The new FX series American Horror Story (premiering on October 5th) is a psychosexual thriller that revolves around the Harmons, a family of three who move from Boston to Los Angeles as a means to reconcile past anguish. From the minds of Glee co-creators/executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the horror series is both creepy and kinky, and promises to really push the envelope, in a way that makes it unlike anything else on the air.
During a recent interview to promote the upcoming show, Ryan Murphy talked about filtering horror story tropes through a prism of sexuality and emotionality for a fresh twist, the influence of Don’t Look Now and Dark Shadows on this project, how this is a story about marriage and infidelity at its heart, how much fun it is to have such delicious characters played by some of the best actors in the world, and why this family would stay in such a house of horrors. He also talked about how he and Brad Falchuk have to change their energy to switch back and forth between writing American Horror Story and Glee, and how creatively content he feels to be working on both shows. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: You use a lot of horror story tropes in this series, but with a twist. Can you talk about subverting that?
RYAN MURPHY: With a lot of them, when you put them through a prism of sexuality and emotionality, they become more interesting. I love horror movies, but I don’t like bloody horror movies, so there is not a lot of blood in this thing. If you look at the pilot, there’s almost none. There’s a ripped out throat or two, with dried blood, but it’s never going to be a blood bath. I always felt that it’s interesting to write a horror show for women, not that that’s the only people that it will appeal to. My mother doesn’t want to see blood and guts, but she does like scary movies that aren’t so in-your-face. That’s what we’re aiming for.
Why was Don’t Look Now your principal influence in doing this? Is that a movie you’ve seen multiple times?
MURPHY: I just thought that it was a beautifully shot, really adult look at real-life horror stories, and there was a great degree of sexuality in it that, as a young kid, when I saw it, I remember I was very startled by. It felt very brave to me, and I think it still holds up. Nick Roeg is a brilliant director. Brad’s favorite movie is Jaws. I think you’re very influenced by those filmmakers and things that you gravitated to, when you were younger. My first seminal television moment was my grandmother forcing me, even when I was sobbing and screaming, to watch Dark Shadows. She would make me sit through it to toughen me up. And then, when I was bad, I had to watch The Waltons. I remember that. So, when we were coming up with this, I was like, “Remember how good Dark Shadows was and how gothic it was? It had all these interwoven stories about sex and marriage and obsession?” I felt that there wasn’t that on the air right now, and I think (President and General Manager of FX Networks) John Landgraf felt that way, when we pitched it. Those were really our influences. The Shining was another big one.
Stephen King has this idea that terror is the build and horror is the payoff, but this seems to have a lot of horror and not a lot of build. Is that intentional?
MURPHY: I don’t think it’s intentional. I think it was just about the story and how it played out. I like the fact that the show is very in your face and emotional.
Because you go through a lot of plot in the pilot, will that intensity continue to keep up with each episode, or will the roller coaster ride slow down a little bit up before it speeds up again? What is the trajectory of Season 1?
MURPHY: I always find it interesting when people say that about a pilot – that there’s too much story. To me, the pilot of a show is a blueprint, and I always love it when pilots have a lot of characters and a lot of story. That being said, when you have actors like this, you have an obligation to write them really good, emotional, grounded stories, which we are doing. We’re working on our two-part Halloween episodes, which I feel are very similar to the scares of the pilot. There’s an episode that we did about the haunting of the various characters, that is much more slow and melodic and not so startling. I think people will hopefully come to this for really good emotional stories that are Zeitgeist-based, and because there will be some scary stuff in there. It is a house of horrors, but the show also examines other horrors in society, not just the horrors that happen in this house.
You’ve said that you’ve had your own supernatural experience. Was that in your home?
MURPHY: It’s a really beautiful house that I live in. I feel very lucky to live there. But, there’s this one area of the house that, whenever I go into it, I have a presence. I feel something. It’s not a bad presence, but I’ve talked to other people who have lived in that house who say the same thing. I believe in that, so maybe it’s me being gullible.
Is there a history to the house?
MURPHY: No. I don’t think it’s a murder or anything bad like that, but I feel something that I can’t explain.
Is there a hero in American Horror Story?
MURPHY: I think Connie Britton is pretty heroic, in terms of where we’re going.
Is she the one viewers are going to be rooting for?
MURPHY: She is the moral center of the show. If you have Connie, you have an obligation because people want to see her be strong and kick-ass, and not weak and a victim. So, we’re writing her that way.
Is the real reason that this family stays in this house because of L.A. home prices?
MURPHY: I’m glad that you bring that up because one of the things that I thought, in this economic downtime, is that one of the big the story points is that we find out that the husband of the house has made a really bad financial move, in the world of Bernie Madoffs that we live in. The question is, “What would you do, if you put all your money into this house that you had, and then, suddenly, you wanted to get out, but you couldn’t sell it?” I’ve never seen a haunted house horror thing take an economic, real life aspect and put that into the genre. But, that’s not the only reason that they stay there. Lord knows, they try to escape early on. They’re a very smart group of characters, and I thought, very early on, you have to have them say, “We need to get the fuck out of this house!” And then, in Episode 2, they do and all these things happen to work against them. Connie Britton is not going to stay in that house. She’s too smart. So, we deal with that.
