ART vs. COMMERCE: Daniel Minahan speaks to Laura Albert about his Netflix miniseries Halston

As a punk in ‘79, the concept of elitist fashion was abhorrent to me. Yet I studied the photos of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, the rarefied glamourous world of Studio 54, where the underground intersected with the glitterati.  Always there was Halston, like Warhol, wearing dark sunglasses at night, unmistakable in the center of any photo, the sleek master of an exclusive fashion empire, surrounded by kids I knew from the downtown scene, it seemed a train ride away.

EWAN MCGREGOR as HALSTON

But as a fat kid, my clothing options were relegated to the backs of department stores, where the salespeople disdainfully directed me. That industry made fat people get clothes in a section named after a hearty dog: Husky, items made to cover a body, which would never be mistaken for fashion. When I spotted women, fat women, in magazines decked out in Halston’s designs, appearing glamourous, it put the lie to the accepted rule that fashion was only for the thin. For that, Halston was punk as fuck. 

In the early ‘80s my mom casually offered her new linen Halston blazer. That she, a New York City teacher, could afford a designer anything shocked, but then she explained it was a Halston from JCPenney, which to me made Halston the king of punk – as it was an unmistakable Fuck You to high-end couture, erasing another lie: Fashion was only for the rich.

But this was too many decades before the strategic introduction of runway designers into the realm of accessible price-point collaborations with mass-market shops like Target or Walmart. Halston’s name had been synonymous with craft, not “pedestrian” brands. Groucho Marx’s adage, I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member, sadly fit. The aspirational dream to own a unique Halston piece was destroyed. Nobody wanted a JCPenney Halston. I gleefully transformed my mom’s Halston blazer into a badge studded, bum-flap pinned, punk as fuck fashion piece. 

What happened to Halston was a conversation that led to a dead end. Unlike ubiquitous Warhol, Halston’s presence mysteriously evaporated. It’s often said that the first one through the gate takes it in the teeth, and Halston, tragically, was a first. He built an empire and allowed himself to become a brand, only to have it stripped from him after essentially signing away his name, without understanding all that entailed. Nowadays successful influencers wisely lawyer up before they sell a damned thing.

 

Daniel Minahan Photo by Joe Navas

 

Director Daniel Minahan (we met in 2005 on the set of showrunner David Milch’s HBO series Deadwood) is a deeply compassionate storyteller and felt a personal connection in bringing Halston’s story to the screen. With Christine Vachon’s collaboration, the project took twenty-five years, reaching fruition with the mighty Ryan Murphy joining as executive producer to create this fantastic Netflix miniseries. Storytelling on the scale of Halston’s five-episode arc allows us to step back and view people through a wider and deeper lens. These new insights have also renewed the desire for Halston’s genius, and further collaborations with his designs are in the works – the art of fashion never stops changing and never goes backwards, no matter what earlier flourishes it may revive. Each generation needs its own shroud within which the body can die and be born anew, reinvented and redefined. Anything else and we start to become unintelligible to ourselves. For a society to function, you have to be able to recognize yourself and say, ‘THAT’S ME.’ And within the fabric of the story of Roy Halston Frowick, we can recognize ourselves. 

 

Laura Albert: Hi Dan!

Daniel Minahan: Hi!

LA: How are you?

DM: Good.

LA: Where are you?

DM: Provincetown.

LA: Awesome! That’s great! It’s funny, a year ago I was talking to you in Provincetown.

DM: That’s right.

LA: And you had just stopped filming because of COVID. 

DM: I know, it’s crazy! We finished filming just before Christmas, and I went out to LA to shoot one last scene on the PCH and got caught in another lockdown. I came back in February and I’m living up here again. 

LA: Wow, that’s like a real full circle. It’s pretty impressive that the filming of Halston was able to complete. I can’t remember the date, I have such a vivid memory of you telling me the devastating news, how someone in the cast had just died from COVID. 

DM: Yeah, a dear friend of ours Nashom Wooden, who was going to work as a background person in the show. It was just devastating and deeply upsetting. 

LA: So horrible. Do you recall how much of the filming had been completed?

DM: When we locked down, we were about a third of the way through. 

LA: You found out about the shutting down on the morning of or the day before?

DM: Actually it was the morning. It was Friday and we were on our way to work, and they finally called it.

LA: I know you’ve been working on this project for over twenty years.

