'AHS: Freak Show' debut: Ryan Murphy on sex, scary clowns & season 5
[SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE SEASON PREMIERE OF AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW!!!]
Well, that was unlike any trip to the circus we’ve ever taken. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story: Freak Show made its highly anticipated debut with a huge episode that included an old-fashioned sex tape, a bearded lady, and a David Bowie musical number. For its biggest season yet, co-creator Murphy talked to EW for an epic postmortem interview that covers all the big twists (and, of course, Twisty) and clues to season five!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the opening credits. They’re animated this year. What made you want to switch it up?
RYAN MURPHY: Well I think the whole thing about this season is we wanted to do something that was more challenging in every way this season. I felt that way. So this is the first season we’ve done an all-animated title sequence, which is really difficult and takes a long time. We also kept the same theme song but redid it. I love them. There’s a lot of startling imagery in them. There’s a lot of clues. A lot of goodies in them for the fans like things that are going to be happening. Like when you watch the Coven titles and you watch all 13 episodes of Coven, you’re like “That makes sense.”
The style is so different. The use of split screens really reminded me of Brian DePalma—was he your inspiration?
Well, I mean, I’m always influenced by him, and yes, that is sort of an homage to him in some weird way. But I think this season is unusual in that it’s sort of like a weird cross between Douglas Sirk and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I’m guessing you brought the Douglas Sirk.
I did! If you watch this season as compared to last season, the camera barely moves this season. It’s a much more still cinematic exploration, which means our brilliant director of photography, Michael Goi, had a lot longer time to light. Everything had to be much more spot on because you don’t move the camera. But I really wanted it to be wider frames, bigger frames, stiller frames. And I really put much more of an emphasis this season on the production design and the costumes than ever before because it has that sort of Douglas Sirk ‘50s thing to it.
Did you just want to slow it down to show the sets and the scope? So much of the first 3 seasons was jump cuts and very fast editing.
Yeah we’re using some George Antheil music who was a big composer from back then and whose music was used in a lot of ‘50s and ‘60s horror movies. I like paying homage to the early ‘50s and horror movies and back then they didn’t have Steadicam and they didn’t have jump cuts. So we don’t do as much as that. I felt like I wanted it to be in a more eerie world as opposed to a more startling abrupt world.
And so much more color, like reds. The last two seasons were very dark with a lot of blacks and grays. Why choose color?
Well I think we were paying homage to The Greatest Show on Earth, that great movie. But more than that, I think people when they think of the freak world and the world of carny, it’s a lot of black and white images. That’s how I knew them. I sort of wanted to bring them to life. So with the production design and set design we made a very distinctive choice of let’s do the brightest colors known to man and let’s let everything soak in Lipton iced tea for a week. There’s a faded melancholy feeling to it. You can see that the colors are beginning to dim—that was by design because it’s the end of an era.
How far outside New Orleans is that set? It looks like you all are on water somewhere.
Yeah we’re in New Orleans. We’re in an area where there was some bad flooding from Katrina. It’s a farm. We rented many many acres. The challenge of this season was we built everything twice. We built an entire city so you’re seeing a functioning city—it works. All of the tents we built but a lot of those props—the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the trailers—all that stuff Mark Worthington, our brilliant production designer, scoured the entire country for months to find that stuff and it’s all authentic. It was all used in that carnie world. So we built the exterior of the city and then we built the interior in a soundstage. So we had to do everything twice which we’ve never done before so that’s why I think it feels so big and spectacular.
You haven’t directed an episode of AHS since Asylum—what was it like to be back?
It was fascinating. I did it for many reasons. I wanted to do something that was challenging and by far the biggest challenge I’ve ever done in my career in terms of technically was the Sarah Paulson/two heads thing. I told her I wanted to do something that challenged her and she was a little afraid and she said, “Okay let’s go for it.” Also it was Jessica’s idea and I really wanted to do it for her. To be quite honest, I fell in love with it in the writing of it in a way that was more personal to me than perhaps any of the other seasons we’ve done. I did it and I loved doing it. It took a long time. It took many many weeks. But it was really rewarding. I learned a lot.
The Paulson thing is so seamless. But how rigorous is that to shoot her?
It’s hard. On average, if you have a two-person scene maybe it will take five hours. If Sarah Paulson’s character is in it, it’s around 12-20. Sarah has to do everything four times. We had a fake Dot made for her based on her own head. She pre-records most of her dialogue. So she’s wearing an invisible earwig when she’s doing scenes with herself. It’s incredibly grueling and very draining on Sarah but she really went for it. I think the results are really quite amazing. One of the things is most conjoined twins on film are depicted with two actors that are connected at the chest. That’s certainly something we thought about doing. But for Sarah, I wanted to challenge her and we thought it would be great to do the two-heads/one body.
We did a screen test early on to see if we could even make it work and we were told we could make it work but it would be incredibly time consuming and expensive. I had no idea how time consuming. But we have like 23 people only on those shots so it’s been fascinating. People are really having a reaction to it. At the premiere, people gasped when they first saw Sarah. I’m just so thrilled for her because I think it’s by far the best, most creative challenging work I’ve seen maybe any actor do. Every character thing she does is so thought out. She has backstories for the characters. One is left-handed and one is right so she’s had to work on that. It’s just been brilliant to watch someone at the top of her game working on all those choices.
It’s like two people fighting with each other.
Yeah, and that’s what the season is about: two souls in one body fighting for the right to choose. She’s worked all that out in advance.
Bette seems so sweet, but we learn in the premiere that Bette is the one that killed their mother. So she’s actually the darker one?
Well Bette is the one with show business dreams and people with show business dreams are usually killers. I love that she’s show business obsessed and will do anything to be a star and if her mother doesn’t let her go see films in glorious Technicolor she acts out. It was also because the mother was ashamed of them and hiding them on the farm. It was more than just a show business dream, she got sick of being hidden in the shadows. It’s sort of 20 something years of misery bubbling up.
It does feel like the other theme is the dream of fame because Elsa is also holding onto that.
Yeah. There’s something about Elsa that the carny world is also exploring: you have to remember that in the ’20s and ’30s, when that world was at its peak, those performers were in many ways the biggest stars America had to offer. They were making thousands of dollars. They were treated like royalty. And then overnight that went away. So she’s the representation of the dashed dream.
Her look seemed very inspired by Marlene Dietrich.
Yes and no. There’s also a lot of Bette Davis in there. When Jessica and I were first talking about that character I always imagined her in that monkey fur which is what she’s first wearing. We shot that scene in 102-degree weather and here she is in that literal 1952 period coat that weighed 80lbs. So she made me put that on at one point.
I bet you loved that!
It was so hot. It was literally like wearing a monkey. It was awful. But that’s the fun of the show. And Lou Eyrich, our costume designer, does such a brilliant job of that. Many times we’re finding real stuff carny performers wore or copy the costumes. Yesterday, Lou was making a Harlequin suit for an 8ft tall man. So everybody I feel is very challenged by the material, which was the point. Last year, which was our most successful year I thought in many ways, was our easiest year because it was glamorous and funny and modern and contemporary. This year was much more research-involved and I like that.
I love that Elsa has a burn book for Marlene Dietrich!
[Laughs] I like that too. Jessica loves that book.
The first episode really zeroes in on Elsa, Jimmy and the twins. Are they what the focus of the season will be?
Well in typical fashion when you have a cast like this you can do it two ways: you can throw everybody into the first episode and then there’s not a lot of time to service those backstories. So what we decided in the writing was we’re parceling everything out. So the first one is about Elsa and Bette and Dot and Jimmy. Then the second one you spend a lot of time with Kathy Bates and Chilies and Angela Bassett. Then in the third one you meet Emma Roberts and Denis O’Hare. That’s when the story coalesces. It’s a slower rollout than we’ve ever done.
Twisty might be one of the scariest creations you guys have done. Who came up with him?
