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American Horror Story: Ryan Murphy talks Roanoke reset

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Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Ryan Murphy isn’t one to rest on his laurels when it comes to American Horror Story. In fact, the uber-producer admitted during his panel at EW PopFest in Los Angeles on Sunday that he fears the series becoming too formulaic — which is why it took such an unexpected turn during its current sixth season, Roanoke.

“I sort of ended season 5, which was Hotel, which I loved, feeling like, ‘Okay, we did that.’ It had become a formula, which is to sort of do an opera and do everything very over-stylized, and the episodes literally sometimes ran three hours — I lost track at one point,” says Murphy. “They were very big and full and theatrical, and I thought the best thing that we could do was the opposite of that.”

Brainstorming with FX chief John Landgraf, the two spoke freely about the idea of changing up AHS even from a scheduling standpoint. “After Thanksgiving, I don’t want to watch something that in your face and gory that’s that heavy,” admitted Murphy, adding, “And coming back in January was always a bit of a slag. It felt like a reboot of a reboot — you had to re-market it.”

So, this year, Murphy and FX decided to cut the order of the episodes to 10 and, specifically, launch the show right after Labor Day, so that by this time, pre-Halloween, in the run, everything would almost finished and super bingeable.

“People have written that it’s leaner, meaner, and the episodes are short this season, which they are by design,” says Murphy. “And I think the conciseness of the plotting has helped. But more than that, I just wanted it to be more real. Before on our show, if you died, chances are you would come back the next episode, just because I loved the actors so much. But I feel the stakes of it [this year] are… once you die, ya dead. And I think it’s just scarier. And I think it’s much more real.”

In fact, Murphy said an upcoming November episode is perhaps one of the season’s most real yet. “It might be our most intense, true horror episode yet,” he said to a delighted crowd. “It was very difficult to edit, just because it was so in your face. Many, many people die in it.”

Keeping the season a secret proved particularly difficult not just in avoiding press interviews, but in keeping spectators at bay during actual shooting, especially for outside scenes. One scene in particular — Kathy Bates’ character Agnes’ meltdown chasing passersby on Hollywood Boulevard with a meat cleaver — was trouble, but also a delight. Bates, who joined the panel to represent AHS with Evan Peters and Cuba Gooding Jr., spoke about the experience:

“[Pulling off that scene] was a question for me, too, but we did it very, very early on a Sunday morning so it was pretty empty there — because everybody blows it out on Saturday night,” laughed Bates. “But what was weird for me is, I knew that a couple of days later I was going to get my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I knew it was going to be right across the street from where we were shooting this, so that was kind of weird. I kept wanting to run over and take a peek but I thought, I can’t do this, I’m dressed as the Butcher! But that was one of the more fun things that we did.”

American Horror Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Watch panel clips from EW PopFest: