American Horror Story's Halloween episodes are legendary within the fandom. But for Cult, creator Ryan Murphy opted to forgo the typical holiday scares while still delivering one of the season's most memorable episodes yet.
In Tuesday's episode, directed by AHS alum Angela Bassett, we're introduced to the new Ally (Sarah Paulson), a woman who is no longer held back by fear — even when it comes to murder. More importantly, we also get Evan Peters playing a trio of real-life cult leaders as well as Jesus Christ.
As Kai (Peters) tells his followers about the lives (and deaths) of other notorious cults and their leaders, viewers are presented with recreations — or in the case of Jim Jones, re-imaginings — of the events. In Kai's version of the Peoples Temple mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, after Jones and his followers drank the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, Jesus himself came down from Heaven with a chorus of angels and revived Jones, who in turn revived his followers.
TV Guide spoke with Bassett about bringing this wild scene to life, as well as why she was excited to return to AHS as a director.
What was it like coming into American Horror Story purely as a director and not as a cast member?
Angela Bassett: It was really nice. It was nice just to be able to put that hat on and concentrate merely on the actors in front of the screen, and just seeing the story and hoping to tell the story with them without having to bifurcate and be behind the camera, in front of the camera, not being able to see what you do, not caring what you do. Just trying to keep the story moving and the day moving. And there's so much you have to think about as a director, so it really decreased the stress level for me, just having to concentrate on directing.
Why did you decide to sit out acting in this season of American Horror Story? Was it just scheduling?
Bassett: No, no. Actually I fulfilled my contract. My contract was three years. I did a year of Coven and then I did three years. And so that was complete. But I was glad to have started [directing] the year before [on Roanoke], my last year there, and then to continue that relationship with the starting up of [Murphy's] Half program for women to make sure that half of his shows are shot by women. So it was sort of a happy coincidence, confluence of events: the ending of the contract and the beginning of the Half program.
The episode begins with recreations of the mass suicides of Heaven's Gate, David Koresh and Jim Jones. What did you want to capture in each of these vignettes?
Bassett: Doing the research of those three different incidents, I just felt for the humanity of the individuals who perished. Of course, in the editing, you have to pare down a lot because of time constraints, but I just really wanted to honor their humanity... but also [show] that it was a frightening time just to get behind the veil a bit, behind the news footage and to go into the room with those individuals.
Evan played Koresh and Jones, but not Marshall Applewhite. What was behind the decision to use real footage from Heaven's Gate but not the other cults?
Bassett: Actually that was Evan.
Bassett: Yes. That was Evan in makeup, in the prosthetic makeup. It's an incredible team, right?
That's wild. No one I know was able to recognize him.
Bassett: I know, I know. When he walked on the set in that, he was actually handsome. It was beautiful. And you're staring at him and I could barely, in person, it was seamless. The prosthetics are seamless and you could barely see Evan. I mean, you couldn't see Evan. All that was visible was his eyeballs. I couldn't get a sense of Evan's spirit behind it. And of course, he did his research, the cadence of Marshall Applewhite, how he attacked each of those three leaders. But yeah, that was Evan. So that's wonderful. Kudos to the makeup team.
What direction or discussions did you have with Evan about playing all of these different characters and how to delineate them?
Bassett: Actually, I just have to say that I didn't have to, that he comes ready, he comes prepared, he comes well researched. And that's just a tribute to him and his gifts as an actor. He is really phenomenal in that way. He shows up well researched and just ready to jump off a cliff, but he's also available in the moment if you want to try different things or adjust any moment or whatever. So I came away with the highest regard for him and his instrument.
My favorite scene was when Evan as Jesus brings Jim Jones back to life. What was it like directing that scene since it is so different from every other part of the episode?
Bassett: That evening was a little stressful, just in terms of the logistics. We couldn't start shooting until night. And then of course you only have a certain amount of night before day and you also have Evan as Jesus and Jim Jones, which are two prosthetic pieces. You need the time to be able to turn him over so he can high-five himself. So that was the one scene and the one time that I needed to storyboard, draw out exactly what I want to see in order to try and save time and get everyone, the 100 folk, to be on the same page. "This is the hill we're going up." So it was a bit crazed and stressful. And then of course daylight started peeking out, so it was like, "Hmm, well there's nothing I can do, so let's just relax and we will somehow make magic." That was the scene where we just had to trust and make magic. It was a little chaotic.
The scene brings to life the story that Kai's telling his followers, but even in the visualization of this tale, Jesus comes down on ropes and is not actually flying.
Bassett: Which is a little cheesy. And actually, I thought they were going to get rid of the rope. In the making, I thought, "they'll go in and they're going to erase that part." I mean literally until last night. I was like, "What?! The ropes are still there? Hmm!"
Why do you think that comedic cheesiness lends itself so well to that scene amid such a dark and serious story?
Bassett: It's just a nod to the times we're living in where, you know... So you're to believe that he's telling this story and whatever I say out of my mouth is truth and ultimate truth and it can sound like the most incredulous thing you've ever heard, it can be a straight up lie that there's evidence that supports. I think it's a nod just to all of that. And yet, you intend to buy it. You're going to buy it.
This episode is a major turning point for Ally. How did you want to capture this new, darker, emboldened Ally onscreen?
Bassett: Sarah is another actor who comes incredibly prepared and is very thoughtful, and she deals with every aspect of the character down to the minutia... But she's just a grounded actress, so it wasn't difficult at all. And sometimes I'm amazed at it because the dialogue is so crazy. I'm thinking particularly of the scene between Ally and Evan's character, when they're having dinner and he thinks that the child is his, and just how invested they're both able to be emotionally when you're saying crazy things like "of all the swimmers in the spank bank."
This entire episode plays with tension, like in that dinner scene with Kai and the Kool-Aid scene with the entire cult. As the director, how did you build up the tension in those scenes and time the release?
Bassett: A lot of it happens in the editing, just twisting it and twisting it and just taking the air out of it, taking the air out of the moment. So that happened a lot. I had a lot of fun in the editing room, allowing them to play and then really tightening up those moments between everyone and just making sure that [they know] this is how high the stakes are, that you're about to die here. And I remember initially in the script, we ended and Evan was dancing. They were like "Kai! Kai!" He was happy, he was almost doing this hip-hop dance kind of thing. And then one of the writers came in that day that we were shooting and said, "We didn't put it in the script, but something's going to happen with Beverly, so Beverly loses her mind." It was like, "Huh?!" But it wasn't in the script. So you had to have a conversation with Adina: "Something's coming down the pipe. They're writing something, but we don't know, but we have to set that up." So that happened in the moment. So I don't know where it's going, we don't know what it's going to be. But if someone toys with you and plays with you, and you thought you were about to actually perish in this moment of a violent ugly, painful death, but yet it was all a trick, it was all a nod, it was just a test, something snaps. "Can you go there? Can you imagine that?" So we would play with that. "More, more, more, more! Sorry to say, I didn't get it. We're going to have to go back in."
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.