Ryan Murphy n Brad Falchuk in American Horror Story’ to Begin on FX
LOS ANGELES – Growing up, the television producer Brad Falchuk said, he practiced to see if he was prepared for a possible home invasion by wriggling on the ground, as if he were hogtied, from his bedroom to the kitchen and extracting a knife from a drawer with his mouth. “You’re 8 or 9, this is what you do,” Mr. Falchuk explained. “Could I escape?”
Asked if he similarly tested himself in his youth, Ryan Murphy, Mr. Falchuk’s creative partner, dryly replied: “No, but when I was a child there was an instance where someone did break into our house, and my mother pulled a gun on them. So I grew up with that.”
This collaboration between two men who see the world very differently from each other – and from anyone else for that matter – has yielded “Glee,” the Fox pop phenomenon about the travails of an upbeat student choir.
Now Mr. Murphy and Mr. Falchuk have turned 180 degrees to create “American Horror Story,” a new FX series (making its debut on Wednesday) whose dark atmosphere, creepy fixations and frequent bloodshed would have those irrepressible “Glee” kids belting out shrieks instead of high C’s.
In the pilot episode of “American Horror Story” a therapist (Dylan McDermott of “The Practice”) and his wife (Connie Britton of “Friday Night Lights”) move with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) to an eerie, Gothic-style mansion in Los Angeles. While mom and dad deal with a past act of infidelity, the family unfolds the house’s murderous history; encounters neighbors and hangers-on played by Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Denis O’Hare (as a man whose has had half his face scarred in a fire); and finds something not quite human residing in the basement.
Also, Ms. Britton’s character has a sexual encounter with a man dressed in a head-to-toe rubber S&M costume who may or may not be her husband.
“We both know,” Mr. Murphy said with audible understatement, “that this is a very polarizing show.”
“American Horror Story” is a window onto the Murphy-Falchuk partnership, their psyches and their vocal affection for the smart and seemingly bygone chills of films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining.”
That such a deliberately divisive and potentially off-putting show could get on the air, and onto the ascendant FX network, is also a sign of the clout Mr. Murphy, 45, wields in the television industry and at that cable channel.
Starting at Mr. Murphy’s hit FX series “Nip/Tuck,” a sometimes garish, sometimes gory drama about a plastic surgery practice that ran from 2003 to 2010, he and Mr. Falchuk (who, according to his publicist, is “40ish”), have had a mentor-disciple relationship. Mr. Falchuk, who nearly became a staff writer on a WB television adaptation of “Tarzan,” bonded with Mr. Murphy as Hollywood outsiders who worked their way in, and over a shared love of most pop-cultural genres – except for musicals, which Mr. Falchuk, surprisingly does not generally enjoy. (He and Mr. Murphy nonetheless work side by side as they move between the writers’ rooms of “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” which they created with Ian Brennan.)
Dressed in matching white shirts and khakis last week at their offices on the Paramount lot, a quiet and ascetic loft space that simultaneously evoked “The Addams Family” and a Banana Republic store, Mr. Falchuk said that Mr. Murphy was the “genius of the big idea” in their partnership.
“When he has a big idea,” Mr. Falchuk said, “his brain tends to activate in a way that’s like a disco floor.” He added: “Those lights will start flashing, and we’ll both start dancing on it and see where it takes us.”
When the inspiration struck for “American Horror Story” the show was rapidly embraced at FX, where “Nip/ Tuck” reigned as a top-rated basic-cable series, and the channel had no problem with the boundaries Mr. Murphy now wanted to push.
FX, which has ordered 13 one-hour episodes of “American Horror Story,” has lately found a successful formula in stylized shows like the dyspeptic comedy “Louie,” the motorcycle drama “Sons of Anarchy” and the crime series “Justified,” whose co-star Margo Martindale was a surprise Emmy Award winner in September.
John Landgraf, the president of FX, said that for all its challenging content, “American Horror Story” was “quite a few paces back from the ledge as established by ‘Nip/Tuck’ Seasons 4, 5 and 6.”
Still, the pilot script for “American Horror Story” raised eyebrows. Ms. Britton, an Emmy nominee for “Friday Night Lights,” said she joined the show to work with Mr. Murphy and to go from “one of the best marriages on TV to one of the worst marriages on TV.”
But when Ms. Britton arrived at her sex scene with the fetishistically attired figure now known as Rubber Man, she said: “I was convinced I was going to be able to talk Ryan out of that whole thing. I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to stay, no.’ “
Mr. Landgraf said it was not his network’s place to tinker with Mr. Murphy and Mr. Falchuk’s vision. “You either sign on for it or you don’t,” he said. “We’re making small changes around the margins but this is the show that they wanted to make.”
Mr. Murphy also enjoys wide latitude at 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that produces “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” and whose chairwoman, Dana Walden, said he was allowed “as much carte blanche as anyone we’ve ever worked with.”
With that arrangement, Ms. Walden said, comes the understanding that Mr. Murphy likes to take on as much work as he possibly can. “We at the studio would be very content with Ryan focusing only on those two shows,” she said, but Mr. Murphy “has a very big appetite professionally.”
Among the compelling arguments for Mr. Murphy to focus his energies: “Glee” lost more than three million viewers from its Season 2 premiere to its Season 3 debut, following a sophomore year in which the show perhaps tried to do too much at once.
“Some of the criticism was not warranted, some of it was,” he said. “We listened, and I think that we’ve rejiggered the show in a great emotional way.”
Mr. Landgraf would not specify a ratings target that would spell success for “American Horror Story” or a timetable to decide whether to order additional seasons. His network has lately shown no hesitation in dropping struggling series. It did not pick up second seasons of “Terriers” and “Lights Out” and let go of its critically acclaimed legal thriller “Damages,” which was picked up by DirecTV. Mr. Landgraf said those shows “were creative successes but outright commercial failures.”
“If a show feels good creatively,” he said, “like there’s a passionate core audience or there’s room for growth, then we have a tendency to be very tolerant.”
Mr. Murphy meanwhile is already thinking ahead to projects beyond this series, including a film adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s drama about the birth of AIDS activism in 1980s New York, that he will direct.
Mr. Falchuk, who said he already doesn’t sleep or see his family enough, seemed satisfied to be busy running two television shows simultaneously and to have a colleague who challenges his cultural tastes.
“That balance works,” Mr. Falchuk said. “It lets neither of us go off into our easy places.”
Mr. Murphy said, “I am just thrilled that I live in a world where I get to introduce Brad to, like, ‘Eyes of Laura Mars’ and ‘Cabaret.’ “
And, Mr. Falchuk added, “I can sit Ryan down and we can watch a football game together.”
For the first time in the conversation Mr. Murphy sounded genuinely horrified. “What?” he exclaimed.
Mr. Falchuk laughed. “You did it once,” he said.
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