EXCLUSIVE: Director Liza Johnson on Directing ‘AHS: Cult’ Episode 2 and Reuniting With Evan Peters
By Stacy Lambe
Getty Images / Liza Johnson at the Toronto International Film Festival
[Spoiler alerts for those who have not watched episode two of American Horror Story: Cult.]
On the second episode of American Horror Story: Cult, “Don't Be Afraid of the Dark,” the clown show continues as Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) is haunted by masked terrors and her decision to vote for Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential election. Directed by Liza Johnson, the filmmaker behind Hateship, Loveship and Elvis & Nixon, the episode continues to establish the new world order -- mostly an increased sense of paranoia -- felt in the small Ohio town where Ally lives with her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), and their son, Oz (Cooper Dodson).
“In a way, we’re still establishing what that world even is,” Johnson tells ET. Working closely with the show’s creators -- Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk -- as well as longtime American Horror Story director Bradley Buecker, who was behind Cult’s premiere, Johnson says she was just trying to scare people, using elements established by the franchise. “There's a Jaws-like dolly zoom effect when Ally sees something that gives her a phobia. Because of the coherence of their team that's worked together for a long time, we knew that's going to happen every time she sees a phobia.”
And in the second episode, Ally gets plenty of frights, first discovering the dead body of a butcher at Ivy’s restaurant, and then later, when the power goes out at their suburban home. While all those moments were real, it’s still unclear what is real or not when it comes to some of Ally’s phobias. Is she seeing all the clowns?
“I don’t really know what’s in her head and what isn’t,” Johnson admits, adding that she hasn’t seen anything beyond her episode. Though, she does identify with “the idea that you can’t trust your own perceptions anymore.” Citing films like the mystery thriller Gaslight, Johnson enjoyed using the unknown to establish Paulson’s character. “It was really fun for me to get to work with her on who that character is and what scares her," she says.
The episode, while not filled with as many twists and turns as typical American Horror Story hours, featured two notable scenes, the first being the intimate bathtub moment shared by Ally and her new nanny, Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd), who helps her boss relax. It’s a scene that normally would be played up for sex appeal in a D-horror film, but here plays out with little exploitation of both actors.
“Being an actor overall is really vulnerable, so being an actor naked or being an actor doing a sex scene is especially vulnerable,” Johnson says. “So I think that anytime that I'm doing that I try to really mark out what's going to happen, so that everyone knows what to expect. Sarah is a pro. Everyone on that show is very experienced. But, of course, I think it helps to know what's going to happen.”
Ultimately, Ally and Winter's intimacy is cut short by the power outage that sends Ally on a paranoid tailspin, leading her to grab a gun given to her by neighbors Harrison and Meadow Wilton (the hilariously eccentric Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman, respectively), in a sequence that eventually plays out in true horror genre fashion.
Believing that someone’s inside the house, Ally grabs the gun and Oz before heading to the kitchen door. “When I open this door, I need you to run. I need you to run like the wind. We’re going to run to the neighbors and do not let go of my hand,” she instructs her son. No sooner than she opens it, a man appears and Ally shoots him. It turns out to be one of Ivy’s employees who was sent to the house with a cell phone battery and other supplies, to Ally’s sick realization.
“That's part of what's fun about working in a new genre. It really has its own grammar,” Johnson says of directing horror, in particular the episode’s final sequence. “You have to have that shot where she gets the gun out and she's looking over the stairs. And as a viewer, you have to be like, ‘Oh girl!’ I've grown up watching horror and I know it exists, and I know how to do it. But I was like, ‘Oh good, I get to make people be like, Oh girl, don't take the gun.’”
Relatively new to television, Johnson has found her footing in Murphy’s “amazing, high-function machine,” which she says was a privilege to be invited onto. Before directing an episode of Cult, she helmed an episode (“More, or Less”) of Feud: Bette and Joan -- an opportunity that came about, in part, through her relationship with Evan Peters. The longtime American Horror Story star, who plays creeper Kai Anderson on Cult, previously worked with Johnson on the feature film Elvis & Nixon, about the real-life meeting between the rock star and the president.
“One day they called me and they had already talked to Evan, and I think that they called him and were like, ‘Is she going to be OK?’” Johnson recalls of landing Feud. “So then I was really excited to work on Horror Story because I love Evan.” Sadly, their reunion was brief, since he only has one scene in her episode, but the director says, “a little bit of Evan is better than no Evan at all.”
This season of American Horror Story is also notable for its increased number of female directors. For the second season in a row, at least half of the episodes are helmed by women, making good on Murphy and FX’s initiative to hire at least 50 percent female directors. “Normally you have to bring in the National Guard for that kind of stuff,” Johnson says of FX, a workplace that “has voluntarily desegregated itself.” The network took “this dare,” she notes, and “I think that’s kind of amazing.”
The benefit, Johnson says, is that more female directors are given the opportunity to work in TV for the first time. And now that she has two episodes of TV behind her, as well as a brief entry into horror, she feels that she has the ability to do more than she did a few years ago. “I'm really grateful for that because it's such an exciting time for television,” Johnson says.