For two years running, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries American Horror Story has earned more Emmy nominations than any other show. This year American Horror Story: Asylum has 17 noms including the marquee movie/miniseries category. But the real question is whether those noms will turn into more wins this time around. To date, the genre show has taken home only two statuettes: one for leading lady Jessica Lange and one below-the-line for makeup. Murphy has made no secret of the fact he covets his own Emmy for AHS and spoke to Deadline’s AwardsLine editor Christy Grosz:
Deadline: Do you think this is your year to win for the series?
Ryan Murphy: I never would think about, “Oh, are we going to win? Do we deserve to win?” I like that people who have worked so hard on the show have, for the most part, been nominated. That thrills me to no end. It’s a very ambitious show in its scope, in its breadth. It’s 13 hours worth of material. From start to end, it takes almost 18 months to cook it up, to work it, to write it, to shoot it. It’s a really large endeavor and thankfully Fox Studios has given me the time and financial resources to do that. Last year, in particular, it was more than a horror show to me. What we really tried to make it be was a social commentary. It really was a look at the mental-health industry in the 1950s and 1960s and how it eventually was shut down and how that in itself was a great “American Horror”. Every year we take that phrase and try to make it specific. I thought it really came together in a great way. So should we win? I never know about those things. I’m just glad we were acknowledged. I think our competition is incredible. All of those nominees are certainly deserving. You never know. It’s really just a crapshoot at the end of the day, but I was really happy we were in there in such a big way two years in a row. When the show started I think a lot of people didn’t think it was going to fly or have legs. There’s a lot of supposition and stereotyping when it comes to the horror genre, so anything we can do to knock down some walls and make way for other people is great thing.
Deadline: Do you think that voters hold your success against you?
Murphy: No, not at all. I really don’t. I think the voting thing has always been a very mysterious process to me. I’ve been nominated and lost, and I’ve been nominated and won. It’s a lot more fun to win. But when I’ve lost, I never say, “Oh, shit. My show or myself deserved that more than the person who won.” I never think that. For the most part, I think the Emmy Awards get it right in terms of who they award it to. At this point, I look at in terms of a career and overall body of work as opposed to a specific year. This is the year that the show was a technical marvel, from the cinematography to the costumes to the production design to the makeup.
Deadline: How important are awards in the grand scheme of things?
Murphy: For some shows, the acknowledgement and a lot of nominations can certainly turn eyeballs to the screen. We’ve seen that a couple of times over the past couple years. But for the most part, it’s a really nice acknowledgement by your peers that you did good work, and that’s really all you should look at it as. It’s a really fun event; it’s nice to be in a room with so many people who I have admired and looked up to for years, many of whom have influenced my work. So I never think of it anything other than: You’re in the game, you’re at the dance, maybe you’ll be called up to the floor, maybe you won’t.
It’s a nice occasion to look good. [Laughs.] I always have fun and meet new people. For me, at this point, I always feel like the proud papa. Most of the people who are nominated have worked with me anywhere between 8 to 10 years. Like Sarah Paulson, for example. I’ve worked with her since back in the Nip/Tuck days. Every time I do a project I try to write a role for Sarah Paulson, but to write a role for Sarah that connected with people so heavily and to have her winning awards and getting nominated, that’s something I take pride in. I feel the same way about Zack Quinto and James Cromwell and Jessica Lange and Eryn Krueger Mekash, who’s been nominated many times for the makeup award for my shows. I get really excited about that. I get really excited for them.
Deadline: What are your thoughts on the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences’ decision to lump movies and miniseries into a single category?
