In Freeform’s MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM, premiering Wednesday March 18, history is different. At the Salem witch trials, the witches – real magic users – made a deal with the authorities to fight for their causes in exchange for freedom. In the present, witches are the main branch of the U.S. armed forces (the same is true of other nations). Those born with magical abilities, overwhelmingly women, are conscripted when the come of age and sent to military schools like Fort Salem to learn how to weaponize their supernatural gifts. Those who do well go on to military college; those who flunk are put into the field as expendable soldiers.
The Spree is an underground group that fights against the military hierarchy. The Spree doesn’t believe in conscription, which is understandable; they also believe that blowing up, say, fifteen hundred civilians is entirely acceptable for the cause, which makes them less than entirely sympathetic, to put it mildly.
MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM focuses on three new cadets, idealistic Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton), ambitious Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams), and rebellious Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson).
MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM creator Eliot Laurence (also creator of CLAWS), and his fellow executive producer Kevin J. Messick (whose EP credits include the films THE OTHER GUYS, JACK REACHER, ANCHORMAN 2, THE BIG SHORT, DADDY’S HOME, and VICE, the documentary series THIS GIANT BEAST THAT IS THE GLOBAL ECONOMY, and the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning HBO series SUCCESSION), sit down together to discuss their novel fantasy series.
ASSIGNMENT X: How long has the mythology for MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM been kicking around in your head?
ELIOT LAURENCE: Since I was this big [indicates child size]. No, just years and years. I just let the nerd river flow and jumped into it, and just had so much fun. Because the thing that has always lit me up the most as a consumer is cool, slightly elevated smart sci-fi and fantasy. That’s my sweet spot, that’s what makes me a little kid again. I started in this business writing dark comedy with these guys [meaning Messick and Messick’s producing partner Adam McKay] on a movie called WELCOME TO ME, but the thing that I love the most is this. So I just let myself go, and I let myself make up a whole world with a lot of rules and new magic, and it was just a joy, and I’m just tickled that it has found a place in the world.
AX: So how did you all come together to make MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM? What is Adam McKay’s involvement?
MESSICK: Adam and I work together. We have a company [Gary Sanchez Productions, with Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy]. But Eliot’s been old personal friends in the real world with Adam, and he pitched the idea for MOTHERLAND as a novel to Adam about nine years ago. So that’s when I got involved. I read the novel version, that never came out, of MOTHERLAND, which, cut to several years later, became kind of the treatise for the writers’ room that he handed out as homework, because it was an amazing character breakdown of the world.
AX: Now that you’re involved with Freeform, which is part of Disney, which has its own publishing arm, might the novel version of MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM come out?
LAURENCE: I’m thinking about it. I chose the hardest way to do it, back then, which is epistolary, diary entries for each of the women. I had never written a short story. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I can do this. I can write diaries for three unique people, and have a different writing style for each.” It was not the most successful thing, although we went it to about ten publishers. People loved the story, which was incredibly encouraging to us. Nobody wanted to publish it. Now I think I know how to do it. And I am thinking about the Disney.
AX: Are the geographical boundaries in MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM the same as we have in our world?
LAURENCE: For the most part. You’ll see some differences, but it largely looks like our world. And we actually share the same timeline before 1692. So that’s where the two worlds diverge, MOTHERLAND and our world, when General Alder [played by Lyne Renee] made that desperate choice.
AX: Did other countries then emulate the early United States in terms of forming witch armies?
LAURENCE: And quickly. With great haste. Instead of rounding up their witches to burn, they created armies of their own, and we’ll see those in Episode 3.
AX: Is the world of MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM completely gender-flipped as far as the power structure, or are we looking at a gender power structure that doesn’t really exist in our reality?
LAURENCE: It doesn’t exist in our reality, but it’s not a global reality. The matriarchy that this series is set in is a unique thing to the military. The outside world – there’s a female president, who you’ll meet in the series, but it’s more like our world. But the capsule world of this witch military is matriarchal, and that’s been really fun to figure out.
AX: So the men keep the home fires burning for the women warrior witches …?
LAURENCE: Yeah. And they’re also raised to be very seductive. Their job is to take care of these women, so they’re a bit like geisha in the sense that, it’s not just about sex, it’s about being seductive and having an art form, and there’s a culture built around this seduction. So they’re not prostitutes.
MESSICK: But they are there to procreate and keep the witch lines moving.
LAURENCE: Yeah. Because this is a world where bodies are weapons, so you need new bodies.
AX: And presumably, while the women are pregnant, they’ve got a little more power, because they’ve got a second magically-powered person in there?
