Without uttering a word, the main title sequence for FX’s new anthology series “Feud: Bette and Joan” sets the dramatic yet somber tone for the entire series by using musical and graphical cues from ‘60s cinema.
While the images trace the plot of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” it also reflects the misery of the actresses drawn into a cycle of torment of their own devising. Take a look at the sequence:
The credits fit right in with “Feud,” a technicolor feast that examines the even more colorful rivalry between acclaimed actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which reached its pinnacle while they co-starred in the psycho-biddy horror movie “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962. The series takes place during and after the shooting of the film, in which Bette (Susan Sarandon) and Joan (Jessica Lange) play combative siblings Baby Jane and Blanche, respectively. There is no love lost between these sisters, and the off-screen feelings between the two actresses mirror this animosity.
Series composer Mac Quayle, who won an Emmy for scoring USA’s synth-heavy “Mr. Robot” (he also worked with “Feud” creator Ryan Murphy on“American Horror Story” and “American Crime Story”) told IndieWire that he turned to film composers like Bernard Herrmann, John Barry and John Williams for inspiration.
In fact, the opening credits sequence for “Catch Me If You Can,” composed by Williams and designed by Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, offered both a musical and visual reference for the “Feud” main titles.
Quayle also listened to Frank De Vol’s score for “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” but supplemented his research with another source. “Underlying for me is that I’ve been listening to this internet radio station for a very long time now. They play a lot of music that sort of hits this genre,” Quayle said. “It’s called Secret Agent… it’s part of the SomaFM group of internet radio stations. They’re pretty eclectic, but they do a lot of stuff like sort of ‘60s, groovy, cinematic stuff, which I guess is kind of in my subconscious now from listening to it for so long.”
Switching from his electronic and synth background to composing for a full orchestra was one of his first challenges. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do, but really hadn’t had much opportunity yet, so that was part of the panic and also excitement for doing something new,” he said. “Strings tend to get used in a lot of different types of music. So I’ve used strings a lot. I don’t get to use a lot of brass, so it was kind of nice to write for brass. The opening instrument is a clarinet. That is something that I haven’t done a whole lot of work with.”
Quayle didn’t have any footage to work off of at first. Enter Emmy-winning graphic designer Kyle Cooper, who has worked on more than 350 main titles ranging from films such as David Fincher’s “Se7en” and the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” to the TV series “American Horror Story” and “Elementary.” His team created the still images that Quayle was able to look at for inspiration.
“They sent me, like, 120 stills so I could see what it was going to look like,” he said. “Based on that, I wrote the main title, pretty much as it appears now. We just made a couple of changes to it.”
Quayle was on the phone and on email with producer Alexis Martin Woodall, who was part of the Emmy-winning team on “American Crime Story” and HBO’s “The Normal Heart.” Said Woodall: “I called Mac to say this is what I want, this is how I want the music to feel. I just gave him [notes like], ‘It needs to be sort of a jazzy breakdown.’ All I had in my hand were the stills essentially, the PDF from Kyle and his team. When Mac sent me the cue back, I basically flipped through the stills while the music played.”
Quayle’s finished theme set in motion the next step for Cooper to take over and animate. Main titles master Saul Bass’ work was the main inspiration, specifically “Anatomy of a Murder.” But the storytelling arc in the titles for “Catch Me If You Can” (as soon above) was a modern influence as well.
Similarly, the main titles for “Feud: Bette and Joan” give a preview of the story that viewers will see over eight episodes. “Ryan [Murphy] wanted to tell the story of what was actually happening to the two women during the making of the movie and let it become larger than life as everything in their heads plays out to disastrous consequences,” explained Woodall.
Cooper added, “A lot of the story that he was talking about at the outset had to do with the kind of pinpricks that the two women do to each other. He had a bunch of ideas of these sort of events that would happen where they would harass and annoy each other. ”
“What I love about the main titles is that sadness is there,” said Woodall. “Ryan really wanted emotion. You feel that sadness, you cannot believe that these women are actually being behaving this way towards each other but they’re so under each other’s skin. It’s not just about ‘Baby Jane’; it’s really about what’s happening with these two women’s psyches in the bigger picture.”
Deciding how to represent the women proved to be a challenge also, especially when it comes to a critical sequence at the gate of the sisters’ home in “Baby Jane,” in which you can’t tell which sister is which.
“Of course, you don’t see the face of the character in the actual movie, and so that would’ve been a challenge of whose face do we see [in the main titles]?” acknowledged Cooper. “We see the car coming, but is it going to be Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, or is it going to be Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? What do they look like exactly?”
Instead, the designers settled on images that looked like they had been cut from paper, and therefore it was only a silhouette of a person without facial features. Cooper also noted that, “We had intentionally wanted the characters to be kind of elongated and long and thin like a [Alberto] Giacometti character. We also made versions of the characters that had texture inside them where it wasn’t just flat cutouts, and then we tried a version where it didn’t have any texture.” The creative team referred to the texture as “sandpaper,” which was used selectively in the main titles.
