Salem Season 3 Interview: Brannon Braga Conjures the Weirdness of Marilyn Manson

Salem creator Brannon Braga reads from the book of shadows

Brannon Braga is bringing some fashion to Salem for season 3. The sleepy seaside town will be getting their own salon. Barbers didn’t only cut heads back in the days of the real Salem witch trials in the 17th century. They also fixed fractures, diagnosed diseases, leached lacerations and boiled boils. Steve Martin’s Medieval Barber Theodoric of York taught us that on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. Lucy Lawless, who played the iconic warrior priestess Xena, was the guest star for Salem season 2. She played ancient witch Countess Marburg. This year, Braga bagged celebrity stylist Marilyn Manson to snip locks and whip up some meat pies.

Braga is best known for the work he’s done in science fiction – such as on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Threshold and Terra Nova – and science fact – like his work on the Seth MacFarlane-produced revival of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He wrote more Star Trek episodes than any other writer, more than over 100. But Braga’s real passion is horror. Braga spoke exclusively with Den of Geek about the frightening choice of a Church of Satan priest playing the town surgeon.

Marilyn Manson is coming to Salem as the town’s barber. Did you cast him for his satanic connection or his hair care knowledge?

Brannon Braga: We cast him for both actually: The character of the barber-surgeon, the man who cut your hair who was the also the man who cut you open. I met a man who knows him at a Christmas party, of all things. Standing under the tinsel he told me Marilyn wanted to be on the show. I said we have the perfect role for him. He is perfect for sure.

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Was the creative team tempted to ask Manson about black magic, because he is a priest in the church of Satan?

I didn’t know that. If I had, I might have gone to him for some ideas for magical things to do on the show. I can’t speak for the rest of the people on the crew. He was everywhere.

Is Manson really just playing himself?

Yeah, he’s doing a character but it’s hard to distinguish the character from the real guy. There’s a certain look he brought to the part, an inherent weirdness. But, also, he was really funny. We didn’t expect that. So he was also able to provide some comic relief that the show has been lacking, which I think was an important change.

You’ve called the character a cross between Vidal Sassoon, Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd, and the teaser trailer makes it look like Dinley has a taste for human flesh. How good a cook is he? Does he share with the people of Salem?

You know it’s interesting. There are meat pies involved. I don’t think Marilyn made the pies. I doubt very much he cooks it all. But a lot of people, when the shooting was over for the day, would grab those pies and take them home and eat them. I never managed to steal one myself.

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Manson is renowned for his personal collection of archaic medical equipment. How well did he know his way around the OR?

The moment he stepped into Dinley’s space, he said I have most of this stuff at home. His lab is filled with charts of body parts and Grey’s surgical instruments. He was right at home.

Is Thomas Dinley as knowledgeable about the occult sciences as he is about anatomy?

Yes, Dinley has some secrets. There’s a secret connection to the witches and the occult. He is also engaged in his own twisted form of psychopathic murder. I’ll just leave it at that.

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Will he have any knowledge about resurrecting dead people?

Dinley plays an important role in making the devil’s plan come to fruition.  If anything, he’s going to prove somewhat adversarial, an unexpected adversary for the main characters.

To the witches?

To the people who are now involved. In season 3, from frame one we are in the devil-occupied Salem. Things are different. Things are not going to be the way he promised. And let’s just say an underground resistance movement forms. The witches, the normals, everyone is trying to stop the devil. And Dinley, who has deep connections to the devil, will prove an adversary to those people.

What did you think Manson would bring to theme song that no one else could?

Tyler Bates, our composer who happened to be working with Marilyn Manson on an album, said to me one day: ‘Marilyn has a song about witches that would be perfect for the show.’ He played it for me and it was perfect, exactly the right song. They recorded a different version for the show. It’s the Witch Drum song. The song on the album is actually much, much longer. It’s quite a good song.

You directed the music video for Cupid Carries a Gun

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No I didn’t. I never once said I directed that video. I’ve seen that all over and it’s completely not true. I don’t know where that came from so I can correct it now.

A wiki myth debunked. What kinds of occult studies do the writers do for magical accuracy on the show?

Well, initially and up to season 3, the magic was taken from the transcripts of the original Salem witch trials.  There was so much there that was so disturbing. When we were researching the makeup and the look, we decided to go with what we know of the time. In the upcoming season, we are going to hell. It’s an actual place. Our vision of hell was based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. We were accurate to the time because it stays within their reality.

You worked with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. How would he explain the goings-on in Salem?

