By Denise Abbott
From Hollywood Reporter — International Edition, vol 361 n 49, 02.29.2000Inside production designer Rick Heinrichs’ spooky settings for Sleepy Hollow
An ominous windmill lurks in the shadows of Sleepy Hollow and eventually becomes the backdrop for the film’s climactic good vs. evil sequence in which the Headless Horseman confronts Ichabod, Katrina and Young Masbath. In a sense, the scene showcases every aspect of the film’s production design. “One of the things we were trying to do,” explains production designer Rick Heinrichs, “was inspire a sense of scary portentousness in the village. I think it’s different from Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, which is described as a dozing Dutch farm community. If our Sleepy Hollow is asleep, it’s a fitful sort of sleep, with nightmares.”While the windmill is more fantasy than reality — with its “pure Burton Batwing” sails — Heinrichs considers the image a metaphor for the town’s restless spirits. “It’s a derelict windmill until Ichabod releases the lever and the sails begin to turn. It’s as if it’s being brought back to life. There’s a ‘living dead’ vibe going on.”
Heinrichs, who has known director Tim Burton for 20 years since their days at Disney’s animation studio, had hoped to build the windmill as a single practical structure that could supply both interior and exterior settings. But safety concerns and the desire to maintain a controlled theatrical environment made Heinrichs decide on a combination of several interior and exterior sets, full-scale and miniature. He built a 60-foot-tall forced-perspective exterior (visible to highway travelers miles away), a base and rooftop set and a quarter-scale miniature. The interior of the mill, which was about 30-feet high and 25-feet wide, featured wooden gears equipped with mechanisms for grinding flour.
A wider view of the windmill was rendered on a Leavesden soundstage set with a quarter-scale windmill, complete with rotating vanes, painted sky backdrop and special-effects fire.
“It was scary for the actors who were having burning wood explode at them,” Heinrichs recalls. “There were controls in place and people standing by with hoses, of course, but there’s always a chance of something going wrong.”
For a final shot of the burning mill exploding, the quarter-scale windmill and painted backdrop were erected against the outside wall of the “flight shed,” a spacious hangar on the far side of Leavesden Studios. “The special-effects crew would set the vanes on fire and put the flames out after each take. They have a way of sealing things and applying the flammable material on top, although, after the course of several nights, it does do a number on the structure. For scheduling reasons, we shot the postexplosion first, so I was delighted that the blades fell where we wanted. Cables were used to try to make them land correctly, but it really comes down to luck.”
The flight shed interior served as the staging ground for a heart-stopping chase sequence, with Ichabod, Katrina and Young Masbath escaping the windmill conflagration in a horse-drawn coach, riding into the depths of the Western Woods with the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. The hangar’s interior walls were knocked down to create a 450-foot run, with a 40-foot width still allowing for coach and cameras. Heinrichs tailored the sets so cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki could shoot from above without seeing the end of the stage. “They’d start the horses at one end, and by the time they gathered full speed, they had to slow down so they wouldn’t smash into the wall. They were able to photograph only about six seconds worth of film at a time. Had we tried to do the coach chase outdoors, it could have been disastrous because of weather and the sheer size of what Lubezki would have had to light. So we just repeated the action over and over along the length of our interior forest set. After being edited, the sequence read as if they’d traveled two miles.”
The film’s strong design element necessitated that nearly everything be built from scratch. “One of the great accomplishments for us was building a functioning hydraulically powered windmill with carved wooden gears,” says Heinrichs. “Special effects worried that the teeth would grind down and break off. They wanted to use multigears running on separate motors. I thought, ‘Windmills have been used for hundreds of years; it’s got to work.’ It was magnificent to see.
“There’s a theatrical truth to the set that I know the actors really appreciated,” continues Heinrichs, who used a combination of real materials, painted backings and old-fashioned perspective techniques to create what he calls “stylized naturalism.””(Actor) Ian McDiarmid had just finished working on Phantom Menace, and he was so delighted not to be working on a blue-screen stage. There was mood, atmosphere and actual quality the actors could play off of and react to. It’s as close to old Hollywood as you can get.”