TV & Film

'American Horror Story: Coven' Insider Talks Ryan Murphy And An 'Embarrassment Of Witches'

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 02: (L-R) Actresses Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett speak onstage during the 'American Horror Story: Coven' panel discussion at the FX portion of the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour - Day 10 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 2, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 02: (L-R) Actresses Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett speak onstage during the 'American Horror Story: Coven' panel discussion at the FX portion of the 2013 Summer Television Critics Association tour - Day 10 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 2, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

An Oct. 9 premiere date has been set for "American Horror Story: Coven," and details have begun to emerge about the new season of the FX drama.

An impressive array of actors -- Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Denis O'Hare, Lily Rabe, Gabourey Sidibe, Evan Peters, and Taissa Farmiga, among others -- are shooting the new season in New Orleans, and "American Horror Story: Coven" will depict, at least in part, the efforts of a group of witches to protect, educate and defend their embattled tribe. Bassett's role is that of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau; Bates will play socialite Madame LaLauria; and Lange (who plays the coven's "Supreme") and Paulson will play mother and daughter.

Even if viewers know the skeleton of this year's story, it's safe to say that they won't be able to predict much of what will happen or what will end up moving, horrifying or entertaining them in the new season. "AHS," which was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, operates in a skewed, surreal, weirdly cohesive universe all its own, one that only has limited use for logic and linearity.

It's a fever dream that can find compassion -- as "American Horror Story: Asylum" did -- in alien abduction stories, and redemption in the story of an imperious nun's transgressions. The show is perverse, funny, profound and occasionally unhinged, but "Asylum," which ended up on my 2012 Top 10 list, was anchored by a skilled performers that could go from operatic to intimate without missing a beat. Underpinning the season was a strong sense of suspense and momentum -- you'd sound like an insane person if you tried to explain "Asylum" to someone else, but it always moved forward confidently and it did actually make a certain kind of sense. But what emerged most clearly was the show's commitment to exploring a compelling array of emotional connections and power dynamics, from the divine to the depraved.

Tim Minear, a writer and executive producer of "American Horror Story," has a lot of familiarity with dramas that feature supernatural elements and/or lead characters that operate on the fringes. Among his many credits are "The X-Files," "Wonderfalls" and FX's "Terriers," but he's probably best known as a longtime Joss Whedon collaborator who has written for and directed "Angel," "Firefly" and "Dollhouse."

I spoke to Minear in Los Angeles recently about "American Horror Story," trying to come up with material for the show's extensive cast and the differences between working in the Whedonverse and Murphyverse. (Our conversation has been edited and slightly condensed, and check back with HuffPost TV in the coming weeks for more interviews with "AHS" cast members.)

A lot of what works about "American Horror Story" revolves around tone and atmosphere. When you sit down in meetings to talk about the show, what are some of the things you talk about or agree on to give it cohesion?

The thing that coheres it is Ryan Murphy. I'll just say it. He is a visionary. Love him or hate him, he knows what he wants to do. He takes your dreams and he puts them in your TV. That's what he does. That's really the thing that makes this whole thing possible.

He doesn't equivocate and he doesn't dither. There's no hesitation. And in us, the staff on the show, he has found partners that get it, and who fight back a little bit with him. I've often made the joke that working on the show is a little bit like somebody coming in and saying, "Poodle. Hitler. Sunglasses. Now make a story!" "But what do these things have to do with one another?" And so you find that. And when you find that, and then it works…

The Anne Frank [episodes] -- some people were worried about that. I was never worried about that. I didn't feel like that was going to be a problem at all. But that is when I really understood [the show] last year. Even though the story was really about Lana and Sister Jude, it just felt like, we went there. We went to a place. And I don't think we were disrespectful of history or anything like that.

That is what we talk about -- we talk about not going camp. We're often accused of being camp, and you could maybe say that something like [Sister Jude singing] "The Name Game" is camp, but really, it's not.

It's a character moment.

It's a character moment and it's an hallucination, and while you're laughing hysterically, when you come back to that sad woman, swaying on her Thorazine in front of the juke box, you go, "Oh, right, this isn't funny."

It's ultimately so much more tragic.


I was crying during the finale.


I love the Douglas Sirk qualities and the larger-than-life moments where the show goes for it, but at the end of the day, if it wasn't about someone holding hands with someone else and how much that means to them…

Yes. We embrace the Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama -- and melodrama has got a bad rap.


I said this when I was working on "Angel," because we called "Angel" kind of a Doug Sirk-ian melodrama about men and women. It was big and it had big colors and big emotions, and we nail that on this show. We're not saying "Oh, weren't those hilarious melodramas from the '50s hilarious?" We're saying, "Don't you love those big emotional melodramas from the '50s?"