Is this family in this house randomly, or did the house choose them?
MURPHY: I believe that is dealt with in the third episode.
How did you go about finding the actual house?
MURPHY: It was just love. We walked in and were like, “Oh, okay, this is the one.” That’s how I felt when I saw it. With a lot of things that we wrote in the pilot, we put them in there, based on the house. The Tiffany chandeliers and the stain glass fixtures were all there. So, I was excited that we could have that.
Did you grow up with a fear of redheads, since there are so many evil redheads, in just the pilot alone?
MURPHY: That’s a plot point. I’m glad that you noticed that. Isn’t that great? I love that. It’s something that happened to Dylan’s character, as a child, that involves a redhead, so there is a reason for that.
Are you worried about backlash from gingers?
MURPHY: We love gingers. I just think that it’s a beautiful childhood thing for him that will be explained.
Will viewers find out more about the genetic creature in the basement?
MURPHY: Yeah, there’s a whole mythology about that, which is actually a story that I’ve always been obsessed with. That’s what that thing in the basement is.
At what point will viewers know what’s a hallucination and what’s real?
MURPHY: I think it is a pilot that has eight cliffhangers in it. Brad [Falchuk] and I, along with John [Landgraf] and Peter Rice, felt that we had an obligation to the audience, in the next two scripts, to explain a lot of things that are set up, like why Jessica [Lange] has such easy access, at all times, to that house. What is the deal? Why are people seeing more and different incarnations? So, by the third episode, all of those big mysteries are settled, and then the audience can just be along for the ride. The other thing that we felt we really wanted to do, in the first couple of scripts, which is very important to us, is to answer the question of, “Why are they in that house, and why do they stay in that house?” That is a big horror trope, with the haunted house thing, and people have made jokes about it. Why are the white people still in the house? We really thought about that a lot, and that was the most important thing that we worked on. I am really excited about that. We will explain why they are still there, and that happens in the next episode after the pilot.
Will viewers find out who’s in the fetish suit, in the pilot?
MURPHY: No, that’s one we’re keeping.
Is this story contained in the 13 episodes of Season 1, with a new story for Season 2?
MURPHY: I can’t say. That’s part of the fun of it. People keep saying that, and I don’t know where they get that idea, but I can’t say. What we’re doing is explained in the last episode.
Will there be a high body count, by the end of Season 1?
MURPHY: No, I don’t think so.
How did you approach the casting for this?
MURPHY: When we were writing the script, it was never really about horror, although that certainly was in the water. It really was about a marriage and infidelity. That is the real through-line of the season. It permeates all the characters. They all are experiencing different points of view, about that one topic. So, just when we were casting for that couple that would take you through it, we needed really good dramatic chops, and I think both Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott are unparalleled at that. Same for Jessica [Lange], because her story is very much that as well. You can’t get better actors than those three. It’s really fun for us to have these delicious characters, who are played by some of the best actors in the world, some in creature make-up and some not. It’s just really, really fun.
Given your history of casting guest stars, will this show be limited to this cast, or are you going to bring in other people at various times?
MURPHY: The thing about this cast was that I targeted them. I have always wanted to work with Jessica, and I have always wanted to work with Franny [Conroy], Denis [O’Hare], Connie and Dylan, so I went after them. We just wrote a really big guest star part for Lily Rabe, who’s a brilliant actress.
Why did you want to work with Jessica Lange, and why is her character Southern?
MURPHY: Well, there are two reasons for that. One is that my favorite stage performance, of all time, is when Jessica did A Streetcar Name Desire in New York. I went and saw it three times. I loved her in that part. Before we spoke to Jessica, I knew that I wanted her to be Blanche-esque, so that’s where that came in. There’s a story that’s coming up about her Southern stuff.
Do you have to cleanse yourself in between writing Glee and American Horror Story?
MURPHY: I do.
What’s your process for that?
MURPHY: Tea. Brad [Falchuk] and I work really long hours. We have two great writing staffs, and we split the day with them. We work at night and we work weekends. Before we go into American Horror Story, we walk around the lot because it’s very dark, and Glee is not that. You do have to change your energy. The staffs for both shows are in the same building, and are both obsessed with the other’s show. It’s a light and fun environment.
Could this show have been done on a network?
Are you thrilled to be back on cable again?
MURPHY: I am thrilled to be back. I’m thrilled to be back with John [Landgraf]. I don’t think you could push the envelope, in terms of what we’re doing with the content, on a network. I don’t think the show is as in your face sexually, as Nip/Tuck, and with blood, certainly not.
Are you staying focused on Glee and this show, or do you have another show in mind that you’re developing?
MURPHY: I’m always working on stuff. I’m meeting with a writer to talk about something that I might do with him next year, which is a book that I own and will maybe do as a TV series. I don’t know. For the first time, in a long time, I feel very creatively content about what I’m working on, just because I get to use both sides of my personality – the light and fun, Rachel Berry side, and then the dark, twisted, screwed up side.