This season, American Horror Story moves from limited series to drama series as it competes for Emmy recognition. It was a season where two out of the ten episodes were helmed by Jennifer Lynch. No stranger to working with Ryan Murphy, Lynch also made her directorial debut on 9-1-1 where she directed two origin stories with a third one coming before the season ends.
I caught up with Lynch to talk about her directing, working on the shows and the collaborative process. We talk about how she paid homage to the 70s and Tales From The Crypt and Lynch also shared her first memory of being on a film set.
Ryan Murphy has done something so great with highlighting female crews. This season in American Horror Story, he had women direct six out of the ten episodes. What is that like for you as a filmmaker to be a part of that?
What is most wonderful about being a part of this is that very rarely am I reminded of my gender because it’s really irrelevant. The celebration is, we are all storytellers, we all wake up and we all have to put pants on because we’re not allowed to not wear pants. [laughs].
What’s nice is that it is not constantly in my face that I’m female. Not that there’s anything to be upset about, it’s just that I look forward to more areas where I’m simply the director and not just the female director.
I think thanks to people like Ryan, we’re moving in that direction more and more.
Exactly. That’s what I’m saying is what’s nice about that is not just the opportunity to do it, but the idea that the exceptionalness of it is made more regular because it should be the standard, not the exception.
The whole season is incredible, let’s talk about the two episodes and lighting especially as you’re using candlelight in many of the scenes.
I feel with television and with Ryan’s shows, there is an opportunity to be even more of a voyeur and we come into people’s bedrooms and living rooms. Maybe people are even undressed when they’re watching and there’s an intimacy, so what do I fill the frame with that will convey this moment in the best way possible?
Often that is something in the moment that just helps me tell the story of tension, seduction or terror and again because I am in someone’s house, I should disappear. I should sneak in and provide something that is unexpected and unsettling and yet grabs you. That’s the joy in it.
I pay very close attention to what is in the frame, what is off the frame, what is below the frame because I feel I am responsible for the moments that I’m putting into people’s living rooms or bedrooms.
Visually, I loved Murderous Santa.
I loved the 70s style of that sequence.
Oh God! That was an absolute dream come true. I grew up on Tales From the Crypt, but just as a storyteller from the beginning, there’s such a beautiful language of the 70s horror. To recreate that with Joan, she was amazing. To be able to poke fun at that and to pay homage to that, it was a really good time. I loved breaking the fourth wall and being able to drag a camera out off the set. That’s the magic with what we do, we’re all grown-ups playing dress up.
That was so much fun to watch.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
It took me right back to being a kid, watching that late night Tales. What was the shooting schedule for that?
It was crazy. We shot that over three separate days. It was a lot asked of Joan. On certain days we had a body double. On other days, we had a stunt Santa.
There are different directors, but the imagery, the visuals are so consistent. How do you keep that consistency as a filmmaker?
I’ve heard from other directors that they find it challenging to serve others and what their show is. I adore that because when I show up the jump rope is already going. Everyone is playing and I need to jump in and make sure I’m playing the same game.
If what they’ve ordered is lasagna, then I’m going to make them the best lasagna, the way they like it, on their plate but seasoned to taste with something they don’t expect and surprise them enough that they want me back to cook for them.
It’s like wearing someone else’s skin. I get to jump in there and use their voice. For me, that’s beautiful. As long as I have the information, then I love doing my job. There’s never any bad news, just stuff you find out too late. [laughs].
You still get to put your stamp on it, like in 9-1-1, you hear Cherry Bomb and that’s your mark.
I’m very grateful for the fact that I am allowed to sing in my own voice. I respect the fact that they’ve chosen me to speak for them. I deeply respect the choice that they have made to allow me to interpret for them as well.
I think it’s really great to have the restrictions at times – of working in Television for someone else. I have to find ways to make sure that both of us go home happy at night. By the end of the day, the scenes are going to exist. They always do. So, what’s the best way to tell them? I love working with Ryan and Tim. I love Brad. I love these guys. I think that their ability to be brave is going to take a lot of us into a very evolved space.
With 9-1-1, you did the origins story which was fun to watch.
There’s another one coming up for me.
Ooh. I haven’t seen it yet.
What was it like to do those origin stories?
I loved it. Hen Begins was my first 9-1-1. I could not have been happier to work that closely with Aisha and Kenny. To find a way to bring attention to the issues at hand without being on a soapbox. It is often far better to whisper something and then people will shut up and listen rather than to yell it because they’ll just see someone who is yelling. I really feel the goal on Hen Begins was to make sure they ultimately heard it. You can’t tell people something they think they already know. I think that was the challenge. I’m very proud of that and I could not have been more honored to have been a part of Aisha’s performance in that. It was incredible.
