One of the most anticipated premieres of the fall is upon us. American Horror Story, starring Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Jessica Lange, airs tonight at 10pm on FX, and it's a doozy. Mixing supernatural, sexual, and out-and-out horror beats into a weekly melodrama, American Horror Story is the tale of a family trying to put their lives back together after being torn apart by tragedy and betrayal. Putting your life back together is tough when the forces of the universe want to kill you in the most gruesome way possible. Show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk talk about what went in to making their American Horror Story.
What inspired American Horror Story, and are you in therapy?
Ryan Murphy: [Laughs] Yes, we're both in intensive therapy. We've been kicking the idea around for a long time. I can't speak for Brad, but I just always like to do the opposite of what I've done before. I went from Nip/Tuck to Glee, so it made sense that I wanted to do something challenging and dark. And I always had loved, as Brad had, the horror genre. So it just was a natural for me. And plus, we had this idea, but before we had the horror genre idea, we wanted to do a show about infidelity and the breakup of a marriage. That's something that we had been talking about. So we just sort of put it into the world of horror, which we both have loved.
Brad Falchuk: Growing up, I think Ryan and I both were sort of obsessed with the genre of horror. The idea of putting something like that on TV was very intriguing to us, and finding a different angle on it. And the angle we were looking at again was looking at it through the prism of this marriage falling apart and the horror metaphor.
How did you get this great cast?
BF: You know, we were really very lucky that. We wanted someone to play Vivien who was going to be able to be very, very strong and you would love because you could have her do sort of anything and suffer through anything and you would still kind of love her. So when Connie came in, she was the first choice because she's such an amazing actress and she's coming off this very high-profile, iconic part. We were excited to be able to get her in here to do it, and she was very excited to do it because I think she wanted to do something different. And then when Dylan came in, you know, again, for that part we wanted somebody very strong, very sexy, and also somebody who wanted to do something different. The four of us went out to lunch after we brought them in, and the chemistry was very clear between the two of them. Only Ryan can speak to getting Jessica Lange because that was his coup.
RM: Jessica is just somebody who has always been interested in stuff that I was working on, movies, projects, and things that I didn't move forward with. And when we came up with this part, we just went to her. She was a little nervous about doing television, but when we explained the role and what she was going to do, I think she was really into it. And they've all been great and amazing to work with.
Is the house really going to be featured all the way through the series?
BF: Not known [laughs]. You've got to watch. It's part of the fun. I think that anytime there's a haunted house kind of a movie, the question everyone asks is "Well, why did you stay in the house? Why didn't you just leave?" There are reasons why they stay, reasons why they might leave. But I think that that's sort of the surprise of the show. Our intent with the scripts is to make sure that all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed and that we have our characters reacting in an intelligent way. The reality is if you look at the situations they're put in in those first two episodes, they have no reason to think the house is haunted. They have reason to think they've had a run of pretty bad luck, but I don't think they have any reason to think that there's something supernatural going on. So I think their reactions are pretty understandable, considering the conversation. And then I think as the season goes on, you'll see the choices they make are driven by many different motivations.
Were there any horror films in particular that influenced the show?
BF: We both are very big fans of the genre. I love Halloween, and we both love Rosemary's Baby and The Shining.
RM: My favorite horror movie growing up was Don't Look Now. The second episode, in a weird way, is a tribute to a lot of great horror movies and scenes that we like, but I think that happens less as we move through the show. But everybody says that about Glee, that they can see a lot of Singing in the Rain in the first three episodes. I think that anytime you do something genre, you are compared to the other genre pieces that have come before. In this case we embrace that just because I love that genre, and I think so many of those great directors were amazing. So I guess some of it is homage, but I think as we go deeper into the stories, you will see less of that.
The subject matter is dark, and it's pretty intense. Have you had any trouble getting anything past standards and practices?
RM: No. You would think, but we work with a great group of people, and it is cable. It is a 10 o'clock show. It is, by design, for adults. There are warnings and labels on all of the episodes.
John Landgraf [FX Network]: I'm going to jump in and say that that question in various forms has come a lot, certainly to me. And I think part of where it comes from is just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the intensity of the experience of watching the show. When you actually look at what you see in terms of any graphic violence or blood on screen, it's less than was depicted in Nip/Tuck or, frankly, in The Shield or Sons of Anarchy at times. I think it's the context that Ryan and Brad have created and the intensity and effectiveness of the filmmaking that makes it feel so intense. But really they haven't put anything in front of us in terms of an image that's as challenging, frankly, as some of what we've had on air in other series. So I would say this is by no means, not even close to, the most graphic show we've had on the air. It certainly isn't the most sexually explicit by a mile, with Nip/Tuck being that. And it's not the most profane from a language standpoint. That would have to go to Rescue Me. So it's been pretty easy from a broadcast standards standpoint.
Have you found it difficult to divide your attention between Glee, which is a very upbeat, family-friendly show, and American Horror Story, which is kind of the opposite of that?
