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The Magic Behind Some Of The Most Horrific (And Hilarious) “American Horror Story: Coven” Scenes

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has directed 12 episodes of the hit FX anthology series American Horror Story — and now, he’s up for his first Emmy. Before Freakshow begins this fall, he dissects his favorite Coven moments (and yes, “Surprise, bitch!” is one of them).

“Bitchcraft,” Episode 1

“I always go into a season thinking, What is the visual vocabulary of the season and how would it be different from last season? What’s appropriate for this episode? Because of the heightened reality of the season and the humor in it and it’s also such a baroque season, it allowed me to push myself creatively and push the boundaries of how far the style can go.

What was interesting about Madame LaLaurie [Kathy Bates], and in doing a lot of research about that time, it was the dawn of photography, which obviously affects the moving image, and that led to silent film, which is something we explored throughout the season, particularly with the flashbacks to the witches of Salem.

But the first sketch I had for the season was this horse, so I knew I wanted to start with that and have it be this ominous, haunting image: a black horse, right into his eyes and that would then open up the season and just remind you that it was a horror show. Then you go right into LaLaurie’s house and it’s a very ornate party. We also used some silent film techniques, like the irising on the houseboy that her daughter’s having a fling with — and we didn’t do that in post; we actually did it with the original irises in the camera. Everything is handmade.

And then, you know, ‘There’s nothing more interesting than a human face,’ as they say, so we held that close-up of Kathy Bates, and with her, you don’t have to go anywhere. She’s doing these tiny little lip quivers and everything. It was just showing the private face as opposed to the public mask that she had on at the beginning at the party. I thought it was a really fun way to start the season because it had everything the show continued to be, which was horrific, hysterical, and campy.”

2. The frat party from hell

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“Bitchcraft,” Episode 1

“That was a huge undertaking. It was probably the third day of shooting and I knew I wanted the party to be enormous and I knew I needed a strong point-of-view because anything shy of something very bold and very hard would look like an episode of The Hills. The challenge was: How do you build a huge house party without it looking like MTVsomething?

So, I started exploring the 6mm lens a little bit in Asylum [the second season of American Horror Story], but for this season, I used it over and over again until it just became a part of the language, where people would look at it after a while and just accept it, not as a weird fisheye but just as a way of composing shots and stop questioning it, as if it were a 35mm lens. I think it made everything sort of fold in on itself and created a warped reality and you just start to accept it as another dimension. I used that at the party and it just fills the frame and it feels enormous. I wanted it to also reflect how isolated Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] felt because, you know, Madison [Emma Roberts] ditches her immediately. I just wanted to be very, very aggressive and then soften it a bit when she meets Kyle [Peters].

And [the gang rape scene] with Madison, you know, the most important thing about a scene like that is to talk about it. Emma is an incredible actress and that is a key scene for her because it humanizes Madison — it makes her a three-dimensional character. It’s not unlike LaLaurie with the public mask and the private face. Emma was very brave — she just wanted to do it and get it over with, but she also wanted to have a dialogue. Most importantly, my job as a director is to create an environment where she’s comfortable, the cast is comfortable, and the crew is comfortable — you make it as small as possible and you take your time, but you do it in a way that people feel like they can have an open conversation because it’s all about trust. And you have to have that from the very beginning to move forward.

I explained to Emma how I wanted to shoot it and she understood and she was game to try anything, which is quite brave. She also has a wonderful sense of humor so whenever things felt uncomfortable, she’d crack a joke and then everything was OK. That’s probably the most horrific scene of that episode and there’s almost subliminal cuts between the eyes of one guy to the next guy that you barely notice. We did that to show how she would experience it and how that would be the kind of thing that would haunt her forever.”

3. Kyle’s mom doesn’t know best

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“The Replacements,” Episode 3

“First of all, Mare Winningham and Evan Peters are just phenomenal actors who are so intuitive and they’re so naturalistic. I mean, Mare Winningham just embodied this character and she’s one of my favorite actresses — the way she approached her character and the denial and how she had replaced her husband with her son. It was a very-tightly written episode and it’s loaded with bestiality and incest — terrible, hard, horrific, bizarro stuff, but it all had a very strong thematic through-line and very honest.

