'Feud' Showrunner on Balancing Fact vs. Fiction and the Drama's Campy Tone

Tim Minear breaks down the FX anthology's series debut and what to expect moving forward.
Kurt Iswarienko/FX
'Feud: Bette and Joan'

[This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of FX's Feud.]

The gloves are officially off. Following a committed, Hollywood-throwback publicity campaign, plenty of buzz about the real-life feud on which the show is based and an early second-season renewal, Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, FX's Feud: Bette and Joan, kicked off Sunday.

The pilot set up much of what viewers already knew about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and their oh-so-public feud during the filming of the 1962 flick What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The story picked up with Crawford (Jessica Lange) desperate to find her next Oscar-worthy role, and soliciting the help of director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) and fellow actress Davis (Susan Sarandon) to do it.   

In the subsequent scenes, several narratives began to unravel, including Hollywood’s ennui with the aging leading ladies, their desire to be taken seriously for their craft and the underlying hatred they may have always secretly harbored for one another.

To break down that setup and delve deeper into the behind-the-scenes creation of Feud, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Tim Minear. Below, Minear (American Horror Story) talks about real-life scenes that were too campy to keep in the show, balancing fact and fiction and evolving Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis).

What is it about Hollywood feuds that are so lasting?

Movies stars are gods and goddesses. Even though we see them over the course of their career, they remain indelibly iconic images that we can return to. So we feel like they’re still with us. Whatever is interesting on the screen, we want to dig underneath what’s there and find out what makes that beating heart beat. 

Given how well-known the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is, how did you find the balance between liberties and fact?

The liberties we took were mostly in dramatizing what we knew. We didn’t make up stuff, particularly. You didn’t need to make up anything. We left out stuff that we didn’t think people would find believable, even though it actually happened. It was really a question of tone. There was plenty of story there and there was plenty to deconstruct. For Ryan and the rest of us, the feeling was people are going to maybe be expecting a bit of a camp-fest. We want to give the fun of the iconography of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, but we wanted to tell the story of these two human beings, these two women. The tale follows a trajectory of what happened in real life. As far as liberties, liberties would be imagining conversations you weren’t really privy to. Anything in this show either did happen, was based on documentary evidence or certainly could have happened.

What kind of things did you feel like you had to leave out?

For instance, there was a publicity tour that the ladies went on for Baby Jane, and Joan was down at one end of the table and she was entertaining a lot of journalists, and Bette was sort of annoyed by that and she literally jumped onto the table and said, “Down here, boys!” and pulled everyone’s attention down to her end of the table. Gina Welch, who is a co-producer and writer on the show, and I thought that was extremely hilarious, but Ryan — who is a great barometer for these things — just felt that it was too campy, even though it really happened.

When Robert Aldrich convinces Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) to distribute the film, how much of that was imagined versus what you were able to dig up from real life? (Click here to find out why Feud used the "c-word" in that scene.)

That was imagined; that’s how we imagined it would have gone. But it probably went something like that because Warner was definitely not very enthusiastic about picking up this particular project, especially with these women in it. He only agreed to it once Aldrich basically secured all the financing on the other side and he needed Warner for distribution. 

Why pick up at this point in the feud, as opposed to some of their past shared history?

Different parts of their pasts are revealed throughout scenes further on in the show. In episode three, we learn a defining element of Joan’s childhood that she reveals to Bette. But the reason we start where we start is because at the center of this is the only time these two women worked together, which was What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? So we’re setting up the tale of making Baby Jane, and then everything else radiates out from that particular moment of time.

When Crawford approached Davis to do this film, do you think there was an actual intent of friendship or professional respect, or was it really self-serving for both of them?

That I cannot look into their hearts to answer. I would say both things can be true. That’s probably the case. Maybe Joan was the kind of person who would look to win somebody over, whereas Bette kind of didn’t care. She wasn’t about winning people over, whether it was her director, co-stars or her audience. She wouldn’t sign autographs, and would just say to somebody, “I don’t know you, you don’t know me. Please leave me alone.” But as far as self-serving or becoming friends? Maybe on Joan’s part … but on Bette’s part, she saw a really juicy role with a director that she respected and I think with a co-star she respected, quite frankly.

What went into the decision to flesh out Hedda Hopper as a bigger character in this?

Hedda represents the media, the gossip columnist, and Hedda is a famous character in and of herself. In terms of fleshing her out … we met Judy Davis. So of course we’re going to flesh her out. One thing we love to do here at Ryan Murphy Television is write roles for actors and actresses. We have the best actors that you could possibly dream of ever getting, and so what you don’t want to do is just have them walk into a scene with a file and exposit something. Joan really needed a foil and we needed to say something about the gossip columns, because that was a lot of what fueled the public imagination about what was going on between these two women, and they used those things to their advantage. It’s a capitalism, one thing is feeding into the next thing.

Is the character’s prime use in the story to then push the feud forward?

She’s being used definitely to push the feud forward, but she represents an interested party in the feud. The more these two women go at each other, the more it benefits somebody like Hedda Hopper, who then has something to write about and can then sell papers and continue to make a name for herself. She’s there as a character with an agenda of her own, but she’s also sort of the great chorus of establishment Hollywood. What’s interesting is you see that she almost has a friendship with Joan. But then we see her playing one side against the other. She’s an essential element of our world.

What kind of rules did you have in the writers room in terms of approaching this so that it never veered too far into camp territory?

It was always really keeping one’s eye on what the pain was. Ryan has a really good sense of when things are starting to fly off to Mars a little bit and will pull it back. It’s always fun to write the big stuff, but by keeping the undergirding of the pain of these two women, and not just them but also other characters in the show, that allows it to not turn into just a drag show.

What kind of collaboration is it working with Murphy?

It’s extremely collaborative, but one of the things I admire most about him is that he does not dither. He comes in with the thing in his head. He knows what it is he wants to accomplish. He may not know every alleyway or tributary that we’re going to go down in order to accomplish it, but often he will. And it’s often you come in and he’s kind of telling you his dream and then you do your best to give some form to that dream. That’s kind of how it works with him. He’s a very focused artist in that way and probably the most talented producer I’ve ever worked with.

How important was having a strong female representation behind-the-scenes, given the show’s subject matter?

It was essential. We weren’t going to move forward on this without a woman writer on our team. And essentially it was Ryan, myself and Gina Welch. That’s pretty much who wrote the show, that’s who was here on a day-to-day basis, and we produced the show together. Dede Gardner is a producer on the show, and she brought Gina to us and it was just a match made in heaven. In terms of female directors, that was part of the whole idea. Ryan started his Half Foundation, where he committed publicly to putting at least 50 percent of the director slots to women. And it worked out really well.

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Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX. What did you think of the premiere? Sound off in the comments below.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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