How the '90s Inspired the New 'Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin'
'Chilling Adventures of Sabrina' creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring talk about how horror tropes and generational trauma inspired their new HBO Max series.
Back in the simpler times of 2010, Freeform existed as ABC Family and brought Sara Shepard's popular YA book series Pretty Little Liars to TV screens. After its premiere, it became a pop-culture obsession. Following the aftermath of a high school clique when their friend Alison disappears, the group is subsequently brought back together once a mysterious entity called "A" starts threatening them. The show ran for seven seasons and 160 episodes—making household names of its young cast—that included a ton of batshit plot points and inspired two spinoffs. Perhaps it was inevitable after the show's popularity when it ended in 2017 that we'd eventually get a new chapter of it.
Enter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, pop culture's current showrunner willing to swing for the fences. The man behind The CW's Riverdale and Netflix's Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feels like the next rightful heir for PLL's nutty crown. While he was working on Sabrina, he was asked about helming a new version of the teen drama. After binging its charms, he was interested but wasn't sure if he was the right match. "I understood why, because of Riverdale, I was being asked to do this, but obviously one of the defining aspects of Pretty Little Liars is that it's centered on a core group of female friends," Aguirre-Sacasa says over Zoom. "So I immediately was like, 'There needs to be someone who can speak to this experience more authentically than me.'" Luckily for him, he had writers rooms filled to the brim with talent, when Lindsay Calhoon Bring came to his door throwing her hat in the ring. A writer for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Calhoon Bring had exactly what Aguirre-Sacasa was looking for to shape this new iteration.
The pair went in knowing that they didn't want to redo or reimagine the original—it's something that Aguirre-Sacasa refers to as "gospel." So, a similar bare-bones plot description about a group of high school friends who begin getting threatening messages from a mysterious "A" was born as Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. Premiering on July 28 on HBO Max, Aguirre-Sacasa and Calhoon Bring's vision follows that premise with a group of young women in present day who are haunted by the crimes of their mothers in 1999. Differentiating their take on PLL led the showrunners down a well-trodden and -welcomed horror pathway that the original only did in fits and starts. Thrillist talked to Aguirre-Sacasa and Calhoon Bring about the importance of the year 1999, horror tropes, and generational trauma in Original Sin.
Lindsay Calhoon Bring: We need 25 minutes to unpack generational trauma in mothers and daughters [laughs]. Our way in to make this different was the idea of a genre horror show. We never feared tropes and embraced them. But one of those horror tropes is the sin of the parent falling upon the child, and we thought that was so classic and worth exploring. Honestly taking a cue from Riverdale—the adults in Riverdale have amazing full stories, full lives, full characters. So to think, "Gosh, we should give our mothers an amazing history, have a chance to see what it was like to be a young woman in 1999 versus a young woman today." I think a lot of youth, when they see their parents, they never think you were a teenager.
I'm very proud of the characters we created. We spent a lot of time developing them, making them all individuals. One of the things Roberto asked early on was, what is each of these girls' core wounds? That's something that defines them. That's something that helps their coming-of-age. Is it tied to their mother? I think in many people's cases, we all have our mommy and daddy issues. As far as what we wanted to say, we really did want to highlight and show the grounded horror of what it is to grow up and what it is to grow up as a young woman today.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: In the venn diagram of ours, we both love horror and homages. I'll just give you a little bit of a story: In one of our episodes, one of our main characters goes to the funeral of one of her friends and there's a priest who's giving the eulogy. We were trying to figure out the name of the priest and we kept submitting names and you submit them and clearance says yes or no, you can't use this name because this person really exists. And Lindsay suggested the name Father Karras, which is the name of the young exorcist priest in The Exorcist. And hilariously, it cleared.
Suddenly, the name of the priest in the town of Millwood is Father Karras, and I cannot tell you how much joy that gave me. We'd be Zooming or working on a script or something, I would just start laughing and Lindsay's like, "What are you laughing at?" That shows you the depth of our love of horror and our homages. Everything is a homage. It's no spoiler to say that, sooner or later, you'll meet a Doctor Brundle [from The Fly].
Ryan Murphy's Popular and 1999
Aguirre-Sacasa:Popular was such a defining show. I was like, "Wait, someone is making shows that's literally just for me." That said, Carly's [Pope, who plays Imogen's mother] audition, she was Davie. She understood the words. First of all, for someone to create a character with four lines of dialogue and in flashback—she did it. It was undeniable. So we love that she was in Popular and we love being in dialogue with that, but it was 1 million percent the fact that she came in and she killed it.
