Interview: Tim Minear
American Horror Story: Hotel is currently airing on FX and continuing the hot streak that the series is enjoying on the network.
This installment revolves around the Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles, California and its unique owner the Countess, played by Lady Gaga, who is a bloodsucking fashionista. If that isn’t enough, there are two murderous threats in the form of The Ten Commandments Killer and The Addiction Demon who is armed with a drill bit dildo.
The series was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk and includes a host of incredibly talented writers, producers and directors who make the series must see television. One of those talented individuals involved with this series is Tim Minear. Tim started from the bottom in the industry and has worked his way up to be one of the most respected and talented writers and producers in the industry today. He’s been involved with series such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The Chicago Code and Terriers to name a few.
In this first part of our interview, we talk with Tim about his current work on American Horror Story: Hotel, why the American Horror Story franchise is so successful, what fans can look forward to with the new season and we also talk about his love for the short lived series Terriers and more.
Pop Culture Principle – AHS is entering its latest chapter with Hotel. As one of the writers and producers, do you feel pressure to make sure the latest installment is as successful, if not more successful, than the previous installments?
Tim Minear – We always feel challenged to keep the quality up and to do something fresh. We always feel a challenge to top ourselves, but I think, creatively, it keeps us, the audience and the cast and crew interested. The big part of the appeal of the show is that we switch it up and do something new every year. So you feel that pressure, but I don’t think we feel pressure in terms of the external world. We don’t feel like we need to do anything more than what we are doing.
Actually, this year it feels like there is less pressure because we think we are kind of in a groove, and the addition of Lady Gaga is very exciting and a lot of the elements are really clicking. It feels like we are finding the show a lot faster than we have in the past. So there is pressure, and yet it feels good.
Pop Culture Principle – AHS: Freak Show was the most watching program in FX history and Coven before that. Why do you think this series is striking such a chord with its audience?
Tim Minear – That’s a good question. There is this kind of unquantifiable Ryan Murphy element to everything, which is he’s like a dowsing rod. He, for some unexplainable reason, can tap into the zeitgeist in a way that I have never seen anyone else be able to do. I would give Ryan most of the credit for that, but I also think that it really is a weird snowball effect. Most shows can build, like Empire did from week to week; it’s not all that common for a series to continually rise from year to year. People didn’t really understand what we were doing at the beginning, but that was our plan from the start: to reboot the series and use some of the same cast, but creating a whole new world and telling a whole new thirteen-episode story.
If you think back to when we were doing that, it was before True Detective and Fargo, so this was before limited series became a thing and, in fact, we sort of spearheaded that whole idea. I think because of the unique way in which we do it—which is to say using a lot of the same artists, but having them do new things every year—I think that has added an element of excitement for the fans. The fans are sort of in on the process with us a little bit, so I think there is a certain amount of excitement to see what’s going to be different, what we are going to do next, and how we are going to surprise them. I think that is maybe why it builds.
I would also say, just practically now that we have things like Netflix, people tend to catch up on a show that maybe wasn’t on their radar for the first couple of seasons. Nobody watched Breaking Bad at first but, by the time the series finished, it had a whole legion of new fans that had caught up with it on Netflix. So, because people can catch up on something, that helps build your audience over time too, I think.
People talk about the show and its twenty Emmy nominations and the many wins and the ratings and all that, but bringing horror to television in a new and interesting way, I think the way we really altered the television landscape is by creating the limited event series.
I joke that I’ve been doing the limited event series for a decade because all my shows get cancelled. If you look at something like Terriers or Wonderfalls—Firefly to a slightly lesser extent, but certainly Wonderfalls and Terriers—we saw the writing on the wall with those shows. Now those shows live on as thirteen episode DVD sets in the case of Wonderfalls or Netflix for Terriers.
We completed a story in those thirteen episodes because I didn’t expect a lot of these shows would go more than a year, just because no one was really watching at first. So the idea of telling a story in thirteen episodes is a very exciting development for television writers. There are a lot of stories that don’t lend themselves to being strung out over five or seven years, so certain ideas are better told in thirteen chapters and then done. Now that is happening, and it’s exciting.
Pop Culture Principle – What can you tell us about the plot for the upcoming AHS: Hotel?