RM: No. In fact, it's been energizing. We've been working with a very large staff of writers for both shows. All of them are housed in the same brilliant Paramount Studios office. They're fans of each other's shows. And I think Glee creatively has never been better. If you love something, you make time for it. If that means you give up your weekends, you do it. And that's sort of the method that we had and the ideology that we had as we approached doing these two shows at once. But it's been really great. The sound stages are right next to each other for both shows. We bop all around. I thought it would be much more of a mindfuck than it turned out to be.
I've always found a distinction between what I would call slasher-scary and spooky-scary. Do you guys recognize that line at all? Do you think it even exists? Has it disappeared, and where do you think American Horror Story fits if you do believe there's slasher-scary and a spooky-scary?
RM: I think there are moments of intensity. But if you look at that second episode, which I think is really scary, I would say of the 42 or 43 minutes of screen time, there are only 30 seconds of violence. I prefer the spooky scary. And I think the pilot is that, and I think where we're going is that. I think there are a lot of great horror movies. It seems like in the last couple years, that genre has become known for more violent sort of torture porn. This is the opposite of that. I keep saying that, in a weird way it is a great horror story for women to watch because it is so emotional and it's about female issues. It's a horror show, so you have scares and violence. But we've been careful not to make it Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Connie Britton and Jessica Lange and Dylan McDermott wouldn't let us do that anyway. And we talk a lot about it. We think a lot about it. We talk about how much to show and what not to show. And I think a lot of the scares in the show happen off screen, which is just as interesting and scary. I think a lot of the scares happen around the topic of infidelity.
When you settled upon Connie and Dylan for these roles what is it about them that screams infidelity?
RM: Well, I don't think anything about them screams infidelity. Connie just came off of Friday Night Lights, where she played a very beloved character. We had just done Glee. Dylan had just done another show. And I think we all just wanted to change it up and do something very adult and do something very challenging and maybe not so happy, something that was a little bit more psychological and ambiguous. The two of them are just awesome because if you're going to write a strong woman, that doesn't take a lot of gruff and fights back not only against the infidelity, but against these things living in her house, Connie Britton is sort of the go-to gal. And we were thrilled that she wanted to change it up. Dylan, I think, is just a great actor who is capable of great emotional scenes. I personally was very fascinated in his views on things and his life. So that's how we sort of came to that.
Do you have plans for further seasons? Have you already sketched out the next five seasons?
RM: Well, sure. In today's marketplace when you go in to pitch a show, they don't just ask you, "Okay, what's the pilot about?" You know, we talk about the themes of the show, what is the show really about, where is it going. And we certainly did that with this. I think that we talked about five seasons for the show. But look, if it's a success, if the network would like it to go ten and I'm not in a wheelchair at the Motion Picture home, I would. From a broadcast point of view, FX has done an amazing job marketing it. It's a really spooky, scary fall event at a time when you want to sort of turn on the TV late at night, turn off all the lights, and be scared. And that's what we are delivering to people.
How do you guys prevent the audience from getting horror fatigue? Over a season, having that constant "on your edge of your seat" mode could get a little tiring for fans of the show. How do you balance it out so that it's not always people like -- or do you not bother and just try to let people go along for the ride?
RM: I don't know. I guess your question, to me, is sort of like "Are you worried about doing a musical and people will become tired of the songs?" So I would think that it's very clearly an adult-genre piece. I think if people love the characters -- and I think they will, and I think there's something in there for everybody -- that's what will hopefully bring them along. The scares, to me, like I said, are 10 seconds, 20 seconds of every show. And the rest is just hopefully emotional storytelling. The same thing is, I think, true of Glee. We do between three and six songs per episode, and the rest is storytelling. So it's a very sort of similar paradigm to me.
The house seems to have its own personality, like it is feeding off the insecurities of the people who enter.
RM: We don't want to give anything away on that, but the only thing that we will say is the house is a character. I would say it's one of the leads of our show. I think every neighborhood has a murder house. Or every town, rather. I certainly had one when I was growing up. Brad and I had talked about it. He had one in his town. And there is a very dark, deep mystery that we need to get to the bottom of this season about what happened in that house and why it attracts this stuff. So we will get into that. If people look at the title sequence, every week a clue from that title sequence is revealed. If you watch that, by the end of the season, the last episode of the season, you will know why every one of those images was in there. It's sort of like clue of the week, and every week we do answer those big riddles.
What do you guys hope to bring to the horror genre with this show?
BF: I don't know. I hadn't thought about that. I mean, I think that in the case of the horror genre, your main goal is to scare people. You want people to be a little bit off balance afterwards. You want people to have their friends sleep over that night. And you want to deliver iconic images that stay with people. So you want to be able to deliver that hockey mask or that pediatrician or whatever it is that makes people remember it.
RM: And also, we're very excited that so many people we know already are going as Rubber Man for Halloween. That's the greatest compliment ever.