Salem, WGN America’s first original scripted series, may take its cues from the infamous 17th-century witch trials, but stepping into a historical drama with supernatural elements is definitely new ground for executive producer Brannon Braga and star Shane West.
Speaking with a group of journalists before the Salem presentation at WonderCon Anaheim, Braga (Terra Nova, Star Trek: Enterprise) said he became intrigued when he read the pilot script by series creator Adam Simon.
“He had an idea about witches being real during the witch trials, but also the idea that they were running the trials,” he said. “That just really sparked something with me.”
The reason for the witches staging the trials will be revealed over the course of the season, which began April 20. Beyond the hook, Braga was also intrigued by the Massachusetts Colony, a well-known setting from high school English classes, largely due to one work of fiction.
“I read The Crucible in high school. I saw the Daniel Day-Lewis picture, but that’s about it,” Braga said. “Then I started reading the transcripts; every trial was meticulously recorded. They put a pig on trial for being a witch — it was crazy! So this whole world opened up immediately.”
He didn’t say whether the pig trial will be seen on the show, but rather used it as an example of the paranoia surrounding the historic events.
“The paranoia would be huge,” said West, who plays John Alden, a Salem citizen pulled straight from the history books. “It was a Puritan culture and I would have believed in it all.”
Because of tensions with nearby native tribes, the encroaching French and the harsh realities of life on the frontier, West said understood why residents were so eager to believe in witchcraft.
“If anything was off, like a disease, of course they’re going [to assume witchcraft],” he said. “It’s amazing that they did that for so long and there were so many deaths, but it’s not shocking that something like that would happen in that [environment].”
In choosing to make the witches real and their powers a certainty in the show’s universe, Braga decided they would be the only supernatural elements on display. “We wanted to make our witchcraft a little more David Lynch than Harry Potter,” he said. “It’s more rooted in the tradition of body horror, like David Cronenberg. There aren’t any werewolves running around.”
The setting and the material is a change of pace for the producer, known for such sci-fi series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and FastForward, but Braga is happy to see such an acceptance of genre material.
“When I started in television in 1990, the word on the street was the one-hour drama was dead,” he recalled. “It was news hours, and reality programming was emerging, and if you were trying to be a television dramatist, forget about it.” Nearly 25 years later, he views the current television landscape as a “sort of renaissance.”
Trading high-tech espionage for knives and primitive firearms was also a change for West, who took the role of John Alden shortly after his previous series, Nikita, wrapped its fourth and final season. “I thought I’d wait until next year to look for another series, but there were six pilots I was sent, and Salem really stood out,” he said.
Like his character on Nikita, John Alden can be stoic, but West identified a few differences. “John’s more stubborn and brash. He doesn’t have a Nikita to balance off of,” he said. “He’s a wild man.”
As the series begins, John returns from seven years of fighting the French and native peoples to see the love of his life, Mary Sibley, married to his greatest enemy. He is also unaware that Mary became a witch while he gone.
Braga noted that even 10 years ago, Salem would have had a rough road to television, with the most likely change being a contemporary setting. However, he credits WGN America with allowing the drama to remain in the 17th century. “[Network executives] wanted something that really announced their network with something unique and daring,” he said. “It’s a period horror piece. The Exorcist meets Wuthering Heights is certainly a bizarre combo, but I think it really works.”
“When they ordered the show straight to series, we hadn’t filmed a single frame or cast anybody or written another script,” Braga explained. “We just had [the pilot] script.” Committing to a series on the strength of the pilot script is uncommon, and the producer thought it spoke to the cable channel’s belief in the project. “They ordered it and said ‘Here’s the premiere date.'”
West noted that as the season progresses, John’s role in the town will clearly become that of “witch-hunter,” and see him ally with Cotton Mather, another historical figure brought into the world of Salem. “He has a lot of the same issues that Cotton Mather has, even though they’re complete opposites,” he said. “Then you find that they have to team together to discover who these witches are. He quickly becomes a hunter, but he’s really only the toughest guy in town.” While Cotton has the book learning, he will not pick up a gun or knife, so John has to do the dirty work.
Although extensive research wasn’t required for the role, West found the life of the historical John Alden interesting. ”
[He] was apparently one of nine kids,” the actor said. “We haven’t talked about any of those brothers or sisters [yet]. He was a person who left town often, went to wars. In history, he’s called a witch and gets put in jail. Then, strangely, breaks out, doesn’t leave town and they let it go. That’s the reality!”
And as for Season 2? “I’m just working on the final two episodes [of this season],” Braga said, but acknowledging he has “a general sense” of what a second season might bring.
Of more immediate concern for the audience will be the witches’ plan for the town.
“There are those witches in Salem that think that they should just lay low. But laying low got them burned in Europe,” Braga explained. “Then there are those like Mary Sibley, who have a grand vision of a nation of their own. This proto-America could be theirs if they play their cards right ,and it means death for everyone else.”