Murphy: I think that’s an old decision that needs to be changed, quite honestly. That decision was made years ago when miniseries was a dying art form. They were falling out of favor, they were not being made, and there was really a lack of nominees. So to keep it alive, they lumped it with movies. But particularly in the past two years, there’s been complete turnaround in the industry. There has been a resurgence of miniseries as a commercial and economical entity. If you look at the past year alone, almost every major network who had shuttered that division has reopened them. ABC has a miniseries division. Fox has a miniseries division. CBS now has a miniseries division. All of this has happened in the past two years. There were more miniseries this year that were amazing, and I think in the next two years you’re going to have double, triple, quadruple that amount. Maybe now is the time for the academy to re-examine those rules and look at it as something that has changed and has evolved. The academy, for the most part, has always been really good at taking the barometer of the industry and changing categories. This year they had gotten rid of the [movie/miniseries] supporting actor and supporting actress categories, but there was a protest, and they looked and they said, “Yeah, maybe we were wrong to have done that.” That was amazing because now you have 10 actors who have received nominations. That’s a boon not only to the career in terms of prestige, but also there are financial markers that go along with nominations. So I completely applauded that decision. I think the academy should at least examine the category again.
Deadline: Were you surprised by industry reaction to the decision last year to let AHS compete in the movie/mini category?
Murphy: I wasn’t surprised. I get why people were initially confused by it because the first year, we didn’t really say what it was so I think people just jumped to the assumption that it was a drama, thinking that we were going to follow the Harmon story in that house, that that was the show. But that was never how we had conceived it. I had always looked at it in the Prime Suspect model, where every year followed a different case and had completely new characters, although it did have Helen Mirren at the center playing the same character. I wanted to take that idea and make it one removed. Yes, Jessica Lange is our Helen Mirren, but she’s always playing new characters. It was always what we were going to do. When it came on and was successful pretty much right away, I knew what the second year was going to be and pitched John, and he loved it, but we didn’t want to tell people because we didn’t want people to know that everybody in that house was going to die that first year. Basically, we left it up to the academy. We laid out our case. We said, “This is what the show is going to do every year. What do you think it should be? What is your opinion?” It was evenly split, and we decided with the academy’s blessing that it was indeed a miniseries looking at the Prime Suspect model, and it is. You can’t argue with that idea now. Every year is a new location, a new story. It always takes place in different decade. By the definition of what a miniseries is in the Emmy playbook, it 100% fits that. And they agreed; in fact, they voted that way.
Deadline: Yours is one of the few genre series to break through with Emmy noms. Why does genre have such a hard time getting awards attention?
Murphy: When people think of horror, they think of slasher or violence or blood, and that was never what Brad [Falchuk] and I were interested in when we created the show. What we were really interested in were the psychological aspects of horror. We were interested in that very specific brand of 1970s horror that we were influenced by as kids. The Exorcist, to some degree Silence of the Lambs, Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve — those were always the things we talked about. Horror has broken through at some of those awards shows before, but I think there is a stigma to it. And the thing I always love to hear is when people do watch the show that they realize it’s a character study more than anything else. Certainly there are moments of violence, but the trademark of the show is really strong characters, amazing actors—perhaps the best actors working in TV today — and also great roles for actresses.
Deadline: What’s your process like? Do you generally have free reign in terms of content and story?
Murphy: I do. It’s a really wonderful situation. Usually what happens is, we start shooting every year in July to go on in October, because it’s always a very Halloween show. We shoot from July through January. This year I think we’re shooting until the end of July, so it’s a long shoot in terms of a limited miniseries. Every year around September, I’ve been thinking all summer long about what’s the idea for next year. By September, I will have usually finished the script of Episode 10, and then I will go into Dana Walden and Gary Newman and say, “OK, here is the idea for next season.” They’ll hear it, and in every case before they’ve been wildly enthusiastic. Then I’ll spend September through January with the writers, researching it, pulling historical material because we have a lot of real-life characters in the series. We’ll also start designing it in January. The sets we start designing really early. Then from January through July, we write and create the costumes and the sets. So it really is a year-round process. But it changes. There was a point last year in August where I was like, “I want to do an entire season about the [Charles] Manson case.” But then we decided that wasn’t respectful to the victims, and it’s really hard to get life rights. So I went to the other idea, which was New Orleans witches that I’ve always been obsessed with. We might go back to the Manson thing in some regard one day. We spend a lot of time specifically trying to get the look and the tone of it right. Every year has a different tone.
