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'Scream Queens' Co-Creator on the Premiere: "Everyone Is a Suspect"

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the two-hour series premiere of Fox's Scream Queens.]

Fox kicked off horror comedy anthology Scream Queens — created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan — on Tuesday with a bloody two-hour premiere.

The series blends horror and comedy as it takes place on a college campus that's under attack by a masked serial killer known as the Red Devil. Emma Roberts plays Chanel, the wealthy and cutthroat president of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority, which, naturally, has a history of wicked secrets. She leads a mean-girl posse of minions that includes Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), Chanel #3 (Billie Lourd) and Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin). But when dean of students Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) cracks down on KKT, Chanel reluctantly has to admit less-than-desirable pledges into the sorority. That turns out to be the least of her problems when a prank takes a deadly turn and a crazed killer dressed as the school’s Red Devil mascot begins targeting KKT.

Here, Falchuk — who says Scream Queens stands out from the Scream franchise because its characters don't realize they're falling into common horror tropes — breaks down the premiere and previews what to expect from the season. (Click here to meet the cast of characters.)

By the end of the premiere, there’s already a pretty high body count, and presumably that’s setting the path for the whole season. Is it hard writing characters that you know are going to die?

Yes. It’s harder casting and directing actors you know you’re going to have to kill off. Once you get on the set and you’re working with them, they’re sometimes so great that it’s challenging. When we were shooting the pilot — we shot the pilot and the second episode all around the same time — and when we got to know the actress who played Deaf Taylor Swift, she was so funny that we got together and said, "Is there a way we can not kill her and maybe kill someone else?" And it’s like no, we love everybody, and it also sort of fit with the story, so we had to go forward with it. As the season has gone on and we pick people off, it’s really sad. I don’t know how those guys at Game of Thrones do it, because they kill so many great people all the time.

The premiere has some laugh-out-loud moments that are then immediately followed by something terrifying or disturbing. What goes into striking that balance?

It’s just what feels right. You know you’re going to do both. We approached it from, "What does the story call for right now?" It has to be heavier on the comedy than on the horror. With the horror, a little goes a long way. When you’re going to put the horror in there, you really want to hit it hard, but you want to make sure there’s funny right afterward — if not during — because you want to keep people lifted up. The way you find the balance is understanding that, when you’re missing some ingredients, certain ingredients are super strong, and the flavor is so strong that if you use too much, it ruins the whole soup. Horror is something that is a really strong flavor, so just little drops of it is the best recipe.

Chanel #2's death was especially fun. What was the initial idea behind that?

We did Glee, and we were working with young actors and there were people talking to each other — texting, Snapchatting or playing games with each other — when they were sitting next to each other. It's the idea that it just doesn’t exist if it’s not put onto social media in some way; it becomes irrelevant, it’s a fantasy — it only becomes real when all of your followers know about it. We wanted to have an extreme example of that with this character only being able to communicate through text, even when she’s screaming and being stabbed. She uses Twitter as her way of telling everybody that she’s being killed and who the killer is, but she runs out of characters eventually, and she can’t even say the answer because she decided to use Twitter as her way of communicating. When you have Ariana doing that scene, it also gives it a different little punch because if you have a star that big, you’re not going to kill her in the first episode — but that’s the fun of it. It's a bit of an homage to Psycho.

The dean also has these weird, over-the-top villain monologues. Where does her character come from and how much more will viewers learn about her over the season?

The dean is a huge, important character. We’ll learn a lot about her. She has a lot of secrets and there’s a lot that has gone on in her life, and her connection to all this that’s going on is not just in present day. The idea was to give Jamie Lee some great, interesting, weird, unexpected stuff to say and do. We always make sure there’s a scene with her in it where she’s going to get one of those moments. As this show is a commentary on youth culture and college culture, you need an adult in there to comment on it. So you have Oliver Hudson’s character, Wes, he’s there to do it. He’s connected in a way that it’s harder for him to be objective about, because his daughter (Skyler Samuels' Grace) is there. Then you have the dean, and she lives having seen this culture develop over the course of her years as an educator, and she’s reacting to it.

Why do you think horror is a good genre to use a vehicle for this commentary on youth culture? Do you see a connection there?

When you’re doing horror, you’re always working in extremes. The ability to do it in an extreme way and have satire in there, horror goes hand-in-hand with that, because obviously the reality of a real serial killer and a horror movie serial killer are very different. They usually have massive strength, the ability to elude any issue, police certainly, but also being caught in any way. They’re always at least three steps ahead. They’re able to hide in spaces that are very tricky. They sneak into rooms all the time without you realizing it until you happen to look in a mirror. But they have all these almost superpowers, so you’re really heightening everything, so I think that you can then tell stories that are a bit heightened in that way, and they sort of tonally go together really well.

