With American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy helped usher in the current golden age of event/anthology series. Alongside frequent collaborators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, he continues to be at the forefront of the trend with three anthology series on the air. Murphy has FX’ AHS, whose most recent installment, Freak Show, just became the most watched program in FX history with 12.64 million linear and non-linear viewers, and is about to start filming the next one, Hotel, starring Lady Gaga. He just directed the first two episodes of the spinoff American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson starring John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr, as well as the first episode of the new Fox horror comedy Scream Queens. In an interview with Deadline, Murphy speaks about the amount of awards respect genre shows are getting, the real horror in Freak Show, bidding farewell (for now?) to AHS leading lady Jessica Lange, who is the latest member of the AHS troupe to join the new “bloodier and grislier” Hotel installment, why Lady Gaga won’t be singing, what big surprise Hotel has in store for Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters, and what direction ACS would be going after O.J.
DEADLINE: The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Game Of Thrones are among the most popular series on TV yet none has landed a top award. Do you think there is stigma against genre programming?
MURPHY: I really don’t. I think that the only way you could ever say that is if those programs, including Game Of Thrones and American Horror Story, never got nominations, but they do. And they usually lead the pack with nominations so I feel like people do watch them and do recognize their excellence. I know that people write articles: is genre tough to be recognized. I think maybe it used to be, particularly in film, but I don’t believe that. I feel like, who wins what year is always a crap shoot, but we’ve had great luck with it. We’ve won many Emmys so we’re always thankful just to be in the game whether you win the big prize or not.
DEADLINE: Freak Show just was named the most-watched series in FX history and Coven was the one before that. Why is awards recognition so important to you when the franchise already has been such a commercial success?
MURPHY: Well, the thing that’s important to me about the whole process is that the cast and crew was really recognized because the people that I work with work themselves into the ground, they love the material so much, and they give 150%. That was really true last year in Freak Show where it was a really difficult shoot. We shot in really tough conditions. Some days it would be 120 degrees, actors were having heat strokes; it was the nature of the material. It was a traveling freak show set out by a pond, a swamp. So I’m always just trying to beat the drums for the people I work with because I think they’re so extraordinary.
And I think we’re all really excited about this season because it was Jessica Lange’s last season and it was her idea so, in a certain way, I’ve been viewing it as a tribute to her because she had been such a great collaborator over four years. This is her last year so I think people were just trying extra hard for her because she’s so close to that cast and that crew.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the genesis of Freak Show. Did you have circus nightmares as a child?
MURPHY: No, I think I’m one of the rare people who was never afraid of clowns. A lot of the crew members were but there’s an actual phobia for that so I shouldn’t make light of it. I think that it’s a horror trope, a very terrifying clown. We wanted to do ours in a weird way — I thought that his back story was really emotional and really upsetting, and John Carroll Lynch is such a great actor, it was sort of written for him. He was the first and only person I contacted about that role because I had seen him in Zodiac and I was so obsessed with Zodiac, when Mark Ruffalo and I were doing The Normal Heart, I was always talking to him about John Carroll Lynch and he said, oh, I’ve got to put you two together. So Mark sort of set that up in a way.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that Freak Show was Jessica Lange’s idea.
MURPHY: The whole theme was her idea. It was always the one that she talked about a lot, that she was always very, very interested in it. She is a photographer so she was very drawn to the images of these haunted traveling freak shows. She would send me postcards, she would buy me books. And, after this she would sit around on the set, and we talked a lot about it and she was just so passionate and interested in it that, we spent sort of a year and a half researching that. I knew we were going to do it, and she was very thrilled when I said, “OK, we’re going to do Freak Show”, because it was her great passion and she was so invested in it. She had done so much research already and I think the day that she got to show up to that set — we really did take over acres and acres of farmland near the swamp — there were tears in her eyes, she was so thrilled and she just kept saying “it’s like a poem come true, it’s like a poem come true”.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to say goodbye to Jessica?
MURPHY: Well, all I can say about that never say never with Jessica. She and I are doing something else right now. I’m producing a production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, that is one of her dream roles. She’s done it before and she wanted to do it again and I got the rights for her, we’re going to do that on Broadway. So we’re working again together, and I think if I went to Jessica and I had an amazing role, I think she would do it. I think she wanted some time off, but Jessica is somebody that is always about the role, in every season on this show.
One of the unique things about American Horror Story is, it’s very respectful to actors. Actors in many cases don’t want to be tied down to a seven-year contract. So my deal with the cast is: you’re free after every year, you can come back or you cannot come back. And what I usually do is tell them, “If you come back, this is the role I have in mind for you and these are the other actors you’re going to be working with, the script, the theme and the tone.” And I think from that for them comes a great amount of personal freedom. They feel that they have a choice to a certain degree and that’s certainly how I always approached Jessica every season; I would say, “Here’s the role, here’s the theme; are you in, do you want to do it?” and I was lucky enough that she said yeah. I think if I came up with something extraordinary for her, if I could come up with a great character, she’s all about that, and she’s told me that, if you have something great after I sort of get my rest then let’s keep talking, so I’ll do that.
