Primetime: Fox's 'Scream Queens'
Issue: October 1, 2015

Primetime: Fox's 'Scream Queens'

From the creative mind of Ryan Murphy, the producer/writer/director and creator behind Glee, Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story and American Crime Story (coming to FX in 2016) is his most recent primetime offering — the horror movie spoof/whodunit Scream Queens. The Fox series, co-created by Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, stars Halloween veteran Jamie Lee Curtis, along with American Horror Story alum Emma Roberts in a careful blend of drama, gore, blood and, oddly enough, comedy. 

The show’s storyline is set on the campus of Wallace University, 20 years after the 1995 death of a sorority pledge, where now, students are being terrorized, and viciously murdered, by the creepy-as-hell Red Devil. 

According to Alexis Martin Woodall, executive producer, “the show is a homage to the ‘80s horror genre — it’s a comedy slasher with a really strong, synth-driven score. We try to pick all of our needle drops mid to late ‘80s. Stylistically, we dabbled for a while on, ‘what is it going to be?’ ‘Are we going to try and do that sort of freeze-frame you get out of Friday the 13th and things like that?’ And that didn’t really work for us. Because of the pace of the dialogue, it made it more fun to make the comedy scenes pop and then really build tension and pace where we could for the horror moments. So, tonal shifts abound throughout the episodes.”

Here, in an exclusive with Post, Woodall (below, right) discusses what makes Fox’s new series tick.  

Can you talk a little more about the look and style of the show? Some scenes are brighter, with colors popping against a white background, and other scenes are really dark?

“I would say in that respect — especially color wise — it’s really about pushing the glamor, and pushing the horror. Because we have these beautiful people in these beautiful outfits doing these horrendous things or having horrendous things being done to them — we want them to look as chic as we can as they go down for their last fight.”

This is the same team that was behind Glee and American Horror Story — how important is that you make sure this show has its own signature look that’s nothing like the other series?

“It’s absolutely important. Because in branding Ryan Murphy television, we have to have our individual brands be individual. And a lot of our fans are crossovers. You want them to feel that they’re getting a different experience with each show, which leads to a lot of enthusiasm. Some people are like, ‘Oh, it’s too much like Glee because its quippy and it’s fast,’ but also, that is what the style is. We want quippy fast comedy. But there are also times when we’re in a process, and I’ll say, ‘We have to lose that sound; it’s too much like Horror Story.’ We have different sounds for each  show and that’s probably the best way to deliniate.

“Aside from the obvious looks of what the shows are — because American Horror Story is very, very dark and very, very heavy. It’s sort of a relentless darkness whereas Scream Queens, we wanted it to be dark, and then we want to give you that moment of, ‘Okay, everything’s good again, everything’s funny’ and so, sound is the clearest way that we deliniate.

“It’s funny because even working on American Crime Story — our same composer Mac Quayle works with me on all three — and sometimes Mac and I and our supervising editor Adam Penn, who is very important to the process, will say, ‘This piece of score is amazing but it doesn’t sound right. It sounds like Horror Story or Crime Story.’ So there’s a lot of deliniation of sound effects but there’s also a lot of stuff that overlaps where, you want a good jump scare and the jump scare is going to be a jump scare whether it’s Scream Queens or its Horror Story. You want a good moment with character for something to really land and that’s just storytelling. So the similarities exist, but we really work hard to make it a different experience.”

It sounds like music and sound is quite important to the production?

“Oh my God, it’s everything! Sound drives everything for us. I always go back to Jaws. You listen to Jaws with your eyes closed and you hear that theme, and you know exactly what’s happening. But if you watch it on mute, it’s creepy but doesn’t have that same feel. We sort of abide by that same principle. Are we building tension? Are we listening for everything? Do our worlds have a completely realized sound? Not counting music. But when we’re in the hotel for Horror Story, what does the hotel sound like? Adam and I went back and forth about how it really should be almost the bowels of hell — where you hear deep sounds from the distance. You don’t know exactly where or exactly why, but the hotel is alive and it’s breathing and it’s churning.

“In Scream Queens, it’s that same idea. Does the devil make a sound? We are very spare with how he approaches because he moves slowly and we don’t need to belabor it — but we want to choose what his foot fall sounds like, we want to choose what his cape sounds like, want to choose how does the squeak of the leather sound like when he nods. It’s really measured. And then in the house, the house is sort of the safe space — warm, lots of high heels walking around. The sound really drives everything.”

Who does the audio on the show?

“Technicolor Sound — our supervisor is Gary Megregian and he’s fantastic.”

What are some of the show’s technical challenges?

