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Feud's Helen Hunt on Directing Bette and Joan's Confrontation: I Treated It Like a Love Scene

Plus: Why she immediately said yes

Joyce Eng

[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers about Sunday's episode of Feud: Bette and Joan. Read at your own risk.]

Feuds are all fun and games and hijacking someone else's Oscar until you check into the hospital with a fake illness one time too many and get kicked off your movie.

That's the situation Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) finds herself in at the end of the penultimate episode of Feud: Bette and Joan. Feeling undermined and paranoid that she was being phased out on the set of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte -- exacerbated by the fact that Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) was a producer on the film and was probably gaslighting her -- Crawford confronts Davis in a thunderous scene that lays bare a huge crux of their rivalry: Each has what the other doesn't (beauty, preternatural talent), and one, as they both say, was never enough.

How Feud set the stage for Bette Davis gaslighting Joan Crawford

Unable to reach a détente, Crawford retaliates by checking in to Cedars-Sinai to force production to be suspended and changes to be made to her liking. She wasn't actually sick, though you could argue her issues became psychosomatic the longer this went on (she checked in and out way more IRL than she does in the dramatized version). At Davis' urging, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) travels to Switzerland to convince her pal Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to replace Crawford in the film. She agrees, and Crawford learns of the recasting on the radio in the hospital, leading to a grade-A hissy fit and Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman) walking away from her for good as she collapses on her knees.

The episode was directed by Helen Hunt, who recently chatted with TVGuide.com about why she said yes to the show, how she related to it, and the key to helming the hour's big scene.

How did you get involve with Feud?
Helen Hunt:
Somewhere between Ryan Murphy and my agent I got the invitation and I said yes for every reason. Getting to work with those actors, the subject matter -- I didn't know how great it was. I didn't even read it before I said yes. I just trusted my agent, who read it and said, "You want to do this. This is about something, like everything Ryan does." And then when I got into it, I just fell in love with it -- the production design, the costume design he was doing, the story he was telling, and mostly working with these actors.

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan

Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette and Joan

Byron Cohen/FX

You've talked about how difficult it is to find work as you've gotten older, and ageism and sexism are major themes of the show. How much did that resonate with you and factor into it?
Yeah, certainly older actresses working was interesting, but mostly it's about people trying to be relevant, trying to stay relevant. You still want to make stuff and have a say. I certainly relate to that. I held onto that and I also held onto a thing in the pilot, which is what Catherine Zeta-Jones says: "Feuds are not about hate. They're about pain." I thought that was a very interesting thing to make something about and I think both Susan and Jessica did such a beautiful job of weaving in and out of those emotions.

How familiar were you with Bette and Joan and their drama?
You know, you think you're familiar. I love What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? And then you start digging and you go, "Joan Crawford checked in to Cedars-Sinai and wore a $140,000 sapphire necklace? Why?" [Laughs] "What are you talking about?!" I never knew Joan walked away with an Oscar on Bette's night, and how she came up with that plan. That's just insane. You couldn't write it any better. I fell more and more in love with it as I worked on it. I felt enamored by what Ryan has created. He has given me these artists in front of and behind the camera who had put in 10,000 hours by the time I got there. They probably started great and now they're incredible. I feel very lucky to kind of tiptoe into that world.

I loved your shout-out to Judi Dench and the other nominees in your Oscar speech, which is basically opposite of what Joan did to Bette.
[Laughs] I can't believe she did that. Her getting her picture taken with the Oscar was so fantastic.

Could you imagine something like that happening today?
I mean, I just can't imagine. But yes, think about Best Picture this year.

Well, that was a mistake. They graciously gave it to Moonlight.
Yeah, but in a way, so is letting Joan walk away with someone else's Best Actress Oscar when she wasn't even nominated. [Laughs] It's crazy!

Feud: Bette and Joan: How Ryan Murphy recreated that "devastating" Oscar night
Your previous directorial efforts were all fiction and this is based on fact and real people. Did that make you approach this differently?
It just makes it much easier, frankly. And they were so well-researched that by the time I got there, we were mostly digging into -- even when you tell a non-fiction story, they become characters -- what did Jessica and Joan need in that moment? What did Susan and Bette want to do in that moment? You use all the research and then you get into making it come to life.

This episode really gets at the dichotomy between Bette and Joan: a character actress who never felt attractive versus a glamour queen who feels she needs to prove her acting bona fides. I liked how that conversation was framed in the doorway -- each is on one side and they can't have both feet in both.
Right. I really liked that too.

How did you go about filming that scene?
They were both very nervous about that scene. I just treated it like a love scene, you know what I mean? Both of them want the other one to say, "I love you. You're beautiful" and "I love you. You're talented." But they can't, or won't. The way they do it is by torturing each other, so I just looked at it like a love scene and not as a fight, even though that's what it is.

They're arguing, but there's an understanding there, even if they're too stubborn to do more to acknowledge it.
Yes, it goes back to that pain. They were both so great in that scene.

Between this and Shots Fired, you're involved with two very timely and relevant projects. What does it mean to you to be part of them?
It's kind of what Feud's about. I want to make stuff that's relevant and I care about. There's nothing I care more about right now than the way the country's on fire with racial drama and [with] Feud, it's the things we talked about. I kind of make the mark when I can and that's what the characters are doing, so it really makes me happy.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX.