Ryan Murphy Talks Self-Policing, Jessica Lange’s Exit, and What’s Next on American Horror Story: Coven

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN Head - Episode 309 (Airs Wednesday, December 11, 10:00 PM e/p) --Pictured: (L-R) Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, Jamie Brewer as Nan, Emma Roberts as Madison -- CR. Michele K. Short/FX
Photo: Copyright 2013, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

[Spoilers ahead] Even for a show where doomed witches can be resurrected with magic mud and the dead can live on as ghosts, last night’s American Horror Story: Coven was brutal. “Head,” the season’s last episode until January, culminated in a blood-soaked montage set to “Oh Freedom” that featured the gruesome ends of many including Queenie, Hank, Luke, and several of Marie LaVeau’s cohorts. (There was also the melonballing and carving up of Council members Pemby and Quentin, but that was fabulous.) Still, it begs the question: Does death mean anything on this show? We went to series co-creator Ryan Murphy to discuss his larger plans for the season, and along the way we heard about the best historically inaccurate ad lib ever, what the actors can and can’t get away with, and the reason we were all deprived of Denis O’Hare’s butt. (But maybe on the DVD, Murphy says!) Plus: His takes on Jessica Lange wanting to leave the show after next year, and the grand and glorious Stevie Nicks.

Is Queenie dead dead? I know that’s a stupid question on this show, but …
[Laughs.] I think we will all miss Queenie. It’s been a really great role for Gabourey Sidibe, and you never know. Wait until the Stevie Nicks episode, which is episode 10. All will be revealed there. It hints at what happened to Queenie, and then in episode 11, we tell you what happened. Somebody’s gotta go down on the show!

Well, you did kill Hank.
Hank is definitely dead. He has no access to witchcraft at all. He’s dead and gone.

I’m not as sure about Luke. He’s got Nan. Nan’s got Misty …
This is all very true. I don’t want to ruin things for everybody, but these questions are answered definitively in episode 10.

This season has a lot to do with death and resurrection: fearing death, ability to overcome death. At what point for you does a death need to be final to make an impact?
Well, I mean that’s the fun of the show. That’s always been the fun of the show. I’ve always told actors, when I have to call them before their death scenes, “Don’t worry. Dying for you is the best thing that could happen on this show.” Last season, of course, there was not as much of a supernatural element. Actually, two of the Seven Wonders [powers that the Supreme should be able to demonstrate], which is the title of our finale coming up in January, are about life everlasting and resurrection. It makes sense that it’s something we can play with. And also, to be quite honest, on a show like this with this amount of amazing actors, sometimes you write a death scene for somebody you hadn’t planned on bringing back, but then you do because you miss them on the show. We’ve done that once. It really depends.

By the finale, which is turning out to be a veritable bloodbath, if you’re dead, you’re dead. The people who could possibly help bring you back, who have those powers, are gone.

You bring up a good point: Coven has a huge cast. There are so many stories going on, and I want to see more of all of them. What have been the challenges of servicing this many characters?
It’s a really great ensemble of actors and I never feel the company is underserved. When I pitch actors, sometimes I’ll say, “You’ll have to wait until episode 5 for your story to kick in” or “You’re going to have a great episode 10.” But I love the ensemble nature of it. I like the multi-character hydra of it. And I’ve really loved this season because it has the veterans and the new girls, and I love intermixing those two worlds. That’s why I think this season has been the most successful one ratings-wise. There’s something for everybody. There’s Tony award winning actresses, a Jessica Lange-Danny Huston romance, Kathy Bates hilarity, Angela Bassett being fierce and brilliant, a good discovery, I think, in Emma Roberts, there’s a great familiarity and longing for the Evan Peters-Taissa Farmiga relationship. I never feel like they’re underserved.

The show’s always been female driven, but this season moreso than the last two. The male characters here are really in supporting roles. Did you want it to be that way from the start?
That’s a very good question. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I think it’s female this year because it’s about witches, and I chose not to do warlocks. There’s only one or two of them. We had at one point talked about having the school be equal parts male and female, but I abandoned that. I just wasn’t interested in that idea because that felt like Glee to me. I don’t know. I don’t think, Is it girly? Is it male? Is it female? I think about who I want to work with. I’ve already started to go after next year’s cast, and ironically, some of the people I’ve already gone after are men. The cast next year will be very 50-50 male-female.

