Meet Alex Pillai, the Tamil-origin director of 'Chilling adventures of Sabrina', 'Riverdale'

Alex Pillai has been tasked to channel Shakespearean classics through a teen drama

66-Alex-Pillai Alex Pillai

Growing up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s Alex Pillai was encouraged to be thoroughly English. “So, my Tamil is not that strong, but I do enjoy idlis and dosas,” he tells THE WEEK over Skype. Pillai’s father, a doctor from Tamil Nadu, moved to England in 1937; his mother is a retired English nurse.

“I always wanted to be a dramatist,” he says. “I was lucky to go to a school that encouraged drama. It was fun to follow it as a teenager.” As he got older, it became tougher. “But, I followed the path anyway,” says Pillai. The director, who idolises Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, began his career after studying at the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield, England. His first gig was in Flight, a television film. He then went on to direct episodes of several British series like Thief Takers and Robinhood, leading to American series like Bull, Riverdale and, most recently, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

“I literally landed the gig (Sabrina) in a chance meeting with Roberto [Aguirre-Sacasa, writer of the series] in LA,” says Pillai. “We were talking about our favourite horror films.” Horror, noir and goth are genres that interest Pillai. “These evoke intense emotions and the lure of the unseen, the dread and mystery around these are very attractive,” he says.

Pillai says the experience of working with shows like Sabrina and Riverdale was wonderful because of the way they are written. He says that in the US, story lines of shows are developed in a “writer’s room”, where 10 to 12 writers get together to discuss ideas. “The story line of one or two writers gets chosen and they work on that particular episode,” he explains. “The lead writer is present for the shoot. I quite enjoy this detailed process. Also, I love working with the actors—particularly Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sabrina, and Richard Coyle, who plays the manipulative Father Blackwood.” Coyle, says Pillai, enjoys bringing out the negativity in his role.

While the comics on the teenage witch Sabrina have been tinged with humour, the current series has a much darker tone. Pillai says: “Roberto’s vision for the series, both Riverdale and Sabrina, was to be iconic and hence dark, not funny. If you look closely at the plot of Sabrina, you see a teenager plotting revenge and her aunts aiding her. It has some strains of Macbeth and Hamlet.” Pillai adds that Aguirre-Sacasa is very aware of and familiar with the classics and wanted to channel them through the series.

About the sexual acts between teens and young adults depicted in the series, Pillai says: “Well, it is there because teens today are much more vocal and aware of their sexuality and sexual identity.” The show, he says, is simply catering to a teen and young adult audience that is woke. Pillai refers to characters such as Susie from Sabrina, who comes out as a trans boy, or Kevin from Riverdale, who comes out to his father as gay, and adds that teens all over the world have been bullied for these very reasons.