That’s interesting. When we first started to do Twisty, he was the same character. Then it was my boss Dana Walden who said I think you need to do something physically with him so that he’s different than the other clowns we’ve seen in pop culture. The clown is such a trope in that genre. So we worked a little bit before we even started to write on the backstory and we really came up with a gruesome, hideous story that you find out in episode four. You see the bottom part of his face in episode two. But in episode four we spend a lot of time with that and you see it more and you learn what is going on with him and it’s really awful and scary.
A lot of people are freaked out by this clown. A couple people walked out on the premiere because they were too upset by the clown. I personally don’t have that phobia but I understand that people do. To them I say, watch it in the daytime because it only gets worse.
Will we eventually understand his end game?
Yeah you will find out very early on, like why is he collecting children in the school bus?
And at the end he sees the freak show troupe disposing of the cop’s body. Will he hold that over them?
Well yeah. All I’ll say about that is Twisty is not to be trusted. He’s specifically plotting something and you find out why he’s doing what he’s doing.
He seems to not like the freak show and we’ll find out why?
Oh yeah. He hates them.
What is Ethel’s accent? Where is she from?
Kathy came up with that idea which I love. She thought that Ethel would be from Baltimore. So we’re saying in that period the two most famous things to come out of Baltimore were Kathy Bates’ character and Wallis Simpson. She worked really hard on her Baltimore-ese. Somebody watched a screening of the first episode and said, “I thought Kathy Bates was out of a John Waters movie.” And I’m like “You’re right!” Because that’s set in Baltimore and back in the day, the accents were even thicker. But I love that. I love when she says “spektakular.”
Is that Pepper’s brother? Or is that just someone who looks like her?
That is not a physical relation. That is just another pinhead that was with her in the orphanage.
And then Grace Gummer returns after being in Coven. Is that character going to recur?
Oh yes. I love her. She’s very talented. The Peppermint Girl comes back. I’m not going to say for good or for bad. But I think the world of her. She’s really talented and really funny. What happens to her might be the scariest thing that happens all season but she was game.
Well that’s saying a lot because you already had Meryl Streep’s daughter do a carny sex tape!
Well yes I did but I was very chaste with Grace in those takes. I was very protective of her. We don’t show what happened to that character but we allude to it.
This season is much more sexual compared to Coven. Is that a conscious choice?
Yes. It was a conscious choice only because we’re really following the research. I mean the people who were in these carnivals loved to party to be quite blunt. They were very free with their sexuality. Within the protective world of their family, they felt very uninhibited. They actually liked and appreciated their differences. There’s a reason for where that phrase comes from, “Get your freak on.” I love juxtaposing the freethinking, non-judgmental carnie folks with the Mamie Eisenhower housewives. The carny folk got it right in many ways. It is sexier this year and more graphic sexually than any of the seasons.
How did you find all the people that play the carnies?
Well for the most part it was research. When we decided this was the world we were going to write about, we did a lot of research. In the case of Jyoti Amge (Ma Petite), we saw video where she was crowned World’s Smallest Woman by the Guinness Book of World Records. At the end of that, she says “I really wanna be an actress.” I called her up and said, “You came to the right place—are you interested?” She said, “Yes!” And then it took 8 months to get the visa.
In the case of Amazon Eve, that part was originally written for a man. That part was originally called Johnny Long in the Pants and we were searching for a man. Erika Ervin saw the call and she auditioned and I thought she was so great and unusual that we rewrote the part for her.
In the case of Rose Siggins (Legless Suzi) and Mat Fraser who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal Boy, we found out something about them online. We personally called them up and said “Would you join the show? We want to write something for you.” So it happened in many different ways but it took a long time to happen.
Dandy and Gloria Mott are the opposite end of the spectrum. She seems a little too attached and he seems like a grown child.
Well that’s our homage to “What would Norman Bates have been like if he lived in Florida?” He’s a boy who was born into great life and privilege and on the outside has it all but on the inside he feels like a freak. So he wants to be somewhere where he fits in. So when he’s not allowed to, he becomes dark and murderous. I love all those scenes that Franny and Finn have together. It’s fun to rich those rich, pampered people who are on the outside are so beautiful but on the inside are the biggest monsters of them all.
Elsa sings Bowie’s “Life on Mars” at the end. So there will be modern music this season?