I actually did that scene in one shot. It was all quite simple with her over him and then it’s just the kiss where you realize things are more awkward and a little too intimate. And then we ended on his face as he started to cry. The first take, we basically had it, but, of course, every time we cut there was hysterical laughter from Evan and Mare because it is so uncomfortable. It’s that kind of discomfort where you can’t do anything but laugh; you have nowhere else to go.

But they’re both quite brave and they just were really in the moment and in that moment, it was as honest as anything I’ve ever been witness to.”

4. Fiona is on the verge of death until, “Surprise, bitch!”

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“The Sacred Taking,” Episode 8

“I’m proud of this one, mainly because I was just lucky to be witness to that caliber of acting. It’s a whole sequence: There’s Madison, and then Myrtle [Frances Conroy] enters, and then there’s the whole fever dream, which all happens in one little section.

With Emma, that looseness and that freedom and that confidence, it just had to exude. We shot it in a way where it almost felt black and white with a little piece of red color and we shot it so it’s almost as Fiona [Jessica Lange] is seeing it, like a hallucination. Jessica was actually riding a dolly and we did some little tricks behind the camera, just subtle enough to make it feel like something is slightly off and you’re not sure what — it feels you’re in her head. You get it — you get the confusion and you think that this is a vision.

And Jessica did such beautiful work throughout the entire season, but it’s my favorite sequence with her. It’s very old-fashioned with the shadows and in-camera tricks and there aren’t a lot of cuts so you feel like you’re in the moment with her. You know, Fiona is someone who’s wasted her life and is now trying to get things back in order. And she thinks that by finding true love, maybe she finally has a chance. But then Myrtle tells her that’s not the case.

At one point, the camera pans around the room and Franny [Conroy] actually ran around the room. There are no camera tricks. We timed it so she had enough time to get there and it’s so much fun when you pull it off because you’re in the moment with the actors and you’re living it as a theater experience.

The final portion of that scene was just two women at the top of their game, dueling in front of you. That was a day I just did not want to end. We were in a room with one camera — it felt like a great old-fashioned silent film and you’re just witness to perfection. It was just so beautiful.”

5. Myrtle gets musical while Cordelia crumbles

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“The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks,” Episode 10

“What I loved about that scene was — and it’s so simple, really — it’s very much our show because Myrtle, who’s in this Kabuki theater makeup and I think she has this kimono on or something, is playing the theremin, which we don’t explain, and people just go with it. Then, you have Cordelia [Sarah Paulson], who’s going through this very honest and very human reaction about her mom. And you realize that is the show, because both of the actors are so in the moment and so beautifully prepared and they found the truth as human beings. I mean, Franny took lessons in the theremin and studied! She takes everything so seriously and for this wonderful, light bit, she prepared where her hands are going to be and everything.

It may seem like an easy scene, but there was an incredible amount of work that went into it for both of them and that’s why it works. You have the wonderful humor, which we had in every episode — I mean, it’s the funniest season to date — and you have Myrtle in her Myrtle Snow regalia and it seems like she’s in some other dimension. But that’s the show and people love it and people go with it. Because, I think, underneath everything, there’s a truth to what you’re seeing. They’re relaying some human experience even in this hyper-reality.”

6. An attempted deal with the devil

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“The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks,” Episode 10

“I wanted to approach that scene like this high-end drug deal, showing them sitting opposite a table after Fiona summons Papa Legba [Lance Reddick] to sell her soul and, of course, that didn’t go well at all. But it was a fun scene to do because Jessica’s so game to do really fun stuff with the camera because she’s a photographer herself, a very accomplished, beautiful photographer. She’s always game to try things and to try to understand what I am attempting to do, so she’s in cahoots with me often. It was a complicated one to do because we wanted to do vertical 360s so we could spiral with Fiona and get in that zone with her and go on that trip with her through camera movement.

