CONVERSATIONS: Sleepy Hollow Thrill Ride

Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman take viewers for an exciting ride in Sleepy Hollow

By Michelle Valigursky, Mark Goffman 90C

Before he was an executive producer for the hit network television show Sleepy Hollow, Mark Goffman 90C was an Emory student.


Mark Goffman 90C Photo Credit: Studio System News, Diane Panosian

EmoryWire’s Michelle Valigursky sat down for a conversation with the legendary producer, writer, and professional.

Nominated for numerous industry awards, 20th Century Fox Television’s Sleepy Hollow brings Washington Irving's Revolutionary War soldier Ichabod Crane screeching into the modern world with the first Horseman of the Apocalypse on his heels. Combine that powerful moment with a mysterious surge in murders and hauntings in modern day New York, and you've got the formula for a must-watch drama that critics hail as "suspenseful" and "first and foremost, handsomely produced horror, good-looking and BOO! scary."

At LA's Boneyard Bistro over dinner, Goffman shares his expertise about creating visual drama on film that leaves people talking . . . and wanting season after season of cliffhanging shows.

Michelle Valigursky: After writing and producing movies like Dumbstruck and hit television shows like West Wing and White Collar, this time you chose to work on a story with seriously dark undertones. What drew you to Washington Irving's classic gothic horror tale Sleepy Hollow?

Mark Goffman: Sleepy Hollow definitely has its share of scares, and is set against a coming Apocalypse. But one of the really exciting things to me about the show is that the characters have hope. They’re fighting an epic war over the fate of our country and mankind, and in that struggle we get to blend a number of tones: American history, action-adventure, fantasy, comedy, and horror. It’s this opportunity to take a character, Ichabod Crane, who’s been reimagined as a Revolutionary War soldier fighting alongside our founding fathers. And to have him, around today, to comment on our country two centuries later… that’s a blast.

Michelle: Your cast is unique. How did the ensemble come together?

Mark: In putting together a cast, it’s ideal to have characters with very different backgrounds and worldviews thrust together. So we have a lot of room to play with an 18th century Brit-turned-American-Patriot, partnered with a brilliant and successful African American woman. We just set out to cast the best people and create stories from the initial concept, and we have a lot of diversity (John Cho, Orlando Jones, Lyndie Greenwood). I think makes it all the more interesting for Ichabod Crane to see how America has progressed. We don’t have to spend a lot of time commenting on it because it’s organic to the show and it’s what America looks like. Also everyone on our cast are so strong – they make what could be totally outrageous seem grounded and real.

Michelle: We see a very sympathetic friendship between Ichabod (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie). Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen wrote, “He’s an old soul; she’s a modern woman. He’s white; she’s black.” What do you think the power of their shared experience adds to the production?

Mark: Connection. We established that these to characters are Witnesses to the Apocalypse. That is such a wild idea, that both of them have to figure out what that means, and then go through trials and tribulations together. They find that their bonds and histories are far more linked than they could have initially imagined. And they need each other. He has little understanding of the modern world. And she is about to enter a secret war that he started fighting under then General Washington. They have such great chemistry together. It’s incredibly rare and fun to watch.

Michelle: You play with themes of good vs. evil, resurrection, the supernatural, white and black magic, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Your Ichabod tells his modern-day cohort Lieutenant Abbie Mills, "The man I killed was never a man at all - he is death itself returned to Sleepy Hollow to finish what he started." That gives us a pretty good idea of how the story is about to unfold - but not really. You like surprises, don't you?

Mark: I love to keep people guessing. We approach every episode of Sleepy Hollow as a ride. You shouldn’t be able to see the twists coming. And with the mix of genres, we’re able to start with humor, then quickly switch speeds to a scare or suspenseful scene. And when you’re dealing with the horsemen of death working toward the End of Days, anything can happen. I really think there’s something for everyone. We always start with a germ of truth in our historical flashbacks. For example, three days after George Washington died, his doctors REALLY DID try to resurrect him. We didn’t make that part up… only what followed.

Michelle: Did you have any trepidation about working with a story with such biblical and occult overtones?

Mark: Every culture and religion has some form of Armageddon. So to keep it in the fantasy world, we draw our inspiration from stories set around the world and throughout history. It’s really fun research and adds to the sense of wonder and adventure within the show. We have George Washington’s bible, and a sketchbook from Benjamin Franklin, but we also discover hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt.