Well we don’t do a lot of them this season. Maybe we only have five numbers. But as we started writing it, I thought I just don’t want to do ‘50s music and neither did Jessica. So we thought long and hard about that. I was very inspired with Baz Luhrmann. I love what he does with his movies like Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge where you don’t play period stuff, you do stuff from all eras that fit the story. So we decided we only were going to highlight musical artists who at some point in their career had identified themselves as feeling like freaks or misfits or outcasts, which our people are going through. That’s why we do David Bowie, Fiona Apple, Lana Del Rey, Kurt Cobain. We do people who sort of have the same feelings as our characters do.
Did Jessica know Bowie? Did she know “Life on Mars?”
Well I said to her, “Surely you must have dated David Bowie?” “No. The one I did not!” Jessica knows everybody! But no she had never known David. She immediately loved the song. She loved doing Lana Del Rey, she was not that familiar when we started with Lana Del Rey. But that’s been fun for her to do I think.
The big reveal at the end is that Elsa has no legs. When will we learn what happened?
There’s an episode coming up where you get her backstory but then as we go on you get more and more backstories.
Does it involve her being in Germany during the war?
No. We’re not doing any war thing at all.
Do other members of the freak show, like Ethel, know?
That is revealed but it seems to be a big secret. I just love that shot that Jessica plays so well where she feels maybe even like maybe she’s more of a misfit and a freak than all of her freaks.
What can you say about next week’s episode? I’ve seen it but there’s a fairly big development with Dandy and Twisty.
We meet Michael Chiklis and Angela Bassett’s characters that I love. And Dandy, whose catchphrase is, “I’m bored. I’m so bored,” finally finds something that does not bore him, which is Twisty. So we explore that and that plays out over several episodes.
Are they gonna be like Bonnie & Clyde?
Well let it suffice to say that Dandy becomes Twisty’s apprentice.
It seems like Jimmy has eyes for Dot.
No I don’t think Jimmy has eyes for Dot, I think Dot has eyes for Jimmy.
Patti LaBelle shows up next week as Frances Conroy’s maid, Nora, for a brief scene. Will she have a bigger role?
Um, Patti did three episodes to me as a favor. When she found out the end game there, she said yes. She’s great. I loved her scenes. She has some fun stuff coming up in episodes two, three and four.
I’m guessing it’s a dark end game since she’s in the Mott house and Twisty’s around.
Well never underestimate Patti LaBelle.
Do you know what Matt Bomer is playing?
Yeah, we wrote that part. Then I wrote Matt said and said you have first offer of refusal. He said “What is it?” because he was getting ready to do Magic Mike XXL. When I told him the role, he immediately said yes and cut a week out of his schedule and came down to New Orleans and shot that episode which might be one of our most horrendous episodes ever. But Matt loved doing it.
Is he part of the freak show?
Mmm I don’t wanna say too much because I think if I say one thing it will give it away. But it’s something Matt has never played before, which was interesting for him.
Has there been more talk of Neil Patrick Harris coming on?
Yeah I spoke to Neil last week. He sort of had an idea of what he wanted to do, and I had an idea that he liked. So I’m going to call him next week. If I can make it work, it will be something that shoots at the end. He’s very interested in the show and obviously Neil is a magician and likes all that magic stuff. So he’s fascinated with that. We’re trying to make it work. I’m optimistic.
Are you going to be writing something for Jamie Brewer?
I hope so. Later in this season, perhaps. I like our troupe of people to come in and out. Sometimes it’s a whole season long arc and sometimes its an episode. So we’re working on all of that always. All of our people I always try to keep their hand in in some regard.
I’m guessing Gabourey Sidibe is later since you told me her character arrives after her mother, Patti LaBelle, goes MIA?
Yeah, she comes later for, like, three episodes.
And have you figured out season 5?
Yes, I have figured it out. I’m already meeting with actors about asking them to play roles.
Can you say anything about it?
Noooooooo! But there are clues in the first two episodes because I figured out season 5 very early on and I know that the fans love that. So there are clues that are dropped.
American Horror Story
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.