By Sara Lynne Wright
MARK GOFFMAN KSG '94 is the showrunner of hit series Sleepy Hollow, in addition to being a producer and writer on White Collar, The West Wing, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Q. How did the SLEEPY HOLLOW writers approach the first season, when you were still getting to know each other?
A. In the writers room, you get to know each other very quickly. We had a mini retreat and worked backwards from the finale. We spent a lot of time talking about elements in the pilot, the characters, our history, and an overarching theme for the season. We asked ourselves: What is the wildest way we can end this season? How can we leave each of our characters near-impossibly perched on a figurative cliff?
Q. Any other big challenges you faced?
A. In a first-year series, almost everything is a challenge. Most everyone is working together for the first time, and on SLEEPY HOLLOW, we have nearly 500 people, between the writers, cast, crew and post-production. From script to directing, visual FX, editing, lighting sound design -- every one of those roles has the potential help knock an episode out of the park, or send us spiraling into the abyss. Especially on a show with an array of tonal elements.
Creatively on a new series, you want to have enough mythology that you get to explore the characters, but you don’t want to make the show so serialized that you lose audiences who miss an episode or two. We had to make sure that if you’ve never seen the show, you could still tune in at any point and still follow the story.
Q. Where do you get your story ideas?
A. Many times they’re from a theme or character drive that resonates with me. For example, we wrote an episode where Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) discovers he had a son. He has a lot of guilt over not knowing his son, and regret over missing the chance to raise him. Imagining what that would feel like stirred up a lot of emotions for me, so I knew it was a good driving force for a story. Then we find a way to tell it drawing from the American Revolution, religion, demons and some humor along the way. For example, that story began with the idea of a Golem, a biblical creature, who was created to protect Crane’s son in the absence of his parents. But it goes wildly out of control.
On SLEEPY HOLLOW, it’s also fun to start a story from an actual historical event and then infuse it with the supernatural. So when you find out that George Washington’s doctors actually tried to reanimate him 4 days after he died… well, there’s the perfect inspiration for an episode.
What excites you about these characters?
A. Ichabod Crane lived during Colonial times and has been awoken 232 years into the future. He’s a soldier, a founding father and a brilliant professor of history. And now he’s walking the streets of present-day America. This offers such an amazing opportunity for social commentary about what America meant to our Founding Fathers, what they really were fighting for 200 years ago and what the country has become today. It’s everything from taxation on donuts to how we communicate via smart phones.
While Abbey is much more relatable, and often our POV into this world, she has an equally fascinating past. As a teen, she went through a traumatic supernatural experience with her sister. Then she and her sister were separated, she was in foster care, and she had to deny what happened to her and hide her real self for the better part of 12-13 years. To go through a trauma like that, wonder if you’re crazy, then realize you are in fact a Witness (as in biblical witness) to the start of the apocalypse and have a special role in potentially preventing the end of days – that’s an exciting journey!
How do you balance sci-fi, procedural and historical elements? Is there a method to making sure one doesn't overwhelm the others?
A. Early on, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci told me something they learned early in their career, which is to follow a laugh with a scare and a scare with a laugh. We try to have a good balance between horror and humor and keep the stories thematically unified. This season has been about sin - sins of omission, turning a blind eye, and the idea that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Our characters have to get beyond their own histories and step up to the challenge. But, we often find history repeating itself, and the answers to the present found in the past.
Are the creatures always based in mythology?
A. I like starting with creatures that already have iconography and are somewhat recognizable but then putting our own spin on them. You think you know the Headless Horseman -- but then you realize, no, this one’s got machine guns. This is not what you’ve seen before. Len Wiseman, EP and director of the pilot, is just brilliant with creature creation. As are of course Bob and Alex.
Are there rules for the world that the writers have to follow in the room?
A. Very quickly we had to define how magic works, including how our characters view it, and how many people are exposed to it. We worked hard to create a world that allows for the existence of the supernatural but is still grounded.
Do you have a favorite magical creature on the show?
A. The Headless Horseman is amazing. I still remember trying to pitch the episode to the network where he’s captured, put in a prison cell, and interrogated. They said, "But he doesn’t talk. He doesn’t have a head. How are you going to interrogate him?” We knew there was the risk it could look ridiculous. And not in a good way. So as we broke the episode where he’s captured, we realized that John Cho’s character, Andy Brooks, has to communicate with the Horseman and wow, wouldn’t it be cool if he were a necromancer…that gave us the key to the episode.
Q. How does your production team keep the creatures looking convincing?
A. We use a lot of practical special effects and actors with makeup as opposed to VFX. It’s an enormous credit to our crew that they look as good as they do. Also I think building suspense also means creating scenes around what you don’t see, shadows and surprise. There’s also quite a bit of sound design that we do on every episode.
You're a big history buff who studied public policy at Harvard, was a speechwriter in D.C., and wrote on THE WEST WING, WHITE COLLAR, and ELEMENTARY. Any especially gratifying ways you've rewritten history on the show?
A. Reconceiving Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Boston Tea Party, and the lost colony of Roanoke are also part of the fabric of the show. It’s also fun to work in minor historical revisions. In "Midnight Ride,” we also establish Crane and Thomas Jefferson were friends. Crane holds Jefferson with the upmost respect. Then Abbie and Irving ask him about Sally Hemmings, which he dismisses as tabloid rumor reported as news. Crane brings up an aphorism that he once remarked to Jefferson to make his point [I once said to Thomas, ‘a man who reads nothing at all is better educated than a man who reads nothing but newspapers’]. But Abbie then explains DNA testing, and the punchline is that on Wikipedia, Crane’s aphorism is attributed to Jefferson. In our world, Jefferson stole Crane’s material.
Anything you're especially excited about for next season?
A. I love that an epic love story is in the making, with the backdrop of war coming to Sleepy Hollow.
Any other advice for writers reading this?
A. Take big swings and aim high. Every year I try to do at least one project that's way outside my comfort zone. No doubt SLEEPY HOLLOW falls into that category. It's incredibly scary and exciting creatively. I can't emphasize what a thrill it is to get to work with a network and creators like Alex, Bob and Len who embrace that.