Michael Goi on Creating the Freak Show for American Horror Story 

  • October 29, 2014
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For the better part of a decade now, Ryan Murphy has been innovating the way audiences look at small screen entertainment. As the creator of shows like Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee,and The New Normal, Murphy has established a distinctive brand of filmmaking that’s faster, louder, and more attention-grabbing than its television contemporaries, and one that puts compelling visuals on par with addictive storylines. Case in point: American Horror Story, Murphy’s television show/miniseries hybrid that plays more like a horror anthology with a new theme each season. In season one it was Murder House, which was followed by Asylum and Coven. And this fall, Freak Show premiered with what Murphy describes as “the most terrifying clown of all time.”

Michael Goi, ASC, ISC has been there since nearly the beginning, shooting the second half of American Horror Story’s first season after first collaborating with Murphy on Glee. “American Horror Story had a visual style and approach for season one that was already established by the time I came on to it,” says Goi. “I didn’t make a lot of alterations to it, but in the last two or three episodes I started to veer in the direction that I felt like the material was taking me, and some of that approach is what’s reflected in season two, Asylum, where you’re dealing with an atmosphere that was very crazed. And I think the camerawork and the lighting reflected that a lot.”

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY -- Pictured: (L-R) Michael Chiklis as Dell, Angela Bassett as Desiree Dupree. CR: Michele K. Short/FX

To achieve American Horror Story’s groundbreaking — and often frightening — visuals, Goi relies on a mix of cameras and stocks — including KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 and 5219, EASTMAN DOUBLE-X Negative Films 5222 and 7222, and KODAK TRI-X Reversal Film 7266 — but it’s always film. “From an equipment and technology standpoint, I always like things very simple,” explains Goi. “Part of the reason why I shoot film and why I love shooting it is because, for me, it is the simplest, fastest medium to create and capture images.” Of particular importance to Goi is the ability to let the look of the show evolve but to remain instantly recognizable as part of the series.

“People always comment on the wide variety of looks in American Horror Story and the looks of the different periods of time,” Goi notes. “That’s all accomplished at the time we shoot the show; it’s not something that’s created in a digital suite in post-production. If we want something to be black and white to look like a home movie, we shoot it in black and white on Super 8 or 16mm. So the looks are built into the show. The deadlines for trying to deliver a show to television to put it on air are very, very tight, so if I had to supervise creating a look in color timing, I would never be able to do it. I would never be able to follow up on it because of the demands of being on location. So shooting on film, creating those looks, and knowing that I have it in the camera is really an integral part of the aesthetic approach of the show, and it’s the reason why the show looks the way it does.”

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW -- Pictured: Michael Goi. CR: Michele K. Short/FX

Archivability is also important to Goi. “The thing I try to emphasize when I talk to people is that all these media are valid, but you also have to think of the long-term ramifications of things — that there is no such thing as a digital archival medium. That in certain circumstances, in certain locations, or in certain types of projects you know, maybe film is the best choice for that project. Maybe it gives you a palette that you would not immediately get with the digital medium or maybe you’re shooting in a location where it’s prohibitive to bring an extremely sensitive piece of electronic equipment. Whatever the reason, the toolbox should remain wide open and not limited to one screwdriver.”

Of course, all that game-changing creativity requires precision. And a unique way of envisioning what any given scene might look like. “I would say that probably the one overriding thing that I try to do on a consistent basis is to light or shoot from the perspective of the character that’s in the scene,” explains Goi. “For example, if the scene is supposed to be scary or supposed to be romantic or whatever, I don’t necessarily light in the direction of those kinds of atmospheres. I get into the head of the character who’s in that scene, and I try to see the world from his or her perspective. It’s a subtle difference but it makes a difference to me.”

To illustrate this approach, Goi cites two examples: “In season two, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson’s character finds out who the murderer Bloody Face is, and she’s trapped in his dungeon with all these gleaming metal tools and white floors with drains in them and all that stuff. Logically, when you read that in the script you’d think, ‘Okay well this is going to be really dark and scary looking,’ but I was thinking, well this is almost like the feeling you have when you visit the dentist’s office. You know, it’s really clean and white, and so I lit it completely with fluorescent lights. I lit it completely bright and flat because I wanted the audience to feel like they were going to the dentist and have the feeling that they were going to be drilled upon.

“Another example is when Zachary Quinto’s character is defiling Clea DuVall’s corpse. In his mind, he thinks he’s on a date with her, so I lit it very warmly and romantically, which made it that much more horrifying because of the things he’s doing to her corpse. So it’s trying to have the audience emotionally associate with what’s going on by inhabiting the mind of the character who’s in it.”

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW -- Pictured: Michael Goi. CR: Michele K. Short/FX

Though the series maintains a rotating stable of directors for each episode, Murphy’s fingerprints are all over American Horror Story. And he knows exactly what he wants. “My interactions with Ryan are very short, but they’re very informative and precise,” says Goi. “That’s the way Ryan communicates and I like that about him. He can say in one sentence exactly what his intention is, or exactly what his inspiration for something is. I take that and I go and flesh it out or, if I have an idea for something else, I’ll just text Ryan about it and say, ‘You know, I think these sequences should be like hand-cranked, black-and-white movies. What do you think?’ And he’ll text back and say, ‘Great!’ And that’s all I need to know.” Audiences, too, will get to witness Murphy’s handiwork when the new season begins, as he directed the season four opener. [The pilot is the only other episode on which Murphy was standing behind the camera.]

While Goi remains fairly tight-lipped on what audiences might see in the new season, he promises Freak Show “is completely different than the first three seasons in look and style and approach…. We try not to make any one season the same as another. The material dictates our approach. I will use whatever visual references Ryan has in his mind for something, and this season he was very into Douglas Sirk movies like All That Heaven Allows. I try to infuse it with the things that I feel speak to the same sort of emotional style, but from a different perspective, like the films of Ozu and a lot from Japanese cinema from the 1950s. It’s kind of an organic mix of stuff that develops as we get into it, and it’s still evolving. We are shooting episode five right now; the things we established in episode one are still there, but we’re starting to veer into different territories with the characters.”

And about that clown? “Yeah, the clown is pretty freaky,” concurs Goi. “But he’s freaky within a universe of pretty freaky.”