By Lynette Rice
September 18, 2020 at 12:04 PM EDT
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What made Nurse Ratched so wretched?

Starting today, Netflix tells the origin story of one of cinema's most tyrannical practitioners in Ratched. Sarah Paulson plays the title character in this period piece about her time at Lucia State Hospital in this prequel to the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In an interview with EW, executive producer Ian Brennan tells the origin story of this origin story, and how viewers shouldn't necessarily be so scared of the woman in the white cap.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Shall we briefly pay tribute to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

IAN BRENNAN: That movie is so good in so many ways, but the book is as well. I think what is so searing for people is the film itself. It's a scary feat tale of institutionalization, about being locked away against your will. You're being trapped by the insane. Louise Fletcher's performance is such a stunner. Part of what's scary about it to me is that she's just tabula rasa. There's so little to go on. You don't know where this woman is coming from or where she came from. And that's why I think it's so ripe for a retelling, to find out what makes this woman tick. That's what was so exciting about this project. It became such a fun, scary, creepy, moody, sexy journey that I really, really enjoyed.

Netflix

How did you get to those questions in the first place? What made you start thinking about Nurse Ratchet of all people?

It started as a script written by a very talented writer. Ryan Murphy bought it. Then there was a whole issue of rights. It was sort of this whole rigmarole of getting the rights, which actually turned out to be quite easy once everybody was sort of on board. We felt like the dogs had caught the car, like it was just this incredible giant figure in world literature, this iconic villainess. Then it was challenging to find the bottom in this woman, a deep primal wound that was never able to heal. That set her on a search, which we reveal at the end of the pilot ... why she's in that hospital. That went a long way when it came to understanding and sympathizing with someone who could otherwise be construed as a cinematic monster. While she does sometimes do monstrous things, the audience could say, 'oh, I might actually do that same thing as well.'

She watches a lobotomy at the start of the series. She's mesmerized. Is it a thrill for her to watch this torture or she's simply fascinated by this new procedure?

I think it's both. She's a nurse first and foremost. That was actually a thing that we really wanted to hammer home as much as we could, along with a woman's journey through a male world in the 1940s, how crucial nurses are to any hospital, any medical system. They are the lifeblood. The techniques were still so crude and so brutal and things that we look at now as torture, but it actually would have been a fascinating time to be in the field of medicine. I think that actual moment for Mildred is a good character moment, to show how this woman has a macabre fascination, but also a genuine fascination. And then there is this whole other ulterior motive for why she's in the hospital. Other people might have different opinions, but there's something deeply heroic about her. She's wounded to be sure and carries a fair amount of scarring in her psyche. I think that she's kind of a strangely noble character, who has set out a goal for herself, that she knows in her heart she is deeply moral and that the show is sort of watching her navigate what she is willing to do to achieve those morals.

Was Sarah your Mildred all along?

It would be tough to picture anybody else. She has such a great relationship with Ryan. They have such a good track record. It's such a good relationship, so yeah, I think she was always our Mildred.

I have to think anyone may have second thoughts about being committed if they knew they were going to stay in St. Lucia. It's pretty gorgeous there.

That was all Ryan. He decided early on that he really wasn't interested in the Cuckoo's nest, '70s version of an asylum. It was a bold choice and it's ultimately quite inspired. This was also a different time period. He wanted postwar Northern California, Big Sur. It's actually quite colorful, very lush and beautiful. It's like a mid-century spa. It seemed like a much more interesting choice to place an asylum. It's a little bit less ominous and terrifying to let the terror be about the people who are inside it rather than the fact that you're locked away in what is essentially a prison.

Ratched drops today on Netflix.

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