on TV, they’ve found themselves with something special. One might not have assumed that a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer would become genre-defining TV, either, but people who are committed to a show with personality can turn out to make better programming than people who are coasting through with an easy hit.

“I think, as you get older and work on more things, one of the great advantages that you can give yourself is to learn to actually read yourself, and know if you’re lying to yourself and thinking, ‘Oh, well, they’re all responding…’ or if you are really interested,” Orci says. “If you are really interested in what you’re doing, and you really do love it, you will go the extra mile and it’ll just make it better. In the case of Joss Whedon and Buffy, I think he honestly loved it. So when you really love something, that’s one of the secrets of success. In terms of being idiosyncratic, I think we’re just following where the characters take it. We start with this incredible premise–let’s not water it down.”


About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club