Daniel Minahan talks directing American Crime Story: Versace and wanting to honor a story rather than make a horror movie.
Director Daniel Minahan recalls Gianni Versace’s assassination and remembers where he was and what he was doing. What he didn’t know was this interesting backstory to Andrew Cunanan that would become the prime focus of Ryan Murphy’s newest series, American Crime Story: Versace. It wasn’t until Murphy hired him to work on the show that he would find out. Photos and police reports helped his research to direct one of the most bloodiest moments in the series when Jeff Trail is slaughtered by Cunanan.
It is this episode that Minahan has submitted for Emmy consideration in Best Limited Series and Best Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie.
Read our chat below:
The series is not about Versace as such, but it’s more about Andrew Cunanan. What did Ryan Murphy tell you about the show?
By the time Ryan had called me, I had read the first two hours and I was completely fascinated by it. It’s an event that I remember myself. I remember where I was and what I was doing. I was out on the beach and someone called me to turn on the TV. I watched it unfold. It was something I knew a little bit about, but what was interesting was when Ryan described the places that it was going to go to and the scope of it. It wasn’t going to be like the People V OJ because there wasn’t a trial.
When he called me, we had been hoping to find something to work together on for a long time and this was it. I’ve known Brad Simpson for about twenty years, the fact it was Ryan and Brad made it so appealing to me.
The opening where Jeff dies and is bludgeoned to death, talk about that opening.
It was a tricky thing to stage. The episode of House By The Lake is very delicately and carefully reflected and retracted in the fifth episode. When I shot that, we were shooting it for two episodes at the same time. The thing that was really challenging for me was trying to stage it in a way that it didn’t feel like a horror film, but that it actually honored the event of what happened.
To prepare for it, I had gone through a phone book of photographs and police reports that our researcher had pulled for us. As far as blocking and where things occurred such as where they moved the body and why they moved the body and what the sequence of events was, I pieced together on my own through that research. It was disturbing because it was a real-life event and these were real people and you wanted to honor it.
The unexpected thing was that when we shot it, we never shot the actual impact of the bludgeoning. It was never scripted that you would see what happened inside the door. Ryan and I both agreed that we should shoot that and then decide later what we would actually include. It turned out to be strong and emotionally disturbing. As we shot it, we shot the pieces looking at the door, the door slams and without having it planned for the day, I said to Cody Fern who plays David, “Let’s shoot.” I wanted to shoot his reaction and he said, “I haven’t thought about it and I haven’t prepared for it.” I told him that there was no way to prepare for it, but to just give it a go.
What happened that was really surprising was that, even though Darren and Finn were making the sounds and Darren was hammering on the floor, the dog was completely sensitive to Cody Fern. The dog had such a strong reaction to it, and the dog completely played off of Cody and it was such a magical moment, an honest thing happened. Up until that moment, I had prepared the boys really carefully, we had a readthrough and they asked whatever questions they needed to ask. “Why was he waiting?” Where were they going?” and all that. Once I got a sense of Cody and how much he thought about things, I decided to shoot Cody and get an off-the-cuff reaction and it worked.
We also looked at David a lot in this. Was he always the focus of the episode or did that change with that opening moment decision?
It was always going to be that we looked at David. That episode and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were one part of the same piece. In hour four, I made the decision to try to dramatize everything from David’s point of view and this bad crazy boyfriend pursuing him. In hour five, I looked at it from Andrew’s point of view and tried to dramatize things so you could see what he was feeling instead.
Talk about those two episodes and what they establish for the viewer?
In the big picture of the story. The first two episodes establish a lot of characters in this big operatic and beautiful spectacle. It delivers exactly the title of the show. By the third episode, suddenly we’re in a whole different world because it’s about an older closeted man and his relationship with his wife. The fourth episode is where we really begin to explore the themes of homophobia and self-hate. With David’s reluctance to run away from Andrew, you get a sense that he’s implicated by his own shame and it’s such an important part. It’s when we begin to peel back the layers of the characters and their motivations. The biggest challenge of hour four was trying to make it plausible that David didn’t run away. The reality of it was that Andrew had a gun and seemed unstoppable in his furies, but they were together for four days. Trying to portray that in a way that was believable was the biggest challenge and I feel we succeeded. We tried to make a rule that he was always in arms length. They stop to eat and he’s pinned against the car while they’re eating. When they go to the restroom, they go together, there’s this idea that he’s a hostage.
Talk about the locations for those episodes such as the diner.
There really was an instance where two waitresses claimed that they saw two men who fit the description of Andrew and David. They noted that they were dressed differently and appeared to be two guys having food in the diner. Whether they actually saw them but I think that was Tom’s jumping off scene. Part of the reality is that when they’re doing a road trip like that, they had to stop for food and anytime they stopped at a rest area, there’s a possibility they had been sighted. You get a sense of their backstory and what things were like when they had a good relationship or were falling in love, but then you realize David is really testing the boundaries of his situation. It’s such a strong scene.
What scene moved you when you were shooting?
The scene that really moved me the most was David’s murder scene. The day we shot it was the day of the lunar eclipse. We didn’t know if we’d lose the light, but it gave us this shimmery light that day. We were by the lake and we shot the scene with David pleading for his life before running away from Andrew and goes into the house. There’s the memory of his father and when we see him again, he’s dying on the shore. We intentionally didn’t shoot it with music and drama. It was very flat with just the sound of nature and the pop of this gun. The crew became silent and it was sad and moving because it was the end of that story. We meticulously imagined the end of David’s life. The idea of working on a true crime story hit everyone at once. It gave us a feeling of reminding us of the importance of what we were all doing. It was remarkable.
I loved that scene with his father and what his dad said to him.
I think him coming out to his dad in the basement was heartbreaking, truthful and surprising. We don’t know how David really came out to his parents. I chose that location. My dad’s workroom was in the basement of our house and that’s where I had that conversation with my dad. For me, it was personal. I put a lot of my personal experience into that episode and into that scene in particular. If David and Jeff had survived they would be my age. I might have crossed paths with them and they reminded me of people I knew.
I saw the finale of that series at the DGA and seeing it on the screen was incredible to see how it transformed.
We really tried to make all our decisions and gave it the production value of a feature. We shot it that way, we cut it that way. It was amazing to see it projected that big. When I see it with a big audience, I get the equivalent to stage fright.