A Visit to the Set of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow

Buyers bet on new fantasy/sci-fi/cop show

The sun is slowly dragging its way out of the earth and up the trunks of the black gum trees and loblolly pines when a silent figure appears from out of the fog. Ashen like the floor of a crematorium, hollow eye sockets all but a rebuke to the wan coastal light filtering through the leaves, the interloper gets within a few yards of his prey before the young woman suddenly realizes that she’s no longer alone in the clearing.

Enter Sandman.

While she’s terrified by the specter that stands in front of her, Abbie Mills’ police academy training overrides her fear. In one smooth motion, she raises her .40-caliber Glock service pistol at shoulder height and empties the magazine.

After a series of insert-CGI-here pantomimes—the gunshots and muzzle flare will be added in post, as will the whirling sandstorm that wipes the screen as the villain makes his escape—the two combatants quit each other’s company. Sandman (Marti Matulis) staggers up a rise, where he’s met by a pair of production assistants. “Ugh. Mosquitoes,” the creature says, or something to that effect. Given that the area where his mouth should be appears to be sealed shut by a taut flap of skin, it’s hard to be entirely sure what’s on his mind.

Seated a few yards away in a fog-wreathed stand of trees, Sleepy Hollow star Nicole Beharie is echoing the sentiments of her otherworldly scene partner. To say that it’s humid here on this late August morning in Wilmington, N.C., is to traffic in a realm of vast understatement; as such, the 28-year-old actress is having her hair and makeup fussed over a bit while director John Showalter calls for a switch to a Steadicam setup.

[Check out  behind-the-scenes photos from Sleepy Hollow]

“I’m getting murderized out here,” Beharie jokes, at which point one of the crew helpfully points out that the woods are positively acrawl with any number of creatures that would gladly sink their envenomed fangs into human flesh. “Banana spiders” gets tossed around quite a bit out here behind the vast EUE Screen Gems Studios lot.

“Snakes, too,” says the PA, who has a length of heavy-duty electrical cord coiled around his neck. Beharie fixes the guy with a lash-wide stare before glancing over at Sandman. The sun’s burned off much of the fog, and yet the itchy Matulis is still the stuff of nightmares.

“Thanks,” Beharie says, turning her gaze back to the clearing. “Super helpful.”

Putting the Fun in Funeral

When Fox takes the wraps off Sleepy Hollow (the show premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT), Washington Irving may very well spend the evening spinning in his cramped grave like a rotisserie chicken. Rather than lob pumpkins at luckless Tarrytowners, the 21st century Headless Horseman prefers to spray his victims with rounds from an assault rifle. If that weren’t sufficient villainy, a goat-horned humanoid does a bit of radical feng shui on guest star John Cho’s cervical vertebrae.

And we haven’t even mentioned the part about George Washington’s [apparent] role in a Masonic conspiracy to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Headless being one of them) upon the nation that he was instrumental in establishing. Oh … and there are witches, too.

And yes: All of those events, including the resurrection of the dashing freedom fighter Ichabod Crane—a rebirth some 232 years in the making—come to pass during the 45-minute Sleepy Hollow pilot. But as overstuffed as the show may be, the dizzying skein of dastardly developments is leavened with a palpable sense of adventure. It may be batshit crazy, but that only makes Sleepy Hollow all the more fun.

“That sense of fun is one of the main reasons why we’re so invested in the show,” says Fox entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, who suggests that Sleepy could prove to be an alternative to the wince ’n’ grimace aesthetic that’s had a chilling effect on so many other scripted series. “There are a lot of good dramas out there that are dark and complex, but not a lot where you go, ‘Hey, that thing is fun,’” Reilly says. “And Sleepy Hollow is fun. The concept may be a bit of a reach, but you just go with it.”

In the weeks leading up to the launch, the buzz on Sleepy is rivaled only by that for ABC’s much anticipated superhero-bureaucracy strip, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. According to NewMediaMetrics’ annual “LEAP TV” study, Sleepy has an 83 percent chance of being renewed, making it tops among all freshmen dramas. NMM CEO and co-founder Gary Reisman says women are responding more favorably to Sleepy than any other new show—so much so that the series is outpacing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hypothetical race for a second season by 10 percentage points.

Other preseason surveys have Sleepy and S.H.I.E.L.D. running neck-and-neck with comedies like The Michael J. Fox Show (NBC) and The Crazy Ones (CBS). But while favorable reactions from the throngs at Comic-Con and the TCA Tour helped reinforce the notion that Sleepy has struck a nerve (the vagus, presumably), no one involved in the production of the program seems to have a handle on why this may be so.

“There’s something about this show—it seems to, like, have come around at just the right time. And you just don’t know why people are responding to it the way they are,” says Ken Olin, who serves as an executive producer on Sleepy alongside genre heavyweights Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Fringe, the 2009 Star Trek reboot) and Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard, the Underworld film series). “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a reaction to the combination of the more fantastic elements of the story with the emotional underpinnings and character development.”

Media buyers and their clients have been eager to set up shop in Sleepy’s Monday night time slot, as automotive brands, movie studios, electronics/gadgets purveyors and the telcos are investing heavily in the show. TV buyers say Fox is charging an average unit rate of around $189,250 per 30-second spot, although time in the premiere commanded a premium—as much as $275,000 a pop.

“There’s an awful lot of stuff on Monday night that gets big reach numbers. But as far as the demos go, Sleepy Hollow looks like it could turn out to be a real smart buy for us,” said one national TV buyer. “Head-to-head, it goes up against a very old show in Dancing With the Stars, a very female-skewing Voice and two CBS comedies. If you’re trying to reach younger guys on Monday nights and don’t want to spend football money, this show may be your best bet.”

[Check out  behind-the-scenes photos from Sleepy Hollow]

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