Emmy Watch: 'Sleepy Hollow' EP Alex Kurtzman on the epic reveal
Spoiler alert! If you intend to marathon Sleepy Hollow‘s first season before its fall return, stop reading now. Seriously. The finale’s closing nine minutes, which revealed one of the TV season’s most shocking twists, also made Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the season’s 50 Best Scenes, which can be found in the issue on stands now. We spoke to exec producer Alex Kurtzman about the brilliance of John Noble and hiding a major reveal in plain sight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We know from our finale postmortem that Henry Parrish (John Noble) being the son of Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), as well as the Second Horseman of the Apocalypse, was actually part of the initial pitch to the network. How early in the season did you realize that would be revealed in what is, essentially, a nine-minute monologue from John Noble?
ALEX KURTZMAN: We knew from the beginning of the season that it was going to be a monologue from John. And I think we were dreading for the season, “Oh my God, how are we going to sustain this incredibly long monologue for what could ultimately be more than an act of television? How are we going to keep the people interested in it? And how is it not going to feel like just the biggest exposition dump in the history of TV?” So we were quite nervous about that, but I think because we were so nervous about it, we’d given a lot of time to how we were going to construct it. One of the things that started to emerge as we got closer to the end of the season was the idea that the information was going to be divided between all the different characters, not just John. Given the fact that the story fractures into a bunch of different pieces by the time you’re in the last act of the show, each piece is going to start speaking to the next as an intercut. It was ultimately going to build in information, and that was the way to keep the audience interested in it.
Did the network have any notes on the length of the scene?
To give Fox an enormous amount of credit, their note was, “This is f—ing awesome.” That’s the note we got from them. Because the information was functioning in such a Swiss watch kind of a manner in that everything had to link, we sat down and wrote a much, much longer outline. We usually send in two or three page outlines, and the outline that we gave them [for the finale] was almost 25 pages, because when you get into the last act, the only way to follow the information is to see how it’s intercutting. So it was really more of a scriptment than it was an outline. They were able to follow it, and they loved it. I mean, it was the shortest notes call I think we ever had. I think they were excited about being bold with it rather than, “We’ve got to dumb it down or dilute it,” which obviously we were super grateful for. Knowing that we were building to that from the first episode allowed us to, in a weird way, be writing in our heads from the beginning of the season.
And can you imagine doing that kind of reveal with anyone but John Noble?
No. I mean, obviously we worked with him on Fringe, and you can give him any lines and he can make them sound Shakespearean. We kept using as a touchstone The Usual Suspects, and how the experience of watching The Usual Suspects is so wonderful because you’re watching the movie having one experience, but by the end, you realize you’ve been set up so inevitably for the reveal that was right in front of you the whole time. And that requires not one episode, but many, many episodes to make work. The fun for us was, over the course of the season, trying very hard to construct a narrative that was hiding the ball but would be inevitable by the time we got to the end — where you didn’t see it but, of course, there was really no other way it could have happened. And we were so worried people were going to guess John was Crane and Katrina’s son. We would check online every day after an episode aired to see if anyone was there, and to our utter amazement, people didn’t see it coming. So by the time the finale aired, we were just giddy. We were like, “Oh my God, people are either going to rebel and hate us for what we just did, or they’re going to love it!” And it was very exciting to see the reactions that started kind of halfway through the episode and then quadrupled by the time the reveal came.
Journalists and viewers alike are used to vague, hyperbolic teases during finale season. “You’re never going to see it coming!”
I remember Orlando [Jones] was like, “You’re going to kick yourself. It was right there.” Did it make you nervous at all that the cast was doing such a good job hyping the finale?
No, I think we just felt so excited knowing that we had what we hoped would be an ace in the hole the whole time. And knowing that if it worked, you would feel such a wonderful sense of satisfaction because you thought you were having one experience, but in fact you were having an entirely different one. I know as a viewer, whenever I’m pulled into something like that, be it The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, there’s nothing quite like leaving the theater with that sense of satisfaction and with that wonderful surprise.
