April 18, 2014 8:00am PT by Philiana Ng
'Salem' Boss on Fearless Witches, Pushing Boundaries and Censors (Q&A)
WGN America, the Chicago-based Tribune-owned network, is betting on witches as it enters the scripted game.
Set in 17th century Massachusetts, Salem chronicles the world of the most notorious witch trials in history, a period steeped in fear, suspicion and hysteria. The witches featured, led by Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), are real, but they are not who or what they seem.
"It's flattering but it's also a little nerve-racking because it's one thing to try and make the best show that you can, it's another knowing that the stakes are perhaps even higher than normal in this branding -- or launching or whatever word you want to use -- of a network," co-creator Brannon Braga tells The Hollywood Reporter of being WGN's inaugural scripted effort.
Salem, intended for mature audiences, isn't shy about harnessing the violence and sexuality that surrounds witchcraft. (The project was originally developed at FX, which houses intense fare such as Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.) In an early episode of the series, a possessed teenager suffering under a mysterious affliction bites off her own finger, and a town leader, hired to head Salem's witch hunts, is seen having sex with a woman from a brothel in the dead of night.
Braga, who has worked on various machinations of TV's Star Trek, 24, Cosmos and Terra Nova, talks to THR about the pressures of "launching" a network into the scripted space, the "surreal" conversations with the standards guy ("It's like, can you show urine?") and why he channeled David Lynch and David Cronenberg.
What were the initial conversations like with what the network wanted from the show and what you wanted to put onscreen?
It's funny. I don't think we ever really had a conversation about what tone the network wanted to set as its "brand." I can only read between the lines and say they ordered us [to series] -- a horror show that's also somewhat romantic at it's core. And they want to push the boundaries. I think they showed interest in the weird. What that means to their identity of WGN, you have to ask them, but they certainly -- one thing I can tell you for sure is they're not shy about the content. It's a graphic show. It's intense.
You mentioned how graphic Salem is. Was that a tool you felt necessary to employ to establish how high the stakes are in their world?
Absolutely. It's [WGN's] job to market the show; it's my job to create as believable a world as possible and try to put the viewer in the mindset of what it must have been like to live at this time and also create a believable supernatural world and hopefully scare the audience and engage them. Let the network make a splash with something bold and original.
Just from the first episode, you get the sense early on that it doesn't gloss over the witches. Is there a measuring stick for when you know you've gone too far?
For me, it's about telling the story and creating the mood and tone or revealing something, whether it's magic or about a character. I think you can never go too far. But I don't want this show to be gratuitous. The show is violent and strange, but it's a brutal torment, and we wanted the audience to hopefully see that. "What is this? I've never seen this before. Is this where that came from?" [There's a scene where there's] a frog shoved down a guy's throat. I know the show's working when the answer to that question is, "I don't know." Our censor is having a nervous breakdown because [in the first episode] you see a woman's nipple on her thigh. Can you show it? That's the big question. Seeing something new, that's what I really like, and by the way, I have no idea if that's acceptable. You certainly can't show it if it's on a breast, but on a thigh, I just don't know. But we're going to air it.
That scene you referenced, I had to rewind it a few times. Like, did I just see what I saw?
That came directly from the Salem witch trials' transcriptions we draw a lot of our imagery from. They were all meticulously recorded. The idea that witches had nipples, or what they call marks, on their bodies to suckle their familiars -- we didn't make that up. That's what they thought was happening.
Have there been any notes from the network in terms of things you can't show?
I've had several conversations with the broadcast standards guy -- a very nice gentleman. It's like, can you show urine? There's urine in the episode, so we had a 20-minute conversation about why urine is acceptable or not acceptable in certain contexts. You can say "shit" but you can't say "f---." You can show an ass crack or a side boob, but you can't show a nipple. My initial conversations with them were surreal. I wish I had written down some of our conversations because they're pretty funny.
There's also a lot of nudity. Is that a crucial part of the story?
I felt it was important to show a contrast in attitudes toward the body. The Puritans wrap themselves up to the jaw line in pure black, whereas the witches are perfectly comfortable being naked and alone. I don't know if it's fully coming across, but nudity is a part of the show for sure.
How much leeway did you have in crafting these characters since they're based on actual people?
We're not the first show to depict Tituba -- Arthur Miller did it in The Crucible, even Ryan Murphy had a Tituba character in American Horror Story: Coven. These characters exist in history, and though they often haven't been used, virtually nothing has been set in this time period during Salem, which is amazing because it's in our collective consciousness. Really the only thing that's ever been made was The Crucible, not counting books. It's historically uncharted territory on TV and in film, so we had a lot of leeway and went for it.
Which character was the most difficult to get right?
Mary Sibley. She's the epicenter of the show. She's our Tony Soprano. She's got this sense of emotional inner conflict, so getting her right and casting her right [was difficult] -- and continuing to write a character that we would fall in love with and sympathize with but also be afraid of. She's Lady Macbeth meets Scarlett O'Hara. She's Lady Macbeth when we meet her, but when John Alden comes back that Scarlett O'Hara comes out.
Who took the longest to cast?
This cast took a very long time [to get]. Janet Montgomery was the first I knew I was going to cast. I met Janet in London when I was shooting Cosmos [on Fox] and fell in love with her instantly. The hardest one to cast was John [Alden, Mary's former lover] because casting a guy in his mid-30s who is a leading man in a period piece is difficult, yet something about him had to have a contemporary out-of-place feeling because he thinks differently. That took a while to find, and I think Shane West is perfect because he's a little out of place -- in a good way. Half of our cast is British. I suspected that was going to be the case because there's a little Masterpiece Theater in here somewhere.
Do you think there are shades of the modern woman in Mary?
That's funny you say that. That's very perceptive because if you put Mary Sibley as depicted on Salem and put her in today's context, she's not really doing anything that's shocking -- besides the witchcraft stuff. The women, or witches, on this show are progressive women who believe in equal rights. They don't talk about it that way because they didn't talk about it that way at the time, but becoming a witch is a way to empower yourself, and of course she's the leader of the town having put her husband in a coma.
You said at TCA in January that the show is more grounded than fantastical. How have you maintained that?
The writers and I just had a discussion about that today. You've got to be careful with magic. You're never going to see a lightning bolt out of the fingertips or them flying around on broomsticks. What was taken from the Salem transcriptions was people back then were afraid of nature, they were afraid of the woods, they were afraid of animals, they were afraid to Indians. The magic we're doing is very grounded in nature -- a little David Lynch, a little more David Cronenberg, body horror, nature horror, something that you could maybe, maybe almost believe to be real. Pulling that off is a delicate balance. Something you think is scary could become silly very easily if you're not careful.
Salem premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on WGN America.