Viewers with an appetite for quality television should hope that a Hollywood feud never erupts between writer/producer/director Tim Minear and his frequent collaborator Ryan Murphy. Between six seasons and counting of American Horror Story and the current season of Feud: Bette and Joan, they’ve turned out some of the most riveting and provocative TV content of recent years.
An executive producer on Feud, Minear – a veteran of an enviable assortment of beloved series including The X-Files, Firefly, Wonderfalls and Angel – has contributed to some of the limited series’ key episodes and helped guide the show’s meticulously detailed sensibility. But for Episode 6, “Hagsploitation,” which he co-wrote with Gina Welch, he also stepped behind the camera to direct.
Coming after the confrontational fireworks of the previous installment, in which Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ ego-clash exploded at the Academy Awards, Minear revealed some of the behind the scenes secrets of the latest episode, which set the stage for next phase in the acting legends’ Hollywood futures, their still-evolving antipathy, the unintended film sub-genre born of the surprise success of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the reason behind one of the series’ most inspired casting choices yet.
Why was Episode 6 an installment that you were particularly excited to direct, as opposed to working on only the script?
I was excited to do anything on any of the episodes — I’m in love with all eight of them. I’m not sure I love one more than the other, although I have fondness for Episode 3 and for Episode 5. And the finale is amazing.
Because we had such a small writing staff, we really had to get a lot of the scripts locked before I could step away from the computer and on to the stage, so it sort of fell at a certain time. The reason I was excited about it was because…it’s interesting: it’s a transitional episode. It’s coming off of the big climax of Oscar night, and it’s resetting the story to get us to the end. So I felt like it was an important episode in terms of… everything’s sort of in a minor key, it’s paying off some character moments and it’s really rearranging the furniture and resetting the stage for the ending.
I think it was good that one of the executive producers was there for that one, because it’s important to reset the table the right way so that we can go out big. Also, I got to direct John Waters, so I was pretty excited about that!
Let’s talk about that for a second: while he does not bear even a passing resemblance to William Castle, I can’t think of a better bit of casting than John Waters.
The way that came about was, we were just talking about who would make for a great cameo to portray William Castle. As I was actually doing my Castle research, I found some interviews online about Castle and some of it was John Waters – John Waters interviewing the guy who played Trog in “Trog.” That’s not a William Castle picture, but that’s John Waters talking about William Castle and how important William Castle was to him growing up. And as it turned out, John was actually at one of these screenings with Castle and Crawford went to on their tour. So he saw the exact stage show that we recreate in the episode.
So while he doesn’t bear a passing resemblance to Bill Castle – maybe John Goodman might – the sort of spirit of fun, independent, lower budget filmmaking is personified in John Waters, so it just felt like a tribute to Castle in that way. There was no intent to try to physically change John Waters, because John Waters has an iconic silhouette in the same way that Castle did.
How much fun was it to shoot the Strait-Jacket sequences and recreate that type of filmmaking?
Recreating Strait-Jacket was so much fun, and also so bizarre. Literally we were recreating the trailer for Strait-Jacket, so you’re doing shots that don’t relate to anything. It really is kind of a shabbily-put-together trailer. It doesn’t really make any sense.
It was important to capture it in a realistic way, and it was really fun doing that with Jessica, putting her in the straitjacket. We’d watch the reference film over and over and over again, and she would say, okay, so she screams here, she turns her head to the left here, she screams again, there’s two more screams, she turns her head to the right. We were trying to get it perfect, and it was absolutely hilarious, and a lot of fun.
How much of a connoisseur of the “hagsploitation” genre have you been, or have you become, as a part of this whole process?
It’s interesting: I went through a phase in my late 20s/early 30s, when I was really doing my own kind of autodidact film school in my apartment. I just discovered, “Oh, there are films that predate the '80s.” I started consuming them. I was a big Robert Aldrich fan. I took a film class and studied Kiss Me Deadly, so I was a big Aldrich fan to begin with. When I discovered Baby Jane, that’s when I fell in love with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. So at that time in my late 20s, my friends and I did start becoming connoisseurs of things like Strait-Jacket, and Lady in a Cage, and Berserk. We watched all those films.
Image: Prashant Gupta/FX
Then I sort of put it aside, and having returned to it for this project [I've] regained a contempt and a love and a respect for it all at the same time. What’s interesting about Strait-Jacket is, it’s not bad. It’s bad, but in a way it’s not bad. You watch Crawford in that movie, she’s giving it everything she’s got. Granted, in every third shot there’s a six pack of Pepsi-Cola in the foreground, so she never forgot where her loyalties lie.
