The actors are all gathered in the luxurious living-room set of the show’s Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house, and Falchuk wants them to react with unbridled outrage to the news that Dean Cathy Munsch, as embodied by series star Jamie Lee Curtis, will be cancelling the college’s planned Halloween celebration. Seems there’s a killer on the loose on campus, and no one knows when he or she is going to strike next.
If this sounds a bit like Chief Brody closing the beach in “Jaws” — well, score one for the creative team behind “Scream Queens.”
As conceived by mastermind Ryan Murphy, the 15-episode series aims to send up the classic horror genre while delivering a heavy dose of laughs. Take “Heathers,” sprinkle in some “Mean Girls,” combine it with “Halloween” and a liberal dose of “Friday the 13th” — and you’ve got the formula for “Scream Queens.”
No one’s more in on the joke that Curtis, the original Scream Queen herself. Watch the second episode closely, and you may see her tilt her head ever-so-slightly in an intentional nod to a certain killer from “Halloween.”
“That’s just a little homage to all those people who loved that movie,” says Curtis. “It made me smile.”
With horror series like “The Walking Dead” scoring ratings highs on cable, Fox is gambling that Murphy’s comedic take on the genre will work similar magic with broadcast audiences. True to form, he’s assembled a star-studded cast — from Curtis to Emma Roberts, Ariana Grande to Nick Jonas — and promised to deliver at least one shocking death every week to keep audiences tuning in live. The pre-air buzz has already reached a fever pitch since the launch of the marketing campaign on Friday, Feb. 13: The trailer has racked up over 4 million views on YouTube, and the first episode debuted at Comic-Con to rave reviews.
“There are no guarantees in this business,” says Fox chairman and CEO Gary Newman. “But you don’t stand a much better chance than having Ryan Murphy do something that he’s excited about and has a vision for.”
When Newman ascended to the helm of Fox Broadcasting last year along with Dana Walden, one of their first calls was to Murphy.
“ ‘Glee’ was such a juggernaut, such a culturally significant event, that literally within hours of Dana and I getting serious about doing this job, among the first things we said to each other was, ‘We’ve got to get a series out of Ryan Murphy,’ ” Newman recalls.
Murphy already had plenty on his plate — the fifth season of FX’s “American Horror Story” with Lady Gaga, and the highly anticipated O.J. Simpson miniseries “American Crime Story” — but fortunately for the Fox execs, he had an idea in his creative back pocket.
He’d once toyed with, then dismissed, the possibility of a spinoff based on the successful female-dominant “Coven” season of “American Horror Story.” Over lunch with Newman and Walden, he sparked to the notion of putting a new twist on it. “Gary brought up the idea that what works really well with young viewers is genre,” Murphy says. Indeed, the 18-49 numbers of “American Horror Story” have climbed year over year. After brainstorming with his producing team — Falchuk and Ian Brennan— the trio came up with the concept of the comedic-horror anthology. Murphy says it’s a toned-down, more mainstream version of “AHS,” answering the complaint he’s often heard from women who find the FX series too bloody.
But Murphy says he’s simply creating a show he wants to see. “When I did ‘Glee,’ it’s because I wanted to watch a musical, and there were no musicals on TV,” he says. “ ‘Horror Story’ — I wanted to do something anthological like when I was a kid. All of these shows are created from a very pure place of just wanting the experience, and then by getting to share that with others.”
Newman and Walden went straight-to-series with a 15-episode order. “As a programmer, you’re always looking for something that’s not on the air, so you can give an audience something they’re not getting,” says Newman. “No one is playing in that space. And certainly not in broadcast.”
It’s a model that clearly worked for “Empire” — reviving the primetime soap — but the hip-hop drama also succeeded by targeting a demographic that had been largely ignored.
Fox is confident enough in “Scream Queens” to use it to anchor a night of all-new programming on Tuesdays — an admittedly risky move — it’s followed by John Stamos in “Grandfathered” and Rob Lowe in “The Grinder.” (The series will have a two-hour premiere on Sept. 22 at 8 p.m, then settle into its regular 9 p.m. slot.) “I think women are going to love the night,” Newman says.
The question is whether men — who are the more traditional horror fans — will tune in as well. “I think Dana and Gary have decided to win by banking on blue sky, showmanship, bold ideas,” says Murphy. “They proved it with ‘Empire.’ They proved if you do something original and specific and fun that hasn’t been done for a while, people will show up.”