Tim Minear – I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but what I can say is that this year it’s a contemporary story in Los Angeles. It’s a whole new world within the world of American Horror Story with new elements that we haven’t really done before. There is a little bit more testosterone this season, which is not to say that it’s not a grand showcase for the actresses as it always is, but there is a certain male energy that informs part of the season that may have been lacking in other seasons.
It’s still very much a product of American Horror Story, so it’s got debauchery, it’s got glamour, it’s got heart, and it pushes the limits, although I don’t think it does gratuitously and it’s going to be a spectacle as always.
Pop Culture Principle – Ryan Murphy stated in an interview that one of the inspirations for this season was the strange case of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel. What can you tell us about that case and the strange events at the Cecil Hotel?
Tim Minear – Well, I would say that was a very weird case and we looked at that case and the video footage of her in the elevator talking to nobody. But it’s not that we took inspiration for a plot from that, but the mood and what is happening on the periphery of that story or what is whispering to her. Hotels are even more interesting than houses in some ways because so many lives go in and out of them.
I remember when I worked on Angel, occasionally we would go downtown and shoot at the Ambassador hotel which was the preeminent hotel in L.A. in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. In fact it was the place where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of that hotel, so there were definitely ghosts in that hotel. When we were shooting there, it had been shut down for years by the time we got there. You would go into this place, and you are talking about this giant empty hotel that used to be the hotspot for all the glitter of Los Angeles.
You would go down into the basement and there was this mall down there that had a lot of shops, and it looked like they had been abandoned overnight so there was still stuff in there. You would go into the Coconut Grove and it still had the silver coconuts and palm trees that had been put up in the Seventies when it was experiencing some kind of revival. You would walk through this place and you got the sense that history happened here, and that it had left an echo. For me, that is what I think is fascinating about an old hotel in a place like L.A.. I took a lot of that experience and brought it to Angel. I wrote an episode of Angel about the hotel that Angel lived in in the Fifties, and I always find L.A. and Hollywood history fascinating and the ideas of hotels have been very interesting to me.
Pop Culture Principle – The big casting news is obviously that Lady Gaga has joined the cast. What can you tell us about her character and what did she bring to the series?
Tim Minear – Well, I can tell you a little bit. I’m not going to tell you a lot about her character because I will leave that to Ryan and what he wants to reveal. What I will say is that what I think she brings to the show is her sensibility, and she brings a certain performing aesthetic to the show that fits in perfectly with the show. It’s not like we have to move in any direction to meet her or that she has to move in any direction to meet us.
She feels like a very natural addition to our universe and to me, she brings a kind of Forties movie star quality to her performance, which is really interesting. I’m not just talking about how she can wear an outfit, but I’m talking about the charisma, the performance, and the acting that she does on the show. It’s like some fantastic amalgamation of Barbara Stanwick and Veronica Lake, and it’s really exciting. It’s fresh for us and yet it’s vintage, in a way.
Pop Culture Principle – Ryan Murphy did an interview with EW where he said that there is a scene this season that is the most disturbing scene ever in the show’s history, and it’s between Max Greenfield and Sarah Paulson’s character along with a creature called the Addiction Demon. What can you tell us about this scene?
Tim Minear – I don’t know if it’s more disturbing than Twisty the Clown coming out and interrupting a picnic or him performing a magic show in front of his chicken coop captives; that’s pretty disturbing to me. I actually thought, in Season Two, the anti-gay therapy that Sarah Paulson was subjected to was maybe the most disturbing thing that we’ve done. Also, Minotaur sex with Gabby was pretty disturbing! We’ve done some disturbing things, so it’s kind of hard to quantify what’s the most disturbing thing.
To be honest and, all jokes aside, the most disturbing thing I think we ever did was the school shooting in Season One. That was the least bloody, the least graphic, and the most disturbing. It put you in the terror of a very real thing. So, while these other things are big and shocking sometimes, something like that is just really close to the bone.
Pop Culture Principle – It was recently reported by Entertainment Weekly that there will be two seasons of AHS in 2016. What can you tell us about that?
Tim Minear – There has been talk about it. I don’t really have all the details on that, and I don’t know where that really stands right now. Chances are that Ryan always has fifteen things going and, if he ends up doing that, it would just be another out of the box way of Ryan producing television. If there is an American Horror Story 2.0, I would probably still be mainly involved with helping him run 1.0.