Even though she’s working with these B-actors, and in some instances, not even actors, because I think the guy who played the doctor was one of the investors in the movie or something – he’s terrible! – she is committed in every scene.
Everyone involved, in one way or another, is writing a love letter to Hollywood, and its legacy, and the films of the past. Tell me about that side of that for the project for you, being able to get really, really wonky in your details in recreating this very specific period.
For me, and I think for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself here, I’m obsessed with old Hollywood. Everything from the silent era through what’s considered the Golden Age, which is sort of up through ’39, and then the films of the ‘70s are maybe even the greatest American films. But I’m obsessed with Old Hollywood, and have been trying to do a project in that genre for 15 years.
So this coming along, and Ryan coming to me and saying, “Come do this with me,” was absolutely a dream come true. I will say, I am sort of a walking Wikipedia when it comes to facts about Old Hollywood. I live here, I grew up here, and – this is going to sound so corny, but I don’t care – there’s a part of me that feels a responsibility to the ghosts that haunt this town, who created this thing out of nothing.
When we’re talking even about the ‘60s or somebody like Jack Warner, you have to remember, these people invented the film industry. They came out to a desert, they were running away from the patent holders in New York, they came out to a desert where there was nothing, and they willed paradise out of the dirt. That’s what they did. They created something new.
So to travel back in time even a little bit in a project like this, and I think our love for Old Hollywood is all over this thing, it’s just such a pleasure, I can’t even tell you.
Tell me about trying to show the bleak side of what Jack Warner and Hedda Hopper represented in the industry, but also who they were and what they were about.
I think that’s always a challenge, and I think a goal in everything I’ve done with Ryan. What interests one are flawed human characters, and often very despicable characters. When you’re writing characters like that, you want to find some human elements in them. And plus, look, you’ve got Stanley Tucci and Judy Davis. What you don’t want to do is just have them come in, drop some exposition or something, and walk away. You want them to be a little more full-bodied, so there’s that.
I think what’s interesting about Hedda, in this episode in particular, is yeah, we’re sort of showing a human side of her, but it makes her feel even more awful in a way. And maybe it’s a little bit that way with Jack too.
We were so in love with Stanley, that when we were breaking this story, Ryan was pitching out what he’d like to see: it’s Jack wants Aldrich to get the band back together. In my research, what I discovered was, Jack Warner did not get the band back together. This was not a Warner Bros film. It was actually 20th Century Fox. So we created what we imagined may have happened between Jack and Aldrich.
Image: Prashant Gupta/FX
Knowing that that was coming, it was a great way for us to put weight in Bob’s story in a very subtle way throughout the preceding episodes, and sort of play with impotence. Literally, the metaphor could not be more of an anvil in some ways, with him being literally impotent but him getting his balls back in the middle of the episode, I hope is going to be a very satisfying moment for the audience.
Episode 6 really begins to delve into the pathos of Joan Crawford’s life on every front. Give me your take on her, and why she was, to you, a sympathetic figure, why she was also her own worst enemy — some of the things that are clearly put across in this episode.
We’ve hit some areas in this episode that we hadn’t up until now – her brother Hal; the whispers that had always been around that she had performed in stag movies when she first started; that she kind of used her body to get to where she was.
The reason I find Joan to be a fascinating character is because she’s a tragic character. She’s not just this shrieking harpy from Mommie Dearest. We’re talking about a woman who was a little girl with almost Dickensian kind of a childhood, where she was abused by her stepfather and mistook that for affection, whose mother did not like her and felt like she was in competition with her, and then sent to this convent school where she had to pay her own tuition. She had to pay her own room and board.
She’s Cinderella. She was scrubbing the toilets, and cleaning up, and feeding the other girls who were paying to be there, and she was beaten and slapped around, and she would slip out the back door, and find affection with boys when she was very young. She learned that this was something she could use to get what she wanted – and what she wanted, I think, more than anything, was what everybody wants, which is affection and to be adored and to be loved. And like a lot of people, she mistook sex and the act for human affection and love.
What’s great about Joan’s story for a writer is that it has a tragic arc. It has a trajectory. She sacrificed everything to get what she wanted, and I think by the end of it, she didn’t even know who the hell she was because everything about Joan Crawford was complete artifice.
Jessica Lange talks about that: playing this character for her was a real leap of faith, because she was playing something that was a construct. So how do you play something that’s a construct, and show the person underneath? Of course only Jessica Lange could pull that off. She pulls it off from the moment she steps on the screen.