DM: Yeah, we tried to make it as a movie and it didn’t fit into a 90-minute movie, or even a 120-minute movie. It’s such a big story. So we kept running at it, we tried it a couple of times and finally let it go. And then after all these years later, Christine Vachon, one of our producers, came back to me and said, “Hey that book’s available again, ‘Simply Halston’ by Steven Gaines, what do you say we try it as a limited series?” And then it made sense to me. 

LA: It’s pretty amazing that the limited series has become such a better way to tell a complex story, how it allows for a longer narrative arc. The truncated version for a movie just doesn’t fit with so many stories. 

DM:  I feel like with something that’s such a big-scope story, the story of this man’s career, it needed the time to go into it and go deeper than you could in a movie. In a movie you’d end up with certain bio-pic tropes and just a huge compression of the giant story. 

LA: How many epic lives have been turned into the old Evelyn Wood speed-reading bio-pic flick – boop, it’s over.

DM: Exactly.

LA: So it was a gift, this project not working out until the limited-series format became more popular and accessible.  

DM: Yeah, and 20-something years ago, I was a different person. I’m a more experienced filmmaker now. I have lived more and understand what it means to be an artist working in the corporate world. Because as creators you know we have to tangle with the money side of things.

LA: I was also struck by that’s something that has changed in 20 years, how earlier you probably would have had to walk around showing a sexually active gay man, and not be allowed to show him existing as a sexual being. 

DM: Right. 

LA: Also the business aspect, showing the financial part of his work – it blows up the myth that, if you’re a fabulous artist, the money will be there, it just comes. What Halston went through financially, having to woo people, is like the way you need to find financing for a movie.

DM: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because Halston’s story is sort of about the collision of art and commerce – this person maybe wasn’t well equipped to succeed as a businessman. It’s like these two different cultures, the corporate culture and the world of design and a very creative gay person. It just didn’t fit. You know that’s sort of a tragedy of this.

LA: Having sex without a rubber or signing a contract without a lawyer, to me it’s sort of the same thing, you know? 

DM: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because they sort of got him in a loophole when he unwittingly sold his name. We don’t dramatize this – in the first year after the takeover of his company, it was bought and sold six times. He became more and more disillusioned and hostile, and the people who were trying to manage this company became less and less sympathetic, until finally you see where it ends up, where he’s separated from his own name. To me that’s the thing that makes it so worth telling, the idea that someone could be stripped of their work and their identity. 

LA: I think what happened with Taylor Swift has brought to people’s attention what can happen. She re-recorded her early work because it was owned by a corporation. Which happened to so many artists, especially artists of color. I grew up hearing about “Director’s Cut” and I didn’t understand that a director usually had no final say in their work. Dan, did you relate to that part where, here you are creating, and a studio can come over and take it over and make it theirs? 

DM: Right – I mean that didn’t happen in this instance, I had Ryan [Murphy] to protect me. We were in sync on all of that. But yeah, certainly it happens. I mean I love this story of Polanski shooting Rosemary’s Baby and only shooting the exact shots he wanted to use. In that way he got his own director’s cut because that’s all he gave them.

LA: You’ve been involved with this project for over twenty years, what held your fascination?

DM: One was sort of a fascination with that time period, since I was a kid. I was fascinated with New York, Warhol, the disco era. When I moved to New York in the ‘80s, that was so passé and that was very sort of fascinating to me. But as a kid growing up in the suburbs, Interview Magazine was my lifeline to the world and the life that I thought I would have as a grown up in New York. Halston was a big part of that. And when I got there, of course everything was over in a big way. I came of age at the moment when they said okay, STOP having sex with people, maybe not even kiss people, there’s a “gay cancer.” It was a very different time. I guess it was in the mid-nineties when I read the book by Steven Gaines, which is this kind of gossipy beach read about Halston’s career and life. Despite the punitive tone of the book, I was really taken by the idea he expressed so well, which is self-invention. This gay kid who comes to New York and works his way up with his made-up name, ends up marketing, branding it, creating an empire and licensing it – then unwittingly sells it, and in the takeover realizes it’s too late, he’s been stripped of his company and his name and his identity. The idea of separating somebody from their identity is what kept me interested in it all these years. Because I think it’s a relevant story, even more relevant now, when so many people are fascinated with the idea of branding themselves. Here’s somebody who did it first. It’s a very American story, the hollowness of the American dream. 

LA: Growing up in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s, to be chic or to present as part of the business world, you needed a Halston blazer.

DM: Right. Halston invented status dressing.

LA: He was part of that nobility, the glitterati of New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And then to watch not just his work but his being as well, completely consumed by the wave of commerce and erased. 

