American Horror Story: Apocalypse: Sarah Paulson on directing Jessica Lange's return
She really IS the Supreme.
Not only is Sarah Paulson playing three different characters this season on American Horror Story: Apocalypse, but she’s also making her directorial debut with this week’s pivotal episode.
Paulson helmed this week’s trip back to the infamous “Murder House” of season 1, which features the return of Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Jessica Lange.
On a break from shooting the AHS: Apocalypse finale, EW talked to Paulson about the massive episode, directing Lange, and closing the gate on Murder House.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Not only was this your directorial debut but a hugely pivotal episode. So how did this come together?
SARAH PAULSON: So basically, what happened is I was always supposed to direct this year. I have been telling Ryan Murphy for many years things that I wanted to. And then he finally called my bluff and said, “Okay, you’re doing it this year. You’re going to direct episode eight.” I got a note from my agent telling me what my dates were, signing a contract. There was no way to get out of it.
And then I get a phone call and Ryan said to me, “I’m going to have you direct episode six. It’ s going to be great it’s an hour and a half episode and it’s going to be great. It’s going to be great crossover episode. Jessica will be back and it’s just going to be a bunch of people sitting in a room talking,” and I was like, “Okay.” By the way, Cordelia was super heavy in episode five so I was working a lot as an actress. Then I got this script and there are 72 scenes in it. Whereas most of our episodes go between 28 and maybe 40-something tops, maybe 50 as a max. This is 22 more scripts on a schedule that had to be taught and so, you know, for someone never having done this before it couldn’t have been more overwhelming. At the same time, as you and I’ve talked about before, I like a challenge and I like to sorta throw myself into something and there was no way to do anything other than to just dive in. If I paused for a moment and figured out how I was going to survive it, I probably wouldn’t have left my house in the morning.
You and Jessica are obviously very good friends. What was it like directing her in her return as Constance?
I was intimidated. She’s the person I’ve acted with the most in my professional life and it’s not lost on me how impressive that is even to my ear to say that the acting partner I have had the most has been Jessica Lange. In fact, I’m jealous of myself when I say that out loud. I mean, I first worked with her when I was 29 years old and here I am 43 and now saying, “Can you stand a little to the left Jessica, and oh Jessica I have an idea about how to play this scene. Jessica could you put the glass down before you….” All of a sudden that’s a very different dynamic for us to be working in.
However, you know, Jessica hadn’t been on the set of American Horror Story in four years and so for her it was coming home, but also it felt very new again and so she was very interested in and hungry for my input and that made it very easy and made me feel confident to tap her on the shoulder and say, “Here’s what I was thinking about this scene.” Telling one of the world’s greatest actresses that I had a note about what she might want to try here, the audacity of that is not lost on me but I didn’t have a choice. It was my job. But the thing about Jessica she gives you so much. There is a plethora of options per every four words — for her it could be like five melodies and six key changes. You have so much to work with that it immediately inspires you to think of thirty different things you could suggest to her that she could try. I know I’m biased but I think she’s really, really beautiful in this episode.
I think it’s great you guys give an ending to all these characters.
I thought so too. Yeah, a little bit of closure and a tiny bit of hope in some instances.
Do you have one particular scene or moment you’re most proud of?
I can tell you what I like the most when I was directing it which was Constance’s death scene. We played it in one take every single time we did it with the song in its entirety and I shot it with different lens sizes and speeds of film. We just probably spent three or four hours shooting that and we played it through straight through the entire time and every single time the crew burst into applause when she was done and our camera operator turned to me after the first take and said with tears in his eyes, “That was so sad.” She just had that kind of potency and she had that kind of effect on people. That’s why she’s Jessica Mother F—ing Lange. It was a kind of incredible thing for me to be a part of that and for me to help shape the way it was going to be shot and the way it was going to look and what I wanted to see.
Additionally, the Black Mass when the Satanists arrived. I thought it was really scary and I was proud that didn’t shy away from the part of the kill that was so terrifying and I thought the actress who played the hitchhiker was so great and that was a hard thing. I mean that was something like we did on day four and it’s special effects and chest cracking open and then rain sequences. I had that flash of Mead (Katy Bates) seeing her face when her heart is about to be ripped out of her body. I went to the editor and asked, “Can we have a flash of her when she first gets into the car?”
And I guess I’m proud at the end of the episode it was not scripted that Madison closed the gate on the house and I added that at the very end. I kind of thought that was a wonderful way of saying now we have a bit of closure and we know that Violet (Taissa Farmiga) and Tate (Evan Peters) have been reunited and Moira (Frances Conroy) was more or less freed from the house that Constance is there with her children. I thought that it just had a tiny hint of hope to it. Even though we’re driving into the future of not knowing what Michael’s going to do here and it is American Horror Story so that hope won’t last for long, but you know what I’m saying.
You’re the one actress who has been in EVERY season of AHS. So, to then direct this pivotal episode that ties such important seasons together must have felt pretty cool?
Yes, I was conscious of that and I spent a lot of time watching both Coven and Murder House. I watched repeatedly before I started, but again I didn’t have much time before I started so there was a lot of sleepless nights where I’m looking at the thing and I turn to Holland [Taylor, her girlfriend] and I’m like, ”Don’t turn off the lights I’m still working.”
We had to do that kitchen [the Harmon kitchen where Constance talks about Michael] on stage and it wasn’t ready until the Sunday before so I came here on Sunday and spent like two hours in the kitchen just putting my iPhone in different places with this app that you can try different lenses to see where I wanted to put the camera. So, it was kind of an all-consuming thing but that’s just how I roll so that part was really fun.
Billie Dean tells Madison she’s met some Montgomerys before. Does that mean that Madison is related to Dr. Montgomery and his wife, Norah, a.k.a. the people who once owned the Murder House?
I do believe yes.
You’re shooting the finale right now. What can you say about it?
All I can tell you is that I’m still shooting the finale. It means that I haven’t kicked it yet.
Or you’re playing a different role since you’ve played like 12 people this season.
Yeah basically in the finale everyone’s dead and I’m playing everyone. I’m just slopping different Saturday Night Live wigs on my head.
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.