Calhoon Bring: As soon as we saw her audition, we were like, "We have to have Carly Pope." The 1999 of it all was purposeful for us. We knew we wanted a multi-generational story. I think everyone, unless they're too young, can tell you where they were on Y2K night.
1999 was a huge coming of age year for me. That year for movies, that year for television. Talk about a ragtag group of young women. Girl, Interrupted came out in 1999. That movie changed me and in many ways made me want to write. I grew up on a healthy helping of UPN and The WB. So, having that year as a touchpoint for both of us, a year that was iconic to us personally, and also, I do think holds a lot of iconography and a lot of memories in people's hearts and minds. 1999 was a good time for us to tell the story.
Aguirre-Sacasa: You look back at a show like Popular and it broke down so many doors. It's so in dialogue with pop culture in the way I think we are as well. Popular did an amazing homage to Scream that I remember. So we're happy to be part of that continuum.
Horror's gender politics
Aguirre-Sacasa: You see a show like Stranger Things, it is clearly made by people who love movies and television horror from that time. We're the same way. Carrie, Psycho. One of our favorite storylines is Tabby's [Chandler Kinney] storyline with Psycho. It's funny that the original Carrie is such a female-centered horror movie and that it was directed by Brian De Palma. So many of these movies that we loved back then, you just watch them, but you're not questioning the gender politics of it. But now when you revisit it, it's like, we love those movies, but they are a product of their time and the time has changed. So how can we shift those stories and how can we change them up?
One of the things that we did wasn't just to celebrate that genre, but to deconstruct it and subvert it and move it from the male horror gaze, the objectifying of women, and centering it so that not only is one of our main characters a female horror director, Tabby, whom we love, but almost all of our directors on this show were female directors.
Calhoon Bring: I feel sometimes genres can be gendered. Things that you're a fan of can be gendered. Oftentimes, there are these things that have huge fan bases that it's assumed, "Oh, this is a male thing. This is something that men love." I reject that, being such a huge horror fan myself. Having a character like Tabby gave us the opportunity to speak through her and have that commentary on flipping the male gaze to the female gaze to be able to speak through her about movies and the genres that we love.
Rust Belt towns
Aguirre-Sacasa: Lindsay and I love Rust Belt towns. We love Rust Belt stories. When we were scouting, we drove around to many towns and we shot in two or three different towns in the Catskill Mountains. We love the mountains in the background, the train tracks, the rivers, the rusty bridges. We love that aesthetic and that flinty vibe and the harder lives there.
Calhoon Bring: Just these characters existing for us was the statement. Obviously, it's a diverse cast, but we wanted that diversity to spread among socioeconomic status, to spread upon religion, to spread upon where they live, to see someone like Tabby who has to work. I think having that Rust Belt town, that small-town feel allowed us to paint these characters in a certain exciting way and a grounded real way. With the original show, there was so much aspiration to PLL, and part of that aspiration was the town of Rosewood because it was an affluent town and it was shiny and beautiful and clean. In making ours different, we thought maybe the town of Millwood is a scary town. It's hardscrabble, as Roberto said, and having that canvas helped us paint the characters, which was amazing.
I come from these towns too, but the town stays the same no matter your age, no matter when you come back. It's the same as if you left it. We thought that was the perfect encapsulation of Millwood.
Aguirre-Sacasa: Horror movies and shows traffic in twins. Obviously, the Grady twins [from The Shining] are the most iconic twins. But there are twins in the original Carrie, actually. When I was working on the [Carrie] remake, the director Kimberly Peirce was like, "We have got to have creepy twins." And you're right, we do! Karen and Kelly [on PLL: Original Sin] are great. When you have an actor like Mallory [Bechtel] who came in and auditioned, it was like, "Oh, obviously she's the villainess. She's the mean girl." But really, she's so [full of depth] as an actor. So that's where the idea of the twins started.
Calhoon Bring: That came very late in the development process. We knew we had the archetype mean girl Karen, which was a blanket for all the mean girls of our world right now. Obviously, we were purposely on the nose there, but Roberto brought in this idea of twins, which was so fun and exciting. With horror, there is something so destabilizing and unnatural about duplicates that it's just always going to be scary. It's always going to be creepy and keep you on your toes.