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‘Feud: Bette And Joan’: Ryan Murphy Reveals Why Hiring Women to Write and Direct Mattered So Much

The executive producer and mega-showrunner also dug into the inspiration behind Joan Crawford and Bette Davis's final (fictional) confrontation.

FEUD: BETTE & JOAN -- Pictured: (l-r) Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis, Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. CR: Kurt Iswarienko/FX.

“Feud”

KURT ISWARIENKO/FX

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Feud” Episode 8, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”]

Ryan Murphy knows what you thought “Feud: Bette and Joan” was going to be. And he believes that the show worked because, ultimately, it wasn’t.

“I think people were maybe thinking it was gonna be just a campy, bitchy exploration of these two women,” he told IndieWire from the set of “Versace: American Crime Story,” which has just begun filming. “But I was never interested in that. I was really interested in the sadness and the regret and the pain and also the reward, and just to show how hard they worked. Not only at their careers but on their facades.”

READ MORE: ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’: Alison Wright On How Her Fictional Character May Fare Better Than Real Women in Film

Facades make up a major part of the FX drama, which chronicled the long-time rivalry between Bette Davis (played by Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) during the brutally sexist Hollywood of the ’60s and ’70s. Stretching over decades, the series spotlighted a fascinating collection of characters drawn from real life, with a cast that included Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, Jackie Hoffman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judy Davis, Kathy Bates and Kiernan Shipka, all of whom we see dealing to some degree or another with the gender issues that still plague society.

"You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?" -- Installment 1, Episode 8 (Airs Sunday, April 23, 10:00 p.m. e/p) -- Pictured: (l-r) Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland. CR: Ali Goldstein/FX

“There’s so many stories about how hard it is for women in this business,” Murphy said. “And I wanted to do a piece that reflected that, if that makes any sense.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he was also working to make things better. As a facet of his recently launched Half Foundation, Murphy ensured that half of “Feud’s” episodes were directed by women, including Helen Hunt, Liza Johnson and Gwyneth Horder-Payton, who directed the finale from Gina Welch’s script. As Murphy explains below, this ensured that Episode 8, “You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?”, was something special.

How are you feeling about the reaction you’ve gotten so far to the show?

I feel great about it. The thing I’m the most proud of is, I feel like a lot of younger people who did not know their work, Bette and Joan’s work, or Olivia de Havilland’s work, you know — I hear it all the time that they are watching those old movies and finding out more about their lives and the tremendous actors, actresses that they were. So I think that’s an amazing thing, that we can help launch a discussion about their greatness. That’s what I’m most excited about, I think.

What I love [about the finale] is that it was written and directed and edited by women. I think it’s just an amazing achievement for all of them. And I think that’s where I’ve been trying to move my Half Foundation company, towards that sort of empowerment of women. And it was a remarkable thing to see, you know. To have a group of women directing women and working with these great actresses. And I think giving something to that story that, you know, men just wouldn’t have been able to do. Ultimately, I think this show became a meditation on aging. What it’s like for women to grow older in our culture and I sort of feel like having this group of women as a collective together tell that story was very powerful and I like that. As opposed to, you know, having it be a bunch of men telling women how to feel.

"You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?" -- Installment 1, Episode 8 (Airs Sunday, April 23, 10:00 p.m. e/p) -- Pictured: (l-r) Judy Davis as Hedda Hopper, Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

The shorthand that happened with that group that was quite tremendous. And it was all very personal to them. Gina wrote it from a very personal place. Gwyneth directed it from a personal place. And I think that you can tell. I think that the performances have sort of a shimmer and emotion that only another woman could have brought out of them, in my opinion.

What kind of feedback did you get from your actors about an all-female team?

They were thrilled about it. Jessica and Susan, you know, came up in an era where it was almost all 100 percent male directors in the business. And male crews. They were very excited about the idea to finally get to work with women.