Deadline: You have two projects that could potentially compete against each other for next year’s Emmys if the movie/miniseries category stays the same: American Horror Story: Coven and the HBO made-for-TV movie, The Normal Heart. Have you given any thought to how that might work for you?
Murphy: [Laughs.] No, because I haven’t even finished shooting The Normal Heart. I’ll be shooting it until November. As someone who is doing both of those artforms, a movie and a miniseries, they’re completely different animals. You cannot even compare them. One takes 18 months of work and is 13 hours. And one is an hour and a half. It would be wonderful if The Normal Heart was recognized in some way, and I feel the same way about Coven. Again, it’s just wonderful to be included. But I do think it’s time to re-examine that category only because the industry has changed so much in the last two years and will continue to change.
Deadline: You’ve got some amazing actresses lined up for Coven. Do you like writing those juicy roles for women? Is that how you’ve added such heavy-hitting actresses for this season?
Murphy: I’ve always loved really strong female characters; I’ve always loved writing them. What I like to do is, go after women who I’ve always admired, like Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett. In all of those cases, I called them in and said, “I have this amazing role for you. And it’s something that you’ve never done before.” I think actresses get really excited about that. The truth of the matter is, and it’s no secret, when you’re actress working in Hollywood and you’re over 40, a lot of those roles dry up, particularly in movies. Any actor, male or female, loves it when you say, “I’ve always been in love with you. I love your talent. Please let me write something for you.” It’s a kick in the pants for them. In the case of Kathy and Angela, they were fans of the show. They were fans of Jessica’s, and they loved what we were able to do with her. They’re all having a ball. Many times we’ll give them two-, three-, four-page scenes where they’re sitting in a room just really going at each other. For example, we’re writing an episode now that’s completely about mothers and daughters. It’s really fun to give these amazing actresses material that’s worthy and meaty. This is a very female-heavy year, the most female-heavy project I think I’ve ever done. It really does feel like a George Cukor movie. [Laughs.] It’s The Women by design. The fun thing about Horror Story is every year it’s a different tone, it’s a different world, it’s a different story. Will next year be as female-heavy? Probably not. It’s also really fun for Kathy and Angela because they’re playing real people, they’re playing historical characters that we’ve put our Horror Story bent on. They can research these roles. They both have collected a large resource library that they refer to all the time, and I think that’s also a lot of fun for them.
Deadline: Have you cast any other roles for Coven?
Murphy: We do fun really cool casting every day. Yesterday I cast Christine Ebersole, who’s a great Tony Award winning actress. She’s going to play this [recurring] Glenda the Good Witch-type of gal. I’m getting ready to cast the big male lead who comes in on Episode 6 as Jessica Lange’s love interest. I’ve been meeting with actors for that. I don’t have any idea who that’s going to be. [Lange] plays a real femme fatale. Last year she was always in nun’s outfits, and this year she’s almost always exclusively in head-to-toe Yves St Laurent. [Laughs.] I think people will love Jessica Lange playing that powerful, dark, sexy character. That’s a great thing about television now. Most of the great roles for women are in television. And that line that divides movie stars and TV stars is totally going away in a year when you have Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and Claire Danes headlining their own shows. Actresses want good material — I don’t think it matters where it is anymore. It’s really a great time to be working in TV.
Deadline: You are also working on the HBO pilot Open. Have you cast the lead for that yet?
Murphy: I haven’t. I’m just finishing up The Normal Heart. I’m doing some editing on that, then I go back and finish the shooting in November. The Normal Heart comes out in May. We’ve cast 3 of the 4 leads — Wes Bentley, Scott Speedman and Anna Torv — and I’ve just now started to meet women for the other female lead. We’re in that final stretch of casting, and we’re going to be shooting that in January here in Los Angeles.