Best of 2017 (Behind the Scenes): How Riverdale went old-school for that 1950s dream sequence
The seventh episode of Riverdale’s first season brought us an opening dream — or rather, nightmare — sequence with the Archie Comics characters in all their 1950s glory. In less than a minute, the episode provides the exegesis of the series, while honoring its cultural roots. Here, creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and episode director Allison Anders explain how they brought this twisted blast from the past to life.
“What makes a place feel like home? Is it warmth and familiarity? Some idealized, make-believe version of the American Dream?” So asks Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) in the opening sequence of “In a Lonely Place.”
In the episode, we see the likes of Betty, Veronica, Archie, Polly, Jason, and Jughead transported back to an idealized 1950s past that reflects the tone and wardrobe of the original Archie Comics characters. The dream quickly turns to nightmare as Jughead sees his down-on-his-luck father, F.P. (Skeet Ulrich), in the living room and notices Archie (K.J. Apa) has a knife sticking out of his back. It’s typical Riverdale: beloved American characters subverted into darker, deeper, more unsettling versions of themselves.
“The tension of the show is the wholesome iconography and the Norman Rockwell looking back at the past, and the grotty, more noir, underworld-y side underneath it — that’s the thesis of the show,” Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa tells EW. “Every story we tell, we say, ‘Okay, what’s the dark underbelly of this?’ That dream, which on the one hand is idealized and perfect and not a hair out of place, but then there’s F.P. just out of frame, down on his luck, there’s Archie with a knife in his back, there’s Betty and Alice tilting their heads at the exact angle as if to say, ‘If you don’t conform, you’ll die’ — that dream sequence captures the essence and the big theme of the show.”
Aguirre-Sacasa says it was always a goal of the writers to “somehow include the classic outfits,” and they discussed several possibilities, including a flashback to the parents in high school. The dream sequence actually came before the idea to use it as a moment to hearken back to the classic comics. “When [writer Aaron Allen] turned in his draft of the script, he had added a dream sequence that was done in the 1950s, sort of Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, black-and-white television show mode,” he says. “A little bit after that we thought, ‘Oh, this could be a way to do the 1950s Archie if we do that in this dream sequence.’”
The sequence may be Jughead’s nightmare, but for director Allison Anders, creating it was a dream come true. “My childhood self was just jumping up and down inside my bones that I got to recreate that look of the comics I grew up reading,” she says. “It was almost like being with the comic book and my vision of them when I was a child. It really was like those characters were coming to life off the pages of the comic book.”
Riverdale is known for its nods to both the old-school Archie Comics and classic Hollywood (the pilot alone name-dropped In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Montgomery Clift), so this sequence was a chance to take it a step further. Of course there are the iconic versions of the characters to reference, from Veronica’s pageboy bangs (which required actress Camilda Mendes to don a wig) to Jughead’s gray crown (transformed into a beanie in contemporary Riverdale). “Every stitch of clothes was inspired by a particular comic panel, a particular comic look,” Aguirre-Sacassa says. “Jughead has a very iconic look with his crown and his blue turtleneck with the S on it. Archie has a very iconic look, which is the sweater vest with the R and then the bowtie and the weird orange-brown pants that have a pattern on them, so those were direct copies.”
For Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica, it was more about capturing a sense of the era and their essence on the page. “Our costume designer pulled together various images from the comic books for Veronica and Betty,” explains Aguirre-Sacasa. “Betty and Veronica were fashion plates, so even though the guys often were dressed in the same outfits, the girls were always in different outfits. That was part of the fun of Archie Comics — the artists would draw fashion from the day into it.”
Then there were the other films and television shows they sought to infuse into this moment. Aguirre-Sacasa mentions David Lynch, citing how both Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet feel set in a nightmarish version of the 1950s despite taking place in the present day. “We talked about Pleasantville a lot. We talked about Far From Heaven a lot. There’s a little element of the Stepford Wives with Betty and Alice turning their heads the same way,” he says.
While Aguirre-Sacasa cites Far From Heaven, Anders takes it a step further by speaking to the influence of director Douglas Sirk (whose work inspired Todd Haynes to make Far From Heaven) on the sequence, particularly his use of vibrant color. “The approach was to make it look very saturated in terms of production design and the costumes and the lighting to make it look like that perfect world of the 1950s,” she says.
