Interviews

Exclusive: Disney’s Secrets of Sulphur Springs creators Tracey Thomson and Charles Pratt, Jr. on crafting the perfect all-ages mystery

Exclusive: Disney's Secrets of Sulphur Springs creators Tracey Thomson and Charles Pratt, Jr. on crafting the perfect all-ages mystery
Tracey Thomson and Charles Pratt Jr. are translating their soap opera storytelling skills to a mystery that appeals to all ages. Pic credit: Disney

Secrets of Sulphur Springs is Disney Channel’s live-action ‘Scooby-Do-meets-Stranger-Things,’ of sorts. Sulphur Springs is a time travel tale filled with ghosts, where forgotten lives are reborn and revisited, with our cast of curious kids finding their courage to unravel new mysteries and solve some of them too. 

This wonderfully constructed mystery drama is from creator, writer, and executive producers Tracey Thomson and Charles Pratt Jr. The two crafted some of the most iconic moments in soap opera history for General Hospital, The Young and the Restless, and All My Children, among many shows over the years. They set out to make a compelling intergenerational drama that a child can watch with a grandparent and everyone in between, who would become hooked on their spooky mythology set in the foreboding locales of rural Lousiana.

An opportunity for Thomson and Pratt, Jr. presented itself at Disney, as the two tackled serialized content designed to entertain the whole family. And with their combined near 50 years of soap opera writing, they created a hit mystery drama series boasting paranormal elements that have hooked both kids and adults. 

The Secrets of Sulphur Springs follows Preston Oliver as twelve-year-old Griffin Campbell. His family moves to a new town and takes ownership of an abandoned hotel in hopes of restoring it as a vacation destination. As Griffin begins his first day at a new school, he hears the rumors that his home is likely haunted by the ghost of a girl Savannah (Elle Graham), who disappeared decades ago. 

Griffin and Harper are besties who seek to solve the mystery of The Tremont Hotel, Griffin’s new mysterious home. Pic credit: Disney

His new friend Harper (Kyliegh Curran) also wants to uncover the hotel’s purported secret time-traveling portal and solve the mystery, which may lie within Griffin’s own family.

In season two of Secrets of Sulphur Springs, the characters of Griffin and Harper will continue to unravel new mysteries about The Tremont as Harper goes back in time to the 1930s to learn more about her family’s connection to the hotel. 

The action ramps up as Topher stumbled upon the bunker, accidentally taking the power source to the time machine that made the portal disappear. As a result, Harper is trapped in the past with her great uncle Sam and great great grandfather Elijah, while her great grandmother Daisy is now rooted in the present day.

Featuring a talented and diverse cast—and returning for season two—are series regulars Preston Oliver as Griffin Campbell; Kyliegh Curran as Harper Dunn as well as Harper’s great-grandmother, Daisy Tremont; Elle Graham as Savannah; Josh Braaten as Griffin’s father, Ben Campbell; Kelly Frye as Griffin’s mother, Sarah Campbell; Landon Gordon as Griffin’s younger brother and Zoey’s twin, Wyatt Campbell; Madeleine McGraw as Zoey Campbell; and Diandra Lyle as Harper’s mother, Jess Dunn.

Recurring stars this season include newcomer Johari Washington as Topher Dunn, Harper’s brother; Ethan Hutchison as young Sam Tremont, Harper’s great-uncle as seen in the 1930s; Eugene Byrd as adult Sam Tremont, as seen in the 1960s; Kenneisha Thompson as Grace Tremont, Harper’s great-great-grandmother; and Robert Manning Jr. as Elijah Tremont, Harper’s great-great-grandfather. 

Monsters & Critics got the scoop from the creators of this hit Disney series, now starting Season 2.

Exclusive interview with Tracey Thomson and Charles Pratt, Jr.

Monsters & Critics: How did you adjust to writing a serialized family and children’s program? Is it more similar to your background than people realize?

Tracey Thomson: We both have kids as well, but we’ve heard from many people who don’t have kids who have found it on Disney+ who are adults watching it, which is always the best compliment. We tell stories for all, including the parents’ characters. They’re not in the background but front and center. That was our goal.

Charles Pratt Jr.: It was our goal. And it wasn’t something the Disney channel was used to doing. So there was a little bit of education happening between the two of us. We learned things about the Disney channel. They learned things about what we wanted to do, and they gave us full speed ahead and gave us permission to do this show. So I think that Disney+ looming in the background was part of the reason, but they’re not saying.

M&C: Elaborate on that. What was it about the storytelling that was so different?

Charles Pratt Jr.: Well, first of all, they’re very episodic, for the most part. They’re also home to many sitcom formats. So right away, we’re telling a continuing drama with cliffhangers and things like that. 

And luckily, there were a few executives who understood it, but change is difficult for any channel, and for a good reason, you want to stick with what works. You don’t want to have a failure. So we were willing to roll the dice. 

We didn’t care because that we were passionate about the story. So, with the elements of a single camera and getting first-rate cinematographers in and production design, we put our money there as much as into the cast and all of that. 

We all learned a lot, and we didn’t know if it would work. But, we knew what we knew how to do and what we felt passionately about within the show. And, we just went ahead and did it, and thank goodness we found an audience, and then we got a second season and, God willing, a third season.

