From the Set of 'Salem': WGN's New Horror Drama Unveils Its World of Witchcraft and Fanatics

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It was an exceptionally seasonable March afternoon in Louisiana that a group of reporters piled into a bus headed through rural Louisiana toward the exterior 'Salem' set in Grand Cane, located in a farmland forest that entirely concealed the grandeur within. Mind you, I’d never been on an exterior set visit for such an elaborate period drama, let alone one that constructed a working town of 25 exterior buildings (and 13 custom interiors) against the backdrop of a scenic lake, which itself we’re told would be digitally expanded to better emulate the Massachusetts coast.

WGN America’s ‘Salem’ will hit the tubes this weekend as the network’s first original scripted drama, and, more now than ever, I remember the quick response director David Von Ancken ('Hell On Wheels') gave during an on-set interview for ‘Salem,' as I asked what message the network intended to convey with such a bold choice for its first original. “We’ve arrived,” he shot back, a phrase I’d repeat multiple times throughout the weekend.

A period drama that straddles the line between fantasy and fiction in recounting the 17th century Salem Witch Trials certainly grabs your attention as WGN’s first offering. I’d known little of the network or the series itself before boarding the plane from New York, and yet, there I stood in the dirt of a town square with prominent stocks and gallows placed in the heart of “Salem,” while enthusiastic hired extras rode horses around the streets, threw a bit of side-eye amid their blacksmithing, or, in the case of the town brothel (“The Divining Rod,” because of course), suggestively motioned to potential customers. Just down the road, baby goats made their presence known from within the pen. They would not seem so adorable as ritual sacrifices, I realized.

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Whether you remember your history (or at least Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible'), the new vision of horror from WGN America presents ‘Salem’ as a 17th century settlement rife with conflict, particularly as the threats of both witchcraft and the resulting accusations permeate every corner of life. Described by series creator Brannon Braga ('24,' 'Star Trek: The Next Generation') as ‘Wuthering Heights’ meets ‘The Exorcist,’  the pilot episode kicks off early on in the series’ timeline, as native son John Alden (Shane West, 'Nikita') recoils against the sight of young Isaac ('Mob City''s Iddo Goldberg) being publicly (and literally) branded a “Fornicator” in the town stocks. Shortly thereafter, John leaves behind his beloved Mary (Janet Montgomery) for a tour in the French Indian War, returning a staggering seven years later to find Salem a very different place than he left it, and Mary as well, gripped in the throes of fear and magic.

Explaining that ‘Salem’ takes liberty to focus on character over history, West told me of his research for the role of John Alden:

I was surprised to discover that during this time period, you think of witches being burned. It’s a classic thing, even though it was more of a myth at this time. [Witches] were more hung, or stoned, or drowned. That stood out to me, because I just assumed that that was one of the ways of torture. But this is historical fiction; we have a license to tell the story differently. I wanted to get a little bit of the background of the real John Alden, but I didn’t feel all of it necessary, considering we weren’t going to explore other parts of his life.

Also filling out the cast is West’s fellow ‘Nikita’ star and character actor Xander Berkley in the familiar role of Magistrate Hale, Salem’s chief politician with more than a few secrets of his own, and recognizable ‘Fringe’ and ‘Arrow’ star Seth Gabel as local aristocrat Cotton Mather, who fans the flames of Salem’s witch hunt so long as they don’t encircle his own sinful behaviors.

Revenge’ star Ashley Madekwe plays the mysterious (and apparently ageless) Tituba, an adviser and magical practitioner to Mary, who may well be pulling her own strings. Lest we forget, we also have ‘The Tudors’ star Tamzin Merchant in the role of Hale’s daughter Anne, who finds herself attracted to the returning John Alden, along with Elise Eberle as Mercy Lewis, a mysteriously afflicted girl who provides some of the more gruesome and viscerally exciting possession material we’ve seen.

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Whether or not we're meant to take Mercy's possession as real, or a young girl excited for the first time to have power over and the attention of all within the town's ranks, the pilot makes definitively clear that 'Salem''s women rule all, magic or otherwise. Tamzin Merchant told me all about the unique manner in which 'Salem' portrays its female characters apart from history, and other works:

What I love about it is that we see empowered women take their destiny into their own hands. That definitely, for the period, is a highly unusual thing. What actually happened in Salem was that these young girls were fueling hysteria, but what we see in our version is that these women are empowered by mother nature. That’s their primary driving force, the paganism in mother nature. They take charge in ways that women don’t in your usual period drama.