It’s good to be an actor in Murphy’s orbit. The A-list call sheet reads like a dream lineup at the Teen Choice Awards: Grande, Jonas, Keke Palmer. And in most cases, he tailored the roles to each of them. “I’m the biggest fan in the world,” he says, simply.
He’d worked with Roberts on “American Horror Story,” and when she told him she wanted to be snarky again, he cast her as Chanel Oberlin, the mean-spirited queen bee of the sorority. Few drip sarcasm better.
He wanted Lea Michele to do something “completely wacky and fun” after “Glee,” so he came up with the role of Hester, the awkward, neckbrace-wearing pledge. “Lea is beautiful and a star, but people don’t know the funny, weird side of her,” Murphy says, though he hints that her character will have an “evolution.”
Even Billie Lourd, the daughter of CAA agent Bryan Lourd and Carrie Fisher, benefited from a chance encounter with Murphy: She happened to be sitting next to him at a dinner party, regaling him with tales of her dating life. Next thing she knew, he’d written a part for her as one of the bitchy sorority sisters. The ubiquitous earmuffs she wears are a wink at her mother’s famous hairstyle in “Star Wars” — but a deeper plot point will emerge, she promises. (“It’s going to be a huge trend at Halloween,” she jokes.)
But from the start, Murphy had just one person in mind as his leading lady: Jamie Lee Curtis. “I made that clear to Dana and Gary,” he says. “It’s not going to work unless we get Jamie Lee.”
There was only one problem: She said no.
“It is rarefied air to have someone call you up and say, ‘I am writing something for you,” says Curtis. “It’s only happened to me a few times,” she adds, citing John Cleese with “A Fish Called Wanda” and James Cameron with “True Lies” as her other creative suitors.
So of course she says she was flattered when Murphy called with his impassioned pitch, and she even said yes in the room. But when her agent told her the show was shooting in New Orleans, she passed. “The easiest no I ever said,” she says, citing bigger responsibilities back home.
“My son is still in high school,” she explains. “And I am the matriarch of my family. … So I literally said the word ‘bummer.’ I’m 56, and I said the word ‘bummer.’ I walked away from this.”
But Murphy wouldn’t take no for an answer. He devised a shooting schedule that grouped her workdays into four- or five-day periods, traveling twice a month and shooting episodes together.
“We gave her a deal that I thought was very cool,” Murphy says. “She was totally worth it to me.”
Now, Curtis calls it the role of a lifetime.
“I am not a trained person. I cannot do accents. You’re not going to hire me to play Marie Antoinette. I cannot sing. I can dance a little. I don’t do impressions. I’m not the Lea Michele level of talent. (But) I can tell a joke. I’m brave, I’m strong, I’m opinionated. I scare easily. I fight back. If you took every job I’ve ever done and boil it down, it’s going to boil down to be ‘Scream Queens,’ ” she says.
To Murphy, landing his leading lady was invaluable. “She’s everything you would want her to be,” he says. “She gets to be funny, and she also gets to be unexpectedly sexy. I love that she’s having an affair with Emma Roberts’ boyfriend (in the show). I feel like I made a really good friend in the process, too.”
He’d also hired the cast’s de facto mother: She orders in cold-pressed juice for everyone daily, aiming to ensure the cast stays healthy. She’s the first one on her mark, setting the standard for professionalism the others scramble to live up to. And to a one, each member of the cast reports that when they showed up for work the first day, there was a note from her in their trailer with her cellphone number — along with a bag of candy, be it M&Ms or Skittles — telling them to call anytime if they needed anything. Indeed, between takes, there’s usually a crowd gathered around her.
“More than being an incredible actress, she’s the best leader we could have,” says Michele. “She sets the tone for positivity and hard work. When you have a big machine like this, having the one center person be on their game and humble is important.”
Curtis shakes off any suggestion that she’s a role model. But, she acknowledges her maternal instincts. “My friends call me ‘Mama,’ ” she says. “I have that nature, and I like it. I don’t believe people get told enough how great they are, so I’m very supportive.
“I’ve been on TV series before,” she continues. “I’ve seen what happens to people. I want to be the voice of reason: This is the best f–king job you will ever have. You will never have more fun. You will never make more money. This is as good as it gets in our industry.”
