Ryan Murphy (‘Feud’) on directing the pivotal Oscars episode: ‘It was a love letter to showbiz history’ [EXCLUSIVE]

Episode five of FX’s anthology series “Feud: Bette and Joan” aired tonight, April 2, and it was a big one: titled “And the Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963),” the episode followed Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) to the Academy Awards, where the film was up for five prizes including Best Actress for Davis — but no nomination for Crawford. We asked “Feud” creator and executive producer Ryan Murphy what went into directing this pivotal hour.

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TONY RUIZ: There’s been a great deal of chatter online about people taking sides in the “Feud,” with some siding with Bette Davis while others side with Joan Crawford. Did you go into this series with an opinion one way or the other? How did your view of these women change as you dug deeper into the source material?

RYAN MURPHY: I think I started off the show feeling I was definitely on Team Bette, only because I knew her a little bit at the end of her life and had a personal connection to her. But then as we began to write the series, I grew to love Joan more and more…her professionalism, how tough she was, how kind she was to people, her drive. She was a survivor and I love that. By the time we got to the Oscar episode, I was very split in my affections, I will say that.

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TR: From a director’s standpoint, “And the Winner Is… (The Oscars of 1963)” is not only the most technically complex episode, but also the most emotional because the stakes for both Crawford and Davis are so high. How did you balance all of these complex elements on the set?

RM: I wanted to take viewers into an experience watching this episode, which was to FEEL what it was like to be there, to go backstage, to see behind-the-scenes things most people don’t get to experience. This episode meant a lot to myself and my production heads — Nelson Cragg my DP, Lou Eyrich my costumer, and Judy Becker my production designer. We all spent months researching the minutiae of the Oscars that year based on photographs and interviews with people who were there. We rebuilt and added special effects to copy exactly what the Santa Monica Civic Center looked like that year; that same with inside (which is where the awards that year actually were). Everything was slavishly attended to, in terms of getting it right: the same dresses, the exact sets, the hair, the makeup, the programs. We even looked at how the toothpicks were arranged in the food Crawford brought backstage when she hijacked the green room, and copied them exactly. It was a true love letter to showbiz history.

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TR: Dramatized versions of award shows, particularly the Oscars, are often cheesy, and not very realistic. But this episode captures the 1963 ceremony with a great deal of authenticity. What kind of research did you do that helped you accomplish this?

RM: We did months and months of research; we actually had a research team for this episode I called Team Oscar. We looked at and examined hundreds of photographs of inside and outside the auditorium. Videotape of the ceremony as well. I knew it would be an expensive episode, and it was — we had to copy all of the famous gowns, the accessories. We made all those Oscars, and then destroyed them out of respect to the Academy. No detail was too small. My favorite thing we had to make was the Oscar Cake Tier … which was loaded up with Oscars and given out one by one. We wanted to get it right and I think we really did, as a love letter to Old Hollywood.

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TR: Because of the complexity of this episode (especially the lengthy tracking shot from backstage to the podium and back again), will this be your directing submission on this year’s Emmy Awards ballot?

RM: Yes, I think episode five is the one I am submitting. It was the most technically challenging because of recreating Hollywood history and that tracking shot. It was also emotionally hard to get right, because of the complexity of what Bette and Joan were going through on that night. It wore me out and tested me completely and I’m proud of what our team did.

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TR: There are a lot of Oscar statues in this series. First, are they real Oscars? And second, why was it important to have them play such a prominent role in the series?

RM: They are not real Oscars, they are copies we made. Out of respect to the Academy, we made them slightly off so no one could sell them or pretend they were real. We also later destroyed all the copies. It was fun working with four Oscar winners, because they could tell me things like “this Oscar feels slightly lighter than a real one when you lift it” etc.

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TR: I found the last scene with Crawford staring at the Oscar statues to be quite haunting. What do you think was going through Crawford’s mind in that scene?

RM: I loved that moment, and I know Jessica did. It was all about sadness and regret. Of THINKING that this devious ploy would have a big payout of satisfaction. But it didn’t. My direction to Jessica for this scene was this: “plop down the Oscar and then realize the sad black hole inside didn’t get any smaller. In fact it grew.”

TR: What sorts of hints can you give us about the next three episodes?

Episodes 6 and 7 are about the sequel to Baby Jane of sorts…”Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” And the finale is about Bette and Joan in the 1970s. Get ready for Trog!

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