- LOS ANGELES
Daniel Minahan has known Ryan Murphy since the mid-1990s. Both were journalists in L.A. at the time and were starting to pen prospective narratives for TV and film. Murphy went on to be a prolific and lauded TV series creator (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Feud), winning four Emmys and nominated for assorted others while Minahan established himself as a producer and director, becoming an Emmy nominee in the former capacity for Outstanding Drama Series on the strength of House of Cards (season 5). Minahan’s other credits include serving as EP and showrunner of Marco Polo and directing episodes of such series as True Blood, Six Feet Under, Homeland and Game Of Thrones.
Yet as their careers progressed, Murphy and Minahan’s professional paths hadn’t formally crossed--until the true crime anthology TV series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (FX) brought them together, as EPs/directors. Minahan directed three episodes, including the finale and “House by the Lake,” an installment submitted for Emmy consideration in directorial achievement.
When first presented with The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Minahan said he felt “very connected” to the material. “I thought it was brilliant and it was in a time period I know something about. I grew up during that time. It was a story I felt that I could really bring something to. and there was the additional attraction of working with (EP) Brad Simpson again. He worked on one of my first features.”
Minahan had the advantage of getting to work on The Assassination of Gianni Versace from the very outset. “I was there while Ryan was shooting the first hour. I picked up the atmospheric stuff in Miami, got to know the crew and saw the style of what Ryan was establishing. What I found as I began directing was that the work took on a life of its own. Each episode is almost a standalone piece, with the show spanning different genres.”
“House by the Lake”
Minahan described “House by the Lake” (episode 4) as “a psychological thriller” in which Minneapolis architect David Madson (portrayed by Cody Fern) is forced to go on the run with Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), the man who murdered at least five people, including fashion designer Versace, Madson, and Chicago tycoon Lee Miglin. “This episode had a really intense emotional through line,” assessed Minahan. “To me, it’s sort of where the show begins to explore deeper themes of hate and homophobia. We get into the core of the series through the eyes of David and Andrew.”
The inherent challenge throughout the show, continued Minahan, was “depicting real people’s lives, particularly the victims.” This necessitated Minahan having to maintain a delicate balancing act between his role as a dramatist while still honoring these real-life characters. “It was important to me that the show be compelling and that people would want to follow our story, but at the same time we had to be respectful of the victims as individuals as well as their families. I feel we told the story in a way true to the lives of these people.”
There was also painstaking research to accurately depict the events. For example, Cunanan’s first murder victim was Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock) with Minahan and his compatriots turning to forensic photography and police reports “to imagine the blocking of the crime and where it took place.”
Perhaps the biggest creative and logistical challenge of the show, though, was its casting which extended far beyond the principal performers. There were more than 200 speaking roles. Minahan related, “It took a lot of energy to find the right actors. Our casting people were spectacular and tireless. A lot had to be done on tape, with my trying to meet in person those considered for the more important roles. One of the hardest to cast was Andrew’s mother, Mary Ann.” Ultimately Minahan gravitated towards Joanna Adler, a well-respected New York theater actor, for that challenging role.
As for the biggest takeaway or lesson learned from his experience on The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Minahan observed, “I’ve been working closely, shoulder to shoulder with the crew, executives, creatives and showrunners on the last five shows I’ve done. The major takeaway for me moving forward is I want to create a family like the family that Ryan has created at Ryan Murphy Productions. When you reach a certain level, there’s the expectation that everyone brings their most excellent work to the show. But beyond this, Ryan’s company has a respect and familial quality for its people. You feel safe, protected. There’s loyalty. You have the feeling you are doing something important. It’s still a series. It’s still entertainment but there’s a greater sense of purpose and significance to the stories you tell.”
This is the fifth installment in a 15-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremonies on September 8 and 9, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.