Michelle: So let's talk about the magic of filmmaking. Ichabod's reentry to the modern world was done with a modern edge. What did you hope to achieve in this pivotal scene?

Mark: Len Wiseman, the director of the pilot, is truly brilliant. In a wordless scene, Ichabod finds himself standing in the middle of a paved road. He’s wearing his uniform from battle during the American Revolution and has such a look of curiosity and wonder. As he squats to touch this surface for the first time, he’s nearly run over by a semi. The shots and sound design put you right there with him, as he experiences modern America for the first time.

A choice that Tom Mison made early on about the character is that he has a lot of pride. So he doesn’t like to ask when he doesn’t understand a modern concept or technology. This gives us tons to play for comedy, as he discovers a light switch or Starbucks for the first time. It also allows us to rail against the system on simple things, like when he finds a receipt for donuts and sees what we pay in taxes.

Michelle: Scenes have such small details that add to the storytelling - a horse and rider sign broken at the head, blowing leaves, deep shadows, and silhouetted shapes against eerie light. What is your philosophy for creating a mood?

Mark: Production design and lighting are critical to the show. We look for authenticity in all the historical artifacts, and use practical creatures as much as possible over computer graphics to help sell a grounded reality. We all have a lot of contrast in scenes – light and dark, shadows, shooting through candles and torches. We tend to shoot in wide shots to help sell an epic nature and then get in with very tight shots on long lenses for personal moments, comedy, and surprise.

Michelle: Symbolism marks every scene, past and present. How does this juxtaposition play into your production?

Mark: Very often our creature of the week is a physical manifestation of the theme or emotion that the character is going through. For example, we did an episode where Crane’s son created our version of a golem, a creature that could protect him because Crane and Katrina weren’t there for him. The creature was unleashed today, and ultimately Crane had to kill it to confront his own guilt. Other stories are takes on creatures we think we’ve seen before – like getting to see the Headless Horseman with a shotgun, or recasting the Sandman as a Native American spirit that haunts people who turn a blind eye to injustice. Sins of the past played a huge thematic in our first season.

Michelle: You showcase some amazing special effects in Sleepy Hollow. Are these all done on set?

Mark: We combine on-set effects and stunts with a lot of visual effects done in post-production. Our cast does a lot of their own stunts. For example Tom Mison is an expert swordsman. Lyndie is a black belt. Nicole is absolutely fearless. Then we have a gifted crew of more than 500 people to help pull all this off.

Michelle: Let's talk organization. You have nearly 500 people on your production team. It takes a lot of work to produce a weekly series. Can you walk us through the basic production steps for a single episode?

It’s a real labor of love. We start out with 10 weeks of ‘prep,’ in which time I work with a group of about 7 other writers and the other executive producers to come up with a season long arc for the show. Season one was very much about sins of the past. Our second season is about war and redemption, since we introduced the Horseman of War. So we sketch out a lot of the big actions our characters will take, and where we want to end. We pitch to the studio (20th Century Fox Television) and Network (Fox), and get their buy in. Then I assign writers to start ‘breaking’ episodes, or come up with basic structure that goes along with the larger storyline. Ideally we start production with 4 scripts written and two approved outlines. These scripts go to production in North Carolina, where we shoot. They’re budgeted and shot there, and then the footage comes back to LA where we edit it and add the visual effects. I spend the majority of my time writing, though editing is a lot of fun and where you ultimately finish so it’s critical to spend time finessing everything from the shot selection to sound design. We have an incredibly talented crew, with a producer and executive producer/producing director who work with us in North Carolina, so I go out to Wilmington about every six weeks. Coincidentally there’s a lot of production in Atlanta and Wilmington. We share stages with Under the Dome and a number of movies.

Michelle: Can you sum up your production philosophy in a few words?

Mark: On Sleepy Hollow, I’ve learned to embrace the terror and exhilaration. We get to take a lot of big swings, and so far they’ve paid off.

Michelle: Thanks for sharing your insight, Mark!

Editor’s Note: Industry recognition is mounting for Goffman’s exciting new series. Sleepy Hollow has been nominated for the 2014 Best Network Television Series Release by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in One-Hour Episodic Television Series by the American Society of Cinematographers, USA, for two Image Awards for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series and Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series, and for a People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Drama.

Goffman has also been nominated for two Writers Guild of America television awards for his work on New Series: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Dramatic Series: West Wing. Tune into Sleepy Hollow on Fox.

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Michelle Valigursky