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Remote Controlled: Ryan Murphy Talks ‘Feud’; Plus What’s Ahead on ‘The Americans’

Variety logo Variety 3/3/2017 Debra Birnbaum
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Welcome to Remote Controlled, Variety’s podcast series featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.

This week’s episode features Variety executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum and chief TV critic Maureen Ryan in conversation with the executive producers of two FX series: Ryan Murphy of “Feud: Bette and Joan,” and Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg of “The Americans.”

Talking of “Feud,” which premieres on Sunday, Murphy says the idea for the series began from his desire to be more proactive and create more jobs for women behind the scenes. He launched the Half Foundation, with the promise that 50% of all the directorial slots in his company would go to women, people of color, and gay people. Since then, he’s met with the heads of all the crews on his sets and told them: “You need to hire people who don’t look like you.”

As he talked to women about the issues they face in the industry, they spoke about ageism and misogyny — and he realized he wanted to turn that into a series. He owned a script he’d bought in 2009 called “Best Actress” about the making of the movie “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” which starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. He says he realized “I don’t want to make a movie about this because I don’t want it to be broad and I don’t want it be camp,” he says. “I want to really get into the issues of these lives in a deeper way. It was really a light-bulb moment: Let’s use the jumping off point of that 1962 movie to talk about things that are happening today. We did that very successfully with ‘O.J.'”

He convinced Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange to step into the starring roles. “We slavishly copied what these women actually wore and how they lived and what couch they sat on based on our research,” says Murphy.

It also impacted the way he approached the series as a director. “It’s my job to have the camera be very still and capture that world and that artifice in a beautiful way, in a way that I’ve never done in my career,” he says. “When you’re working with that level of actresses, you don’t really need to do a lot, except spend your time making sure it all was true, emotionally the scenes are as good as they can be. And that’s what I tried to do.”

Murphy was also insistent that the two actresses have a financial stake in the series — beyond just the first season. “I need to treat Jessica and Susan in a way that I wish Bette and Joan had been treated,” he says. “What happened to those two women was just horrifyingly bad.”

Also coming up on FX this season is the fifth (and penultimate!) season of “The Americans.” Co-creators and executive producers Fields and Weisberg offered a sneak peek at what’s ahead for covert spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell).

“They’re a little stressed out!” says Fields.

The new season finds them taking on yet another identity — as the adoptive parents of a teenager. And chances are, danger lurks ahead. “Can you think of anything in the whole history of the show that has ever gone well for them?” says Weisberg. “We don’t think we’d have a show if anything ever went well. So that’s not going to go well.”

Margo Martindale returns this season, along with Frank Langella. “You will see old faces and new faces,” says Fields. “There are going to be a lot of new characters who will be interesting. We lost a lot of old characters who were cherished. We need to bring in some new characters to take up that story space.”

The producers reveal that this season, we can also look forward to more time spent in Moscow. “As if it was the show’s destiny all along,” jokes Weisberg.

“We’ve been following these Russian characters here,” says Fields. “It only seems fitting that we get to peel back the onion a little bit on what life might have been like there.”

You can listen to this week’s episode here:

New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday.

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