As for the color palette, Cooper said, “Ryan said that he always wants it to be bright and have these period colors. Everybody says Saul Bass is the paradigm where these things, the patriarch of these sequences, but my teacher was Paul Rand, who was an American modernist graphic designer. He has a book called ‘The Designer’s Art,’ and there’s a binding on it that has primary colors, but they’re not exactly primary. The blue has a little bit of purple in it. So there’s a little bit of purple in the blue behind the puppeteer. And the yellow has a little more red in it.
“He was doing a lot of work at that time that was more print-based. I think it influenced a lot of things that even Saul Bass was doing. He made a poster, he made a print ad for Ohrbach’s the department store that has a shade being drawn. And then a couple years later, Saul Bass made a poster for ‘Love in the Afternoon’ that was the same thing. Paul Rand used to talk to me about how Saul Bass was influenced by him. It was an interesting rivalry between those two guys. I was sort of tipping my hat to Mr. Rand as well I guess to Saul Bass as far as the animation style.
“And so at the end, almost a little bit before we were delivering, I went back and looked at a lot of Paul Rand’s work and I actually changed some of the colors,” said Cooper. “The blues, the reds, the yellows and the greens are sort of Paul Rand colors. That’s sort of an inside nod to him.”
The designer also included a heart as a recurring symbol in the sequence. “I was looking at ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’, but she always paints a little heart on her cheek,” said Cooper. “And then there’s a heart in the iron gate pattern on the front gate of the house. The wrought iron gate has a heart configuration in the middle of it, and it splits when you open the gate. And then Ryan wanted the knife to come down, the dagger come down so that’s all tied back into that where I first saw the heart.
“I think it was his idea to have them crying little hearts,” he continued. “In executing that, the joke was we didn’t want it to look like Pepe LePew, like they love each other and the hearts are flying off them, so we had to really work on the cadence of how they went down their cheek.”
Woodall tied the heart motif to the emotional content of the feud. “The line that we’ve kind of become known for, which Catherine Zeta-Jones says early on in the first episode is, ‘Feuds are never about hate; they’re about pain,’” she said.
“Ryan really wanted to explore the idea that these two women who really and truly should have by all accounts should have been friends or at least connected couldn’t get past the fact that they were so hurt by what they perceived as the other one’s threat or influence in their life. So he really wanted the heart to be split in the beginning. When we get to the end, he wanted to know that they were crying. It really was about tying back to the emotional pain of the feud rather than the silliness and the violence that we go through in the sequence.”
The clearest nod to Saul Bass is the spiral imagery halfway through the main credits that look a lot like the spirals seen in the “Vertigo” movie poster and in the film’s main titles.
“Ryan wanted there to be this moment where there would be a few pinpricks and then everything would just explode,” Cooper said. “That final straw was when she gives her the rat. It used to be we had a scream, and the spiral would be inside the mouth. In ‘Vertigo,’ you have the eye and then you go into the eye and then it becomes those spirograph psychedelic patterns, it’s like the middle and then you come out of the eye again. The vortex represents the descent into hell.”
As the women fight, two other figures are at play in the credit sequence: the puppeteer figure that Cooper referenced who was controlling the two women and the person smoking a cigar that drops Oscars instead of ashes were representations of the patriarchal movie studio execs and directors at the time. They manipulated Crawford and Davis to perpetuate their enmity because their bad blood meant good publicity for “Baby Jane.”
“I always interpreted them as more the general male overlord essentially,” said Woodall. “That’s a time when it didn’t matter whose face was there, who was at the other end of the cigar. It was just that these women were being played in every direction, in every way they turned.”
“These Oscars, putting such a high premium on them, that are just being dispensated [sic] by these puppeteers,” said Cooper. “You see them fighting, and then you realize that they’re fighting for the entertainment and the money of these other string-holders. It was not what they were thinking.”
By the end of the sequence, the figures of the actresses can be seen watching themselves in the beach scene for “Baby Jane.” The decision to end with the sound of seagulls crying was a decision made for the story.
“I really didn’t want to add on more to the music. When Mac and I worked on it, it really flowed a certain way. We’d already added a little bit of a button, and we knew we didn’t want to continue the cue on, but the story needed to continue,” said Woodall. “It wasn’t quite resolved yet. So we decided to start having Kyle work on it. He came back with those gulls, and it was exactly right. Gulls usually signify death anyway, and there’s something so haunting about the way it sounds, so it was a wonderful opportunity to not fill the space with music but to let the moment linger on.”
The two gulls could also be seen as the two women who are done with each other. “If you notice, the two seagulls also pass each other and fly in opposite directions,” Cooper said. Their lives go on separate from each other after they have that past.”
“Feud: Bette and Joan” premieres on Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.