Exclusive Interview: Creator/Producer Brannon Braga Talks TV’s “SALEM”
In SALEM, there are witches among us. WGN America’s first scripted series, which airs its third episode “In Vain” (pictured above and below) this Sunday, May 4 at 10 p.m./9 p.m. CT, takes us back to the late-17th-century Massachusetts village and focuses on the practitioners of dark magic and those who hunt them. One of those guiding the ongoing story is Brannon Braga, creator and executive producer with Adam Simon, who spoke to FANGORIA about the show.
The catch in SALEM is that the witches are very good at looking innocent and framing others for things like sudden and strange deaths, unholy pregnancies and the sudden and literal coughing up of toads, along with a host of other dark doings. The story integrates people who actually existed—like the apparently righteous Puritan matron Mary Sibley, played by Janet Montgomery (1st photo below with Xander Berkeley as Magistrate Hale, and 2nd photo with Ashley Madekwe as Tituba), and Cotton Mather, portrayed by Seth Gabel—with fictional characters.
Braga has a long science-fiction résumé, with writing and producing credits on three STAR TREK movies and series, THRESHOLD and TERRA NOVA as well as the current documentary series COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY, but SALEM is his first foray into actual horror. At a break in his schedule during a recent Television Critics Association press tour, he explains that being new to the genre doesn’t reflect a lack of interest. “I’ve been a horror fan my whole life,” he says, “and I fancied myself making horror movies growing up. I ended up in science fiction, and though I’ve always sprinkled a little bit of horror into my sci-fi, I’ve never done this before. That was another reason why I jumped at the chance to do this show.” Upon learning that this interview is for Fango, Braga beams. “I grew up reading FANGORIA; I have every issue ever published, including #1!”
There are certain horror touchstones Braga says he hopes to evoke, though not copy, via SALEM. “I use the phrase ‘WUTHERING HEIGHTS meets THE EXORCIST.’ I can only aspire to come close to either of those, but we want a type of a lushly romantic, authentic feel, and we want it to be scary as hell. And we want it to be—as weird as the show is, and hopefully as frightening as it is—deeply felt and romantic. Filmmaking-wise, just in terms of a grounded tone, ROSEMARY’S BABY has been discussed the most, being a great piece of filmmaking that made you believe in witches and came from a very authentic-feeling place. That was really about witches, too.”
Recalling how he and Simon (who discusses SALEM in FANGORIA #332, now on sale) came to create a FANGORIA-appropriate project, Braga says, “Adam had a concept that Fox 21 liked very much, and Bert Salke, who was the head of that company, called me and said, ‘We have a project that takes place in the 1600s in Salem. We have a writer who needs to be paired up with a showrunner.’ I hooked up with Adam, and I loved his material and the time and place—it seemed like it was uncharted. There’s really only one, to my knowledge, major piece of fiction set in this time, and that’s THE CRUCIBLE [Arthur Miller’s play about the witchcraft trials], and that’s just one take on the place. I was very attracted to the material, and that was two years ago when I first sat down with Adam. I’d say we spent the first year developing the [pilot] script and the series and getting it to a place where it was good enough to start seriously considering getting it made—and it not only got made, we got a direct-to-series order based on that script.”
It turns out, Braga reveals, that broadcast standards have not been a particular issue for SALEM. “I’ve known Matt Cherniss [WGN America’s president and general manager] for several years, and he loves genre and he had a particular interest in Salem and witches. So it was a perfect confluence of events. Matt pushes us to go further than I would have ever necessarily thought any network would want to go. So this show’s out there. It definitely pushes the limits.”
Given all the supernatural events that require plotting by the characters, and then further plotting to cover them up or at least mislead Salem’s residents about who’s responsible, SALEM follows current trends in serialized TV storytelling, but only to point. “It’s one of those shows that so far is completely a saga and a soap opera of sorts,” Braga notes, “but it’s not so complicated that you couldn’t tune in [anytime], and that’s always the trick. I learned a lot of lessons from my time on 24, probably the most serialized show in TV history. There are ways you can keep an audience engaged, and even with 24, you couldn’t point to one episode and say, ‘That’s the one where Jack Bauer landed a plane on the freeway.’ ”
With the show set in a 17th-century North American colony, accents have been an issue, Braga reveals. “We had many discussions, particularly involving Janet’s character, because in reality, most people who lived in Salem at this time had British accents; they’d just moved there. But we knew that we wanted John Alden [played by Shane West, pictured at top] and most of the cast to be American.” Mary, however, speaks with actress Montgomery’s native British tones. “When we cast Janet, we initially had her do American, but she lost a little bit of her inherent charm and power, so because it was a melting pot at that time of different accents, we were kind of deciding on an actor-to-actor basis.”
Montgomery was an early casting favorite of Braga’s, he acknowledges. “I’d certainly seen and been sent some of her work, and I was actually filming COSMOS in London and met her in person. And after discussing SALEM with her, I knew she was absolutely right for the show, and though we did explore other actresses over the months, I always knew it was going to be Janet. And I’ve happily been proven right. She’s really good in the role.”
Braga’s concluding thoughts about SALEM are simple: “Well, my greatest hope is that the show is being favorably welcomed by FANGORIA’s readers—one of whom I am.”