Two classic horror films, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” have been the go-to reference guide to describe the tonal feel of Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” But when it comes to the look of the series, it’s fair to say “Suspiria” — Dario Argento’s 1977 brightly hued horror film, not this year’s remake starring Dakota Johnson — cast quite a spell.
Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who sparked an Archie-Comics-reconsidered frenzy with his CW noir teen drama “Riverdale,” collaborated with production designer Lisa Soper, who supervises the design of the sets, to build their version of Sabrina Spellman’s (Kiernan Shipka) town of Greendale. Here, as the titular character informs the audience in the first moments of the series, “it always feels like Halloween.”
“He told me to think about classic horror and mentioned ‘Suspiria,’ ” Soper says while wandering the sets on the show’s sound stages. “I really latched on to that because I’ve worked on a lot of horror features over the years, and when people use that as a reference point and you show them the actual colors Argento used, they get scared and end up dialing it right back to a super, super dark palette. It ends up becoming a stereotypical look.”
With “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” a coming-of-age teen drama that revolves around the push-and-pull of a young mortal witch caught between two worlds, Soper wanted to cling to the classic’s color.
“It’s always fall in Greendale,” says Soper. “But I didn’t want this world where fall is just browns and grays and blues and the dark of night. It was about grabbing on to the reds and yellows and the golds and the last little bit of green — that green that’s like a really strong emerald because it’s wet and hanging on to dear life.”
World-buidling has become a hallmark of modern television as viewers, now able to playback on a DVR or stream a show at any time, can study the visual elements more easily. It’s the details that can play a big role in helping or hurting the believability of the storytelling.
“She just knew the world,” is how Aguirre-Sacasa describes what Soper delivered. “She knew the mythology, and we had the same touchstone. I can't quite imagine what the show would have been without her.”
Wanting flexibility, and control over the environment, Soper and her team did things like place set pieces on wheels and fashion tight nooks for cameras on the dozens of sets built on a nearby soundstage at Martini Film Studios. The flooring, countertops and wallpaper (some designs created, others purchased and downloaded) of all the sets are printed in-house, working with the furniture to create a retro aesthetic for the show’s present-day setting.
“The set is incredible,” Shipka says before starting a day of shooting on the already-commissioned second season. “There’s all these nooks and crannies, and everything is so detailed — you don’t even realize it. It helps tremendously to walk into a set where it just feels real and home and grand and wonderful. I was a big Harry Potter fan, so I feel like I’m in my own magical world. You take it for granted when you're there every single day, but it's insane.”
Soper shared some insight into the world of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.”
The Spellman House
For a family of witches — even one with a part-mortal member — a house is not a home without a little Gothic touch. “House of Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne served as the inspiration for the mood of the Spellman house, while the actual House of Seven Gables standing in Salem, Mass., influenced the look of it.
“The home is where you can start getting into the characters’ quirks,” Soper said.
As viewers venture inside, the house is built in a spiral pattern, Soper said, to evoke the buildup and suspense of horror.
“The office leads to living room that leads to the botanical room that leads to the kitchen that leads to the next room, “ she said.
With its divided flights, the Imperial staircase is meant to mirror the two paths for Sabrina — into the mortal world and the witch world. When she’s coming down the left side, it’s meant to imply she’s in a witchy mood; down the right side, she’s in a mortal state of mind.
Soper pored over details that might get overlooked by most viewers. The windows at the main entrance, for example, feature symbols for a death spell and a resurrection spell. The wallpaper in the foyer, a design with trees of different shades of green and deer nibbling on grass, was a device to bring the outside in.
“We wanted the outside world of the woods, where the witches are, to come in,” Soper said. “So you still feel like you’re in that environment without literally putting trees inside the home.” That mother nature-feel carries into the kitchen, with hues of green and elements of wood.
And every door handle in the home is at a different height throughout the house: “It’s a witches house,” Soper says. “Everything is just slightly strange.”