The premiere already plays with a bunch of horror tropes and stereotypes. Do you feel that the show subverts those conventions?

I think so. We were very consciously trying not to do what I think the Scream movies did really well — how they deconstruct the horror film genre. It took characters that were aware. They had seen the movies, and they weren’t going to get caught in those traps, or if they were, they were commenting on it. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to go back to the ignorance of characters in terms of those horror movie tropes so they could experience them a little more innocently or naively. We wanted to put all those tropes in there and use them in a way that we weren’t self-aware about them. I think making a choice to do that would have been the wrong choice. I think Scream did it better than anybody could. If we started doing that, it would be tonally like that, and we didn’t want it to be like that. Instead, we decided to say you know what, everyone knows these tropes, but if we can entertain it enough and make it fun and interesting enough, then no one’s going to mind that we’re using them again.

Over the course of the premiere, Chanel becomes slightly less of just a monolithic mean girl. Slightly. Do you think there’s more than meets the eye with her?

Yes and no. There’s always a little bit of growth to occur in any character over the course of a season, especially when the season is anthology based. At the same time, part of what’s fun about her is that she iskind of that mean girl. You’ll get backstory and find out a few things about her and understand why she’s doing that. There are moments when she says, "You know, maybe I shouldn’t be this awful." But I think she’s more interesting because she doesn’t feel she needs to be redeemed. She’s not looking to learn anything. She’s looking to get what she wants, and in the process of doing that, she starts to think, "Maybe what I want right now is actually to be connected to this girl, to be nice to this girl." So it’s not about what she should do but what she wants right now. I think she’s more interesting if we’re not going to soften her.

By the end of the second hour, there are at least a handful of pretty solid suspects for who the killer might be. How many people know who the real Red Devil is? Do the actors know?

No. I think it’s five, which is just Ryan, Ian and I and our two assistants. We decided right at the beginning. We talked through what is it — Who is the killer? What is it? — so we would always know going forward. In that process, we’ve had moments where we’re like, "What if instead of this person, it’s this person?" Then we talk it through, and we’ve always come back to our original plan.

We don’t want to tell the actors, because it’s more fun if they don’t know, because then they all think that either they’re the killer or that they could be killed. Everyone is a suspect — and they should be. Every one of those characters absolutely could be the killer. It’s designed that way. Anyone could do it. We’re very careful to have somebody go through the script all the time and try to understand who was attacked, when they were attacked, why they were attacked, and if it’s possible that are we eliminating anyone as a suspect by doing this. The answer always has to be no, because we know how fans are. They make big charts about who the killer is, and then someone figures it out. I think there’s great fun in the whodunnit, but it’s also, somebody’s going to figure it out. By the end of episode one, somebody’s going to figure it out, because that’s what people do. I don’t think it’ll take anything away from anything.

So are we going to continue to return to 1995 and see that mystery unfold at the same time as the present?

Definitely. There’s a whole lot more to that story. We’re writing episode 11 right now, and I’d say we’ve been back to '95 a lot — at least seven or eight times over the course of those episodes. There’s a lot going on there.

Is someone in the writers' room a fan of the song “Waterfalls”?

Actually, when I was writing that scene, and we knew it was in that time, I literally just Googled “top songs of 1995.” And I was looking through the list and saw “Waterfalls” and thought it was funny. They let this girl die because they love that song. Really, she died because “Waterfalls” is their jam, and it just seems like the sort of jam a sorority sister would have in ’95. If you ever Google that list, you’ll see “Waterfalls” is the one that sticks out. That’s the song, and then picturing what that scene would look like when they’re singing and she’s dying — it just came from that. But who isn’t a fan of the song “Waterfalls”?!

What kind of relationship do you have with the horror genre and why are you drawn to it?

Growing up, I loved it. I remember being very young and seeing the Friday the 13th movies and Halloween and being really into them. I remember being obsessed Jaws, which is the greatest horror movie ever made. I remember all of those monster movies of my youth, and being really drawn to being scared. I was terrified of them but very into them. I wouldn’t guess as a storyteller that I’d be drawn to those, because I’d think I’d be more drawn to the light, but I find it really fun to write, especially like this, especially when you can have the other stuff, too. With American Horror Story, you just go dark. And with this, it's fun to be able to mix it up.

Chanel #3’s earmuffs: Is it just a fashion choice or will it become significant at some point?

There is a very specific reason why she wears them, and you find out in either episode six or seven. We find out why she wears the earmuffs, but it’s not just fashion. It’s necessity. The funny thing with that is that it didn’t start as a necessity. It started as fun, and then once we had them and it looked great, it was like, "Oh, we’ve got to give a good reason for it." So we put that in there.

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