By now, millions of people have seen the trailer for “American Horror Story: Cult” (premiering Tuesday, Sept. 5, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX), the seventh season of FX Networks’ hit limited-series franchise. But co-creator, executive producer, writer and director Ryan Murphy thinks some people misunderstand what the new season will be about. After an exclusive screening of the first three episodes of “American Horror Story: Cult” hosted in the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot in Los Angeles and live-streamed for the press on Friday, Aug. 25, FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf joined Ryan for a discussion about the new season. During the conversation, John and Ryan touched on the driving narrative of Season 7, how this season differentiates itself from its predecessors and how the theme for “Cult” came about.
The “American Horror Story” process
Noting that Season 7 of the “American Horror Story” franchise, his new favorite in the series, may be the first full season of television conceived, developed and written in response to the November election, John asked Ryan when the idea for “Cult” first came to him.
Ryan shared that his process for each “American Horror Story” season is to have the main idea nailed down by Oct. 1. “That’s always my rule,” he said, adding that for three years running, Charles Manson and the Manson family had been a close second-place idea for a season storyline.
“I would say around Sept. 1 of last year is when the idea of the election being the jumping-off point, and then mixing the idea of the Manson cultic personality and somebody who rises like that within a sort of disenfranchised community took root,” Ryan said.
Around this time last year, the writers’ room for “American Horror Story” was consumed with discussions about the election and both of the major-party candidates. “And I thought that was really interesting, and there was so much passion, pro and con, both candidates, that I wanted to tap into that zeitgeist thing,” Ryan said.
What this season’s really about
When the theme of Season 7 was first teased, some fans of the show expressed their disappointment. “I think that people have the wrong idea already about what it’s going to be,” he said.
Given that he’s a gay man who has campaigned for the Democratic side, Ryan said he knows that part of his life has received some press, which has led some to presume what “American Horror Story: Cult” will be about. While election night and both candidates serve as a jumping-off point for the season, it’s not about that.
“It’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see [what’s] happening and is using that to rise up and form power, and using people’s vulnerabilities about how they’re afraid, and they’re feeling vulnerable, and they don’t know where to turn, and they feel like the world is on fire,” Ryan said. “And we’ve been very conscious of that, I think, in the writing, to make sure that that idea is central to the show.”
In other words, “It really is about the cultic personality that can rise in a divisive society.”
Fiction becoming reality
When asked about the timeline for writing the scripts and working on the narrative, Ryan said he and his writers began writing the first episode of “American Horror Story: Cult” in December.
“Things that we were shooting in May in our country have become true in the past six weeks even,” he said. “Charlottesville being an example of that.”
Ryan noted that it’s been interesting to see things the writers’ room for the show felt were “in the water in our country” have begun to be realized in real life. “So, that’s been very bizarre. It’s been really odd and emotional for the cast but interesting how when you’re writing about the political situation in the country and you, sort of, try and figure out what’s going to go on over there, many times that does come true.”
A more restrained approach
John shared that one of his favorite things about the “American Horror Story” franchise is the “visual language” that Ryan and his team build from scratch – characters, costumes and sets.
This season, which is set in suburban Michigan and focuses on a family, will contrast with previous seasons by being more grounded, starting with the color palette. “If you look at the color palette, [usually it’s] really in your face, and we decided not to do that this year,” Ryan said. “Everything seems a little pulled back, which has been a discipline, and it’s been a discipline in the writing to make it much more real and emotional, even though we talked about the idea that it does have an element of humor and satire in it. But that was by design because I think that that people are talking about this and living it and [to] make it look extreme would be wrong.”
“American Horror Story: Cult” hasn’t aired yet, but it’s already sparking plenty of conversations online. John shared that the opening credits for the new season had 7 million views, the trailer had 8 million views and the new season overall already had 58 million video views and 328 million impressions across FX’s social channels as of Friday. The show has also received 8 million content responses (e.g., likes, comments, shares) and 700,000 organic conversations online.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and in a pretty short period of time, that’s a very, very large amount of not only engagement, but [actual] response,” John said.
“The great gift” of making the show
Ryan said that while he was personally surprised by the results of the election, writing this season has helped him see that he shouldn’t have been so shocked after all.
“I think, for me, that has been the great gift of the show, that it’s just made me look at all different sides of the equation and research it more,” he said.
“American Horror Story: Cult” debuts Tuesday, Sept. 5, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.