“He’s somebody who really succeeded on marketing and branding himself,” Minahan says, adding that his mark is still left on “our everyday lives and culture” today.
The subject of Minahan’s five-episode limited series, aptly titled “Halston” and bowing May 14 on Netflix, first became known as a hat designer, eventually working for Bergdorf Goodman and designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore when her husband John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president. But later in that decade he expanded into women’s clothing in general, becoming known for luxurious looks before expanding again the following decade into uniforms and fragrances. In the 1980s he created a more accessible fashion line for J.C. Penney. Ewan McGregor portrays the titular designer in Minahan’s series, and he also executive produces.
Much of his life seemed glamorous, from his friendship with Liza Minnelli to his nights out at Studio 54. But beyond the surface there was very real pain and insecurities, many stemming from his childhood with a “very unreliable, abusive father,” Minahan notes. He had a tumultuous personal life as an adult as well, and complications soon bled into his professional life, resulting in him losing control of his company — and of his name — just a few years before he would lose his life.
Minahan, who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, looked at what Halston and others around him were achieving as “the Valhalla of an artistic community and everything that I thought I wanted for my life,” he shares. And as the years went on and Minahan built up a name for himself in television, directing such titles as “The L Word,” “Six Feet Under,” “True Blood” and “Game of Thrones,” he began to see the biopic potential in Halston’s story.
“The thing that was fascinating to me about it was the idea of this person who created this empire and based it on this made up name — and then had the company and the name taken away from him. It was so dramatic and it seemed so rich,” he explains. “The idea that suddenly he couldn’t be Halston anymore was the thing that kept haunting me about it; it was the thing that kept me coming back to it.”
Originally Minahan was working with Christine Vachon at Killer Films on distilling Halston’s life and career down into a feature film, a process he calls “impossible” because “the really interesting part of his life is the scope of what he accomplished.” So when the opportunity arose to create a series instead, he jumped at the chance.
“For some reason it was really clear to me that the way to tell this story was to focus each episode or each hour on the creation of a particular collection, the fragrance, the battle at Versailles — these benchmark moments in his life. That was the galvanizing idea for it,” he says.
Minahan didn’t do this alone, of course. He credits writers and executive producers Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan and Sharr White among those who helped carve out “this really sexy shape” to the story’s evolution. And although Halston’s family released a statement saying there was “no way” anyone in the family was contacted about the project, Minahan says that’s not true.
“In the years when I was researching it, I was in contact with the Frowick family,” he tells Variety. Additionally, “I consulted with a lot of his close associates — people like Sassy Johnson, who ran his made-to-order business and worked with him closely for years; Chris Royer, one of the Halstonettes; I talked to Bethann Hardison. And a number of people worked with us as consultants as well: people who worked in his workroom and in the business.”
“Although they haven’t seen it yet, I really respect that they have an opinion about it,” he continues about the family. “I’ve been working on this for 20 years and it’s really a labor of love; it’s done in the best possible spirit. I hope when they see it they realize [that] we’re really honoring him. I wouldn’t have devoted the last 20 years of my life to trying to get this made if I didn’t have a great deal of respect for him.”
The series starts does start with Halston’s youngest years, as he is developing an eye for and interest in fashion, but the show is really “the story of his career,” Minahan says. It jumps forward in time to show him beginning his career in hats and eventually moving up in status while also spiraling personally into addiction. (But, Minahan is very clear that he never wanted to paint Halston’s use (or abuse) of alcohol and cocaine as “the reason for his demise.” He explains: “I do think it enhanced his anger and his paranoia and his isolation, but I always think that drugs are more of a symptom than a cause for something.”) Spending moments at tentpole events in the designer’s life covers the public figure side to him, but Minahan was even more interested in getting to explore his inner self, namely “what gave him joy and where he was really insecure and what his frustration was and a little bit of where it all came from.”
In order to do this, he and McGregor studied videos of the real Halston, such as his appearance on Phil Donahue’s Chicago-based talk show and unedited materials from the Andy Warhol TV archives. When it came to the former, it was a chance to hear Halston’s real voice because he was at-home in Chicago, where he spent his formative years. Otherwise as an adult he “put on this uptown, mid-Atlantic dialect that evolved and became more pronounced as time went on,” Minahan recalls. And the latter was helpful because “you got to see what Halston was like when he thought the camera was off or in between takes.”
“Ewan and I looked for these private moments within scenes,” Minahan says. “We were always looking for, if he had his back to everyone, how did he really feel? I always let it run longer to see what that moment was like after everyone left the room, to see what he was really feeling. These people lived for the look and they lived for the appearance, but I always think that the people who seem the most supercilious are in fact the deepest and are the most soulful, in some instances.”
This approach extended to important players in Halston’s life, like Liza (played by Krysta Rodriguez), his former muse Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), creative director Joe Eula (David Pittu), later in life collaborator Martha Graham (Mary Beth Peil) and partner Victor Hugo (Gian Franco Rodriguez), as well.
Halston “set out to make his own family, and unfortunately you end up repeating the trauma that you came from,” Minahan says. “He created this community that was a really dynamic, creative group of people that maybe didn’t fit anywhere else but he found a way to get them into the mix and it was a big, beautiful, joyful mess. But the unfortunate thing is he became really successful and it changed everything for everyone. In the beginning it was like, ‘Anybody who wants to come can come’ and it was very inclusive but then it became more exclusive in a very negative way until finally he is really isolated.”
In depicting the highs and lows of Halston’s life and career, Minahan knew he needed to be careful not to “telegraph” what was to come before it actually did pop up as a plot point. But even more important to him was to make this series “a redemption story.”
“They took away his name, but he started off wanting to be an artist and he ends up an artist,” Minahan says. “I know for a fact he fought for a long time to regain control of his company and his name, but he never won. We show that briefly, but it was important to me that when we dramatize this we gave him a peace and a respect. In the end he becomes a part of something bigger than himself.”
“Halston” streams May 14 on Netflix.