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Cast and crew work all hours of the day on “Salem.” (photo by Josh Guthrie)
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The town of Salem, Mass., in the 1600s was recreated in Grand Cane for the TV series “Salem.”
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Extras mill about on the set of “Salem.”
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Filming a scene for “Salem” in Grand Cane.
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Local crews were hired to work on the sets for the TV show “Salem.”
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Extras working on a scene for “Salem.”
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The dunking chair for those suspected of being witches.
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The stocks and gallows.
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Local actor Kris Barton is an extra in “Salem.”
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An interior set for the production of “Salem.” (photo by Josh Guthrie)
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A 1600s-era dining table recreated for “Salem.” (photo by Josh Guthrie)
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Lanterns help set the scene for Salem, Mass., in the 1600s. (photo by Josh Guthrie)
History is full of stories of witch hunts, none perhaps as famous as the witchcraft trials of Salem, Mass., from the late 1600s. It was a dark, fascinating period of American history that has been taught in schools for centuries.
But make no mistake, the new television series “Salem” – which was shot locally and will finish filming its first season this month – is not your history book’s version of events.
“Salem,” which premiered April 20, is WGN America’s first foray into original programming, and production for season one took place entirely in Grand Cane and Shreveport. Although the show does use real figures from the infamous witch-hunting trials, “Salem” is a reimagining of those events. The show is a mash-up of horror and history, revolving around a unique premise: What if the witches were actually running the trials?
“This is not ‘The Crucible,’” said writer and co-creator Brannon Braga. “It’s more like ‘Wuthering Heights’ meets ‘The Exorcist.’”
Thirty acres of Willow Lake Farm were leased out and cleared to build the town of Salem, and the results are nothing less than spectacular. Walking onto the set, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, circa 1692. Cobblestone streets, full-scale homes and shops, a church, a cemetery and even a gallows in the town’s center all create the authentic atmosphere of a time long gone by.
The attention to detail, from the total construction of 25 buildings, down to the leather used for door hinges, is the work of production designer Seth Reed. It took more than 125 carpenters working daily for two months to build the expansive set. “We have a wonderful local crew,” Reed said. “We’ve been able to find far more than we ever expected here locally in terms of set decoration, building materials and skilled help. We have an all local construction crew, paint crew, sculptors. The people are fantastic. They work hard, and it’s been great working here.”
Fiction always requires some suspension of disbelief from its audience; perhaps the only thing more difficult to believe than witches running amok in old town Salem is believing that Puritans could possibly have been as beautiful as the cast that portrays them. Viewers will recognize several faces, including Shane West (“Nikita,” “A Walk to Remember”); Janet Montgomery (“Black Swan,” “Entourage”); Seth Gabel (“Fringe,” “Arrow”); Ashley Madekwe (“Revenge”); Xander Berkeley (“A Few Good Men,” “24”); Tamzin Merchant (“The Tudors”); Elise Eberle (“Tiger Eyes”); and Iddo Goldberg (“Mob City”).
Having the exterior set located in such an isolated area helps the cast in immersing themselves in their roles. “You just show up, and you’re in Salem,” said Seth Gabel.
“It’s so in the middle of the forest there, it’s just fantastic,” said Iddo Goldberg. “You don’t really see anything that’s modern or that cuts your sense of the history. It’s very easy to access that feeling [of fear] when you’re on the set.”
“The coyotes late at night are pretty spooky,” agreed Ashley Madekwe. “When we’re all there it’s easy to feel safe, but when you’re walking alone it’s scary. I don’t like the dark. I’m a city girl, through and through.” She laughed before adding, “It should not be that dark, it’s just not natural.”
When they’re not filming, the cast and crew have been visiting local businesses and restaurants, with frequent trips to Rhino Coffee, Sand Bar and Another Broken Egg. Most of the actors hail from areas far from the South – with the exception of Shane West, a native of Baton Rouge – and they all seem to be enjoying their time in the city. “This is my first job in America,” said Tamzin Merchant, who was born in the U.K. “It’s been really interesting to come to Shreveport and get to know the American South as it really is rather than how it is perceived. I’ve found such friendliness in Shreveport.”
“For me, I love the people,” said Janet Montgomery. “They’ve all been so friendly. I actually really appreciate the values people have here. Coming from London, where people do have values, but there’s less of a thing about religion. Here, everything’s closed on Sundays. People really take it very seriously and it’s nice.”
“Southern hospitality is a real thing,” said West. “Here in Shreveport, they’re very accepting and very kind, and it’s a nice feeling.”
“Salem” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on WGN America.
By Kelly Flowers