Beware, witches are among us.
At the end of March, I received the opportunity to visit Shreveport, Louisiana to tour the set and talk with the cast and creative team of ‘Salem,’ WGN America’s first original scripted series telling the story of the infamous witch trials.
So, to celebrate the show’s premiere, and to put the information I gathered to good use, I will be posting interviews each day (starting today) leading up to ‘Salem’s premiere on April 20.
With that said, I will first focus on ‘Salem’s magnificent set, its elaborate costumes and the creative team, including interviews with co-creator/exec-producer/writer Brannon Braga, director David Von Ancken, production designer Seth Reed and costumer designer Joseph Porro.
Day one’s visit consisted of a tour of ‘Salem’s exterior set, but it’s definitely not your ordinary set, as an entire village exists at Willow Lake Farm in Grand Cane, La. And by an entire village, I mean an entire village -- it felt like Williamsburg or some colonial town built for tourists, but better.
As you can see throughout the article, actual houses, an entire church, a market place, a brothel, an orphanage, the dunking spot, and, of course, the gallows and stocks sit on the lot. Currently, more than 25 buildings are standing on 28 acres versus the 18 interior sets, including actual woods, on the soundstage back in Shreveport.
For production designer Reed (‘Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey’), he and his team have yet to finish erecting this magnificent set. They first started last August and worked continously until December, but as Reed told TVRage.com on set, “It’s an ongoing project.” There’s no real factor deciding when they’ll finish building, and as Reed noted, “There’s no way to know. We’re gonna keep going and going. The more, the better.”
Despite taking over for the original designer, Reed hasn’t encountered any challenges, though he did
conduct plenty of research, “A huge amount of research. It’s a very rich period. A lotta lotta history, and a very interesting time in America. I immediately started reading. I started looking at books. I have a huge library in the office.”
In addition to the books, ‘Salem’ scripts and team communication also influence Reed’s job. “One thing I’m gonna just say is this project is so successful because there’s huge collaboration and huge communication. All the producers and the writers and the directors -- we’re all friends. So, when they sense … when they know that something new is going to happen, I get a phone call … So, here I am. I’m already ahead of the game. That’s how we’ve managed to succeed. We have a new script every seven days, and we’re having maybe half a dozen new sets every seven days.”
Braga's been a huge part of set development, and even admits it was taxing, "This was the most challenging aspect of the show -- us building this set. It cost a lot of money. It was really logistically challenging."
One might think such a setting would make a job easier, but not for director Von Ancken, "In many ways it makes my job more difficult, because when you have a great [set], then you really have to make sure you show it and use it right. … We’re constantly trying to find ways to show -- in every episode -- to show this place in a new light."
That's not to say the set is discouraging, as Von Ancken said 'Salem' was more than he imagained, "It was like nothing I’d ever seen -- or read -- combining a historical fiction with things that were very grounded in reality, and stuff like the earthy magic, [nothing] like I’d ever seen on movies or TV before."
Similar to the set design, costumes were another task the show and costume designer Porro (‘The Music Man,’ which earned him a 2003 Emmy nom) took on full force, and he found quite a bit of inspiration from the 17th century time period. He explained his process to TVRage.com as we walked through the interior woods, lined with costumes, on the soundstage. “There was a lot of inspiration, actually, on this one. There was a lot of rules, [and] in the beginning when I came into it I thought we wanted to be very accurate, period wise.
“But, the more I talked to the directors and stuff, the reason they hired me was, not only am I a costume designer who’s done a lot of period shows, I’m also a fashion designer who’s done a lot of trendy stuff and they hired me as a fashion designer, because they didn’t want it to look like a classic period show.”
Rules might have existed in the beginning, but that quickly changed for Porro and the ‘Salem’ creative team, “We didn’t want our Puritans to look dowdy and unattractive. So, they wanted everything sexier and more evil and more interesting. Those were the big challenges in the beginning -- as a designer how would I convey that through clothing.”
Porro continues to go above and beyond with the costumes. From using plastics and creating a patent leather dress (an article of clothing that didn’t exist during that time) to lowering necklines to mastering jeweled stomachers (the triangle panel on a woman’s bodice) as a way to get reflection off the clothing to intertwining antique lace from the 1820s, Porro has tried it all. He still manages to maintain correct silhouettes, as a way to stay true to the period.
‘Salem’ really is a masterpiece of its own, which isn’t only illustrated through costumes and design. The cast, the characters, the writing, the stories, and so on, breathe life into the series co-created by Braga (‘Star Trek,’ ‘24’).
When talking with Braga, inside the beautiful church they built for the show, Braga’s real reason for developing ‘Salem’ is because the story hasn’t been told that much before. “See, to me, part of my attraction to this project was that there haven’t been many [projects about Salem] -- at all. I can only name one and that’s ‘The Crucible.’ That’s not to say there haven’t been others … but there’s not a lot -- a handful. So, I don’t think it’s a time or place people are really all that familiar seeing. That’s one of the things I think is fresh about the show and sets it apart from other supernatural shows.”
Von Ancken (‘Hell on Wheels’) agrees, especially when it comes to supernatural elements, “I think it’s different. I don’t think it tries to compete. There are some very campy ones and there are some very big, huge production value ones. But, this one is attacking the concept of the supernatural in a really different perspective -- one that’s very organic, very real, it’s a slow burn, and things don’t poof up in front of your face that fast, but it feels like it can come up behind you easier.”
Of course, ‘Salem’ is much more than the witch trials and witch hunt, as it encompasses romance, family and unique relationships. But, can the series last beyond the trials? Von Ancken thinks so, “Yes, because I think once you attach to the people who experience those trials, then you’ll be interested to see what happens to them afterwards. But, the witch trials did go on for awhile, so we have plenty to play with.”
Braga hopes viewers tune in, “I hope they take away from the show what attracted me to it, which is it’s scary, and I like scary things, but it’s also deeply romantic and genuinely heartfelt. Those are two things that I think don’t initially sound like they should work well together, but I think on this show that they do. I hope people like it.”
‘Salem’ debuts Sunday, April 20 at 10/9c on WGN America.
Stay tuned for interviews with the cast, including Shane West, Janet Montgomery, Xander Berkeley, Tamzin Merchant, Seth Gabel, Ashley Madekwe, Elise Eberle and Iddo Goldberg.