Yeah. Because in those movies, the intensity of the colors and the speeches and the characters and the vision was all about conveying an intensity of emotion, and the different states that life can put you in.

Yes. And horror is about dreams and heightened states. It really is about taking away the logic on some level and getting right to the emotion of something. Now, you have to have some kind of logical scaffolding or you will lose the audience entirely. And we probably have lost a lot of people. And we've also made love to many. [laughs]

I find the show is actually humane and compassionate, and if it didn't have that grounding, the horror elements would just be…

It would just be torture porn.

So what's the "American Horror Story"/Ryan Murphy/Tim Minear version of witches?

The thing about Ryan is -- and this is what he has such a great barometer about -- is how not to go down the kind of easy, cheesy path. If something starts to feel like the thing you would see on -- look, I'll say it -- "Angel" or "Buffy" or something. We did it a little bit [on those shows]…

Am I going to have to defend "Angel" to you? It's one of my favorite shows.

No, no, no! What I'm saying is … No, you don't have to defend "Angel" to me. Let me rephrase that. Ryan's not interested in the plot machinations of genre. What he's interested in is the emotional metaphor that genre allows you to explore. So "Angel" was a more procedural kind of drama, in a way. And by the way, sometimes that starts to become a problem for a genre show. I think [this may have occurred in] Season 4 "Angel," for instance, where it starts to become about the mythology and not about the characters.

We want it to be "American Horror Story." We don't want it to be … see, I don't want to trash another show.

But essentially you're saying that you don't want to present tropes or cliches about witches that we might have seen elsewhere in popular culture.


The show by now has kind of a repertory company. Does having the actors play new charaters allow you to write to their strengths and have them weigh in on what might develop?

Yes, it allows you to kind of develop story lines and characters with the actors who are playing them. Particularly now, after a couple of years of working with them and seeing how the process works, it allows us to do that.

I just thought of a pun -- with the number of amazing actresses you have on the show, it could be ["American Horror Story:] An Embarrassment of Witches."

Oooh, that's very good! That should be the title of your article.

It might be! So you endorse that.

I endorse that very strongly.

But seriously, do you ever sit there and think, "How do we give good material to all these actresses?"

Yes, you do think that. But, it's funny how 13 episodes really is quite a bit of real estate to tell one story. I think this year, we're finding ways for threads that feel like they might be B and C stories to actually start to rotate closer to the A story. And everything starts to turn into a black hole of fun imploding in on itself. [laughs]

This may be presumptuous, but having followed your work, it seems as though you've been interested in so many of the ideas that I see in "American Horror Story," but maybe now you're being told, "Yeah, you can really go for it." I'm not saying you haven't done great work before, I'm just saying -- I mean, I talked to Joss about "Dollhouse," about how Fox backed away from many of the darker, interesting elements that were in the original pitch. For you, having this role on this show, is it like, "Oh good, I get to do a lot of things I always wanted to do?"

I've been doing stuff I've always wanted to do. I would say, here's the trajectory for me. When I did "Angel," that was cable. It was the WB, but it was before the revolution [that occurred on cable, and] ironically, [former "Angel" staff writer and creator of "The Shield"] Shawn Ryan helped start it. He had this pilot called "The Barn," and he said, "I'm going to go make this pilot and probably nothing will come of it and then I'll come back to 'Angel.'" It didn't really work out that way, and good for him.

But when we were doing "Buffy" and "Angel," it was like what cable was going to become. We had all kinds of freedom, because no one was watching the show. It was on this little tiny [network] and Joss was the premiere guy there, so I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted on "Angel." Then things changed a little bit. We did "Firefly," and we got to sort of do what we wanted to do, but it was cancelled really fast.

The freedom at FX for this show and even for "Terriers" has been -- I have absolutely no complaints whatsoever. And Ryan Murphy -- I don't know why, I'm like a little magnetic filing that keeps hooking on to these guys that are the visionary TV producers of our day, from Chris Carter to Joss Whedon to Shawn Ryan to Ryan Murphy. There was some concern when I first started working with Ryan -- "Is this marriage going to work?" He's very different than these other guys that I've worked with before. And oddly, it almost seems like the perfect marriage.

Really? Why?

Because Ryan gets me and because … I don't know, I'm actually way more like Joss than I am like Ryan.

What does that mean?

It just means that Joss and I are similar fellows. Ryan and I are very different, and maybe that creates a different kind of alchemy. Whereas when I'm working with Joss, it's kind of like two guys who are doing the same act. With Ryan, he's doing something a little different, and then I bring whatever I bring to it, and then it turns into a third thing. And by the way, I don't want to take away from the other writers on the staff, they are as absolutely essential to the show as I am.

And the directors, the set designers -- everything on the show really does feel like a fever dream.

That's exactly what the show is. You just kind of have to feel it, you can't think it too much.