Unlike many actors who decide to add directing to their resumes, Matt Bomer did not start with an episode of a television show on which he was already starring.
“I had the opportunity to direct in the past — projects I had been working as an actor in. But I really wanted my first [one] to be the real thing where I was doing all of the prep, doing all of the location scouting, doing all of the casting — having the full experience, not just trying to fit it in,” Bomer tells Variety.
Instead, his first foray behind-the-scenes was with “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” And not just any episode but the penultimate one (entitled “Creator/Destroyer”), in which the show finally goes far back enough in the timeline to see both Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramirez) and Andrew Cunanan’s (Darren Criss) childhoods to show how similar they were at the start of their lives — but how, when, and why their paths so greatly diverged.
“I had forgotten, really, just how difficult it was to be gay in the ’90s,” Bomer says. “That’s something this series does a great job exploring. Someone who’s at the height of success with Gianni and the courage it took at that time to come out — that was incredibly brave and incredibly forward-thinking. And then Andrew, who’s at the bottom of the heap, and wants fame and success and fortune but wasn’t going to get it living in a day and age as who he was.”
Ahead of his directorial debut, Bomer talks with Variety about developing his process, the unique challenges with which this “origin story” episode came, and what scene he was most sad to leave on the cutting room floor.
What made “Versace” the right first project for you to direct?
I had worked with Ryan [Murphy] many times in the past, and he knew I was very fastidious about my preparation and research and would often come in with reams and binders of homework. He mentioned to me that I should direct, and I was grateful that he said it, but I didn’t really think much of it. But then I got a call in December, and he said, “So I want you to direct.” He knew I needed a way to engage with my creativity, and like the generous soul that he has been to so many in the past, he offered me a job on “Versace” and I said yes.
How did you get attached to the eighth episode, specifically?
Ryan knew what was going to be the best opportunity for me. There was a time when it was almost [episode 7] but then it became this one, and I just rolled with it. I was there on set, shadowing other directors, and I knew when my time comes Ryan would choose the right one for me to do.
What were the most important aspects of your prep work?
I read books, I worked with the DGA, I had friends in film and TV give me advice and walk me through some things. I shadowed two of the great directors on “Versace.” I saw the level of talent there, and I wanted to be of that level when I stepped up to the plate.
How did you balance setting a visual tone and working with the actors on performances?
It was a lot about performance. We had some fancy shots in the show, for sure, but it didn’t require a ton of that. It wasn’t a shooter episode. It was for somebody to be there in the trenches with the actors, hashing these relationships out. And that was what I was most excited to do.
The story thus far has focused more on Andrew than Gianni. Was it a challenge to find new layers to peel back this far into the season?
The real challenge of this episode is can we get a more holistic vision of who Andrew is and what he endured as a kid and why he became what he became — so that when we are with him in those moments in Miami, post-everything, can we get a more three-dimensional idea of who he is? This episode also had a huge challenge of, how do we have sympathy for a monster? You really boil it down to the central question of the episode, and that is what makes one person a creator and one person a killer? The answer is hard work. One person believed the world owed him success, that he was special, that he was the chosen one, that fame and fortune should just come to him. The other had a mother who taught him that he had to work hard for it, that fashion is a craft. So you have this central theme of ambition, but Andrew’s ambition and Gianni’s ambition had different results. The shots you choose and the frame that you choose and the setting you choose, they all have to relate to that theme.
The producers have said they believe Andrew was made a killer, not born that way. What did you want to focus on in fleshing out that idea and showing the times in Andrew’s life when those violent seeds were planted?
I think we all have to be held accountable for the choices we make. We’re all dealt specific circumstances in our life. Some people could be dealt a circumstance and grow up to be fine, functioning adults. For Andrew it didn’t work out that way. He was somebody who was lured to a great deal of violence at a very young age. He was espoused by both of his parents, he was given the master bedroom, he was taught that it isn’t enough to be smart but you also can’t let them see you’re an outsider for even a minute — that’s what [his father] Modesto says to him. And he’s caught up in something bigger than himself, ultimately, with his father that he doesn’t have the freedom to react or to respond to. And we see his father’s influence on him over the course of the episode. What I wanted to create with that last scene — their confrontation, that sort of “Heart of Darkness” scene with all of the sweat and the shadows and the heat — I wanted that to give you the sense that if Andrew could’ve just killed his dad, he wouldn’t have killed anybody else. That was a big part of the dynamic I was trying to create in the story.
What was the biggest thing you learned about directing by working on “Versace”?
I think I learned my process — or at least the beginnings of my process, which is a huge thing. Now I know I can do it. The first cut was 90 minutes, which we shot in 12 days, which is a lot — a lot! We had to cut it down to 60 minutes. But I think a huge part of it is just getting it done that first time, and I’m so lucky that I was able to rely on the DGA, to rely on professionals in the industry who were generous enough to say, “Here’s how to do it.” I read all of these books, and I kind of created my own way to approach a scene. A lot of it is the script you’re given, and you have to develop a technique, and this was a safe environment in which to do [that] because I had worked with so many of these people before, and I knew the talent they had.
With a 90-minute director’s cut of the episode, was there anything you wish you could have left in?
There was a scene with older Gianni and his mother, and it was really beautiful, but it kind of came in toward the end after we hadn’t seen him for two or three acts. All of a sudden he was there, and it sort of took us out of the story we were so invested in with Andrew getting to Manila and getting to his father. And at a certain point you have to whittle down to what serves the theme the most.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.