That specific stylistic choice also trickled down to the acting. “They were very clear about the fact that this was a dream and that it was signaling back to the ’50s and to the characters of the comics back then,” Anders says. “It’s so wonderful that the young actors can play that very mannered, ’50s, cheerful, happy, ‘everything’s cool’ kind of vibe; meanwhile Jughead has to play it with a sense of dread and horror.”
One unique challenge of shooting this sequence was dictated by the limits of a show still finding its first-season footing in terms of sets and budget. The production team had not yet built a set for Betty’s house and was using an actual home in Vancouver for filming. This necessitated shooting multiple scenes in the house at once, which meant the interior kitchen, living room, and dining room were used in contemporary scenes earlier that same day. “When everyone went to change costumes, we re-dressed the entire kitchen and dining room to make it look period,” Aguirre-Sacasa recalls.
Anders adds, “The kitchen, which was used in present-day scenes that same day, had to transform into the ’50s, which was really intense. But it doesn’t end there — the living room had to be where Jughead’s dad is living, so when Jughead looks over from this idyllic ’50s setting of a Thanksgiving day dinner, he looks into the next room and sees his father in the trailer in a shabby armchair and things strewn all over the place. So we had to do that too, and that’s totally different lighting, but we actually did it all in the same space at the same time.”
You read that right — no fancy editing tricks. When Jughead sees his derelict father across the way, we are seeing a practical set and the exact view of what the cast and crew would have seen that day. Not only did the crew have to turn a modern kitchen and dining room into the picture of 1950s domesticity in a remarkably short time, they had to transform the living room into what Anders describes as a “’70s-depressing” setting and seamlessly link the two sets.
Despite the challenging task before them, Aguirre-Sacasa says everyone was very excited to throw themselves into bringing this world to life. That enthusiasm also extended to the cast when it came to turning back the clock on their beloved characters. “The young actors in particular love going back to the different decades. I mean, Cole listens to 1940s music, so he goes further back than I do.” says Anders. “The idea of going back to a different era is completely exhilarating and fun — and then being able to play on the origins of the characters they live with day in and day out was also really neat for them in a playful way. It was still very deep because it was the innocence that these characters originated in, and now we’re playing the other side through the rest of the series.”
“Cole is a huge fanatic of the comic books and really does a deep dive on Jughead and knows all the Jughead lore, so he’s happy anytime we do that,” Aguirre-Sacasa adds. “Lili’s happy anytime her hair gets to be out of a ponytail and into anything else.”
For those who have been hankering for another return to these classic looks, Aguirre-Sacasa says the show is eager to revisit them. In fact, there was a sequence planned for the second episode of season 2, titled “Nighthawks” and also directed by Anders. “We actually shot this really cool sequence that we ended up cutting for time,” Aguirre-Sacasa explains. “The camera tracked across like four or five booths, and each booth was a different time period. In one booth, you had the kids in the ’40s. In another booth you had Kevin and Moose in the ’50s, and in another booth you had Josie and the Pussycats in the ’70s. In the next booth, you had Cheryl in the ’80s.” The sequence was left on the cutting room floor, but he promises the writers are still eager to find another place for a throwback moment.
Many have pondered why they have chosen to use the Archie Comics characters to tell this darker, more subversive story; why not simply invent new characters? The answer lies in this brief nightmarish flashback, and the way the show makes use of the character’s long history in our collective cultural consciousness.
“We have a lot of quintessential American characters in pop culture,” explains Anders. “We have Nancy Drew, we have Judy Bloom’s books, and we have Archie Comics. We don’t just have superheroes, we have people who are ordinary Americans, boys and girls, who teach us things, who lead us through things. They have for decades. Now the beauty is taking those characters and turning them around, so it’s not a question of them being updated, it’s a question of them deepening. These characters that were created in the United States give us a sense of what America is and what’s wrong with it. What’s great about it and what’s wrong with it as well, and that’s the beauty of Riverdale. That’s where you can really look at who we are from a very different perspective and still see ourselves as Americans.”