Ryan Murphy is used to hearing the name of at least one of his projects uttered on Emmy nomination morning, but 30 mentions — as happened July 14 — was stunning, even for him. In addition to Emmy perennial American Horror Story, which nabbed eight noms for its Lady Gaga-fronted Hotel season, his The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story earned 22, including outstanding limited series and mentions for each of its stars. Murphy took a break from prepping new seasons of both series, as well as a second installment of Fox’s Scream Queens and his latest FX anthology, Feud, to speak with THR about the surprising response to O.J., his plans for more Broadway and the future of his franchises.
What surprised you most about the reaction to The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story?
When people first heard we were doing it — when they heard O.J., and it’s a spinoff of American Horror Story — they were convinced, as they always are with my work, that it was going to be a certain thing. We’d hear, “Oh, it’s going to be exploitative,” or, “It’s going to be a bloodbath.” But the thing I’m most proud of is how it helped change the public perception of Marcia Clark. It showed her as a human being, and the thing I hear people say now is, “Boy, was I wrong about Marcia Clark.” I look at her as a feminist working-mother heroine who’d been widely misunderstood and blamed for something that was not her fault, and because of the power of the scripts and Sarah Paulson’s performance this became sort of a revisionist take on her. I hope it’s how she’ll be remembered going forward.
Lady Gaga (left) and Kathy Bates in American Horror Story: Hotel.
Shortly after your series wrapped, ESPN ran its doc O.J.: Made in America. What did you think of it, and did you have any regrets about not being able to include some of the things it covered, including the fact that O.J.’s father was gay?
No, but it’s one of the best documentaries that has ever been made. Initially I was worried that one would cannibalize the impact of the other, but that seems not to have happened at all. They were almost like bookends to the story.
Season two will tackle Hurricane Katrina. How did you land on that as your follow-up?
We’re not interested in doing a trial-of-the-week or murder-of-the-month; we’re interested in tackling crimes and events that have some sort of social importance. That’s why we’re interested in Katrina, and we’ve been researching it quite heavily for a year before we’re even writing it. I think it’s going to be between 13 and 15 episodes, so it’s very big — and every episode has a theme, like O.J. did. You follow a cast of characters from before the storm hits to its aftermath, and we’re spending a lot of time, energy and resources on it.
There aren’t going to be big, soapy reveals as there were with O.J. Plus, the wound is still fresh for many. How are you approaching it so it isn’t just a 13- or 15-hour downer?
Well, it’s an amazing tragedy you cannot believe happened in America, but along with the overwhelming sadness of what happened to New Orleans and its people you have amazing stories of survival. You have the best of people and the worst of people, and we’re laying into questions like, What do you do when you’re in a city and your government has abandoned you? How do you live? How do you get out? And you get out by climbing up and pulling up people with you, and to a large degree that’s what the miniseries is about. It’s not just what happened but heroic stories about people surviving — or, in some cases, dying helping others. So it’s upsetting, but it’s also uplifting.
O.J. stars Sarah Paulson and John Travolta have said they’d love to return. Are we going to see the same actors come back and be part of it?
I don’t think it’s going to be like American Horror Story, where you see almost the entire troupe return. You’ll see some people, not all of them, but we haven’t figured that out yet because we’re right in the middle of the writing process. I’m having general meetings with actors, but I don’t like to offer anything to anybody unless they have a big chunk of things to read because I want them to know what they’re signing up for.
After O.J., American Crime Story will turn its attention to Hurricane Katrina for season two. Murphy reveals he and the producers already are exploring subjects to tackle in seasons three, four and five.
There’s a true-crime explosion on TV: JonBenet Ramsey at CBS, the Menendez brothers at NBC. Have there been stories snapped up that you would have considered?
I can honestly say no because we were never interested in the upsetting-murder-of-the-month club. That’s not what our show is about.
Shifting to American Horror Story, you’ve been keeping this season under wraps. Despite your Sept. 14 premiere date, no one knows anything about this season, including the subtitle. Why?
John Landgraf [of FX] and Dana Walden [of Fox TV Group] and I were talking, and the show is in its sixth season, and we’ve always done everything by the book. Come January or February I announce what the theme is, and then we announce the cast. We wanted to [create a] different experience for the fans this year. But that doesn’t mean we’ll do that for season seven or even season eight.
Murphy with Lange (center) and Paulson, both of whom have appeared in many of his projects.
Seven and eight? How long do you foresee the series going, and when do you plan to have the seasons really start to come together?
You’ll see it this season, and then you’ll really see it after this season. We lay a lot of pipe, and you’ll see it explode in seasons seven and eight. They haven’t officially been picked up yet by John Landgraf — he and I always talk at the end of the year and decide how many we want to do. But John has always said, and I have always agreed, that this is a show that could be like The Twilight Zone and run for multiple, multiple seasons and have its own inner mythology. So that’s how we’re approaching it. I’ll keep doing it for as long as we have the ideas and the momentum. I really love doing it.
Do you have a road map for where it goes?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And the seasons are connected, for sure.
Although it didn’t earn any Emmy attention, you’re bringing Scream Queens back to Fox for a second season. How have you, presumably with Fox’s input, retooled and attempted to broaden the show?
We all love that show, and the viewership was very young. It was huge on Hulu and the DVR, so Dana and I felt like, “OK, we have our base — now what do you do to broaden it?” And I just loved the idea of a horror show set in a hospital for a season. You get to have these great medical-mystery cases, so it’ll be: OK, what’s wrong with this person, and how can we cure them? With that you also have stunt casting opportunities galore — opportunities to go after great comedic actors like Cecily Strong from Saturday Night Live, who I think is f—ing brilliant in our first episode. The casting of John Stamos, an old friend of mine, and Taylor Lautner, who brings his own audience, are both huge, too, because now it’s more than just women [in the cast]. Before the show did seem very young, but now I hope there’s something for everybody.
In addition to your series work, you were a producer on Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway, which earned Jessica Lange her first Tony. Should we expect more Broadway work from you going forward?
Jessica introduced me to that world. Her Tony win came out of a dinner that she and I had where I said, “Lady Lange, what have you always wanted to do that you haven’t done?” She said: “Well, there’s only one part that got away. I did Mary Tyrone in London, and I want to do it here, but I don’t know that the person who has the rights right now would want to do the play.” So I tracked that play like a mad man for months and months, and then the option lapsed and I swooped in and I bought it for her. I really love the Broadway community, and now I’m working on two or three things to do with people like Jessica who are in my world — people who I’ve collaborated with whom I absolutely adore. One of the people who I love and adore the most is Joe Mantello. He did The Normal Heart for me as an actor, but he’s one of the best theater directors of all time — so I’m trying to find something to do with Joe.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.