Pop Culture Principle – With the recent news that series like Full House and The X-Files were coming back to television, has there been any talk between you and Joss Whedon about a Firefly revival?
Tim Minear – James Wong, who is my colleague on American Horror Story, just got back from Vancouver because he just finished writing and directing an episode of the new X-Files, so I am pretty excited about that. As for Firefly, I don’t know.
I would never say never and I would of course jump at the chance to revisit that universe. What I would do is that I would recommend to everybody that they don’t miss Alan Tudyk’s Con Man, which is online now. I’ve read the script and, if you’ve seen the trailer, that’s going to be pretty close to revisiting that world, but from an off-center point of view.
Pop Culture Principle – What was your experience like working on the short-lived series Terriers?
Tim Minear – That was one of the great experiences and, at the same time, one of the hardest experiences. I was finishing Dollhouse, which actually had just got cancelled. Shawn Ryan was working on Season Three of Angel. I had first met Shawn about two years before at the TCAs, and this kid walked up to me and he introduced himself as Shawn Ryan. He had been working on Nash Bridges at the time, and he said that you don’t know me but we both had the same manager. I asked my manager what I should be writing as a spec and he handed me your X-Files spec.
It was so good that it inspired me, and I just wanted you to know how inspired I was by that script. So, he decided to write a pilot called The Barn, and then it was picked up by FX and the title was changed to The Shield. That was picked up while we were both working on Angel. He told me I was the first person to ever take him into and editing room and cut episodes together.
He went off and did The Shield, which changed the landscape of cable television to a large degree, and I loved it. By the time Dollhouse was done, I saw that Shawn had a couple of things going, so I went to the studio where I had a deal and they were producing his shows. I saw that Shawn was doing an hour cop thing with humor, and I think, “You should let me run that”. Shawn said yes, and that’s how I got onto Terriers, and I worked very closely with Ted Griffin. This was his first TV show, and this was just a match made in heaven. Ted is a gentleman, super-talented, and just a great guy who I’d work with in a second.
It was an extremely challenging year, because Ted and I basically wrote all those scripts together with our staff, but it was a lot like Wonderfalls in that way where Bryan Fuller hadn’t run a show before, so we did everything joined at the hip and it was the same way with Ted. It was magic, and that cast was amazing and Donal Logue is probably the best actor I have ever worked with. I have very fond memories of that show, and in fact I am looking at a giant framed Terriers poster in my office right now.
Pop Culture Principle – Another series that was cancelled too soon that you were involved with was The Chicago Code with Jason Clarke and Jennifer Beals. What was your experience on that series?
Tim Minear – Yea, we did okay and I thought it worked out pretty well, I have to say. You know, it’s hard on network and cable television. You never know what is going to hit and what’s not going to hit. I feel, with The Chicago Code—taken in its completed state—I think we found something good there. That cast of course was amazing, and Jason Clarke is now a movie star and of course Delroy Lindo was a huge asset—and what can you say about Jennifer‘s work on the show. Shooting in Chicago was great, and just a great experience overall.
Pop Culture Principle – Can you talk a bit about the Buffy spinoff Faith you pitched to the network that would have starred Eliza Dushku?
Tim Minear – At the end of Buffy—and it was before the end of Angel—Joss had been talking to UPN, which is where Buffy ended up, about a show called Faith. It would have been about Faith kind-of on a motorcycle, and sort of like Kung Fu with her walking the Earth and having adventures. So that is what we pitched to UPN and they said yes, but actually the person that said no was Eliza. She had an opportunity to either do Faith or do Tru Calling. You can’t blame her, because Tru Calling was going to be on FOX and it was something new. She wouldn’t be playing the same character and I think she was ready to try something new, so that’s why Faith didn’t happen.
We would like to thank Tim Minear for taking time out of his very hectic schedule to talk with us. You can catch new episodes of American Horror Story: Hotel every Wednesday night at 10/9c only on FX. We will be sharing the second part of our interview with Tim soon as he talks about his time working on The X-Files.
**Main photo courtesy of Michael Becker/FX**
**AHS photos courtesy of Frank Ockenfels/Suzanne Tenner/FX**
**Terriers photo courtesy of Patrick McElhenney/FX**