It’s common for actors to talk about the similarities they share with their characters — and it’s a clever publicity tool to unite the two in the audience’s eyes. But Lisa Soper, the production designer for Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can play that game too. After all, on her Twitter page she calls herself a “production designer and evil lady.”
Who better than an actual self-described practicing pagan, who was born on Halloween and has credits such as “Awakening the Zodiac,” “Paranoid” and “The Dark Stranger,” to develop the scenic world of a show about a teenage half-witch grappling with whether she can leave her mortal life behind to fully embrace her destiny with the Dark Lord?
Still, the new series — which premieres Oct. 26 — isn’t as ghoulishly dark and gory to look at as one might expect. Its decor is grounded in autumnal earth tones of browns, greens and reds, such as the foreboding shadows of moss in the forest where star Kiernan Shipka’s eponymous Gen Z character spends a good deal of her time, or an ornate set-piece early in the season featuring a hulking, veiny tree that teases the perfect ruby apple.
“Color, for me, is so important because it gives us an emotional response,” Soper says. Simply looking at a color wheel, she explains, will show that red and green are oppositions and are therefore “going to get a reaction.”
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Soper notes that in “Sabrina,” “each character has a color that can be associated with them.” (Sabrina actually has two: red and white.) Each character is also paired with a tarot card. All of this is cataloged in what Soper calls her “very long-winded 100-page bible” for the show, which she dutifully doles out to set decorators and others on the production team.
Another integral part of the plot, and one that’s not always obvious, is the crooked, winding labyrinth of a house where Sabrina lives with her full-blooded witch aunts and cousin. Soper says she was inspired by the infamously never-ending Winchester House in San Jose, Calif., as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables” and horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft.
“There’s not one straight wall in my set, which I know is really difficult for my construction team,” Soper admits. Even the entryway’s split stairway is symbolic, she says, because “Sabrina’s always faced with choosing between the path of light or the path of night. … The witch’s side is the left side. Depending on what we have going on or who is coming to dinner, it’s playing with these subtleties.”
Fog is also used for an explicit purpose, Soper says, meant to connote fear. But it’s also a throwback to Sabrina’s (and Soper’s) lineage.
“You look at these references of witches and pagans in history and in Renaissance paintings, [and] quite often there’s this low-lying fog,” Soper says. “I do have memories of walking through the woods at that age, at that time of day, because that’s when the spirits are accessible. That’s when our world is more vulnerable. That’s when you can’t quite see through the veil.”