And I think it was an interesting evolution, not just for my company, but for them as actors to be surrounded by women, and empowered women. You had a lot of say and a lot of power and I think that they were proud and thrilled to be a part of it, at least that’s what they told me because that doesn’t happen very much in this town.

Regarding the finale — where did the conception of Joan’s hallucination come from? 

That came from something that we read about Joan Crawford — that supposedly, the last couple weeks of her life, she had bad cancer. And she was hallucinating and having conversations with people from her past. We had read that in several books of hers, that at the end, she was in very bad shape and as many people do when they’re near death, she went into sort of a fugue state. So, when we heard that, we were like, what were some of those conversations probably like?

"You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?" -- Installment 1, Episode 8 (Airs Sunday, April 23, 10:00 p.m. e/p) -- Pictured: Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

A lot of it was based on things that we talked about in our lives with the older people that we know and love, like my grandmother who died. It was always talking about, you know, the good old days, and how they became very nostalgic near death.

READ MORE: ‘Feud’: John Waters on Becoming William Castle and His Love of Great Gimmicks

And it was a way for us to give her that moment that I wanted her and Bette to have in real life. Which was, “I wish I was nicer to you. I wish I was kinder to you. I wish I had supported you more.” They never had that conversation and this was sort of an opportunity to do it. It’s also based on the fact that when I interviewed Bette Davis, she told me that she had her regrets. That she wished she and Crawford had a sense of closure. You know, Bette’s brand was still to say horrible things about Joan Crawford and how she was more talented than her. But, there was a regret that I got from Bette. And then Bette died a couple weeks after my interview.

So all of those things were in the water when we talked about that scene. And it was Jessica and Susan’s favorite scene of the entire show. And we rehearsed it and shot it like a play, because it was like a play. With a lot of theatrical lighting cues and entrances and exits. I thought it was a really great, magical moment. For me, as a fan of both women, I loved being able to give them both a moment that I wished they would have had. And maybe they did have, who knows? In terms of the power of the beyond. I love that scene.

Can you explain a little bit about what you mean when you say shooting a scene is “like a play”? 

Well, it was a great luxury of time. It took a couple days to do. Because it was long, in the script, I believe it was like a 15 page scene maybe. It was very long. And that’s why all of the actors loved it — because it was so meaty and theatrical.

"You Mean All This Time We Could Have Been Friends?" -- Installment 1, Episode 8 (Airs Sunday, April 23, 10:00 p.m. e/p) -- Pictured: Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

And we were very specific. If you look at the colors of the scene, there were a lot of pinks and reds, very rose-colored nostalgia. And Gwyneth, the director, rehearsed it like a play, and then we would block shoot it.

It was a complicated scene because there was thunder and there was a lot of light changes — at the end, when Mamacita interrupts Joan and says that there is no one there, that was a whole different lighting setup. It was like mounting a theatrical production.

Another scene that really stood out was the In Memoriam scene, because I don’t think we’ve ever seen a scene like that before, where actors are watching one of those tributes and realizing “wow… that’s all we get.” 

Those In Memoriam sequences have become so controversial now. People always feel left out. And people complain, “Well, so and so should have been there and wasn’t.” So there’s always that weird “who’s in it who’s not” thing. But I think what Bette said is that, there’s so many people in the entertainment industry, you’re waiting for that big send-off, that great hurrah, and you don’t get it. You get three seconds and they’re like, “Okay, thank you. Goodbye.” I love what Jack Warner says in the episode. When he says, “That kind of shit doesn’t really matter. What matters is the work.” The awards and the accolades and how you’re remembered and how you’re feted and all that stuff.

People in Hollywood, particularly the actresses, get so caught up in all of that. And that doesn’t matter. What matters is the work. That’s what remains and that’s what stays. I think that the work that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford did was truly extraordinary and that’s their legacy. Not the other petty stuff. That’s why I wish they had gotten beyond it and had become… allies in some weird way. And helped each other. They didn’t, sadly.

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