But I also think it’s changing on TV. I see the success of a lot of female-driven programs. It used to be when I first started writing that when you go in to pitch a movie, and if it had a female lead, they were always like, “Eh, those don’t really work.” Every year, there was a Sandy Bullock or Julia Roberts breakout movie because those two were such huge stars, but otherwise, I’d grown up in the business hearing that. I think that’s over, in television particularly. Part of that is because many, many of the executives who wield the power now are women, and I think that’s great. They want to support stories about women. I’ve heard that over and over.

You mentioned Emma already, but what have been your other big discoveries this season so far? Has there been a character you’re paying more attention to than you originally thought you would?
No, that stuff was all mapped out from the get-go, the beginning, the middle, and the end. Well, there were two things that were unexpected. One was Franny Conroy’s Myrtle character. She was still present, and the plot was the same, but she was not so heavy in terms of page count and dialogue. That all changed when I went to New Orleans and saw Franny walk about with the wig and the costume. It was sort of like, here’s this great, juicy nutball character who can talk about murder and jewelry all in the same sentence, and you buy it. The second was Kathy Bates. I always knew she was quite brilliant dramatically but in those first couple of episodes, if she ever had a joke in the script, she really went for it. Once we saw that, we thought, Oh, this character can be terrifying and funny at the same time. That was a discovery. I had thought Kathy’s Delphine was going to be much, much, much darker. But because Kathy brings such an empathy to everything she does, and once we saw those first jokes, we thought, That’s cool. And so we just started going that way with her dialogue, which is fun.

Who was the original inspiration for Myrtle?
I wanted her to be a cross between Grace Coddington and Diana Vreeland. Also, every 1950s movie star with that weird mid-Atlantic accent — you could never figure out how a girl from Idaho got that voice. That was the jumping-off point. Also, Iris Apfel, that wonderful fashionista in New York who mixes a lot of things that shouldn’t be together, we did a lot of her stuff. And then at one point I was really into kabuki. It really depends where the mood strikes. Franny listened to a lot of Vreeland’s documentaries to get that voice down.

Frances seemed to be having a really good time de-eyeballing Pemby and Quentin, and then clapping their dismembered feet. Were you on set for that?
No, but I thought Franny did such a brilliant job. There was a certain looseness to it. Sometimes you watch the takes and the actors are laughing at their own dialogue. It was so hilarious. We put a lot of that stuff in. That scene and Kathy Bates refusing to watch B*A*P*S were my favorite scenes in the episode.

Where did the great idea to have Delphine’s severed head sing “Dixie” while being forced to watch Roots come from?
That was a Kathy ad-lib. I remember seeing the rough cut and falling off my chair laughing. That character wasn’t even born in the Civil War, but she made a beeline for any racist anthem and of course I thought it was great that she did that.

What was her reaction to the idea of playing a severed head?
When we started filming in New Orleans it was 120 degrees and she had to wear these 100-pound costumes. More than that, she had to wear this really heavy, elaborate wig. And at around episode five, she had to wear it all day, and it became a big deal. She said, “Can’t Madame LaLaurie get a makeover? Can we take off the wig?” and we said, “Well, we can do that, but not until after your head’s cut off because I think part of the fun of it is seeing Madame LaLaurie’s severed head with that wig on it. It’s gonna be an iconic look for her.” And she said, “Oh yes, I’m completely fine with that.” [Laughs.] And that’s all she said. She did not blink. I think she was happy.

Where we go with her after tonight’s episode is pretty interesting. The head storyline is not done. The big question is after Queenie is killed is, “Who goes upstairs and gets her head?” It’s going to get passed around like a Christmas sweater.

That final montage set to “Oh Freedom” — which included Hank’s massacre at Marie’s hair salon — was pretty provocative. Did you have any concerns about that scene? Not so much about doing it but about how people would perceive it?
No. I think if you watch the show, I mean, it just ends it there. Perhaps. But, no. It’s been an interesting season for both groups of witches, Salem and voodoo, being hunted by “the man.” That’s always been in the water, we always knew that would happen. There’s an interesting result to the story. I don’t want to read what people are saying until the whole season is over. I’ve learned the lesson that people will go insane on Twitter because they don’t like a plot point, and then two episodes later, it’s resolved in a way that the fans wanted. It’s a poison I don’t really want to deal with.

