As World Screen celebrates its 35th anniversary, we want to present a series of articles that recap and highlight the best of the interviews we have conducted. We are focusing on the evolution of scripted TV series.
In our last article, we heard from stars and executive producers of The Walking Dead, which developed legions of loyal fans. Today, we look at how the basic cable innovation revolution continued with FX, which supported talent that wanted to reimagine anthology series.
THE BASIC CABLE REVOLUTION CONTINUES: ANTHOLOGY SERIES
Anthologies have historically been collections of literary pieces or works of art or music. With the advent of radio and then television, they took on a new life, as series with a different storyline and cast in each episode. Anthologies were common in the early days of television. Notable examples are Playhouse 90, Hallmark Hall of Fame, BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Orson Welles Great Mysteries, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone; the list goes on and on.
By 2010, creator and showrunner Ryan Murphy had already made a name for himself with Nip/Tuck and Glee—two strikingly different series, the first about people’s obsession with plastic surgery and appearance, and the second a musical comedy-drama focusing on the struggles and aspirations of a disparate group of high schoolers. Murphy’s common themes in these two series were social commentary and a desire to do shows that hadn’t been seen before. He tackled and reimagined the anthology with the critically acclaimed and ratings hit American Horror Story (AHS), which premiered on FX in 2011. He explained the genesis of the show in a 2014 interview.
“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Dark Shadows and horror movies, largely because of my grandmother, who was a real horror aficionado,” Murphy recalled. “She would drag me to stuff and make me watch it. I always just loved it. [When I was thinking about American Horror Story] there was something in the culture that had gone away, which was the anthological miniseries idea. I also loved those when I was a kid. So I thought, how could I make all of this work? The idea was to keep the title and the idea that we were going to be examining real-life American horror stories, some years more fun than others. Every year we would reboot it and have a completely new story and completely new grouping of characters but with the same large group of actors. At the time, when I pitched it, it seemed like such a radical idea that it took me a long time to get everybody on board with it. But then it came on the air and it clicked because it felt different, and that’s the key to success in television. I’ve had great success and then I’ve not had success, but the things in my career that have really popped are usually things that shouldn’t work or genres that have gone out of favor, or genres that have never worked. It’s sort of a weird career that I’ve had, but I love that I’m able to follow my passion.”
“I get really excited about American Horror Story and the iterations that Ryan Murphy has created with the notion of an anthological series,” said John Landgraf, in 2013, then president and general manager of FX Networks. “It is really a new original miniseries that is marketed under the same title, but each year it goes to a new location with a new cast and is an entirely new self-contained story.”
The 2011 iteration of AHS was Murder House, followed by Asylum (2012), Coven (2013), Freak Show (2014), Hotel (2015), Roanoke (2016), Cult (2017), Apocalypse (2018), and 1984 in 2019. While the coronavirus pandemic delayed production of the tenth season, FX has announced it will premiere in 2021.
Several of the AHS’s stars have returned season after season, and as Murphy explained in 2014, they loved doing so. “People like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson or Kathy Bates were really not interested at this point in their careers in signing on to the same role for seven years. Actually, for the actors, American Horror Story feels like a movie, a long movie that we shoot for five months, and then you’re done and say goodbye to that character, never to see it again, and go off to the next thing. I know Jessica [Lange], in particular, really loves it because every year is a challenge. The cast likes some seasons better just because they like the story better, or the look of it better, but they pretty much trust me with what I want to do, which is a great reward and gratifying for me.”
In a 2015 interview, Kathy Bates recalled how she got involved in AHS.
“I was driving up Beverly Boulevard [in Los Angeles] when I saw this big billboard that had, on one end, a pregnant woman and, on the other end, a man in a rubber suit. I looked at it and thought, What is that? That’s what first drew my eye to the show, and I wanted to see what it was all about.
Then I discovered that Jessica [Lange] was on the show. I was absolutely mesmerized by her performance. After my series [Harry’s Law] folded at NBC, I asked Jessica to put in a good word for me with Ryan Murphy. Bless her heart, she did! I had a meeting with him and he pitched me this wonderful part of Delphine LaLaurie [in Coven], who was based on a real person in New Orleans. I was thrilled, and that began my history with Horror Story.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” Bates continued. “In the south, we say, ‘I’ve landed in clover.’ It’s such a unique show. The actors love to play dress-up, just like kids. It’s so much fun to have some of the same friends that you love working with, all playing different characters every year.”