So, while she’s summoning him and chanting, we go up to the ceiling and you start seeing the shadow puppets of Legba appear and everyone was taking certain cues and twirling a certain way. I mean, we could’ve done it in post, but there’s something about pulling it off in one shot that makes it feel so immediate. It was a difficult shot to do, but you saw the crew gather around and you’d hear a huge sigh when it didn’t work and then finally, when it worked, you heard people cheer. You know, we’ve been doing this for four years now together, so there’s a lot of friends and family supporting each other.

And everyone cares so much about their roles. I have so much respect for the actors — they’re everything for me. I just feel like the luckiest man alive working with actors like this every day. Jessica and Lance in this scene just nailed it in a beautiful way and were game to try some fun stuff technically. I love the camera. I love to express myself that way, but only when it’s appropriate. Sometimes, all you need is a big close-up of Kathy Bates. But sometimes, you want to take the trip.”

7. The Stevie Nicks effect

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“The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks,” Episode 10

“Stevie Nicks’ music and lyrics meant so much to me growing up and they lent themselves so much to the show. To be able to score the show with her music was incredible, but to have her physically there was just… I mean, this scene is so simple, but it was the movement of it — that slow pushing to Stevie and the energy going back and forth between her and Fiona.

I know Jessica had, in her head, created a history between Fiona and Stevie, and Stevie didn’t know, but Jessica did tell me, and that’s why she’s crying in that scene. Everything kind of came together: the beautiful lighting of [cinematographer] Michael Goi, and having Stevie Nicks play something so simple, but beautiful — and she also told us the story about that song and who she wrote it for and why.

It was such a pure moment and you could tell there was a history there and you can see everything that’s going on in Jessica’s face — her desperation to hold onto something. Even the greatest villain, you care about sometimes because you’re ultimately the same species.

It’s so beautiful that you forget that she just drowned Nan [Jamie Brewer] in the bathtub. In that scene, we had to be able to pull off Fiona drowning Nan, and then going downstairs, pouring a drink, and saying, “It’s been a long day,” and then, be able to care about her so much that you forget everything. The show’s able to do that with these characters because they’re so rich. I just documented it in a simple way, but there’s a lot of thought that goes into it still because we want to always be true to the show so that it can’t be mistaken for anything else. I’m proud of that scene because it’s such a silent piece and Jessica is just remarkable in it.”

8. Telekinesis, divination, transmutation, pyrokinesis, concilium, cescensum, and vitalum vitalis. Oh my.

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“Go to Hell,” Episode 12

“You know, we were exploring silent film throughout the whole season and every time we had to go to Salem, we wanted it to look like it came out of a book, like those images and etchings coming to life.

For this Seven Wonders instructional video, I wanted to keep pushing and going further with it, so I just said, “Why don’t we make the whole thing into a silent film?” They built this spare, beautiful, expressionistic set for it. We designed the vignettes and it was all shot with a hand-wound 16mm camera. We wanted to shoot it in a way like Georges Méliès did, which Scorsese celebrated with Hugo. We intentionally wanted to have bad special effects and I think it turned out beautifully.

As a filmmaker, it’s very exciting to go back to the most simple way to express oneself and I think that was a really clever way of setting up the Seven Wonders for the audience and showing them the way the girls at Miss Robichaux’s might’ve learned about them themselves. So, it was an evolution of the style we started in ‘Bitchcraft.’”

Video available at: http://vimeo.com/85558968.

“The Seven Wonders,” Episode 13

“As for the Seven Wonders music video in the following episode, it was a very last-minute thing that [co-creator] Ryan [Murphy] said he wanted and I was nervous. I was talking with Stevie and she said, ‘You know, we never performed that in concert. We did one music video for it and I don’t even know the song that well. I didn’t write the lyrics to it.’

And then I had to figure out how to shoot it, so I listened to the breaks in the song to figure out which scene should go where and the actresses were coming and going. We shot all the vignettes with them in one day and all of Stevie wandering around the house on her last day. It was a lot of improvising. We just broke up the song into sequences and performed it with very little preparation, no rehearsal, and played the song so Stevie could sing over it, but that took a while because she didn’t know the song that well. But she was having so much fun. She was like, “We’ll figure it out.” She’s just game for anything. Nothing phases her.

