The tattoos, motorcycles and horror of the web series “Chopper” are a far cry from other imaginations of Ichabod Crane and the legend of Sleepy Hollow. The series offers a 21st-century interpretation of what the Headless Horseman would look like today.
As a graduate screenwriting student at UCLA, Martin Shapiro drafted a movie script in an attempt to take a class taught by screenwriter Mike Werb, a professor in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
He was granted access to the course, and now – after several rewrites and edits – his script has been adapted into a comic book and web series, “Chopper.” Since graduating from UCLA in 2000, Shapiro has worked on several projects including “Chopper,” a modern-day take on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” that tells the story of a headless outlaw biker who collects the souls of sinners in the afterlife.
While stationed in Daytona Beach, Fla., and studying aeronautical science to become an Air Force pilot, Shapiro applied to the University of Central Florida film school without saying anything to his family.
He was one of 20 people accepted into the undergraduate program, and later pursued his graduate degree through the School of Theater, Film and Television screenwriting program.
In addition to working with “Chopper,” Shapiro said he will now be segueing into directing, which he studied as an undergraduate.
Shapiro, who also currently teaches screenwriting, said he first came up with the idea for “Chopper” while attending Daytona Bike Week, which features a motorcycle show as well as demonstrations by top motorcyclists.
“I’ve always liked custom choppers and the biker subculture and I also liked horror movies, so I decided I might as well combine the two,” Shapiro said.
The “Chopper” web series premiered in April 2012 in a staggered release of three episodes at a time for a total of nine episodes.
Shapiro said the inspiration for the story itself came from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which he read as a young boy.
“I just thought the Headless Horseman was the coolest thing,” Shapiro said. “I figured if such an entity came back today, instead of riding a horse like in the revolutionary days he’d probably be riding a motorcycle, which I see as an iron horse.”
In addition to inspiration from the Sleepy Hollow myth, Shapiro also said he has always been fascinated by ghosts, having grown up in a former plantation home in Virginia that was allegedly haunted by ghosts.
It was during his time at UCLA that Shapiro met J.C. Christofilis, who was a student in the graduate production program. After reading Shapiro’s script, Christofilis said he pitched the idea of doing a web series before releasing a full feature film.
“The feature film script was all ready to rock and we basically saw the web series as a conduit into doing the feature film and building an audience ahead of time,” Christofilis said.
Both the web series and feature film projects are backed by DILEMMA, the production company that Christofilis started four years ago in order to focus on branded entertainment.
Christofilis said working through his own company has given him greater creative freedom with these projects, though the process was difficult at times – especially from a financial standpoint.
“It is not for the faint of heart,” Christofilis said. “It was extremely difficult and continues to be extremely difficult, but making films and telling stories … is never easy, no matter how much money you have. When you don’t have a lot of money, it makes it that much harder.”
Ari Levinson, who served as visual effects supervisor for the “Chopper” web series, said the headless effects posed a challenge because they tend to be expensive when implemented digitally.
However, Levinson said he was able to use a hybrid approach that allowed for Christofilis’ creative ideas to be used without hurting the company’s budget.
“J.C. has a great eye for creating really shocking visual sequences,” Levinson said. “We were totally on the same page as far as trying to do as much of it practically as possible.”
Shapiro has since sold the movie rights to producer and fellow UCLA alumnus Christofilis in hopes that his script will soon be brought to life on the big screen.
After overcoming financial obstacles, Christofilis continues his efforts to produce a feature film based on Shapiro’s “Chopper” script, which Shapiro said was developed to be a franchise.
“We are still in the process of trying to piece together the movie,” Christofilis said. “We’re going to be going out to the industry … to see if somebody might come on board to shepherd this to the next level and help bring it to the masses.”