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As the first scripted show to receive the greenlight from WGN America, the cable arm of Chicago-based WGN, there’s a lot riding on Salem. The fledgling cable network turned to veteran Star Trek and 24 writer Brannon Braga and co-creator Adam Simon to deliver a new take on the Salem Witch Trials that took place in 17th Century Massachusetts. The series made its debut last Sunday, amassing 2.3 million total viewers and a strong first showing for the network.
The same weekend their show was set to premiere, Braga and star Shane West, who plays first generation American John Alden, visited the CBR Tiki Room at WonderCon 2014 in Anaheim to talk about the series with Jonah Weiland. They explain why witches, what’s different about their take on the trials, and just how far the network is letting them take the show’s horror. They also finish up with a discussion of West’s secret history as a geek and the shows and books that inspired genre icon when he was growing up.
On why now is the right time to bring witches to television: “Now is the right time for Salem because Salem is uncharted territory,” said Braga. “If you think about it, we’ve all read The Crucible in high school, right? But how much have you seen depicted dramatically on TV or movies? Almost none. So I just think this is a rich world. Why witches? When we started on the show, we didn’t know about those other shows [like The Walking Dead]. Is it a coincidence? It it in the zeitgeist? I don’t know.”
“What helps us stand apart is we’ve taken this world where we’re taking place in the 1690s, back in the past during that time and it stays there. The genre aspect goes from there,” added West. “While some of the other shows with flash back to that, or harken to that, or have a backstory to that, I think that helps us stand out in this current [TV] world.
On who is West’s character John Alden: “John Alden is one of the first born in the New World,” said West. “His father was one of the first settlers. They’re kind of royalty in that sense, of just being the first. He’s a very confident, brash guy who is very passionate about his country and about the woman he falls in love with, Mary Sibley (Jane Montgomery).”
On how far they plan to take the show’s horror aspects and the network’s hands off approach: I know the show’s working when I get nervous calls from the censor. This poor guy. … The show is intense. We’re just telling our stories and we’re letting the network — they’re letting us do our thing, so I think it’s okay. … In my experience, [that’s] extremely rare,” said Braga. “Now that you’re mentioning it, I’m actually appreciating it for the first time. Having been in a daze from all the work, it’s been a pretty great process.”
On West’s geek leanings and Image Comics vs. girls: “Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe. I’m 35. I was born in ’78, that’s my time,” said West. “I was into everything. With action figures I was very much a Masters of the Universe guy — which one day maybe they’ll make a good trilogy of. The original Star Wars, G.I. Joe. With comics I was very much a Wolverine/X-Men fan. Read all of the X-Men at that time. … I remember exactly what happened. I was a teenager, I remember Image Comics came out and I started thinking, just being a teenager at that point, I’m gonna buy all the #1 issues of every single Image issue that comes out. And then around that same time I also discovered girls and then that was it.
On Braga’s genre influences growing up: I started writing for the genre when I was three. [Laughter] That was a lame joke. I was into Iron Man comics — I ended up writing some Iron Man issues a few years back,” Braga said. “I was into The Twilight Zone; I was into Stephen King. Most of my genre was reading and movies. My biggest influences was probably The Twilight Zone, I was obsessed with that show.
On whether there are more comics in Braga’s future:I did a Star Trek comic recently; I really like writing for comics. I’d do it again, yeah. It’s really interesting, you’re both the writer and the director because you have to tell the artist, panel-by-panel, exactly what’s happening, what you want to see, really specifically. It’s kind of a completely different way of doing things. I’ve made a lot of television, but I was never more excited than when I saw my first Iron Man drawings come in. That was one of the most exciting moments in my career. ‘Wow, this is so cool. This artist made these drawings that I wrote.’ So it was fun.