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American Horror Story: Roanoke pulled off its big twist with Wednesday’s highly anticipated hour.
Keeping viewers in suspense has been the game plan for season six of the anthology horror series, as Ryan Murphy and FX kept the show’s subtitle, plot and cast a mystery until its Sept. 14 premiere and have continued to maintain a shroud of secrecy as its 10 episodes unfold. Even AHS: Roanoke co-star Angela Bassett, who directed the episode, didn’t find out about the game-changing plot until she got the script.
Her first thought? “Oh my god,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I remember telling the line producer: You have thrown everything in here — including the kitchen sink! There are car chases and wrecks and people dying, little kids and monsters, bath tubs, blood and gore.”
For the first half of the sixth season, AHS viewers had been tuning into a true-crime docueries, My Roanoke Nightmare, where survivors recounted their escape from a North Carolina mansion haunted by the spirits of the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke. The sixth episode, however, took viewers behind the camera to document the show’s producer as he made his sequel to the massively successful first season: Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell. His pitch returned the entire cast to the original house — reuniting his real subjects with the actors who portrayed them in dramatic reenactments — and placed them under 24-hour hidden camera surveillance, Big Brother-style.
The pivotal development shifts the season into what Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have referred to as the second chapter: The end of the episode revealed that every participant in the series, except for one, was murdered in three days, and what viewers are watching is the found footage from the horror massacre.
Bassett, who plays the alcoholic actress, Monet, behind the real character, Lee (Adina Porter), speaks to THR about making her AHS directorial debut, being a part of the first season in the AHS franchise where women helm episodes (six in total) and what viewers can expect from Roanoke now that everything has changed.
You are the first female director of an AHS episode. Was this a direct result of Ryan Murphy launching his Half foundation (where he aims to have 50 percent of all director slots on his shows go to women or minority candidates)?
I didn’t know it was part of an initiative, he didn’t say that at the time. He just asked, “Would you like to direct an episode?” and I jumped at the opportunity and said yes. Subsequently, I heard this conversation about Half and about Ryan opening up that opportunity for half of the episodes to be shot by women, people of color and the like. I was asked before we actually started filming. I was honored. It couldn’t get much better than directing and working with the terrific artisans that I have spent three years with. There’s a familiarity and a comfort. It also could go horribly wrong! You know how it is — we’re family, so you put up with your little sister when they fall short or miss the mark here and there! But I didn’t think about that too much and really concentrated on already having a shorthand and an ease with the DP. It’s a different lane for me but I thought it would go a lot smoother than showing up in a brand new environment.
Did you know you were directing the biggest episode of the season when you agreed?
Initially, I was offered episode seven. I thought it was great that I would have six episodes to really be familiar with the story. I know the world and I know the AHS world. And in numerology, “7” is the number of completion. Then at the beginning of the season I heard it was going to be episode six. I didn’t have the scripts so I just thought, “Ok, six is right next door.” It’s a little sooner and I had a little heartbeat out of my chest as it approached. Then I get the script. I read it and thought: “Oh my god.” But you just take one day at a time. And, then being told: By the way, we’re going to be shooting it with iPhones for the first time in the franchise. So there’s a little innovation thrown in there.
The episode turns a lens on fame, reality shows and Hollywood by tackling true-crime series and reality shows. What were your inspirations and what do you hope the episode has to say about all of that?
I spent time watching horror movies. Going to my neighborhood public library and just renting horror movies and Halloween was one that I spent time watching. Usually I’m very frightened by those types of movies but if you’re watching it for research, it’s much different than watching it for enjoyment — with the director’s eye, looking at the way things are crafted and done for maximum effect. For me, it was about the element of surprise, and yet always an attempt to base it in a very truthful and honest place and motivation for the characters.
I did have the benefit of seeing the first finished episode so that helped me a great deal to get a sense of the world and characters and how my costars began their journey as those characters and how we could subtly change it. That’s what I talk about a lot: What do you need? What do you want? What are the stakes? When you’re in this world, your eyes just open to images and photographs that I never would have paid attention to. You are constantly looking for motivation.
There were so many moving parts in this episode. How did you keep everything under wraps?
Usually you’re doing interviews or people are asking you about it, but we got the directive from Ryan: “Say nothing, don’t tweet, don’t text!” And actually for me, it was a breath of fresh air! Because when I tend to tell it, I tell it all. This made life easy for me. Folks would ask, but I’d say, “There’s a red dot on my head if I say anything about it to you.”
What was the hardest scene to shoot in secret?
We weren’t the only actors on the set. We’re a family but of course you have to invite others in, for example, with the Audrey-Rory wedding scene. You ask about inspiration: For that I thought, “What is my old wedding video?” It was written with them under the huppah and saying their vows and I wanted to turn it into a wedding video. I looked at my own and I looked online. That was a scene where we shot it the way it was written and then I was running around like: “I just want to grab this camera and Sarah [Paulson], you and the bridesmaid just twirl in the grass, and help him get ready and put his jacket on, and I want you to write vows over there.” They were so game and they did it. I wanted to have a reception! I threw pedals. I’m sure they thought, “What is she doing? This is never going to make it in.” And then when the editor put it together, it was so funny and fun and different.
That wedding scene and Kathy Bates’ Misery-like meltdowns were standouts. What was it like to direct Kathy in this episode?
Filming those scenes with Kathy was divine. We had a concept meeting with Ryan where he’s going through the script and he mentions Kathy’s face, saying, “… when it breaks, like in Misery.” I wasn’t thinking of that in particular but she’s just so malleable and honest and incredible. You can just say to her, “You’re the diva. School this boy.” Or, “This was your opportunity to be someone and he’s snatching the opportunity from beneath you.” You can just talk to her and she was every key on the piano, she played it for you. “Do you want this note? Let me give you this note.” She was so open to trying anything. And once again, in the editing room we can craft the best of it. It was fantastic and to see her face just crack and burn in the disappointment and the heartbreak, it was so beautiful. I was at the monitor, just silently screaming.
The episode is pivotal to the season and this next chapter of Return to Roanoke. How will the shift play out — like a murder mystery, Real World style?
I can’t say very much! You know this world, whatever you expect: Throw it out the window. Because really, you won’t be able to call it. But you’ll certainly have fun trying.
How do you think viewers will react when they find out who the sole survivor is?
I think it’ll make sense. I think there will be a sense of satisfaction at the end. Of completion and of satisfaction.
Are there other twists ahead?
There are always surprises most definitely. There are lots of twists.
You also got to switch up your role on-camera. Tell us about Monet.
I heard about the Monet character last year from one of the producers when we were at Comic Con. I was really surprised and then I said, “This is going to be a challenge.” Because I don’t think that playing an alcoholic is an easy gig, to be so in control and then as an alcohol, to be so out of control. I as a little nervous, but then he says, you know, I’m a functioning one.
Was it hard to play double duty?
I’m always intrigued by actor-directors and when you have to direct yourself. I personally found it to be a bit of a challenge, especially since I couldn’t see the scene. I had to be in the scene in the moment, trust it and move on, as opposed to having the playback and letting me go back and see what’s going on. Because you can’t be in the scene and out of your head, it has to be one place or the other. It made me less self-conscious as an actor and I stayed more in the place of concern for everyone else in the scene and their arc and journey.
How many days did it take to film and did you film your scenes at the end?
It took nine days. I filmed mine about halfway through. I didn’t have any say in that because it’s determined by schedules. It was during the Emmys, so there were some commitments Sarah had to do, or Lady Gaga being available on certain days. She wasn’t in my episode. So you’re looking at the lay of the land of all 10 episodes and when she’s available, so that might change something. Also, the set pieces and what’s available. Shooting outdoors at night on certain locations when they’re available, maybe another show’s using Griffith Park. There are a lot of moving parts that go into planning the day.
Would you want to direct more episodes in the future?
I think after shooting this episode that most things will probably be a walk in the park, away from AHS. But I would, most definitely. I enjoyed myself and it was an opportunity to learn and just continue to grow. It turned out very well and I had a ball. So I would definitely do it again and am looking forward to it.
Did you bring any of it home with you – any nightmares from episode six?
When you’re researching it and you’re breaking it apart, it’s less frightening. But the trick was to make moments. I was hoping to make moments where the audience would jump. I think it happened, so I’m very pleased.
Brad Falchuk also said the 10th episode would be something different than the rest of the season. Will the finale bring more callbacks to previous seasons?
Not a thing I can say. [Laughs] I really didn’t have much in it.
Ryan said we can’t trust the Millers or Lee. Can we trust anyone at this point?
You can trust everyone to be completely self-absorbed. Self-absorbed and selfish.
Is it safe to assume that some of the actors we haven’t seen yet, like Finn Wittrock and Taissa Farmiga, could be playing the real ghosts we saw in the reenactment?
Could be… Yeah, that’s a safe assumption. We love an ensemble. We love a troupe! We love a nod to the old, a thread.
Speaking of the ensemble, can you speak to if you’ll be back for season seven?
I don’t know. That I don’t know.
American Horror Story: Roanoke airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Check here weekly for THR‘s rundown on show theories and what each episode reveals.