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An American Horror Story Post-Mortem With Tim Minear

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To tide you over before the sophomore season of American Horror Story begins production and plot and casting details become available, I interviewed the first season's consulting producer Tim Minear. Minear's previous work includes acclaimed turns on Joss Whedon's Firefly and Angel and most recently executive producer roles on Terriers and The Chicago Code.

What was it about American Horror Story that attracted you to it?

Ryan Murphy, Jessica Lange -- for starters.

When I first met with Ryan and Brad, I'd read the pilot script and my instinct was "could be interesting, but how could you sustain this?" So that's the question I asked. Ryan told me right then, "By killing everyone off by the end of the first season." That really sold me, because that's often the problem one has in series television -- sometimes you have to tread water to keep things going. Here was an instance where you could dive right in and drown. I liked that notion. Also, doing 13 episode seasons that don't need to sustain themselves is my specialty.

Could you talk a little about what the process of breaking and writing an episode was like?

Breaking and writing on this show was one of the smoothest experiences I've ever had. It's always useful to have someone at the helm with such a specific vision. And Ryan Murphy is that guy. Ryan knew what he wanted, and he had a terrific barometer for what to discard. Very quickly he and Brad came to trust the rest of us -- we were all new to them, with the exception of the astounding Jennifer Salt -- and Ryan would lay out some orange cones of what he wanted an episode to be. We'd jaw about it in the room, then the four of us would meet a few hours before resuming with Ryan and Brad the next day, fill in some detail, then pitch it to Ryan. More of often than not he'd like where we took his ideas, or if he didn't he'd instantly have the alternate approach. Very often getting there because of the road we took him down.

Ryan would literally describe each scene, tossing out dialogue and riffing. We'd riff back. In short order full scenes had been worked out in the room. There was no real mystery of what Ryan was looking for, because as he'd riff we'd get him to clarify on certain points. And all being seasoned TV writers, we could anticipate difficulties we might have in executing scenes, so we'd clear that up too before going off. Then we'd each take a scene or two, not having to sweat about having 50 pages in two days, and come in with those scenes the next day. Over the course of a few days or a week, a script would be assembled. It was luxury.

So you 'd be writing anywhere from three to, I'd say, maybe seven or eight pages every few days. Interestingly, we wouldn't really break a full episode. We'd break it an act a time -- pretty well knowing where it was going -- write some of it, break more of it, write that bit, and so on. And since Ryan was so clear on what he wanted to do, there was never any danger of running into a dead end.

Part of American Horror Story's charm was that it was so over the top so much of the time. Were you actively encouraged to go as over the top as possible? Was there ever a rule of thumb as to how much was too much?

Again, I'd just say that we were taking Ryan and Brad's ball and running with it. Ryan was always the one who said when something was too much -- and he often would pull us back. But it was all his instinct, really.

What's your favorite thing you've contributed to the show so far?

Hmmm. I think it was my idea for Zachery Quinto's character to not be quite dead when the fake suicide was staged. The notion of him coughing up water and have to lie there helplessly as Tate murdered him again was something I really liked. And maybe the scene where Constance confronts Chad in the nursery. The "and so's your hairdo" scene.

Given the extreme places - school shootings, rape etc - you went to over the course of twelve episodes, did FX ever veto anything?

No. FX had a note on a shot that Ryan agreed about and we cut. But they pretty much -- actually totally -- gave him his space.

Season-long anthology shows like American Horror Story aren't overly common. What do you think of the format?

See above. It's the only way to make something like this work, I think.

I now have some more character skewed questions. After being absent in "Rubber Man," Constance seemed genuinely disgusted by Tate raping Vivien. How much of her reaction to that do you think was genuine?

It was all genuine.

From time to time, Tate would show remorse for his actions when confronted with them -- how sincere was he being?

He's totally sincere. Though with a sociopath, what might read as sincere regret is often really sincere self pity.

Was there ever any backstory you never got a chance to explore in the series that you'd like to share now? One I'm especially interested in is Ben's dark past that he alluded to on a few occasions.

It's true we never got to Ben's abused childhood, and that's something we wanted to do. Also at one point I had in Constance's beauty salon speech in the last episode a reference to the mysterious fourth child that we never saw. But that got cut.

When you joined the series, the pilot was already done. For season two, you're going to be there from the start. What's the process like of breaking the second season and what can viewers look forward to?

Ask me later, we're working that up now.