I want what the audience wants typically. That usually does happen on this show. Obviously, I want to see some justice for all these things that have gone on. There will be a heavy price to pay for it, and we’ve been writing that all along. I think people will be very satisfied by the last four episodes. The show has a tendency to do that, it wraps up everything really well. We still haven’t answered who Jessica Lange’s other child is from season 1 [Murder House] but one day, I’ll get around to even that.

When Nan finds Luke trapped in the closet by his mother, it reminded me of when Constance threw her own daughter [also played by Jamie Brewer] into the closet. Are those callbacks intentional given that each season has a different story?
We do it more than you know. It’s fun for us. I call them the goodies, “Where are the goodies buried?” People go on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, they catch up with seasons they’ve been watching and then they re-watch it with passion and fresh eyes. So we’re very cognizant of that. There’s usually one goodie per episode. The closet thing was very much based on Carrie, and we’ve done riffs on that and other things in that movie many, many times because we all love Brian De Palma in the writers’ room.

Has there been anything you wanted to do this season that was too extreme, even for basic cable?
Never. I’ve had a really good relationship with our standard and practices department, and the network and the studio are obviously very supportive of the show. I’ve never really had that problem. Once in season two, but that’s because Jessica Lange said, “I’m not gonna cane anyone else, that’s it.” There was another scene in season one that even I thought was too vile.

Actually we shot a scene this year that I cut because I thought it went over the edge. I didn’t think it went over the edge when we wrote and shot it, but when we saw it … I try and police myself if I can, and this was too much. It was a scene between Madison and Spalding. He had some fun with his doll, her corpse. Denis O’Hare and Emma did it wonderfully, but it was a little much. When I saw Denis on the last day of The Normal Heart he was like, “I’m so glad you cut that scene!” He was very glad we didn’t show his ass to the world — although I will go on record saying it was a wonderful ass. Maybe we’ll put it on the DVD. I’ll ask the actors. And that’s the thing: I love the cast, I want to protect them, and they know that. I’m also aware that this year has developed a very loyal young female audience, and I didn’t want to put that out in the world.

When I interviewed Taissa about the threesome between Zoe, Kyle and Madison, she said she was very glad you went with “the implied version” of it.
There were other versions. That was also one where you write it and you work on it and you talk to the actors. Emma and Evan are dating, so I didn’t want for them to have to do something that was odd or that they didn’t feel comfortable doing. They were very cool about it, and would have done it, but I love them and wanted to make them happy. There are lots of discussions sometimes, but for the most part people go for it knowing if it’s too much — or too little — we’ll do it again or work on it in editing.

Let’s talk about Stevie Nicks! She’s in two episodes, and she’s singing. Tell me more.
The title of episode 10 is “The Magical Charms of Stevie Nicks,” so she’s heavy in it. She was a trouper and came in and did a song. Everyone came in for it. She did autographs and photographs. She was very cool. She talked a lot with the actors and watched, and she was really good in her scene. Later, she called me and said, “You know, I’ve been watching the show obviously, and I’ve been reading the scripts, and do you know you’re doing on the show something I wrote a song about with Fleetwood Mac back in the day? It was a B-side of one of our singles.” And she said the name of the song, which I won’t reveal, and I was like, “Of course!” She thought she should sing that song to the girls, so we booked her for another day, and we did another song, which will be in the finale. Any time you can do anything with Stevie where you can find out the true secret of her shawls is amazing.

So you’re promising to reveal that?
Oh, yeah! The Secret of the Shawls.

Jessica Lange is insisting that she’s leaving after next season. Have you spoken with her about it?
We haven’t had a conversation about that. Jessica and I have talked about her role in season four because it’s something she’s always wanted to play, so she’s very involved. And, look, I get it. I think being on a television show, even a cable show for 13 episodes, is a big grind. It’s really hard work. And I bought a play that Jessica’s going to do on Broadway, something she’s always wanted to do, so we’re going to do that after season 4. And then? I don’t know. Maybe she has a year break, or maybe I can seduce her with a part. It depends on what she wants to do. She’s always been an actress who took a lot of time between projects. A lot of that was because she had a family. But I’ll always work with Jessica and I’ll always do whatever she’s interested in doing. There are no bad feelings at all. I totally respect her point of view. She has a beautiful farm, and she usually spends a lot of time on it. If she doesn’t do season 5, I’ll definitely spend a lot of my time trying to seduce her with stuff for seasons 6 and 7 because she’s Jessica Lange and I love her.

Ryan Murphy on What’s Next for AHS: Coven