DM: That’s the thing that’s so shocking and interesting about it to me. Here’s a person who wasn’t just famous for the sake of being famous; his work had real merit and made a huge impact on the culture, from the way people dress to their home and lifestyle, and this sort of fascination with the fame machine – you know, Warhol was playing at that. And I think it’s really interesting and relevant right now. 

LA: I love the way you feature Halston’s materials, his fabrics, the colors – it’s so vibrant and sensuous, the colors are so very rich. How did you plan all of that out?

DM: It was very deliberate. Right off the bat when we started this, I sat down with the production designer and the costume designer and the cinematographer and I said, “We don’t want to interpret this world, we want to re-create it, because it’s the story of a person’s genius. And that’s the thing that’s going to be taken away from him in the end. So we need to make it as authentic as possible and as beautiful as possible.” And we just committed to taking our cues from Halston himself. It was to our advantage that this world had been so meticulously documented. We had images for almost everything. For the interiors, there were very exacting replicas of those interiors. And for the palette of the show, we took our cues from Halston’s clothing, which goes from that very resplendent, kind of rich hippy – like a Bedouin tent in the first hour, with all the tie-dye and batik, a full range of color, and then it goes as he kind of refines his style more and more, becomes more and more minimal until, by the end, everything is just red, white, black, and grey. So it was very deliberate, but it was all Halston. 

LA: It’s so gorgeously shot! I had read you had collected Halston pieces, anything you saw come to auction…

DM: I had put all of the Halston research materials away for years, deep into Manhattan mini-storage, but when I saw Halston pieces I would secretly buy them and tuck them away. I guess I never really quite gave up on it, although I said I did. I of course gave them all to the costume designer to use for inspiration – I think only a few of them made it into the show. But it was fascinating, especially to study the things that you know he made, to really see his hand in the work. There is this one gown that I have, which belonged to Jennifer Jones, the actress who was in The Song of Bernadette and Duel in the Sun. She was married to Norton Simon, the owner of the Norton Simon Industries, which bought the Halston company. So you know that those were custom-made for her. 

LA: Wow!

DM: It was interesting to me, the care and the real simplicity of those garments. That was really interesting. 

LA: Did they re-create that gown?

DM: Actually I think someone at Studio 54 wore it. The one thing about finding vintage pieces is then they have to fit the actors and suit the scene and make sense. So it’s a bit of a long shot. But there were good inspirations. There was this one woman who looked like Barbara Walters, so Jeriana our costume designer said, “Let’s put that gown on her!” We had her in that big fight scene in the basement at Studio 54, sitting on a banquette with a David Geffen lookalike.

LA:  What are the differences you felt safe to explore now versus, say ten years or even five years ago? And conversely, what things changed that you had to be careful around?

DM: You know the sex scene is interesting because – well, the first sex scene, I see it as a love scene. People keep saying to me, “It’s so graphic,” and I say I feel it’s a love scene. But you know the other scenes are… We talked a lot about this with Ewan McGregor, we felt that sexuality is a part of his character. We always tried to use it in an expressive way. It’s the story of someone who becomes an addict, in part, and he’s always using sex to escape the pressure of his business and life. And it’s funny because people single out the sex, saying it’s so graphic. But I feel I’ve done much more, you know balls out sex if you will on other shows. It’s interesting, I was thinking about it this morning, and I think that sex scene kind of sends up a flag. I hope it says, this is the story of a full life, in all of its glory and all of its pain and complexity. Maybe 20 years ago, we might have been a bit more circumspect about the sex scenes. But it seemed an important part of his character to me. 

LA: Did you work on the script? 

DM: I consulted on the script with the writers, the way a director does, supervising and weighing in. I was sort of a secret weapon because I had researched this for so long and could answer almost any question from A to Z about Halston. So I was involved in that way. And then of course you get to the set and you need to make it work, and there’s a certain amount of authorship to that too, I think.

LA: It’s interesting that you did a mind meld with Ryan Murphy, and Ryan is like a brand now. But it’s the opposite of what happened to Halson because now queer people and topics have some representation in the media. Ryan is the perfect person to go back in and tell a story and protect a legend, while allowing a fuller sense of people’s humanities – he can come in and get this done. Halston became a brand without understanding what he was trading away, he did not have the protection craved. 