“Well I think for Scream Queens, and the same for Horror Story — when doing any kind of genre, especially a horror genre — is a huge amount of footage. Just a barage of footage because you need to have a lot to play with in your tool box. Just because it’s scripted on the page, a character sees the devil, the devil approaches and the devil disappeares, how the devil moves and gets around is a challenge. So our directors are great to cover a lot, and give us options, but we get so much footage to [work with in order to get the pacing right] for a 43-and-a-half-minute show, I think trying to get the timing of that with all the tonal shifts can be really challenging. Usually once it gets into the refined place, then it’s all about, where are the scares? Where’s the tension? And how can we build it more? I think that’s probably the thing we’re most foucsed on: Are we as precise as we can be?”

How are you managing all of the footage? Are you using ISIS?

“Yes, we shoot Crime Story and Scream Queens on the Alexa and Horror Story still on 35. DNx175 raw is what we go back to when we do our final online, but we cut [on Avid Media Composer] in DNx36 because the systems just can’t hang with the 175 for daily cutting, so we have footage brought in both ways. Our dailies come in on 36 immediately so everyone can start cutting and then we usually get a big batch every couple of days of the 175 media just to have in-house and then we do our own online.

“One of the best things about having the 175 in-house is that we do so much with our visual effects house [roughly between 80 and 100 visual effects per episode] — which is FuseFX in Burbank — and we can upload our 175 to them on an FTP and they can get shots back. So we’re constantly churning through visual effects as well, and that’s really helpful cause we’re in control of it rather than having to wait online. We’re always up against the deadline, so it gives a lot of control over our own footage to have the 175 in-house.”

How early is post integrated into the process?

“Pretty early on. Ryan really enjoys being in editorial, in post. And so generally speaking, what happens when we’re starting a new show, he’s always thinking about what’s upfront because he always directs the pilot. But he and Adam and I spend a lot of time talking about what it should sound like. Usually we start with music — what does the world sound like. We’ll get together and come up with ideas about what the vibe is. The vibe is — tone is everything. So we start there and we just start rolling with the footage. And once the footage is in, it starts to make more sense. But we talk about the color, we talk about the music, and then everything else just kinda gets figured out as we figure out the story.”

Who is doing the post work?

“Encore — they’ve been great to us. I started as a PA on Nip/Tuck in 2003 and we were with Encore then. Encore is really the right fit, especially having multiple shows, so my APs can borrow time from each other, can swap in on sessions and things like that, which is great when you’re on crunch time to know that all of our shows work together, which I really like.” 

Technically speaking, what are some of the more difficult sequences or types of shots to complete?

“In Scream Queens specifically, I think a big challenge is that we have a very large cast. When we have scenes with tension, but also have a lot of action. That can be really difficult because you want to make sure you’re focusing on the right spot. And I think that sometimes there’s a tendency to want to cut and show everybody in the room, but I think that’s hard because some of it can let the air out of the scene really quickly. So there’s a challenge of, how do we represent our characters while directionally moving toward the climax, and so I think that actually is a challenge. We have a great camera team, so it’s about balancing the number of bodies in a room.”

You were talking about this earlier, the look and feel of the show. Is it difficult to balance the lighter sides to the darker sides?

“You know, it is and isn’t. The scrips are so much fun — I use the word ‘delicious’ so much to describe the world we’re in, whether it’s Horror Story or Scream Queens, because they’re tasty. You laugh and you want more and they can be so gruesome and you’re like, ‘Why is this the funniest thing I’ve ever read?’ And then you get excited to cut it. I remember when Adam was cutting the spray tan scene in the pilot, we laughed. [The character] would get sprayed with acid and Adam and I would sit there laughing — because it was so delightful. So, there are some tonal shifts and you get in there and think, ‘How are we going to appropriately move from one scene to the next scene? It’s on us to think, how are we going to transition? How can we use sound to bridge that tonal shift? How can we use sound to implement the comedy and then immediately go into the darkness? We’re sort of always thinking about blending the two. But it is one of the things we think about the most – tone is everything.” 

In terms of color correction — I would think it plays a pretty big role?

“Yes, I can’t say enough about our colorist — Kevin Kirwan — he is so talented. Kevin has a way of getting in there and helping push it or tone it with our DP and with me, and I think it’s super important. I go back to tone every time — tone, tone, tone. Color really helps set the tone. And we just finished an episode where they’re all locked in the house and the power goes out, so there’s a lot of candlelight and I thought Kevin did some really cool things with bringing out the beauty of these girls but keeping it mysterious.” 

Final thoughts?

Well, I think what I like best about Ryan’s shows, having done them for so long, I love the way our production and post teams work together. We actually are a full show as opposed to two separate entities. And there’s a lot of interaction and I strive for that. Also, I want to stress that we couldn’t do this show without our editors, assistant editors, my assistant, our PAs and our APs. They work so hard and bring so much talent to the show.”