LAURENCE: They do, and they have a way to accelerate the pregnancy and make it virtually pain-free.
AX: And as soon as the baby is born, then what happens? Presumably, the mothers go back to their military duties …
LAURENCE: Yeah. And there are a lot of women on base who raise kids. There’s a whole system of fosterlings at Fort Salem. I did a lot of research about matriarchal cultures, and in many cases, the matriarchal clan raises the kid. It’s not like one mom and one dad. I found that very beautiful.
AX: With male children, do they send them off to their fathers?
LAURENCE: Yeah. The deal with the [magically-powered] guys is that there are so few of them, there’s a bit of a crisis in witch birth rates. There are so few guys that they’ve been removed from the front lines for about a hundred years. They’re too precious. It’s a reverse beehive. The guys are the precious ones we have to protect, because there are so few.
AX: So there are male witches?
LAURENCE: Yup. And they have the same magic. I think women have a bit more oomph than they do, but they have the same access to the vocalizations [one way to use magic] that the women do.
AX: Do the female witches who can’t find male witches marry civilian men?
LAURENCE: No. Marrying outside the army is verboten. Raelle’s mom did that and was punished for it. It’s verboten because they don’t want to dilute these very powerful bloodlines and let in all this loose stuff. They would prefer that you only procreate within the army.
AX: Right now, the main cast of MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM is at Freeform’s prime demographic age. If the show goes on long enough, will you have to return to the training to have new people at that age, or …?
LAURENCE: I don’t think so. I think we’ll follow these ladies into a conflict that re-forges the Earth. We’re talking about a world war that – it’s a return to Eden, basically. So we’re going to follow them to that.
MESSICK: And their audience is broader than just the age of our three girls. So we’re good.
AX: And were you drawn to the subject matter, or were you drawn to the idea of, “Let’s produce a show on Freeform with somebody whose work I like”?
MESSICK: It was long before Freeform. I was drawn to Eliot as just an incredibly talented, genre-defying, imaginative guy. And the movie that we made with him, WELCOME TO ME, that Kristen Wiig was in, was the first experience that I saw of him. And when he came up with the idea for MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM, it was just incredible. So it took a circuitous path from book to maybe a movie to, “Oh, no, a TV show’s the right thing,” but I’m happy that we stuck with him. Because he’s great, and the show’s great.
AX: And did you easily come up with the idea of, “Okay, we have one innocent, we have one cranky rebel, we have one gung-ho military type …”?
LAURENCE: Yeah. I think that was in my head from Day One. I think even the Witch High Council who creates these units has that in mind, because it’s about harmonics, it’s about the right ingredients.
AX: The main Spree character we meet at the beginning seems to be a true believer in the cause. Is the Spree as idealistic as she thinks it is at the start?
LAURENCE: You know, the Spree is not one thing. The Spree has no leader. It’s not one organization, it’s a lot of little cells. But as we progress in series, we’ll start to see that the Spree kind of has a point. This conscription thing – which is a global situation, other nations have witch armies – whenever the state is in control of your body, it’s not a great thing. So I think they have a valid point. Some of their methods are terrifying, but …
MESSICK: As you see in the pilot, there’s pretty terrible stuff that they do.
LAURENCE: You’ll also learn why [that character] joined. She has her own baggage, and she endured some really terrible stuff. So she has her reasons, too. I wanted to sort of humanize the terrorists, and examine what kind of circumstances creates somebody like that.
AX: What are some of the unique challenges of producing MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM?
MESSICK: Actualizing the wild imagination that we love about Eliot is also the biggest challenge in figuring out how to put that on film. And it’s a world that, because it’s unique to his imagination, he knows it when he sees it. So from the sounds of vocal magic to what does an alternate America look and feel like, what technology exists and doesn’t exist, we all are in service to what Eliot wants to do. So the challenges are fun puzzles, like making any movie or television show. But it’s unique in terms of trying to capture what’s in his head.
AX: When you’re creating elements for MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM, do you ever think, “How on Earth is production going to do this,” or do you just go, “Eh, they’re very talented”?
LAURENCE: I have Kevin on my side, so I know he’ll figure it out.
MESSICK: Eliot just expects it to happen, so … [laughs].
AX: Has anything looked or sounded or felt different, once you saw it realized?
LAURENCE: Altogether. We are really gifted. We work with incredible designers and sound designers and production designers and art directors and costume designers. It’s often better than what’s in my head. It takes awhile to get there sometimes, which is taxing, but yeah, I’m very happy with how it looks and sounds and feels.