It did seem like, all of a sudden, I was a music video director from the ’80s. It had that campy feel that we just kind of embraced: We embraced the smoke machines; we embraced the cats; we embraced the billowy curtains. I was very nervous because after that whole season, I was like, How are we going to end on an ’80s music video? But it’s so campy and so daring actually that it worked and people really dug that video. It’s bizarre. I think we’re the only show that can pull that off.”

9. Fiona meets her match and her almost-end

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“Go to Hell,” Episode 12

“That scene I really loved because Danny Huston and Jessica had amazing chemistry together — you can see it on film. And Danny’s just beautiful in that role; he has the perfect silhouette for the Axeman.

That scene was so intimate and there was so much going on — there was love and betrayal and lies. As we were doing rehearsal, I started just thinking, What if we do it all in one shot and have the camera just become a character in the room, floating with them? It also gives a little bit of that dreamlike quality: Is this really happening or is it not? So we rehearsed it that way and it became like this dance, this ballet between the camera operators and the actors until we found the right rhythm. I think we did about six takes all in one shot and it just captured the moment. It was just one of those scenes where there was so much emotion happening; it was just this beautiful roller coaster of life that was happening in front of you and I wanted the audience to experience that with them from beginning to end.

You have to treat that scene in a way where you want everyone to think that Fiona’s dead. You want it to be ruthless and violent and just completely shocking. It’s a slap in the face. I think doing it in one shot was the right approach because that fluid movement becomes almost trance-like. So when that axe comes down, then it’s a real shock. That’s how you earn it, I think.”

10. The last supper before the games begin

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“The Seven Wonders,” Episode 13

“I just took the last supper literally because it’s in the dialogue: Myrtle is talking about Leonardo da Vinci. My prop masters, who are my dearest friends, Luci Leary and Beau Harrison, they are true artists and they just went with it.

We got a tablecloth that would hang exactly like the one in the painting and finding the shot was quite difficult because I wanted to frame it exactly the same, but the perspective is so different. So we positioned the girls so that, when we opened the shot, their bodies were slouched in the same way as the disciples. It really is just a fun visual pun. It makes no sense because they would’ve been sitting around the table, of course, but Myrtle would also probably design a dinner table like this, just to match the painting. So, it’s just inferred that it’s one of Myrtle’s choices and I love it. It’s just hysterical.”

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“The games were actually a lot of fun to do. And they’re so much fun that you get caught up in that — the pattern of the humor and the cuts to Myrtle and Cordelia and then the sand in the hourglass, and then, the horror comes back in Misty’s [Lily Rabe] hell.

I like the way that turned out because it’s almost like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which is very expressionistic. It’s all about how Misty would perceive that hell. How would we get in her head and how do we repeat the sequence and still make it visually an assault to the viewer the way she would experience this forever? And then, of course, it ends on Cordelia’s beautiful breakdown, holding Misty.”

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11. Myrtle goes down (again) in style

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“The Seven Wonders,” Episode 13

“The song choice of ‘Silver Springs’ is just the right music to accompany Frances’ beautiful performance. And the visuals are kind of out of this world. It looks like you’re on Mars. And it’s just the most beautiful costume design! That [costume designer] Lou Eyrich design for Myrtle is just exceptional. I mean, every department came together to tell this story.

I love that Myrtle died with such dignity, and, of course, humor with ‘Balenciaga!’ It just went back to what the season really was. I’m proud of the way that came together tonally with the sorrow and the humor and the dignity.”

12. Welcome to Knotty Pine/Hell, Fiona

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“The Seven Wonders,” Episode 13

“I like this one because it’s the thematic conclusion of the season’s story about mothers and daughters with Fiona dying in Cordelia’s arms. The performances are so beautiful and you can see how much Cordelia has changed from Episode 1 — she’s stronger, ready to take on this new role of Supreme with the loss of Fiona.

And Fiona’s hell has one of the funniest lines of the whole season: ‘What is this? Knotty Pine?!’

Again, we did that in the same way we thought about Misty’s hell: How do you structure a nightmare and how do you repeat that nightmare? It was a beautiful set that was built to look like it just went on and on and on. I’m just particularly proud of the way our story concluded.”

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