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The premiere of FX’s latest Ryan Murphy anthology, Feud: Bette and Joan, may still be days away, but the opening credits for the Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange starrer have been the subject of buzz for months.
The Saul Bass-inspired intro (below) is a throwback to opening credits of a past era, set to music created by Mac Quayle that is in part influenced by late composer Bernard Herrmann. The one-minute 18-second offering covers all of the important aspects of the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford while the two Hollywood icons were working on their one and only movie together, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, as well as some of their real-life antics as they played out offscreen.
“Ryan had this great idea of starting within the actual world of the movie and then moving it into a more esoteric commentary between the relationship of Joan and Bette,” executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We worked a lot off of how to find the transition to tell a story within a story but also an emotional feeling within a title sequence. It’s almost like a mini movie or a mini TV show where you can explore the themes.”
To capture the era and set the mood of the highly anticipated series, the producers enlisted Prologue’s Kyle Cooper and his team, who also worked with Murphy on FX’s American Horror Story and Fox’s Scream Queens. Their direction was a combination of projects including such titles as Catch Me If You Can, The Man With the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, coupled with the film Baby Jane itself.
“I was looking at some of Paul Rand, who was a sort of contemporary of Saul Bass,” Cooper says. “Ryan was very interested in showing the kind of pinpricks that Joan and Bette do to each other, from the subtle to the more abusive things. The thing Ryan liked about Catch Me If You Can was the lack of details in the characters’ faces and details in their bodies, those minimalistic details. We were trying to find our own language and not just reference the Saul Bass thing. So we did a lot of character studies of what the women would look like.”
The result is a dark title sequence invoking strong images and iconic scene re-creations like the rat on a serving platter or Davis dragging a weighted-down Crawford during filming on Baby Jane. There’s also the idea of these women as marionettes, being manipulated by the male studio heads they work for (seen in the image, above). It’s a theme that’s prevalent in the first five episodes of the series that have so far been released to press.
“The world of Bette and Joan was so rich, it was around that time when color really started to become a thing and everything was popping and bright. Ryan wanted to make sure that there was all this popping brightness that was contrasting the darkness that was happening in everyone’s lives and what happens in reality,” Woodall says. “When we got to the title sequence we wanted to keep it dark. We wanted to keep your eye focused all the time on what was happening. We wanted to use the space to keep the eye focused on exactly what the story was, exactly what was going on. And then there are tiny places where we get the shades of a sandpapery look with some distortion.”
The entire process was a continuous back-and-forth involving Cooper slapping screenshots from Baby Jane on his vision board, pitching various ideas from the film and attempting to re-create film noir. That too was inspired by the movie, thanks to the hard lighting and the house with bars on the windows. In real life, it wasn’t hard to imagine a similar dark outlook between the actresses given the mounting rumors of Crawford’s and Davis’ disdain for each other on set at the time.
“There was such a legitimate, physical dislike between the two of them and we wanted to expand that into a much more imagined world where they would beat each other with the Oscar or stab each other,” Woodall says. A challenge though, proved to be keeping those moments in the proper time frame.
“There was one idea I loved where Joan trips Bette on the red carpet. But because they didn’t really do a red carpet at the time, that was too modern and we wanted to stay in period,” she adds. “It was sort of this idea of, what kind of abuse can these women go through and what can they do to each other and how do we elicit what works and how do we get to the main point, which is sadness and a friendship lost and the wasted hate and frustration.”
That’s why by the end of the sequence there are tears signifying the friendship that could have been; tears shaped like hearts to both fit with the show logo but also to remind audiences of the stakes there were for these leading ladies.
“We didn’t want it to look like they loved each other and it was like Pepe Le Pew or something. We went back and forth a bit and tried to figure out what was the most metaphoric thing; there’s a sadness about the fact that if they weren’t enemies they might have recognized the humanity of the other one,” Cooper says. “It was important to Ryan that people come away with the idea that if circumstances were different and if they weren’t so competitive that maybe they could have even been friends.”
Watch the opening sequence, below.
Feud debuts Sunday, March 5 on FX.
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