MESSICK: One of my favorite things that he came up with that we had to figure out was, there’s an ancient witch tongue that existed long before any of these characters ever existed. And so there’s a guy [David J. Peterson] who’s a great expert at doing that, who created the Dothraki language on GAME OF THRONES, so we went to him, and he met with Eliot, and we downloaded him, and he created a whole alphabet and a whole language and structure. And then Eliot would write the dialogue and then he would translate it into this ancient witch tongue. And so you’ll see, even with subtitles, that take place. Which is pretty damn cool.
LAURENCE: And then, after he creates it, it takes the actors literally days with a vocal coach to say like two lines, because it’s so hard, and so beautiful, and so tricky and musical that it’s hours and hours to say two things.
AX: Are you putting out an album of …?
LAURENCE: We’re talking about a soundtrack, yeah.
MESSICK: Maybe General Alder will go on WAZE and she’ll tell you where to go.
AX: Lyne Renee, the actress who plays General Alder, looks a bit like Idina Menzel, who of course rose to fame as the witch Elphaba in WICKED. Was that resemblance intentional?
MESSICK: Oh, no.
LAURENCE: She was the one who had the authority, right?
MESSICK: She’s strong and beautiful, she has European roots, which we also liked, and she just had a killer audition.
AX: Most of your cast are not big-name actors. Was that deliberate, or are these just the people that were the best for the parts?
LAURENCE: It was more that, I think.
MESSICK: They were best for the parts. I think that when shows work, the people that you cast become the stars. We make another show on HBO called SUCCESSION, and when we cast that show, from the pilot, outside of Brian Cox, I don’t think the rest of the world knew who the rest of the cast were, and I think there’s a great way where, when you’re introduced to a show, and you’re not associating the actors with anything else other than the world that you’re delving into, it kind of adds to the magic. So I think that magic is going to be there for MOTHERLAND.
AX: Is technology in this universe like it is in some other magical universes, where it doesn’t work very well around magic?
LAURENCE: It is there. There are no cell phones, which I kind of love. But it’s de-emphasized. The military is a driver of technology, and our military is magic. So we don’t have that in this world. So it’s there; it’s just de-emphasized. It’s nowhere near as interesting as the stuff that these ladies do.
AX: In our real world, singing can have an almost magical, religious effect on people. Are you diving into that a bit with the vocalization magic?
LAURENCE: Absolutely. It’s all about voices. And you’ll see the witches’ great enemies are those who would remove those voices. Literally. That comes later in the season. But yeah, that’s huge to me.
AX: Did you have any trouble coming up with all of these distinct female voices?
LAURENCE: No. I write almost exclusively women. I created another show called CLAWS on TNT, and WELCOME TO ME was about women. I write women. I find them more interested than dudes.
AX: Why is that?
LAURENCE: I don’t know. I’m the mama’s boy of the century over here. It could be that. I just think women are smarter and stronger.
AX: Most of the magical murder seems to be relatively bloodless. People collapse – I mean, there’s necromancy with dead flesh, but …
LAURENCE: You’ll see different things …
MESSICK: Yeah. You’ll some blood, but it’s not a gore-fest. That’s also not the intention of the show.
AX: What audience are you hoping to get? Are you hoping to get YA, are you hoping to get fantasy fans …?
LAURENCE: I think Freeform’s audience expands from teenage girls into adults, and we think the show also expands beyond that, so I think that’s their hope, is to hit their targets and maybe attract some new people along the way. Because it’ll air on broadcast on Freeform, and then, the same day, it’ll land on Hulu. So it’ll exist for lots of different people to watch.
AX: Have you had any Broadcast Standards issues?
LAURENCE: Surprisingly, no. They’ve been great. This show is, I think it’s about as edgy as you can push, in lots of different directions, in the politics, in the subject matter, in the character relationships. There were no fights.
MESSICK: We’ve been supported so beautifully by the network. We’re very lucky.
AX: How many episodes is MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM Season 1?
LAURENCE: Ten episodes.
AX: Do you know when you might hear about a Season 2 pickup?
LAURENCE: Yes, exactly. We’ll know in March. When we start airing.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
LAURENCE: No. This is all about MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM, so this is what we want to talk about.
MESSICK: This is our focus.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM Season 1?
MESSICK: It’s new. It’s fresh and new and a reinvention of something we’ve seen a lot of. So I’m just excited for the world to see that.
LAURENCE: Ditto [laughs].
This interview was conducted during Freeform’s portion of the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM creator Eliot Laurence and executive producer Kevin Messick on Season 1