For an adolescent, Sabrina the Teenage Witch has been around a long time. Initially, Sabrina was based on Tabitha, a magical baby, then toddler, offspring of witch Samantha and mortal Darrin Stephens on the live-action half-hour comedy BEWITCHED, which ran 1964-1972. Sabrina made her debut as a character in ARCHIE COMICS. Her first TV show, SABRINA, THE ANIMATED SERIES, ran 1971-1974. The live-action half-hour comedy SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH starring Melissa Joan Hart ran 1998 through 2003, when the animated SABRINA’S SECRET LIFE was launched.
Now the Hub Network has an all-new CGI-animated SABRINA, SECRETS OF A TEENAGE WITCH, airing Saturdays at 10 AM. Ashley Tisdale (Sharpei in the HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL films and the voice of Candace in PHINEAS AND FERB) voices Sabrina and Dean Batali (a writer on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and an executive producer/writer on the half-hour comedy THAT ‘70S SHOW) is the story editor.
At a party thrown by Hub on the Universal lot for the Television Critics Association, Batali and Tisdale team up to talk about their magical new job.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did you get hired for SABRINA because you’d written for BUFFY?
DEAN BATALI: They actually brought me on because of THAT ‘70S SHOW connection, because they wanted a sitcom. We try to structure stories in more of a sitcom way, and you’ll hear even some of the dialogue heads more towards sitcom. Which BUFFY did, too, but I got this job more because of ‘70S SHOW, partly because of BUFFY.
They wanted SABRINA to be sitcom meets BUFFY with a little bit of HARRY POTTER thrown in. They wanted some mythology in the high school horror stuff, but also they wanted it to be a sitcom. We’re trying for a little of that BUFFY dialogue style, which Ashley does really well. She’s able to do those quips and talk really fast, which is what we do a lot of.
AX: Are you taking anything from any of the previous versions of SABRINA?
ASHLEY TISDALE: It definitely is a new version of Sabrina. Obviously, it’s a secret still [that she’s a witch], so she’s balancing life between the Human World and the Witch World, which I think is a really cool aspect to the show, because as a teenager, first of all, you have so much pressure about homework, and not only is this girl relatable, but she also gets to be a superstar in Witch World. She has a double life and I find her funny and klutzy and quirky in Human World and super and action-packed and the hero in Witch World, so I love being able to play both of those sides of the character. I was a fan growing up of SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH, but I just was super-excited to come onto this because it has that new style to it and yes, it’s really fun and exciting.
AX: What are the stakes here? Can somebody die from a spell?
BATALI: There will be no death [laughs]. High school stakes are always raised. “I have to finish my homework” is as close to death as you get in high school. That’s a big deal, and whether or not I’ll be able to date Friday night when I have a test in Witch World is [a big deal]. Probably in half the episodes, we have some sort of monster. We have an episode where they’re hunting a dragon in the Witch World and a baby dragon gets out in Human World, so that’s a kind of standard high school “I have to take care of my friend’s pet” episode. In our case, it’s a baby dragon that’s going around burning things and hurting people without actually killing them.
AX: So Sabrina is in school in both worlds?
TISDALE: Yes, she’s in school in Human World, and then she’s a top student at theWitchAcademy, so it’s definitely a balancing act.
BATALI: And there’s a time thing, so she’s actually at school for eight hours in Witch World and then she comes back to this world and has to go to school back to back. So I think her days are actually thirty-two hours long.
TISDALE: [laughs] Yeah, she has really long days.
AX: You’ve acted in animated series before …
TISDALE: Have I done animation before? Yeah. I started doing animation when I was ten years old and have always loved doing it growing up, just because it was something that was really fun and cool and easy and I play all these different characters, using different voices for each one. I think the only difference is, with SABRINA, because she’s a new character for me, I’ve spent more time recording and figuring out [who she is]. In seven years [on PHINEAS AND FERB], Candace is crazy and you figure that out the first year. Just like any show. Even live-action, you’re trying to figure out the character and all that stuff the first year. So it’s such a fun job, and our director [Trevor Wall] I work with is always really high-energy and just makes it really fun.
I think it’s just that it’s such an awesome job. To go into a recording studio, there’s no hair and makeup and be able to bring a character to life – I love to work, and so if I’m not shooting something [live-action], I love being able to have a job where it’s animation. I also have my own production company, so I’m usually producing something. I’m not someone to sit around for a long period of time and it’s funny, because I just didn’t even think I would be on animation where people would notice me for animation, but there are so many times when actors and people like Jon Stewart come to me and say that they love my voice in PHINEAS AND FERB, and then they’ll say something else about another show that I’m on. Now that I have SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH, I’m just really excited for everybody to see it.
BATALI: I can’t tell you how much street cred I get at my house. I have two teenaged daughters. Ashley’s been a star at our house for ten years. The fact that I’m sitting here with the voice from PHINEAS AND FERB is a big deal to my girls.
AX: Is there a big difference between writing for animation and live-action?
BATALI: Well, it’s freeing when you’re coming up with action sequences and you can do things with dragons and do things with big battles. In one episode, we go into a friend of Sabrina’s nightmare which, yeah, we could do in live-action, but the fact that we get to have monsters and different sets – and also, when Sabrina cleans up her room, you don’t have to wait for her to clean up her room, she can just snap her fingers and clean up the room, and we do a lot of that high school wish fulfillment kind of thing.
AX: Do we meet Sabrina’s parents?
BATALI: We have a slight through-line of, “Her parents are missing, they might have been kidnapped, where are they?” Mostly because she was raised in Witch World and now she’s still getting used to people. These are mostly standalone episodes, but we do have a little bit of an over-arching mythology. You just see her living with her aunts.