She was incredible in that moment.
She just blows my mind. With Chimney Begins, I was given an incredible amount of freedom when I found out where the episode was going to land in between him being stabbed and him being found. I said, “Please let me honor the fact that he is bleeding out the whole time and use it as a tool with which to tell the story.” I need to know why these things are playing and if we’re not going to address it, then let me fall more in love with Chimney and Maddie in this moment so that we keep it going.
I didn’t want to not address the fact that the last time we saw poor Chimney he had a knife in his gut. I could not have been more supported and it was a blast. Kenneth Choi is absolutely out of control and one of the most talented people ever.
It’s insane. They have such range, both of them – no joke are two of the greatest people you’ve been in a room with. I told them both, they’re lucky I was a nice person or I’d push them both off a cliff. It’s a good thing I don’t get envious.
Was it your idea to put Chimney and Maddie together?
Oh God no! I wish that had been my idea. That’s all Tim and Ryan. I think if I were Maddie, I’d be in love with Chimney.
Let’s go back to Hen Begins, that scene in the fire station was incredible.
It was so good. She was so good.
In American Horror Story, you work with candlelight and in that episode, you’re dealing with water and the storm.
Oh gosh! They go all out on the show. The beauty is I’m very cautious about what I ask for because I know I’ll get it and I want to make sure I use it. We dumped how many thousands of pounds of mud and water into that room, but we did it and it was incredible. At one point, we had three rain towers going. These actors are not pretending to do these things, they’re actually doing them as well. It’s an incredible testament to their willingness to get down and dirty.
That was a challenging thing, there are always real issues in pretending. It’s what we call a “oner,” you don’t get to do that twice. [laughs]. You make sure everyone is rolling. You hold your breathe and remember how lucky you are that this is what you get to do for a living and then you pull the trigger.
That was just incredible. It was a blessing.
Is there a difference, aside from the obvious scheduling of shooting TV to shooting a film?
The way I shoot movies is very much like TV. I think one of the ways I got TV work was because they heard I had shot a movie in 15 days. I think that seemed to appeal to their TV minds.
Ultimately, the difference is that in one, for the most part, you are working to please yourself while pleasing someone else. In the other, you are trying to please yourself, but be mindful that you don’t know everything. With any luck, your feature schedule is a bit slow-paced. You can have those moments to say, “You just turned that way and you raised your hand and it occurred to me that’s the way you know he’s feeling such and such.” We can reblock and that’s what you’re able to do in nuanced moments when you have more time.
The joy of working quickly is that your brain has to be going all the time so you can pick some of those out of the ether. I love working with people. People don’t work for me. I don’t like to think of me working for them as much as we’re working together.
I wanted to make sure I can offer the actor a take of their own. If I’m working quickly enough and we’re all together on this, sometimes even the cinematographer can get something. To me, it’s important that everybody be aware, we’re all making the show and without one of those people, that watch doesn’t tell the correct time.
It’s not just about the people you see. It’s certainly not just about the people you don’t see. It takes a village and I’m very proud to be a part of this village.
Well, you talk about the village and even the costumes are so great.
Oh my God! Lou is amazing. She’s incredible.
What’s that collaboration there or is that just established?
A fair is already established throughout the season. Ryan, Tim and Brad have strong voices. It’s so much of the flavor and to veer away from it would be like putting ice cream on my lasagna.
A lot of the choices I make are far more subtle. It’s about the tilt of the hat. It’s about the way someone steps into a room. Everyone is aware that I can offer an idea up, but everyone also knows I’m not afraid to hear no. As long as I have that interaction, then it’s beautiful. They’re always receptive, even if it’s, “Yep, not on this one.”
I’m grateful to be in an environment where I can be brave enough to ask because there is nothing worse than being too afraid to speak and I think that has to stop.
What’s your earliest memory of being on a film set?
Ooh. In our home, in Philadelphia. My father was shooting The Grandmother and the grandmother was being born planted out of a seed on the bed.
What a memory.
Yeah. I thought it was the best thing that ever happened. I didn’t even know you could do that. Everything was possible and every idea mattered. Every thought mattered. The way someone looked at you, there was mindfulness to things and a possibility. If my father wanted a woman to be born out of a seed on a bed, then we were going to make that happen.
What an image.
I’m obsessed with Cherry Bomb since 911.