And in order for those surprises to really land, the pieces that led you there have to be so emotionally honest. That’s the key. They can’t be gimmicky, because I think audiences will instantly reject it if it doesn’t feel like it was true to the characters they invested in. And that’s, I think, what made us confident: We felt like we were backbuilding from an incredibly emotional idea that was inevitable. So it was fun because obviously Orlando has a huge online presence, and watching him tease people — it was either going to make people guess it, or it was going to sort of deflect it. And everything he said was exactly right: “It’s right in front of you, and you don’t see it.”
How are you feeling knowing that we’re all expecting something even bigger in season 2?
It’s definitely scary. I think Sleepy caught people by surprise last year a little bit, and that worked to our advantage. And now there’s a microscope on the show, which is wonderful and terrifying all at the same time — but mostly wonderful. I think the compass that we all use is just really wanting to make sure that the stories are coming from an honest place, that they’re ultimately coming from character. For example, one of the rules that we had from the beginning was that the monsters can never be random. The monsters need to be literal manifestations of the inner demons that our characters are fighting. If we can link each monster to an emotional trial that our characters have to overcome, then the monsters are going to be really satisfying because you’ll have the emotional experience of watching our people jump hurdles that make them stronger at the end.
There were two scenes in season 1 that showed me what this series was capable of: the Golem’s death in episode 10, and the scene when Abbie (Nicole Beharie) refuses to leave Ichabod when he takes the poison and thinks he’s going to die in episode 6. Which scenes did it for you?
Those are the scenes. You hit it on the head. From the beginning, we wanted to establish a very emotional connection between Abbie and Ichabod. We looked at X-Files as a model of a show that we love very much, but we didn’t want Abbie and Crane to fall easily into the believer and the cynic, into those sort of archetypes. Obviously, the trick with Crane was, how do you create a character and tell a fish out of water story where you are above playing to and supporting expectations? Meaning, there are about a trillion jokes I’m sure you can think of just on this phone call of the man from 1776 that came to modern day and how he reacted to technology and to what the country is about. But there’s a really bad version of that, too, a really cheesy, bad version that I think everyone was worried about. How do you make the things that he observed actually be a little off center and a little bit less not what you expect?
Having an actor of Tom’s caliber who just intuitively understands where the joke is, when to pull it back, when to play the drama — our cast across the board, they’re all right in it with their characters, but Tom really understood that. And so not only is he a man out of time, he’s really a man who is looking for connection, and he finds it in a woman who has been denying her past for so long, denying a trauma that happened to her since childhood. And his emergence into her life is something that forces her to confront it again. Suddenly he becomes the thing that validates an experience that everyone had dismissed in her life as being something that was just crazy. We were a little bit worried that the [poison] death scene was going to be too far too fast because it’s a very, very intense scene between the two of them. But I think that when we wrote it, what became clear was that it was in some ways the moment they realized how desperately they needed each other, and it was really nice to work outward from there.
And then the golem episode was another one of those episodes that was very tricky because, again, there were many things happening in that episode. First of all, you have a monster that is representative of his son’s pain. And so right off the bat, you’ve got a monster that is an extremely charged emotional entity. And in confronting that monster, Crane is confronting not only his son’s pain, but his son’s pain as a result of him not being a father to his child. That made it groundwork for a really intense story. In order to deflect the audience’s attention or suspicion away from the possibility that Henry was Jeremy, we needed to bring up the son story and then put it to bed so that hopefully people would think, “Okay, I guess in killing the golem, he ended his son’s pain and that story is over.” Then when you got to the end of the season, you would understand what the golem story was really setting you up for. It had to be emotionally very honest, and it was, because if you watch John’s performance in that scene when Crane has to kill the golem, he’s actually very sad about it. He’s just containing it. That was a key for us: always making sure that our context was wildly emotional and very charged but also hiding the ball enough so that you would get to play the big reveal at the end of the season.