AX: Are the aunts witches?
BATALI: Yes, they are. They run a coffee shop, so they’re always making muffins and coffee, but doing it with magic.
AX: Do they want to get back to Witch World?
BATALI: They like it here in Human World. And so does Sabrina. She’s just new to it. She’s not comfortable in it yet.
AX: Does the series have an antagonist?
BATALI: It’s Enchantra. Enchantra, this witch in Witch World, is sending monsters after Sabrina, and also causing problems in the human world, askingSalem [the black cat] to cause problems in the human world, because if Sabrina chooses to live in Witch World, Sabrina becomes queen, and Enchantra becomes the queen mother, basically. The whole theme of the series is, will Sabrina choose the Witch World, or to live in the human world? So Enchantra is like this bitchy aunt who tries to make life really bad for Sabrina, but then is really sweet to her face.
AX: In the previous versions of SABRINA, Salem the black cat was Sabrina’s friend …
BATALI: She talked to him. And he talked back to her.
TISDALE: But in this one, Salem’s attached to Enchantra, so he kind of is watching over her, and not in a positive way.
BATALI: Yeah,Salem is a spy. He’s a former warlock turned into a cat, which I think is similar to the previous, but he’s actually doing the bidding of the witch who wants Sabrina to choose Witch World.
AX: Can you talk about the parallels between the school storylines and the magical storylines?
BATALI: Almost every episode has something going on with high school, whether it’s a talent show episode where Sabrina becomes an assistant to magician, there are reports that she has to give, she gets a job at one point, there are chores she has to do at her house, and there’s usually something going on in Witch World that relates. In one, she has to take care of a baby creature in Witch World, kind of like in high school taking care of an egg. So that’s what we’re trying to relate. We spend about two-thirds of each episode in the human world, but there’s always that Witch World stuff that’s pulling her, kind of annoying her. When she has something going on in human world, there’s generally something parallel going on in Witch World. Joss [Whedon, creator of BUFFY] used to say that high school was the most horrifying place he ever was. I’m kind of picking up on that a little bit with SABRINA. Now, Witch World is more horrifying to her, and you’re going to see the push and the pull, whether she’s going to go to the light or go to the dark – which, again, our darkness is more purple [laughs].
TISDALE: So there’s a lot for her. Like just the pressure of obviously dealing with Human World and Witch World and then also Shinji, that’s Enchantra’s son, so there are all of these elements with boys around.
BATALI: Enchantra’s trying to hook up her son with Sabrina. That’s part of the prophecy that has to be fulfilled. One more thing – I didn’t want to define Sabrina by the boys in her life. Yes, guys will like her and she has these episodes where she’s concerned about getting dates and stuff, but I’m trying to lessen that a little bit. Part of that is I don’t want this independent teenage girl to be defined by whether or not her shoes match and her hair looks good, but that’s a little bit of her high school life.
AX: Are you crafting this show with the idea of what you would like your daughters to have seen?
BATALI: Well, they haven’t seen BUFFY yet. Yes, I like to write things that my daughters will like and also put in enough stuff that, no matter what age you are, you’re going to really like. These stories are designed for kids, but there’s a certain element, if the adults pass through the room, I want them to laugh, too. And I think Sabrina’s a good role model in terms of what she’s choosing, whether it’s the way she’s going to go, friends, loyalty, all the stuff she’s learning.
AX: Which episodes of BUFFY did you write?
BATALI: I wrote five. I wrote with a partner [Rob Des Hotel] for the first two seasons. I wrote an episode called “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” “Puppet Show,” I wrote “Phases,” “Killed By Death” and “The Dark Ages.” It was the early days of the Internet, and there was a little bit of a fanboy thing going on, but it wasn’t a lot, and we would read everything. Joss would respond. But it’s a lot different now. It’s just such a big thing now.
AX: You’ve said you’re not going to reference BUFFY on SABRINA …
BATALI: I can’t do what we did on BUFFY, and part of it is, I don’t really want to go into vampires. [SABRINA doesn’t have] that kind of darkness. Again, there are no spells. We have a nightmare monster that appears – he’s like an octopus thing that shows up and he’s haunting people’s dreams in the Human World and also attacking people in Witch World. We have a dragon. We do have the werewolf, but he’s not a recurring character. We don’t have any demons, we don’t have any ghosts
AX: When somebody gets attacked in this universe, do they get knocked out, do they get punched in the nose?
BATALI: You know, it’s a good point. There’s a certain level of cartoon violence, but it’s more cartoon action. At one point, we have these two bracelets that Sabrina and her best friend put on, and they become kind of influenced by these spirits within the bracelets. They start really hating each other. So you’ll see real danger, but you’ll never feel anybody’s going to get killed. That’s probably that seven to fourteen-year-old answer. It makes it sound like it’s really soft stakes, but it’s not. At a certain point, there are a couple of times where the portal between Human World and Witch World almost gets closed. We do that a couple of times, so Sabrina could get trapped in one world. So that becomes a little bit more serious.
AX: What is the target age for SABRINA?
BATALI: Good question. I think it’s probably seven- to fourteen-year-olds. And I think younger kids are going to like it as well. My daughter’s eighteen and I’m hoping that she’ll watch it.
AX: She’s eighteen and she hasn’t seen BUFFY?
BATALI: Have you seen what Buffy does? She sleeps with vampires. I don’t want my daughter to sleep with vampires. They can watch SABRINA. I’m fine with that [laughs].
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Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Interview with SABRINA, SECRETS OF THE TEENAGE WITCH Star Ashley Tisdale and Head Writer Dean Batali