Bates said that in her first year on AHS, which was Coven, she was given information about the role she was going to play. “I knew that my character was going to come back to life. We discussed some of the things that she’d be shocked at. Ryan was talking about cell phones and other modern-day things that would be so mind-blowing to her. I said, And God, there’s an African American who is in the White House! From that [idea] came the wonderful scene, which is still one of my favorites, where my character is watching President Obama on TV and she can’t believe her eyes. So we knew that she was going to be struggling with race. That season really was all about acceptance of people’s differences.
“With Freak Show,” Bates continued, “I didn’t know a lot about the character beforehand. I knew that she was a bearded woman. Ryan said that she came from Baltimore; in true Ryan style, he said that she had a ‘light accent.’ [Laughs] I discovered that there’s no such thing as a light Baltimore accent. I watched a couple of speeches that Baltimore’s Senator [Barbara] Mikulski made in Congress and I found a website that had you sing the National Anthem in a Baltimore accent—that was my warm-up! I got so many bad reviews about that accent. Ryan said it was great because it was publicity for the show. So, to some people, I succeeded, and to others, I failed miserably.”
Bates noted that working with the same actors each season provides a sense of security. “A lot of us come from theater backgrounds—Jessica, Denis [O’Hare], Finn [Wittrock], Angela [Bassett], Sarah [Paulson] and others. We all respect that in one another. Without really talking about it, we all speak the same language. We’re all getting to, as they say, use our chops. It’s magic. I loved working with Jessica last year. She’s become a very good friend. Whenever our schedule was set to work together I was always excited. This year, I am getting to work with Sarah Paulson a lot. Each year is a new challenge. “
Working on AHS has not only been a welcome challenge for actors. In a 2020 interview, executive producer Tim Minear described his experience collaborating with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck as a dream come true. “Working with Ryan, you get access to things that you never would otherwise,” said Minear. “One cannot understate how Ryan Murphy changed television with American Horror Story. Ryan and Brad came up with this idea of doing horror on television. Sure, it had been done in the past in some ways, The Night Stalker and The Twilight Zone. Even shows I’ve done like Buffy and Angel had horror in them. But when I came in and read that pilot of American Horror Story, and I met Ryan and Brad, I thought, this is interesting, I just don’t know how you sustain this on television. The thing that changed everything was that Ryan said to me, Oh, here’s how you do it: you kill everybody by the end of the first thirteen episodes, and in the second season, you just reimagine the whole show.
“We took our cue from Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre,” continued Minear. “He had a core group of actors and they would play different roles on the radio or in the theatre, and you’d come back and wonder what’s Agnes Moorehead doing this week? That’s what we did. There’s continuity because it’s American Horror Story and because it’s Jessica Lange or Sarah Paulson or Evan Peters. That’s the continuity from year to year, but the thrill of it is to see what very different roles those actors will get to play this year and in what context.”
INSPIRATION FROM A CLASSIC
While on AHS several of the same actors return in different roles each season, another anthology series, Fargo, which premiered on FX in 2014, features new actors each year.
The series is based on the eponymous 1996 iconic feature film by Ethan and Joel Coen, whose famous opening lines stated, “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
In a 2016 interview, showrunner Noah Hawley explained how the show came about. “FX and MGM had had a conversation about doing it. There was no writer attached. I had worked at FX before, and they asked me what I thought about turning Fargo into a series. I thought about it and said, ‘I don’t think it’s a television series because of the way the movie ended. Marge [Gunderson, the local police chief in the movie] solved this crazy Coen brothers case and then tomorrow was going to be her reward, so if she woke up tomorrow and there was another crazy Coen brothers case, it would lose its poignancy, and you also wouldn’t be able to call it a true story.’ I said it could be an anthology series, where every year is a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. They liked that idea.”