On the New Orleans set, Curtis is practically giddy about the scene that’s being shot. “Everything’s that good and wonderful about this show comes out of that one today,” she says of her co-star, Glen Powell, who plays Chad, the intellectually challenged president of one of the school’s fraternities. He’s delivering an impassioned speech in defense of Halloween that’s a bit light on its historical accuracy: “As our great 60th president John Kennedy Jr. said, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ ” (Asked how she keeps a straight face through take after take, Curtis deadpans, “I’ve been married to Christopher Guest for 30 years.”)
Look beyond the snappy one-liners and candy-colored wardrobe, she says, and the show is actually delivering social commentary. Chad’s plea to save the holiday pointedly mocks how men and women alike choose inappropriately sexy costumes: “Last year, I saw a girl dressed as ‘slutty Al Qaeda,’ ” he proclaims.
Curtis calls the show Ryan Murphy’s think piece on the state of society: “Under the froth and twirl of this sorbet of sounds and fabrics and beautiful people and biting dialogue, it’s what is on his radar that is wrong with us,” she says.
Judging from the first few episodes, there’s plenty on his mind, whether it’s exposing cruel hazing rituals in the Greek system or mocking our addiction to social media. “It’s a show about how young people are living now,” Murphy says.
Echoes Falchuk, “(The series) has that sort of odd, soft, pastel quality about it, but what’s actually going on is dirty and ugly and gross.”
It’s a far cry from the horror movies on which Curtis cut her teeth, where “the scripts are not written particularly well and they’re certainly not political and they’re not sociological,” she says. “To have great writing like this has been a pleasure.”
While Murphy is paying homage to the horror movies he loves, he’s also reinventing them for a modern era — where women are far more empowered. “We’re very conscious to say in almost every episode that these girls don’t want or need men to rescue them,” he says. “They want to be in charge of their own destiny, and if the killer’s going to be caught they want to do it.”
Roberts seconds the notion. “What I love about this show is that there’s this underlying feel of girl power,” she says. “As a young woman, that, to me, is so important. The way we talk to each other sometimes is awful. But at the end of the day, we’re looking out for each other. We’re going to have each other’s backs. Chanel might call you a bitch, but when push comes to shove, she will save your life.”
Murphy’s office on the Fox lot is opposite the stages where “American Crime Story” and “American Horror Story” are shooting. The FX horror series was granted an L.A. tax incentive for this latest season, and relocated from New Orleans. “Scream Queens” inherited the show’s sets, and the triumvirate of Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan divide their time between the three shows.
Fox, for its part, isn’t worried about the creatives being spread too thin: Newman praises Murphy’s ability to multitask. “He’s very decisive,” the exec says. “That’s an underrated skill for a showrunner. He really knows what he’s looking for.”
Murphy credits his team — as well as the limited run of the shows. “At this point in my life, I’m really enjoying doing 13 and 10, because I think 22 is inhumane. And I would never do that again, ever.”
He was on hand, though, to direct the first episode and set the tone for “Scream Queens.” Roberts recalls that he gave her a line to ad lib when the doorbell suddenly rang. “What fresh hell is this?” she snaps. Naturally, it’s become a GIF that’s traveled the Web many times over.
“That’s what working with him is like,” Roberts says. “It just came out of his brain in the moment. It keeps you on your toes.”
Powell recalls another scene from the pilot, when Diego Boneta’s and Skyler Samuels’ characters were trapped in a room. The plan was for them to leave through a door. Directing the scene, though, Murphy realized it would be more dramatic if they escaped through a window — and had the crew build one on the spot. “He sees things that other people don’t see,” Powell says. “You needed that zoom-in shot, to get that Nancy Drew reference.”
Murphy knew the show, with its pointed dialogue and intentionally campy violence, would raise eyebrows. But what surprised him was that the pushback he got from the network’s standards-and-practices department was about the sex in the show.
“I was shocked,” he says. “It’s never about violence. Ever. It’s always about language or sexuality.”
In all, he got 15 pages of notes. He fought them all back.
Come what may, Newman isn’t concerned. “It’s supposed to be over-the-top,” he says. “No one is being harmed in the making of this TV series.”
So whodunnit? Only three people know: Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan.
Murphy says the cast has been blackmailing him — even resorting to bribes. “None of them have been right, which makes me very happy,” he laughs. “In the pilot, it’s very clear to me who it is. When the killer’s unmasked at the end, you’ll be able to rewatch and be like, “Oh, yeah.”
Even Newman says he has no idea. “They would not trust me with that information — I talk in my sleep,” he laughs. “But I’m going to enjoy finding out.”