One of the masterminds behind American Horror Story: Coven was director and co-executive producer Alfonso Gómez-Rejón, who garnered two Emmy nominations this year, one for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries (for the season’s first episode, “Bitchcraft”). A former assistant to such legends as Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, and Robert De Niro, Gómez-Rejón also directed several episodes of Glee (including an all-time fan favorite, “A Very Glee Christmas”). Vulture spoke to him about honing the tone of AHS: Coven, the big witch fashion moment of 2014, and, of course, Stevie Nicks.
The first episode was such a mixture of styles and types of horror, and it was at once genuinely scary and laugh-out-loud funny. What are some of the themes that you were trying to establish?
Obviously, we had to establish the worlds — LaLaurie’s backstory and her world, and contemporary New Orleans, as well as Zoe’s (Taissa Farmiga’s) Florida home and her origin story. Then we had to plant some of the themes that would run throughout: mothers and daughters and, ultimately, themes about female empowerment and oppressed minorities, which were touched upon throughout in a very graceful way with humor and camp and horror. But, more than anything, the challenge was establishing so many roles. We had all the girls from the school, Angela Bassett’s backstory, Madame LaLaurie’s backstory, Fiona, Cordelia — everyone. What did they each want? What were they looking for? It was a lot to cram into one episode, but it was so beautifully written and so funny and so visual that it handled the exposition well. It was a feast with great characters — a feast for the eyes.
Since you mentioned the theme of mothers and daughters, the relationship between Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson must have been particularly fun to direct, especially because they each have such a history together.
They have a long history because, even before the show, they were both in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. They have a shorthand with each other — this incredible mutual respect — but they also have a lot of fun. Usually, they take the first take to just giggle and laugh. But they just know in their own ways how to find the humanity in any character and the truth in any situation. Sometimes the scripts come quite fast and you don’t have time to digest, but they would say, “Let’s stop and talk about it and find the truth in it.” They have a way to find that frequency where everything feels real, even if you’re dealing with witchcraft and powers and whatnot. They are just singular human beings — pros.
As you mentioned, this season deviated a bit from the previous seasons in that it married more humor and camp with horror. It must have been challenging to strike exactly the right tone. How did you decide what the best approach would be?
It was on the page. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk wrote it with all of the writers [Tim Minear, Douglas Petrie, Jennifer Salt, Jessica Scharzer, and James Wong], and it was so tight and well-balanced. When you have a great cast like this, the struggle is how to find the visual vocabulary for the show that makes it stand out, makes it unique, but also keeps the funny funny and keeps the dramatic and horror elements alive. That’s something that you experiment with because, for example, one camera move can tell a joke. It’s just one of those things where you have to find the right rhythm and match the one trick to the show visually while giving your actors what they need and also giving the show something that makes it a very unique universe. But in terms of balancing the tone, it’s really the writers.
The fashion of the show really skyrocketed into the public consciousness this season. What was it like to see that aesthetic come to life?
With Ryan being the godfather to us all and Lou Eyrich as the costume designer, a lot of us have been doing this together since the very first episode of the very first season, and so we’re true collaborators and friends, and [we] trust each other and respect each other. And I think those outfits were so contemporary, but still fresh. There’s a unique way of re-envisioning, redesigning, redefining what a witch looks like, no matter what the age is. And [Lou] went classic black, but the way the cuts of the dresses were, there was so much thought that went into them. I’m just surrounded by these wonderful artists, and I wasn’t surprised to see people dressed like that on Halloween in New Orleans and certainly at PaleyFest. Hopefully, those people that saw this show will go back into the first two seasons and the one to come.
We obviously have to talk about directing Stevie Nicks. I was in New York a few months ago for the annual Night of 1,000 Stevies, and it was particularly amazing this year because you could tell that so many people were paying homage to both her and the series. What was it like to have her involved?
She was already written into the show because Misty Day was obsessed with her. But when I got the news that she was going to be on the show and I was going to be lucky enough to direct her, I just couldn’t believe it. The first morning, I went to her trailer to introduce myself, and within a minute, she was singing “Rhiannon” a cappella to me, telling me what key she wanted to do it in. She was so open to the process. I mean, she’s been a rock star for a very long time and been performing forever, but she hadn’t really acted before. Because the filmmaking process was so new to her, she was enjoying every minute of it. Being able to be with her while she was talking through her ideas of how she could change a song this way or that way to hit a certain beat or extend it so she could get another piece of dialogue in there was amazing. We had a lot of fun doing the “Seven Wonders” video. It was surreal. We just owned the ‘80s of it and embraced the billowing curtains and the smoke and the cats and just went with it. Any time that we finished a take, she would just tell stories about each song — when she wrote it and how she wrote it and what inspired her to do it — and you’d just be quiet and take it all in because you knew that this moment would never be repeated again.
Then she invited me to the Vegas Fleetwood Mac concert, and she dedicated “Landslide” to me. Let’s just say there’s nothing quite like that. Then, when I saw her backstage, all she wanted to do was pitch me song ideas for the finale because she was obsessed with the show. “Well, why don’t you use this song for the finale? Well, try this one at the end when she’s become the Supreme.” She’s such a fan of the show, and to see her enthusiasm for the show that she was in — we were all thrilled to see her and couldn’t believe that she was there. So, there was just a lot of love in the room.
I have to ask you about the “I’m just mad for tartan!” line that Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) says. It’s one of the few Myrtle moments that occurs in the first episode, but it became such a catchphrase and quickly established what would become such a beloved character.
That came from Diana Vreeland. It’s funny, because that was our first day of production and Myrtle Snow’s first day. So, we were finding that rhythm of hers and that sound of hers and trying different things to find out what was too big and what was big enough. And it all came down to that tartan line and how that would be delivered. With Frances Conroy, she’s just a genius, and she’d already become and embodied Myrtle that first day on set.
So, what’s next for you? More AHS, we all hope?
Yes. I’m not directing as many this season; I’ve just finished the second episode of Freak Show and am so excited to be a part of it again. It’s going to be such an incredible season. But I’m mainly focused on editing a feature I’ve just finished — in fact, with Connie Britton from Horror Story — called Me & Earl & the Dying Girl. Nick Offerman’s in it, and Connie and Jon Bernthal, Molly Shannon, Thomas Mann. It’s a much more personal project that I’ve been chasing for a couple of years. So now I’m just in the editing room, finishing that and getting it ready for the winter.