In crafting the TV series, Hawley said he took inspiration from Fargo and other works by the Coen brothers. “It’s all in there. The film itself, the sensibility of it, is the driving factor, but one of the things that make their work so unique is how inventive they are cinematically and in tone, and with structure and point of view. Taking a two-hour movie and turning it into a ten-hour story, we needed a dramatic infrastructure that was larger—we needed more moving pieces. When you’re going to your canon of material, you have to expand past Fargo [the movie] because it’s a single story that addresses what it addresses. It’s our goal not just to write scripts that feel like Coen brothers scripts, but to make a [ten-episode] movie that feels like a Coen brothers movie. You can’t always answer that with direct correlations, so you have to trust your instincts.”
Balancing inspiration from the feature film against original material while breaking stories presented constant creative challenges and opportunities in Hawley’s writers’ room.
“It’s an interesting process,” he explained. “We’ve learned that there are certain facets of how you tell a story like this that are essential components. You need a certain amount of moving pieces, and certainly, we had many more in our second year. Because you’re saying this is a true story, a certain amount of randomness is essential. If you have a number of moving pieces on a collision course, you’re never exactly sure which ones are going to collide and when. You’re in something that is a little more unpredictable. In a writers’ room, there are a lot of times where I’ll hear a great pitch for a twist, but it feels like a movie twist; it feels like something that doesn’t ring true in a real-life way. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a big action set piece or a moment of betrayal that’s hugely satisfying, but it needs to have a certain unpredictability to it. So a lot of what I do with the writers is that kind of thing. It does start for me very much thematically. The first year was really about civilization in the wilderness and this idea of a frontier town, a small exclave of people surrounded by the tundra. [It was about] what happened when a civilized man, in our case Lester Nygaard, put on his mukluks [snow boots] and went out into the wilderness and what he brought back with him. Then it becomes about thinking through the story and the character implications. In the second year, it was about how you turn 1979 into a crime story, and looking at what was going on in the country and how the free-love ’60s became the radical, violent ’70s and all the disenfranchised groups who thought they were going to get a seat at the table. So you have Jean Smart’s character saying, Why can’t a woman be the boss? Bokeem Woodbine’s character saying, Why can’t an African-American man be the boss? A lot of it, for me, is about finding my way to the fundamental underpinnings of the show and working with the writers. It becomes about, how do we engage the audiences’ imagination? That is not normally a requirement for filmed entertainment, right? It’s more of a passive story-delivery device. I like that sense that it’s about what’s happening between the things you’re seeing, those elements of randomness and truthiness, and the human struggle to find meaning in everything, which is a staple of Joel and Ethan’s work as well. That sense of, from A Serious Man, you have to accept the mystery. Sometimes there’s a UFO, and sometimes fish fall from the sky—it’s not to be clever but to push the boundaries and make the audience have to think, what does it all mean? That is our everyday struggle. We look at world events and try to make them mean something. Sometimes random things happen. Ultimately, they mean what you want them to mean. So there have to be those elements as well. What’s exciting every year is that it’s not a formula. You think, What’s the story this year? And then, How is that story also Fargo?”
Hawley praised the creative environment FX offered him, allowing him to pursue his vision for Fargo. “They vigorously engage, creatively and intellectually. I think for John Landgraf [CEO of FX Networks], it’s the favorite part of his very corporate job to think it all through with me. I like having a sounding board. FX has a motto, ‘Fearless,’ which is more than a motto over there. They get excited when you come in and pitch something different than what everyone else is doing. But they’re not interested in gimmicks. It has to be character-driven. Everything has to add up. You have to do your homework. I have a huge amount of creative freedom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to get on the phone sometimes and justify what I want to do. Sometimes it’s not that I want a ten-minute parable sequence, but it is a Coen brothers movie, so I kind of need one! I’m usually doing my best work if I’m having fun. There’s a certain amount of improv to writing and creating and creative problem-solving. It’s a team sport, and you’ve got to rally a lot of people to a unique vision that’s going to be almost impossible to execute. So we’re going over that hill, and we’re going together. There’s a general-leading-an-army quality to it. If you turn that into a positive experience for people, they work harder and they get more excited than if you force them over the hill at the point of a bayonet.”
Hawley’s experience with FX mirrored what Landgraf told us in 2013. “We’re intensely supportive of original creative visions. We have built our entire organization from the ground up around creative people and around how to be excellent at identifying really talented people and then supporting their vision.”
In our next post, we hear from showrunners with significantly different backgrounds and creative sensibilities talk about shows they created for FX: Joe Weissberg and Joel Fields with The Americans and Carlton Cuse with The Strain.