When Ryan Murphy explains what he does as a TV showrunner, he admits it can sound kind of lofty. "The greatest thing that you have when you're a showrunner is this opportunity to create worlds," he says, laughing a bit. "And it always sounds so insane when somebody says, 'Well, what do you do?' And you say, 'I create worlds.'"
Murphy serves as the top creative voice on the TV shows he executive produces. His latest, Feud: Bette and Joan (debuting Sunday on FX), focuses on the friction between film legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. He says, "What I do is I come up with an idea like Feud, and then I ... cast it — I go out to Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. ... And then I gather a writing staff and we wrote eight episodes, and then I directed three of them. ... But also, like, I'm interested in everything else ... the art department, the costumer, the director of photography."
Murphy, 51, has compared the process of developing a show to having a dream — and his dreams have quite a track record. A short list includes the sexed-up, superconfident Miami plastic surgeons of Nip/Tuck; the crooning, occasionally dysfunctional high school students in Glee; the cavalcade of terrors in his American Horror Story anthology series; and the treatise on race, celebrity and policing offered by The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
He says, "What I'm interested in doing now is to go and give voices that are not being heard a platform, and just sort of bring people into people's homes that you think you may hate or despise, but the truth of the matter is if you just sat in a room [with them] a) I think you would admire them and b) I think that you would have a lot more in common with them than you think."
Now, with Feud, Murphy has developed a project that unites many of his past influences and passions. There's the affection for both old Hollywood and mature actresses; there's a story drawn from pop culture's history, with resonance in the modern age; and, of course, it's an anthology show.
Glee fan and All in the Family executive producer Norman Lear is a friend of Murphy's. He says Murphy's work stands out because of how much he cares. "He'll go deeper to try to understand everything he cares about. ... I wouldn't call it rule breaking or pushing boundaries; I would call it raising a magnifying glass to the foolishness of the human condition."
In Feud, Susan Sarandon plays Bette Davis and Jessica Lange is Joan Crawford. The series begins in the early 1960s and finds the two Oscar-winning actresses struggling: Both are over 50 and roles are drying up. Though they've hated each other for years, Crawford approaches Davis with an unexpected offer to join forces. She wants them to make a movie about a crazed former child star abusing her wheelchair-bound sister, who also used to be a film star. The name of the film would be taken from the book it's based on: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
"If something's going to happen, we have to make it happen," Lange's Joan Crawford says in one scene, acknowledging that she's suggesting something revolutionary. "No one's looking to cast women our age. But together? They wouldn't dare say no."
"People think it's going to be campy or lighthearted or dishy," Murphy says, "[but] it really isn't." He notes that Feud shows Crawford's problems with alcohol, Davis' trouble connecting with her daughter and the way studio executives manipulated the women into fighting with each other for tabloid fodder. He says, "It's, I think, a much more a sad look at these two women who were national treasures who were not treated well."
Murphy and his team were filming Feud during the presidential election. "We all thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the president," he says. "... So we thought, OK, we're making an ironic statement here about women in our culture. And then we woke up ... and she lost. And we're like, OK, well wow, this is still happening. You know, and I think it really lays into that misogynistic undertone [in the culture] that has been around for a long time that I think a lot of us thought we were finally getting over, but we're not."
Murphy's connection to Bette Davis goes all the way back to his days as a 10-year-old in 1970s Indiana. He says he felt alone and isolated in a religious household where his bold, opinionated grandmother often cared for him. When he saw Davis shoot somebody in her 1940 film The Letter, she reminded him of his grandmother.
"I only wrote two fan letters in my life," Murphy says. "One was to Bette Davis and one was to Ron [Palillo], who played Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter. And Ron did not write me back, but Bette Davis did."
Later, Murphy had a career as a journalist, writing for outlets like The Miami Herald and Entertainment Weekly. He eventually got to meet Davis and spent hours interviewing her, not long before her death. "And the thing that struck me about her when I got to meet her was how real she was," he says. "You know, when you think of her at the end or in some of her later movies, she's pure exaggeration. And she told me that a lot of that she put on when she was out in public because she thought she was never going to be remembered unless the female impersonators did her in their acts."
Murphy has a passion for featuring mature women who are often overlooked by Hollywood. Now he's formed an organization, the Half Foundation, to ensure women get jobs behind the camera as directors. The organization has helped fill more than half the directing jobs on his shows.
"I'm reaching out to all sorts of women: young women, gay women, women of color, older women who feel like they don't have a way into the system," he says. "... In the first year of operation, our goal was 50 percent women; we've sort of hit the 60 percent of all of the [directing] slots have been filled by women."
When Murphy started working as a showrunner and producer, the TV industry was exploding around him. After Glee, when the typical network TV series framework seemed too limiting, he developed an anthology series for FX in American Horror Story, reinventing the show every season with new stories in a way that would keep him from running out of things to say.
He's heard the criticism that he loses interest in series once they get going. While he bristles at that notion, he admits that he had finished what he wanted to say with Glee in Season 4, though the show ended in its sixth season.
And as a married man who had a tough time growing up gay in Indiana, Murphy's ready for our modern political moment. The second season of American Crime Story will focus on Hurricane Katrina, and a just-announced second season of Feud will tell the story of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. He hopes to start conversations between liberals, who might love the gay characters in Glee, and conservatives, who elected a vice president from Indiana who has opposed same-sex marriage.
He says, "I look at the election and I'm like: OK, well, we can get mad. We can be bitter. But the truth of the matter is this was a group of people that we weren't listening to for a long time — or they to us, for that matter."
He thinks the best thing he can do is launch a cultural dialogue. "Do I think it's going to change everybody's opinion? No. But maybe it will change one person's mind, and that's really all I can aim for."
Editor Nina Gregory and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this piece.