DM: Yeah it’s interesting because you know all those years of struggling with the script, trying to distill the story, then talking to Ryan about it, and it wasn’t explicit, but we started getting the pages and I thought, “Oh okay.” This is someone who understands what it means to be a gay man working as an artist in a corporate world. And he was very candid and very generous with that. We all put a lot of ourselves into this, we all drew from our own experiences. But it’s interesting you make that parallel, because I was very aware of it as the scripts came in, that he had an insight into this story, which was really unique. 

LA: This Halston project was the perfect combination of timing and people. I’m a longtime admirer of Christine Vachon, I heard she’s very hands on. 

DM: Christine was on set with us every day. She was big, big support and very present and very involved with us. 

LA:  Do you think you would prefer to stay in TV series format? 

DM: No, I’m circling a couple of films and series ideas. I’m encouraged that there’s sort of a trend towards directors as showrunners, in particular directors doing an entire series. I mean, it’s not like it’s newly invented. I mean, Fassbinder did Berlin Alexanderplatz. But today we have Scott Frank directing all of The Queen’s Gambit, I love what Lisa Cholodenko did on Olive Kitteridge, Cary Fukunaga on True Detective and Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Until recently the showrunner has been the first and last word on a series, and I think I would like to continue working this way. Especially when you’re shaping a five-hour movie, the actors really like it, you feel like there’s some kind of continuity. I feel in a lot of series, directors are treated like furniture movers, just getting it done. But now that the lines between features and television are kind of blurring, I think people are recognizing more the authorship of directors in this realm.

LA: I heard the term “showrunner” back on Deadwood in 2005 but had no clue what it meant. I was too shy to ask! So I was surprised to find out it meant just that: They run the show! David Milch was a showrunner.  Must be great to be part of that. 

DM: Yeah, actually on this I am a producer. For the last eight years I’ve been working as a producing director, which means that I come in and oversee, like I oversaw a season of House of Cards; I was the producing director on Assassination of Gianni Versace; I was the producer and director on Marco Polo. So there is a position like that, there is some kind of continuity, someone hiring the directors and working with the department heads. But your point, the Milch experience is entirely different. I mean, most people leave you to your own devices, you only hear from them if you’ve done something wrong. Milch was extremely prescriptive and ran those rehearsals. It wasn’t until the second season when I felt David came to trust me. He’d say, “You know what you’re doing?” “Yeah, I got this.” Then he’d head to the track. He is a unique character in that world, and he was so present and so involved. It was lucky for me because it was really one of the first shows that I directed and was incredible training for me. 

LA: What did you do before that?

DM: I had co-written I Shot Andy Warhol, then I made a feature called Series Seven, I had done an episode of Six Feet Under – I literally went from Six Feet Under to the Santa Clarita back lot to meet David. He was in that crazy golf cart with the steer horns tied on the front, he slowed down and we were introduced, this is Dan and this is David, and he says, “Hey!” and waves and then drove away. And then I was hired. 

LA: Were you in after the pilot for the first season?

DM: Yes. 

LA: So you were there for all three seasons. 

DM: Yes. 

LA: We were all in shock when it ended – I remember everyone thought for sure Deadwood was going to be back for season four.  It must have felt similar with COVID halting Halston.

DM: Yeah, it wasn’t an easy show. It was very rigorous, with the language and the profanity and the sex and the violence, but it was really getting traction and people were really becoming devoted to it. So it was really surprising when it ended that way. I still don’t understand exactly what happened. 

LA: I know that there are a lot of projects that are starting but for all kinds of reasons don’t happen. When COVID hit, nobody knew what was going to happen. Did you ever think, This is done? Or were you determined not to let that happen?

DM: It seemed like it could go either way. You didn’t know, whether this was the end of the human race or would we continue making TV shows? It was such a strange time. But I was kind of holed up in our house up here, in my little makeshift office, and I bothered people for a whole summer until they finally relented and we got back to it. They were very, very committed to getting it back up on its feet. And there were more reasons not to, because so much was uncertain then, it wasn’t like, “yeah just put on a mask and rubber gloves and go back to work.” There was a lot of consideration that went into it, they were remarkable with health and safety protocols. 

LA:  I remember you told me there was an orgy scene to be shot right before everything shut down.  

DM: Yeah, it was meant to be in this sort of sex club. And then when we came back during COVID, it ended up being on the piers, so we lined up a bunch of trucks –

LA: I loved that! It felt like it a scene from “SARAH”! 

DM: Yeah! Well that was real, people did that, there used to be a big sex scene on the piers in New York, where people parked all the trucks. 

