Behind the scenes of the new TV show ‘Salem’

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SHREVEPORT, LA – Have you ever wanted to explore the mystery behind the Salem witch trials? The new show “Salem” delves deep into a dark period of our history where 20 people were killed after being accused of practicing witchcraft.

In the show, you will travel back in time to 17th century Massachusetts. On this show, the witches are real and they are in charge.

The show will air on WGN America. FOX59’s parent company, Tribune, also owns WGN America. Tribune invited employees from all of its stations to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show.

I was lucky to be selected from my station to tour the set and to speak with the creative team and cast members about “Salem.” It was a great experience and I am thrilled to give you the inside scoop about the show before it premieres.

The show is currently being filmed in Shreveport, La. Production designer Seth Reed said they chose Shreveport because of the space. Crews built an entire village on a farm about 45 minutes outside of the city. Crews built a number of interior sets, which are in a massive sound stage in Shreveport.

“A historical show, TV show, like this is the most thrilling for any designer to have because there’s so much wonderful material to work with,” Reed said.

Not only are the sets detailed, but the costumes are, too. The man behind the magic is costume designer Joseph Porro. Porro mixed antique pieces with modern fabrics to create elaborate and custom-made costumes. Many hours were spent recreating the clothing of the period and some of the fabrics were imported from other countries.

“It’s not the Salem that we read about in the history books. We’re doing one that’s a little more fashion-conscious (and) a little bit more trendy,” Porro said.

At the core of this show is a love story between two characters: Mary Sibley and John Alden. Janet Montgomery stars as the leading lady. You may recognize her from “Made in Jersey” and “Human Target.” Shane West (“ER” and “Nikita”) plays John Alden.

The two are surrounded by the witch hunt and the Puritans are losing control at the start of this show.  In the first episode, you are introduced to Mary Sibley. She is married to the head of the Selectmen of Salem. Don’t be fooled by what you see on the surface. Mary Sibley’s life changes when her true love returns from war.

“I think with the return of John, there’s like this spark of who she used to be, which ends up growing throughout the season and it becomes more and more difficult for her to make the choices that she maybe would have found easier without John around,” Montgomery said.

When John Alden returns to Salem, it is not the same.

“The most important thing to him is getting the love of his life back and when he realizes that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that easy he’s tempted to leave,” West said.

“I honestly think there are those people that are going to tune in to be scared, but really the ones that stay for the long haul will be because of the characters,” said Brannon Braga, one of the writers.

Braga is also an executive producer and co-creator for the show.  You may know him from his other work too, including “Cosmos,” “Terra Nova,” and the “Star Trek” television series.

“There (are) a lot of moving parts to the show, but I promise you it will culminate in a really satisfying season,” Braga said.

“Salem” pushes many boundaries.  It mixes religion, sex, horror, compassion, deception, and revenge into one show.

“What we’re trying to do is expose an audience to history without making it dry ‘cause the history, let’s be honest, is just the backdrop,” director & executive producer David Von Ancken said.

As you watch what happens between Mary Sibley and John Alden there are two characters you should pay attention to as well: Tituba, who is played by Ashley Madekwe (“Revenge”), and Cotton Mather, who is played by Seth Gabel (“Fringe”).

Titbua is Mary Sibley’s helper. She does not like the people of Salem.

“I think Tituba will eventually have to struggle with that–like how does she take care of Mary’s feelings–and how much does she push Mary to get what she wants,” Ashley Madekwe said.

Cotton Mather has been assigned to identify the witches in Salem.

“He comes from this aristocratic family that’s very well respected and he has a lot of live up to and this is kind of the first thing that he’s been given to kind of prove himself as a man,” Gabel said.

His relationship with John Alden is interesting too. They knew each other as children and their relationship will be tested as the show progresses.

“The interesting journey is them, despite all their odds, needing to find things that connect them and throughout the series they will find those things and their relationship will grow and it’ll be torn apart and grow and it’s the ultimate historical bromance,” Gabel said.

When I spoke to the actors in Louisiana, all of them said people should not trust their first impression about each one of the characters.

“It won’t be long before you find out that Mary’s not the only one with a big secret. John Alden has one too,” Braga said.

Xander Berkeley (“The Mentalist” and “Nikita”) plays Magistrate Hale, one of the town leaders.

“We’re discovering the characters as we go along too with each new script that’s written. We’re getting more information and sometimes it’s a clear line and sometimes it’s a psychological reset,” he said. “He’s clearly somebody trying to–in the pilot episode have saner heads prevail and lessen the hardships of punishments that are being given out.”

His daughter, Anne, is played by Tamzin Merchant. She does not believe in witches.

“It’s kind of going to be interesting to watch Anne discover that she actually might be wrong about something,” said Merchant, who’s starred in other period pieces like “Jane Eyre”.

“What I love about this particular period piece is that it combines the period, which is a wonderful thing to do. It’s wonderful to embody not only another character, but another time period,” Merchant said.

Then there’s Elise Eberle’s (“The Astronaut Farmer”) character, Mercy Lewis. Lewis is being controlled by someone and she does not hold back portraying someone who is possessed.

“I call it the contraption or the harness. (It was) that thing that allowed me to really feel in that moment,” Eberle said.

When you watch the first episode you will learn quickly that Iddo Golderg’s character, Isaac Walton, is an outcast.

“I think it succeeded in setting the tone of how dark and awful that time was,” Goldberg said.

You may remember Goldberg from “Mob City.” In “Salem,” he is considered a sinner and put on display in the center of town for everyone to see.

“I think Isaac sees saving Salem or being a part of what saves Salem is…will be the thing that rids (him) of the shame he carries with him and the alienation he carries,” Goldberg said.

The first season of Salem will run for 13 episodes and they will be full of mystery.

“It’s a great ride and just from watching the first episode, I thought yes, you know, I think they’ve got it right,” Goldberg said.

Remember “Salem” will air on WGN America. It is their first scripted show. “Salem” premieres Sunday, April 20th at 10 p.m. eastern time.

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