He would probably describe magic has an attempt to explain things that people didn’t understand at the time. But then, you might also describe it as a means of controlling, certainly the witch trials, the different aspects of it magic. It’s interesting to note that Isaac Newton, probably one of the most important scientists who ever lived, giving explanations of physics and gravity. Newton was an astrologer, a numerologist and a Bible freak. So, he was into magic. He just happened to be right about the gravity thing. Science and magic were once commingled.

Like barbers and surgeons. What do you call Marilyn Manson on set?

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Marilyn, that’s his name.

Were there any supernatural occurrences on the Salem lot?

To my knowledge nothing strange really has happened. In the first season there were a couple of injuries, but nothing truly bizarre happened until Marilyn Manson. He brought it with him. He brought a whole bunch of things with him.

Did you ever run into the ghost of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in the bathrooms at the Roddenberry building on the Paramount Lot? They say you can smell his after shave when he’s around.

Well, the Roddenberry building is not where the original Star Treks were shot. I didn’t encounter the ghost Gene, but I will say the building did have a strong aroma of aftershave. But that was probably from a longtime producer, who’s now passed away, named AC Lyles. He’d been producing movies there since the early days of Cinema. He wore a lot of cologne, so maybe that’s what it was.

It’s the Star Trek 50th anniversary. Were you a Trekkie as a kid?

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I was not a Trekkie. I was into horror. I was part of a horror clique. There was a Trekkie over here and the Dungeons and Dragons guy over there and we all thought each other were nerds. So I was not really a Trekkie. I wouldn’t really become a true Trekkie until I started working on the Next Generation. I appreciated it. I understood why people were so into the show and why the show was popular even though it had been on the air for so long. I got it. It depicts an optimistic future. It’s one of the few science fiction shows, if not the only, that depicts an optimistic future.

Science fiction, especially today, is pretty grim. But most science fiction is parable. You can use it to embody different aspects of humanity that are challenging. You can do anything. You can do any story you can think of in any genre. There is a lot of science fiction that has elements of horror.

Star Trek is still unique in predicting a positive future, are we more accepting of horror?

I think the modern audience is more immune, or used to, or accepting of the supernatural. For instance, my 16-year-old goddaughter begged me one time to show her The Exorcist. I said okay, but you’re going to have nightmares from it for weeks. But she wasn’t fazed. I thought why isn’t this working? Why is this not scaring the shit out of her? I’m still scared by it. Something’s different. We’ve been exposed to so many things like it that it’s not quite as shocking.

What are your favorite devil movies?

I’ll tell you that Salem is chock-full of horror references. I’m quite a horror aficionado. I wrote science fiction most of my life, but my passion, really, has always been for horror. Everything comes out on the show, from Dario Argento to Alfred Hitchcock to the Japanese horror that could be harsh, a horror fan’s horror show. One movie that had a great influence was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the tone and style in which his movies were shot, or different directors, to keep the show grounded. I’m obviously a fan of Hitchcock’s work.

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I noticed similarities to Giallo horror films.

Oh, it’s all over the place. What a lost art. It’s interesting when you looking at building things, like Brian DePalma was building on top of stuff. Everybody said he was doing Hitchcock. But no, he’s not. He was doing Dario Argento. He was doing Giallo. We talk about that stuff all the time on the set. My favorite movie of all time is Notorious and we do pay homage that picture.

Which of those classic movies do you think have never lost power to scare? For me it’s the scene in M when Peter Lorre breaks down in front of the criminal court.

Well, M is a masterpiece. In fact, child murder isn’t exactly something that is probably ever going to be mainstream. That’s a really good example of timeless horror.  Some of the best modern 21st century horror has pushed the envelope and broken taboos. That’s what horror does. I think one of the modern horror masterpieces of the 21st Century is the French film Martyrs. It is extreme horror, extremely frightening and extremely violent. It’s a masterpiece. It was like they were taking things to the next level and I think horror has always done that. M is an excellent example of a timeless horror story. And I gotta tell you, Frankenstein is not necessarily as terrifying as it was to audiences when it first came out, but it is still the only true and truly successful horror science fiction story. That’s a subgenre that you just don’t see all that much.

I feel bad for the Frankenstein monster and King Kong. The witches on Salem have deep lives and we identify with them.

Oh, absolutely, I think these witches, mostly women, are oppressed, one of them is a slave, and powerless. Through witchcraft they found their power and I think the show’s feminist themes are relatable.

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Salem season 3 will debut on Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 9pm ET/PT on WGN.