LA: Oh I know…

DM: Yeah! That scene was on the schedule the day we shut down. We had moved it because we could sense what was coming. We had this bubble of these great guys that were called “the orgy boys” on the call sheet – some of them are still in touch with us today and they follow the show. They were in a bubble, they were tested regularly, they were all kissing and getting it on. Not really, but you know… 

LA: Yeah! 

DM: Make believe…

LA: That kind of paralleled the AIDS epidemic – having to find ways to be safe while still having your freedom.

DM: Yeah it’s interesting. I was really trying to accept those group sex scenes on their own terms and not look at them through a contemporary lens, with everything we know that was going to come after. I wanted them to feel the abandon and the joy of that kind of sex. And the same thing with the drugs, we didn’t want to be prurient or try to look at it through a sober lens. It was important to me that we dealt with them on the terms that these characters would have. I love the quote from Elsa Peretti, when they asked her, “Did you do cocaine?” and she said, “No.” They said, “Really?” and she said, “Oh well yes, how did you think we did all that work? But it was only the best quality!” That was the sort of qualifier, I love that.

LA: I loved how Halston had a plus-sized woman working as a model in his high-end show room. That was way ahead of its time, and it was effective. I’m glad you included that!  

DM: That was Pat Ast, she was in the Paul Morrissey movie Heat. She worked in films and on stage, she was a great singer and Halston employed her. She was one of his friends and his best saleswoman, and she also modeled for him sometimes. I like the idea that he was inclusive, he knew that he had clients who were big and he just kind of celebrated her. I knew Pat later in her life, when she lived in LA, she was really a trip. 

LA: To me that’s so revolutionary for that time period. Because if a woman didn’t look like an anorexic model, forget it. Warhol would never use a large woman to rep his work, he held that having someone in his circle, whom he judged as ugly, would make him look uglier. The more he surrounded himself with beautiful people, the more it enhanced others’ perception of his appearance. 

DM: Right! It’s interesting, Warhol and Halston were like the two big cultural powers in New York at that time, the big social scene. Warhol had Interview and Halston had all rich ladies and famous clients. So there was a lot of back and forth between them. 

LA: So… what are you working on now Dan?

DM: Too soon to tell. We literally just finished this, so… You know there are things that I’m reading and am interested in adapting. I’m interested in doing another feature and another series. I won’t be resting on my laurels! But I do have to catch my breath for a minute. 

LA: I was amazed at how fast, it’s absolutely amazing, quite the achievement! It’s really wonderful. I look forward to seeing you nominated for a whole shit ton of awards! It’s just beautiful work. 

DM: Oh I love hearing that, thank you! And I love talking with you, you’re such an important person in my life, I feel like we were in the trenches together on Deadwood

LA: Yes, you were just always very loving. Oh last little thing, any Starbucks cup?

DM: No, we were really careful in this one! That’s so funny… We did make a fake big Starbucks cup on the bar in Deadwood: The Movie. Just to get a rise out of the producers!

LA: I suggest ya do one for Halston, the Starbucks cup next to the Studio 54 moon foaming with cocaine! 

DM: Exactly! All right, it’s so great talking with you!

LA: Thank you so much!

DM: Stay in touch! 

LA: I love you Dan – and Paula Malcomson sends her love too.

DM: Oh thank you! Tell her I said hi! 

LA: I will, stay well. 

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Laura Albert

Laura Albert has won international acclaim for her fiction. Writing as JT LeRoy, she is the author of the best-selling novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and the novella Harold's End. Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, reissued by HarperCollins, have also been released as audiobooks by Blackstone Publishing. Laura Albert is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig's feature documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Lynn Hershman Leeson's film The Ballad of JT LeRoy. She has written for The New York Times, The Forward, The London Times, Spin, Man About Town, Vogue, Film Comment, Interview, L'Équipe Sport&Style, Filmmaker, I-D, and others – more recently, the cover article for Man About Town and her reflections on fashion for VESTOJ. A writer for the HBO series "Deadwood," she also wrote the original script for Gus Van Sant's Elephant and was the film's Associate Producer. She has written the short films Radiance for Drew Lightfoot and ContentMode, and Dreams of Levitation and Warfare of Pageantry for Sharif Hamza and Nowness. For Tiempo de Literatura 2020's “The Narrative Universe of Laura Albert,” she engaged in a wide-ranging ZOOM conversation with Fernanda Melchor, International Booker Prize Shortlist author for her acclaimed novel Hurricane Season.