DEADLINE: Is there one element that sets Freak Show apart from previous American Horror Story installments?
MURPHY: Jessica used the word “poem.” It felt very poetic to me and much sadder than previous seasons. It was also I think a little bit more character-based. I think the true horror of this season was the fact that these people, these so-called freaks, were driven out and treated so terribly in our society and many of them were put into institutions and they were complete outsiders and outliers. Also this season we did something that was sort of unique — it was a traveling freak show so we did some musical numbers that were different and original and weird, and I really enjoyed them. I think that we’ll never do that again. This season there’s not a number to be had but for last season I thought, and for Jessica’s character particularly, the sad chanteuse that she played, that it worked great.
DEADLINE: No musical numbers in Hotel? With Lady Gaga starring?
MURPHY: No. People, keep saying to me, “What numbers are they singing, what numbers are they singing,” and I say there will be no numbers. The interesting thing is we cast a lot of singers this season but I like that singers, for the most part, are always great actors because they know how to sell a story through song, through a scene. I’m excited about that and I think that’s why Gaga was excited about it; it’s not something that she’s ever done before. It’s a pure acting part. I think people expect that she’s going to be sitting in a bar in a white silk gown sort of singing songs — she is not. The upcoming season that we’re doing is much more horror-based; it’s much more dark. It’s about a theme and an idea that’s very close to my heart that I’ve always wanted to do that’s a little bloodier and grislier I think than anything that we’ve done before; it’s straight horror this year.
DEADLINE: What was the inspiration for Hotel?
MURPHY: It’s based in the hotel in horror movies and horror tropes. We’ve researched several real-live hotels in downtown LA where absolutely horrifying things happened. Murder House I thought was a very primal season because everybody’s great fear is about the bogeyman under the bed in their house, and this feels similar to me in that when you check into a hotel, there are certain things beyond your control. Other people have the keys to your room; they can come in there. You’re not exactly safe, it’s a very unsettling idea.
DEADLINE: Any new Hotel castings you can share?
MURPHY: We’re just finalizing Denis O’Hare’s deal, he’s going to come back. Everybody else is pretty much done. We start shooting in three weeks and we’re building this incredible set which is one of our best sets ever I think — which is saying a lot because our production designer Mark Worthington I thought really outdid himself in Freak Show — but we’re building this incredible six-story Art Deco hotel on the Fox lot. Everybody in the show is very excited about this season, Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters particularly because in every season thus far they’ve always been sort of the heroes, the good guy or the good lady so to speak, and this season they’re playing absolute evil villains so they’re very excited about that and I think people will really enjoy it, and the Gaga part is bananas good.
I also think that the thing that’s different about the season is that before we’ve always been very driven by the Jessica Lange character. She was always the lead character. This year, it’s a true ensemble and I think we have more male parts and more male stories. The Wes Bentley part is really big, the Matt Bomer part is really big; Evan Peters and Finn Wittrock are really big. That’s not to say that the women aren’t either; I mean Kathy Bates and Gaga and Paulson’s part and Angela Bassett’s part are great. But I guess it’s a different tone this year than we’ve had.
DEADLINE: Switching gears, how was it filming the O.J. Bronco chase on the streets of Los Angeles for American Crime Story?
MURPHY: It was amazing. The interesting thing about this show is everybody knew what was happening outside the Bronco but in this case we tell people what went on in the Bronco. We shut a couple of L.A. freeways down for two days and we really show A.C. Cowlings and O.J. Simpson in that car, what they were doing. It was really tough, it was very emotional and very wrenching. We’re always very cognitive of the fact that two innocent people were butchered and killed and we’re very respectful of that. It’s one of those stories that’s just fixed in your dreams. It’s very intense, and the reason I’m even a part of it was because I’d read the first two scripts just as a fan, and I thought they were so fantastic that I wanted to help get them made. Then cut to a year later, and we’re almost done shooting the first two episodes.
DEADLINE: Are you already thinking of a new crime to tackle for next season?
MURPHY: We have some ideas. It’s going to be difficult to top this one because of the star power, and also the story is so riveting. But I think as in the case of American Horror Story, we always do the opposite of what we did so probably after O.J. we’re going to probably try and find something that’s much more character-based and maybe not a trial but that’s all I can say. I think we’ve figured out what we want to do but I’m not ready to announce it yet.
DEADLINE: But it will stay in the crime franchise with a new crime right?
MURPHY: One hundred percent. It’s always going to be a true famous case, yes.