'Sleepy Hollow': Writing Ichabod's chat with OnStar
Sleepy Hollow hooked scads of viewers with its balls-to-the-wall crazy pilot episode, which established in quick succession that a) American Revolutionary War hero Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) was Rip Van Winkle’d into a 200+ year slumber, then b) awoken to fight the evil Headless Horseman, who c) happens to be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Also, his wife’s a witch. Also also, he’s destined to team up with Sleepy Hollow cop Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie), who herself is still haunted by a demon she spotted when she was just a girl. Oh, and then there’s Zombie John Cho…
Clearly, Sleepy has a lot of balls in the air — but so far, it has managed to keep juggling them all. (It’ll continue to do so well into 2014, as Fox made Sleepy the first new show to earn a second season way back in October.) Even better, the show has proven that it’s just as adept at humor as it is at supernatural action/adventure. Witness, for example, Ichabod’s flabbergasted reaction to present-day New York’s mammoth sales tax, or the way he describes a package Abbie’s received (“treasures from the Amazon”) — or the opening of season 1’s fourth episode, which finds Crane delivering a swoonworthy monologue about his lost love Katrina, who’s currently caught in purgatory. The punchline: He’s sitting in a car… and telling this tale to Yolanda, an OnStar customer service rep.
Who dreamed up this already classic scene? That’d be Sleepy staffer Damian Kindler, a sci-fi vet who loves to write twists on American history — especially given his Canadian upbringing. (“There was something cheeky about the Canadian dude going, ‘The Boston Tea Party was a ruse, man!'” he tells EW with a laugh.) Read on to see how Kindler created one of the show’s standout moments — and to learn the show’s general approaches to writing both Ichabod and Abbie.
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As Told By: Damian Kindler
When [Sleepy Hollow executive producers] Mark [Goffman] and Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kutzman] and Len Wiseman were putting together all the content for the show, a lot of the things that came up were ways to essentially illustrate the wisdom of a man who is out of time. And instead of him being like, “How does this watch work?” and “I don’t understand phones” or “How do I get the ketchup out of the bottle?” and appearing like kind of a goof, we wanted him to appear very wise, and have a very literate and kind of brilliant, almost Sherlock Holmesian take on the modern era. We don’t like to write him as baffled. If he’s baffled, it’s because he sees a more intelligent or eloquent way around [something], or a fascinating interpretation of it that you wouldn’t have seen before.
The OnStar scene happened kind of in the heat of battle. I was writing an outline for this episode [“The Lesser Key of Solomon”], and I want to make sure I’m on record saying that Alex Kurtzman was so brilliant in shaping this particular story. I credit so much of finding the tone of the show in this episode to him. But the OnStar scene — the network and the studio and everybody really loves to find these very unique moments of putting Crane in the position where he’s encountering these sort of pop culture moments, and finding ways to define him in relation to the modern world.
And so I literally just thought, if Crane was waiting in a car and somehow he couldn’t unlock it, and he pressed the wrong button and a voice started speaking to him, he wouldn’t go, “Oh my God, it’s the Lord!” He’d be like, “Who is this?” I think as a person of an era where everything was very conversational, you can just imagine him introducing himself, and having a conversation, and then it going on beyond “do you need assistance” and into something else. I just thought it would be so funny to come in at the end of that conversation and have it be that of course because he’s such a charismatic and empathetic man, he’s helping improve this faceless person’s life. I literally just wrote “Farewell, Yolanda” because it felt funny. It felt like a name that you wouldn’t necessarily hear people say when they’re from the 18th century.
So it was just one of those ideas that fell out really quickly, and everyone really responded to it. Alex liked it. He worked with me on polishing it up — and also, you can write scenes like that when you’re working with an actor like Tom Mison, who you know will take it and not make it too goofy or too serious. He’ll find the perfect kind of grace notes. It was just one of those things that was very fortunate, that once the idea fell out and we realized how we wanted to execute it, that the network loved it, the actors thought it was great, and everyone really embraced it. And I didn’t realize that it was going to become this kind of touchstone scene at all.
Initially [the scene] was just having him talking about his life and loves, and you think, “Oh, what a beautiful, Shakespearean soliloquy” — and then the punchline is, “Thank you for calling OnStar.” But it became more when we cut it together, because in the edit suite, we just felt how wonderful it would be to put gorgeous, romantic images of Katrina up on the screen, and make that kind of sweeping and epic. But before it becomes too heavy-handed or too maudlin, bring it back into our world. I think there’s also that — it sounds a little cheeky, but it’s like, “when in doubt, cut to the girl.” And I think you can have cutesy, funny, goofy scenes, but they’re not as resonant unless they really do speak to the mythology of the show, or to the journey the characters are on.
[When writing dialogue for Ichabod,] you get very wordy. You say things like “fastidious statistician” and, you know, “he was a passionate cartographer.” I’m constantly using my thesaurus, because I’m trying to find eloquent words like “sobriquet.” You also have to be careful, because you don’t want him to be dry and boring, or too professorial. But I think it’s funny if you take a moment where you’re like, you know, “I’m sick of fast food,” or “I don’t understand the value of a drive-through, because it takes away from what was once a three-times daily tradition of sitting down and eating” — [and] instead of him bitching and complaining, put it in an eloquent, intelligent way and say, “I fail to see the reason behind this, and we’ve lost something.” He is the person who has utter and complete permission to say, “I say we’ve lost this and need to go back to sitting down and eating and looking at each other, and not looking at phones,” and “we shouldn’t text and drive — not because I’m sanctimonious, but because I come from a time when there were important traditions and moments and rites of passage that have been lost.”
I think when you write him as intelligent and you write him as not a fool, or not ignorant, but as a person who brings a lot of wonderful wisdom, you have him. And also, he carries a huge amount of empathy. He can always empathize with other people’s situations, because he’s been through so much. He’s such a humanist. So when you’re sitting down to write him, I think it’s always important to understand his perspective, which is not that he’s like “Gosh, I woke up and I’m confused, and the world’s a scary weird place” as much as he’s like, “I’m a man on a mission to confront evil and stop it, and also to free my beloved. And everything else in my world bends around that.” He still gets excited by things, and he gets fascinated by things, and he finds humor and feels love. He really is a very rooted person. He’s not a strange, strange outsider, he’s actually a person we can all relate to. We can relate to missing our families, we can relate to feelings of love, we can relate to feelings of “you’re the only person who understands me, Abbie.” So he’s not meant to be esoteric or strange or like, an alien from another planet. He’s meant to represent all of our fears and loves and hopes and dreams. And so when you write him, you want him to represent that well. You don’t want him to be a strange weirdo. He’s one of the greatest characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of writing. You feel like you’re writing this epic, iconic hero.
And the thing that’s important also is the way you match Abbie to him. Because she’s also a brilliant mind. That’s part of the journey, is that as his mind begins to kind of loosen up and learn and accept other new things, her mind is expanding. I don’t know if you remember this from the pilot, but just before Sheriff Corbin was murdered, she was going to become a profiler [for the FBI]. That’s sh– that most people don’t get to do. She’s a high-level thinker. That’s why I think they work together so well. So when we’re piecing together mysteries and trying to solve things and look for answers, Abbie’s perspective is equally as valuable as Crane’s. And we avoid the kind of, “listen, I’m an erudite British person, and I use long $50 words” — there’s that great term, “meretricious sesquipedalianism,” which is the use of big words to impress people out of vanity. He can’t do that. So don’t make him that, and also don’t make her this sort of sassy black chick. She’s very smart, he’s very smart, and together, they’re brilliant. I think we always want to make them two halves of a whole.