A bedroom, for most teenagers, is a sacred haven for angst. For Sabrina, it’s a patchwork of her personhood. Photos of David Bowie, the Monkees, and the Beatles line the walls. Tarot cards take up space on her vanity mirror, just above a retro Archie Comics thermos (that Soper found on EBay) taking up space on the tabletop. And a collage of Polaroid photos — each a portrait of trees from various angles — takes the shape of a growing tree on one of her walls.
“It’s a lot more youthful, has a lot more life, than the rest of the house,” Soper says. “It has less of the old, stringent witchy side to it. Everything else in the home has a centuries-old feel to it. Here, things are much more eclectic. The story here is someone ready to carve her own path.”
Even a teenage mortal witch has to go to school. The town of Greendale has been affected by negative forces; the trick was to show that there is still life to it. That all comes into play with the look of Baxter High, the school Sabrina attends in the mortal world.
“It’s old and drab, but there’s still so much life to it,” Soper says. The colors of the school are drab and dreary but get punched up with decorations for the various themes or holidays the school is celebrating. On this day, with production on the show’s second season underway, pinks and reds pop in the school hallway for Valentine’s Day.
The exterior shots were filmed at Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver. The large framed photo that hangs over the trophy case on the school set is a shot of that school, taken by Soper on her phone.
The essence of the series is that Sabrina is caught between two worlds: the mortal world of her mother, and the witch world of her father. That duality plays out on campus — anything done in the witch world, they try to do a mortal version of it too.
“For me, with the school, it was about trying to give it history but also have this visual interest to it,” Soper says. “I didn’t want to make it look like being mortal sucks. We wanted to show the benefits of both sides.”
Academy of Unseen Arts
The school in the magical world also had to feel like a place of learning without giving off Baxter High vibes. The interior of the school is designed to be a series of identically shaped rooms — taking inspiration from pentagrams, a five-pointed star made from one continuous line, and fractals, a ceaseless pattern. With a change of artwork, lighting or paneling, a room can transform into a sewing room, library, cafeteria, classroom, dormitory, and music room — all with the illusion that it’s one part of the larger space.
“I wanted the rooms to be interconnected,” Soper says. “We have this unlimited rich changeover that we can do.”
Even the floor — a geometrical pattern — looks like a Magic Eye optical illusion.
“When the camera is panning down from above, I wanted it to look like you’re falling into the floor,” she says.
Instead of framed photos of a memorable homecoming game or a school dance, the walls here are lined with horror images. Clive Barker, a luminary of the horror genre with works including “Hellraiser” and “Candyman,” provided more than 100 original painting to line the walls of the academy.
“He has floors and floors of his house just filled with his incredible artwork,” Soper says. “He said, ‘Take what you want.’ They’ve really made the space come to life.”
Cerberus Books and Spirits
A teen drama isn’t a teen drama without a hangout spot. But for Sabrina and her mortal friends , the spot needed to have a little bit more character, Soper says. She and Aguirre-Sacasa checked out an old store front from the 1920s in Cloverdale, Surrey, British Columbia, and the ideas came. They talked about the days when weathermen used to appear on late night television on Fridays or Saturdays, dressed as a vampire or werewolf before introducing an airing of a scary show or movie.
“So we thought, ‘What if one of those weatherman retired and couldn’t let it go and opened a comic shop/cafe,” Soper recalls.
With the help of the art department, the hangout spot took shape. The eccentric space includes a werewolf that sits in one of the diner booths (“We change his position every once in a while”) and mannequins dressed in costumes (“Everyday is Halloween in there”). The comics on display include old Archie horror comics and comics drawn by Soper and her husband.
Soper says it’s become a place with most of the color in the mortal world of Greendale: “Whereas the school, the individual characters’ houses are a little bit less saturated, here there are massive amounts of neon and crazy colors.”
And, hey, it’s an easy commute for Soper. She hadn’t yet found housing when she was scouting the location before production started on the show. She noticed a vacant apartment upstairs from the storefront, and it’s now her home base.
“I was like, ‘Well, this will save me some time,” Soper says. “I’ll be back at work when I go home at night, and I’ll be at work when I wake up in the morning.”
‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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