Daniel Minahan’s Long Road to the Epic Gay Love Story of ‘Fellow Travelers’
Exactly 20 years ago, Daniel Minahan directed his first episode of television for one of the most acclaimed series of its era, Six Feet Under—and on that set, he received an education in the rules of episodic guest-directing. “It had a very rigorous palette, very rigorous lens selection and ideas about blocking and tone,” he says. “You could turn on Six Feet Under at any point and you would recognize it.” It’s a lesson Minahan kept in mind as he stopped by dozens of major series over the next two decades—Deadwood, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, Game of Thrones, Homeland, and more. And it’s a mantra he’s carried more recently, at last, as the director in charge.
On Showtime’s Fellow Travelers, the director sets a strict template by helming the snappy first two episodes and executive producing the entire series. “I want you to be able to see the continuity throughout, so it feels like one long piece,” he says. In bringing his own sensibility and discipline, Minahan finds that this epic limited series—which examines a gay love story from the early days of DC McCarthyism to the apex of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco—marks a culmination point for his journeyman career. “It’d be hard to go back to being a director for hire on a show,” he says. “I put a lot of myself into this, and I had a lot to offer.”
Long a passion project of Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), Fellow Travelers found Minahan also taking on a producer’s duties, working with the creator on matters of casting, location scouting, and, of course, visual storytelling. He’s been doing more of that of late: directing the Deadwood finale movie for HBO, closely collaborating with David Milch; working deeply on the second installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story; helming the entirety of their next collaboration, Halston, for which Ewan McGregor won an Emmy. Fellow Travelers marks a logical next step, then, for an accomplished director who knows TV inside and out—it’s an old-fashioned historical miniseries, realized with grand scope, but infused with frank depictions of queer sexuality drawn from Minahan’s own life.
“I came of age as a young gay person in the early ’80s, and moved to New York just at the moment when you’re supposed to be experimenting and falling in love,” he says. “I had firsthand experience of what that was like.”
Minahan’s first notable credit as a filmmaker actually came as a screenwriter, when he agreed to collaborate with friend Mary Harron on the script for I Shot Andy Warhol, a daring portrait of the feminist artist Valerie Solanas. A critical darling produced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films and featuring a stellar Lili Taylor in the lead role, the film dropped Minahan into the ’90s American indie boom before production even began. “We had a friend that was remodeling the Chateau Marmont, and [Mary and I] moved in, which was the most unbelievable place—with people like Helmut Newton and Joni Mitchell walking in and out of our lives,” Minahan says. “We became friendly with Dominick Dunne as he was covering the Menendez trial. Christopher Walken lived there. It was just this exciting, vibrant place where people congregated.”
Minahan’s background to this point was in documentary filmmaking, but the strong reception of Warhol led to Series 7, a dark reality TV satire that marked his feature directorial debut. The producers of Six Feet Under were big fans of the movie, which had attained a kind of cult status, and brought him onto the landmark HBO show’s third season, at the height of its cultural impact. This then led to more robust opportunities in television. Two themes emerged within his work on dramatic series, where he could learn from big name creatives but had relatively little artistic autonomy. The first is that he found himself at the forefront of a major cinematic wave for the medium by contributing to many seminal HBO projects, including Deadwood and True Blood. The second—and there’s some overlap here—concerned Minahan dipping his toe into groundbreaking LGBTQ+ content for a mainstream American audience, itself a significant trend in the burgeoning prestige TV space.
“Maybe it was as simple as, Hey, get that gay guy, to work on the show—but I’d like to think that I was working with people who were being inclusive and trying to tell a broader story,” Minahan says. Whatever the reason—and it’s worth noting, the creators on these shows included gay men like Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball and Big Love’s Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer—he could spend stand-alone hours filming complex and surprising queer relationships, and learn the ropes of not just any kind of sex scene, but queer ones specifically. “In a series like True Blood, the was sex was extreme, and it was meant to shock, and it was transgressive,” he says. By contrast, “The way the gay characters were depicted in Six Feet Under was so fascinating. I hadn’t seen anything like that before then.”
But even the less racy, less formula-skirting work, like a few network TV gigs, provided an education. Minahan worked on Grey’s Anatomy, for example, in its glory days and absorbed a ton from watching Shonda Rhimes operate. “When you’re a documentary filmmaker, you look at the world in a certain way, and every experience is an opportunity to study human nature,” Minahan says. “This was a completely different kind of storytelling that she was doing, and from what I was doing at HBO.”
Minahan developed a reputation as an efficient professional—crucial in TV—and his artistic ambitions never abated. His stamp is all over “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” the American Crime Story season that moves in stylish narrative reverse, untangling sticky themes of queerness and murder with each episodic backpedal. After years of trying and failing to get a Halston movie made with Vachon, the chance for the limited series arrived with his newfound connection to Murphy and an open option for a book on the New York fashion icon. “It was a big milestone for me,” Minahan says.
Same goes for Fellow Travelers, which is already attracting strong reviews for everything from Nyswaner’s propulsive scripts to the red-hot lead turns from Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey to, yes, Minahan’s exacting and striking filmmaking. He weaves between several timelines, an ambitious gambit that stays clean through his steady stewardship. But coming into this historical drama, he felt aligned with Nyswaner on maintaining a certain emotional immediacy. “I didn’t want there to be a distance between what the characters were feeling and experiencing and the experience of watching it so that it wouldn’t be presentational, that it would have a rawness to it,” Minahan says. “Oftentimes the camera’s handheld, especially in the scenes of intimacy where they’re the most free.” He’d rehearse the more explicit sequences, for instance, exhaustively with his actors and an intimacy coordinator before letting go once calling action: “By the time we got to set, we knew the choreography, and then we could just kind of cut loose. They gave it life.”
The sex scenes between Bomer’s weathered political staffer and Bailey’s DC newcomer are graphic, extensive, authentic—and narratively essential. The main rule for Minahan was to give each a beginning, middle, and end, treating them like any other dramatic centerpiece. It’s in the bedroom—or, occasionally, slightly more public spaces—where Fellow Travelers’ fascinatingly queer-driven take on power finds its most compelling ideas.