M&C: What are some of the more exciting production design aspects that compliment your written word when you’re telling this story?

Tracey Thomson: I mean, from right when we start writing outlines, we got in touch with Christopher Stull, our production designer, and we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this. What do you think?’

Tracey and Charles are on set at the mysterious and haunted Tremont Hotel. Pic credit: Disney

And he’s always on board, a hundred percent. So the art department always has great ideas, right down to the wallpaper, which signifies our time period.  

There are production challenges obviously with time constraints of flipping the set many times, but we’ve come up with a formula that works without sacrificing the look of the show,

Charles Pratt Jr.: It is a case of, nobody ever said we couldn’t do it. We always found a way to do it without even compromising. 

Okay, well, you want to show a street in 1930 of downtown Sulphur Springs? You will need 150 extras and in period clothing, and we’re going to need 14 Model-T cars. And, there can’t be anything on this street that gives this away. You don’t have a backlot to play with, so anything on this street that would reveal to be any time period other than that. 

We lucked out on the little town in Louisiana. So much of the feeling and tone of Louisiana is in this show. And that’s why we set it there because it is a unique, slightly scary place where the locals talk about ghosts—a lot—kind of a place. 

And the mist really does hang above the fields, weird bugs hang from the trees, and Spanish Moss is all over the place. So, just using those elements made our job easy. If we were trying to recreate these effects accurately in Hollywood, it would be impossible.

M&C: Is there a limit to the scary aspect within the dramatic elements where you can take the viewer? Where is that line you can go right up to, but you have to stop because this is geared for kids as well as adults?

Tracey Thomson: Well, I think we found in season one, whenever we did jump scares or things like that, we immediately resolved it. So no one would be too scared for too long. 

And that was what we agreed with Disney saying, look, it’s not going to be too scary for little kids. And after season one came out, when we started talking season two, they said, ‘look lean into the spooky, the people love it.’ 

And so we were given a little more room to do the jump scares and make it more about ghosts and do a little more with the production design to make things even creepier.

Charles Pratt Jr.: I think if you take the ghosts and you give them a ‘not scary’ personality, they may be doing scary things, so you’re trying to figure it out the balance, so there’s empathy for the ghost which builds out throughout the season as the mystery unfolds. 

Then it’s not as scary for kids. It’s more wonderment and more ethereal and beautiful. So when we made that discovery, it was not a conscious decision. We just found it and said, ‘oh my God, this is great.’

For the viewers who hang in for the second season, there’ll be plenty of scares through it, but there’ll be such mystery attached to the spooky moments that there will be a craving to know who this ghost is and what motivates her.

M&C: The cast has worked very well for you as you’ve been in production. Share some details, please.

Tracey Thomson: I think we’ve been fortunate to get great actors. We have Eugene Byrd, who is phenomenal in everything he does. He plays adult Sam, and he came in and knocked it out of the park. 

Robert Manning Jr. has this quiet confidence about him, and you buy that he lived back in the thirties. And then Ethan Hutchison, many people are familiar with his work from Queen Sugar. And he was great, and he’s mature beyond his years.

Charles Pratt Jr.: One thing Disney is fantastic at is casting. And casting the original show, Tracey remembers, it went on and on and on, and they never gave up until they found people they thought were going to be great. 

So when we shot the pilot, there was no question that they liked everybody. And many times on a pilot, you go in, and suddenly there are some casting notes about recasting a character, and that kind of stuff. 

There was never that, and they were entirely sure. So when we had the financial challenge of adding this many people to the cast and getting the highest caliber you could, it was a real challenge for them and us. 

And again, I’d love to say it was all luck that we ended up with this cast, but it was a lot of hard work and evaluation by many people at Disney and us and everybody to find just the right people.

M&C: What other films and projects from your past might have colored your scripts, or what classics did you carry with you that you wanted to evoke, maybe slyly pay some homage in Sulphur Springs?

Tracey Thomson: [Laughs] I know exactly what Chuck’s going to say!

Charles Pratt Jr.: [Laughs] And I know exactly what you’re going to say. 

Tracey Thomson: We have the same motivator, I mean, from my childhood? Goonies, Back To The Future, and I know precisely what Chuck is going to say because it’s one of my favorites as well. Go ahead, Chuck!

Charles Pratt Jr.: To Kill A Mockingbird! Season one, I loved it so much and right down to borrowing, from the use of children, and how the kids were directed and acted and the concept of Atticus, and an adult story set against a kid’s point of view. 

All that [influence] in the second season, now we just did that. Robert Manning Jr., who plays Elijah, asked me, ‘What should I do with this character? Is there another character I can base him on?’ 

And I said, ‘you’re Atticus Finch, okay? You’re Gregory Peck.’

He looked at me like, really? And I said, ‘Really. That’s how you play him.’ 

So he played him with that [Atticus Finch] cadence. And everybody said, ‘He’s talking too slowly.’ And I go, ‘No, Atticus never talked too slowly.’ It was absolutely perfect. 

But, yes, that film is a significant influence on everything I’ve written. I think it’s an amazing piece.

The Secrets of Sulphur Springs will premiere back-to-back on Disney Channel on Friday, January 14 (8:00 p.m. ET/PT). In addition, an initial batch of episodes airs on Disney+ and the MVPD VOD platforms around the linear launch.

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