The impressive scope of production dictated that WGN had only the pilot episode of ‘Salem’ to show reporters in advance of the set visit, though the premiere alone was enough to turn many of our preconceptions about the characters on their head. Magic may indeed be real, and we’ll discover more than a few of the main characters to hide their darker sides, but don’t expect any CG-heavy fantasy sequences. The most challenging aspect of introducing magic and witchcraft into ‘Salem’ was “keeping it matter of fact,” director-producer Von Anken informed me. “I don’t like having magic that’s like ‘okay, now we’re going to show you something weird!’ If the characters tread [practical magic] as matter of fact, I find it much more interesting.”

That said, we didn’t get to observe any actual filming during the trip, and might have liked to be present for a pilot scene that featured an orgy of tarred black bodies writhing within a pit of flame. Hey, we all have our kicks.

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Constructed over two months and designed by ‘Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey’ designer Seth Reed, the elaborate set covers a broad spectrum of necessities for the ‘Salem’ lifestyle, and give or take some historical license here and there (brothels might have been a stretch). In only a few brief laps around the various cobblestone and dirt streets, I could see the likes of undertakers, apothecaries, haberdasheries, wheelrights, pessoners, pewterers, and all manner of additional words that probably once held some kind of human meaning.

The attention to detail is daunting, as amid the decorated interiors of orphanages, dining halls and single-room homes, we learned that cavernous homes like that of the Sibley residence drew real-life inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gabels. The next day, we’d visit the interior studios, including the art department, getting lost in the walls upon walls of period paintings and sketches that inspired the look of ‘Salem.’

Reed told me about about embellishing the more unique design aspects of a period otherwise given to simpler architectures and muted colors:

I’m always looking for detail. If I know that there’s a torture chamber that a certain character has, I’m going to be looking for the special trunk that opens a special way, so we can reveal his torture tools. That may be based on history, it may have a magical quality to it. Anything we can add a little extra touch to, and you may not even know it, you may only sense that it’s there, but that’s the whole idea.

Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush

Daunting as it may have been to walk through the visually arresting set on my own, swatting bees away from my head during attempted graveyard selfies, I had to wonder exactly where ‘Salem’ fell on a spectrum between horror, fantasy and history. “Thriller” seemed to be the word most commonly bandied about, as Braga said in our interview, “the storytelling sensibility we wanted it to have was kind of a thriller, but also a romance at the same time, and honestly, I’d been dying my entire career to do horror. When I was a teenager, I envisioned myself making horror movies.”

Von Ancken downplayed the more fright-filled aspects of the series, saying separately, “there’s elements of horror that we like to play, and you’ll see that there’s some incredibly horrifying things that happen, shocking moments and physical scares, but that’s not the lynchpin of the series. It’s much more of a low-level tension that builds for each of the characters, to the point you can never be sure something won’t go awfully wrong for them.”

It had been a long, dizzying weekend between obscenely early flights, the sound of actual eagles overhead looking to catch a meal amid dozens of lavishly outfitted extras in a recreated 1692, and walks through a pretend forest lined with mannequins garbed in human skin. With all that information to absorb, I couldn’t say for sure if WGN’s first original scripted series had all the right ingredients to make ‘Salem’ the splash its production so richly suggests.

I’m not one for period piece and magic per say, but an exceptional cast lined by a passionate crew in an immersive setting was more than enough to catch my attention. I’ll say this for the cast and crew of WGN’s ‘Salem,’ to paraphrase David Von Ancken once more: they’ve definitely arrived.

WGN America’s first original scripted series‘Salem’ premieres on Sunday, April 20 at 10:00 p.m. EST / 9:00 CT. Next week, we’ll roll out interviews with the cast and crew to dive even deeper into its witchy world, but what do you think? Is the new series worth a look?

Check out the trailer below, as well as a bit more original photography of our time of the set:

Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
Kevin Fitzpatrick / ScreenCrush
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