Interview: Canadian Sleepy Hollow creator’s strange road to success

Phillip Iscove took an unconventional road to writing for television. The Toronto native, who attended Ryerson University’s Toronto Film School while working at Bay Street Video, got a job at United Talent Artists in Los Angeles and headed for Hollywood. Once there, he worked his way up from the mail room to an assistant in the television literary department spending his off-hours at the desk of his boss.

Now he’s the co-creator of Sleepy Hollow, Fox’s rollicking fantasy series about an American Revolution soldier (Tom Mison) who has awoken in 2013 to do battle with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

You’ve got a full year on Sleepy Hollow under your belt. Are you still surprised by its success?
Phillip Iscove: I continue to be flattered and surprised by how much I love it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.

You’ve had lots of success and a little luck too. You went from Ryerson grad and Bay Street Video store employee to Los Angeles where you worked for United Talent Artists and worked on scripts during your off-hours. Not the typical road to the television industry.
Many people ask me about my story, but I’m not sure a lot can be learned from it. I got incredibly lucky and the planets aligned for me in a way that I continue to pinch myself every day. The truth is that I got the job at UTA that allowed me to move out here and I sort of approached it like a graduate degree. Like, ‘I’ll work at this agency and I’ll learn the business side of things.’ I had a film degree, but like everyone else I came out here with this altruistic, ‘I’m gonna change things and they’re gonna let me do whatever I want!’ That goes away very quickly. It was just about reading scripts and building relationships with people that supported me and were happy to sit down with me. Those relationships bore fruit and I was able to get myself in front of Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

You didn’t go to the Canadian Film Centre or cut your teeth in Toronto or Vancouver. Did reading scripts and watching a lot of TV streamline your process into what makes for good television?
I think it was a mix of things. I do continue to watch a lot of TV and I try to read as many books as I can and try to be on the pulse as much as humanly possible but I think a lot of it has to do with what sells and why it sells. Being at UTA kind of changed the game for me. It’s very easy to kind of get lost in your own head a little bit: ‘I love this and this and this and everyone should love it with me.’ You have to fall in love with things that are viable as opposed to things that maybe aren’t. It’s trying to figure out making what you love palatable.

I didn’t go to the Canadian Film Centre, I didn’t go to Vancouver but I think that, strangely enough, working at Bay Street Video while going to film school really kind of allowed me understand why I loved something. It’s not enough to just love something; you have to understand why you love it.

What’s it been like working with Roberto and Alex and what do you learn from the guys behind Fringe, Hawaii Five-0 and the Star Trek movies?
The list is long. What they taught me and what they continue to teach me is how to make something palatable to a large audience and how to get lots of people to love your thing. It’s a tremendous gift that they have, the ability to make something fun, grounded and with three-dimensional characters that exist in a universe that people want to spend time in. I learn something more from them every day.

How many seasons of Sleepy Hollow did you have in your head?
I’d be lying if I said I had a number of seasons in my head. I, quite frankly, was just hoping somebody would let me write something. But once Bob and Alex and Len Wiseman and I started to work on the pilot and series documents we started to see a much bigger plan that could come into place. As it said in the pilot, and as it says in the Bible, witnesses do bear witness for seven years of tribulations. It would be great if we ran for seven seasons.

In every episode there is at least one major revelation in the plot, an ‘Oh shit!’ moment. Was it important for you to have a reveal each week?
We just want to take people on a fun ride each week. It’s about the roller coaster that we’ve created for ourselves and you want every episode to be special and like you’ve given viewers the key to an amazing journey. We approach each episode with the hopes of having that ‘Oh shit’ moment that you speak of.

Sleepy Hollow airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Global.