Halston creator on telling a fashion giant's unfiltered story 25 years in the making — sex, drugs, and all
Twenty-five years before Netflix released Halston, a five-part limited series starring Ewan McGregor as Roy Halston Frowick, director Daniel Minahan tried to bring the story to the screen as a movie.
He took the idea to the production company Killer Films and they licensed the book Simply Halston by author Steven Gaines, who chronicled the fashion designer's rise from dreamy-eyed Midwesterner to creator of the famed pillbox hat worn by First Lady Jackie Kennedy and the man behind an influential fashion brand in the 1970s. The source material also delved into the icon's sex life as a gay man and his dealings with drugs — which, for films in the '90s, felt bold.
Even though this was years before Minahan directed queer-friendly episodes of The L Word, Six Feet Under, Grey's Anatomy, and True Blood, he didn't feel he needed to water down the pitch for Hollywood. Over the phone from his Provincetown home, Minahan tells EW, "[Killer Films'] trademark was this very direct, queer... They were at the forefront of queer cinema." (Carol, Boys Don't Cry, Kill Your Darlings, My Days of Mercy, and Far From Heaven were all titles produced by Killer Films.)
The story he wanted to tell about Halston — warts and all — didn't ultimately work as a 90-minute feature. "We took a couple of good runs. There was a lot of interest in it, but we just couldn't get it there," Minahan recalls of that time. So, he let it go, only to return to the idea years later. This cycle would repeat for more than two decades.
Minahan calls it "this quixotic obsession." He had a Manhattan Mini Storage unit full of research he amassed over the years, and he would secretly buy up Halston fashion pieces whenever he came upon them in the event that, one day, he might actualize this dream.
"The thing that always struck me about it that I thought was so cinematic and so compelling was the idea of this guy who comes to town, invents this name, creates an empire around it, and then is literally stripped of his company, his name, and his identity. That's such an American story," Minahan says. "On top of it, he was a creative genius who had a huge influence on our culture, not just the way we dress, but he was at the forefront of this idea of branding. I think that's what kept me coming back, just the idea that you could separate a person from their own identity."
When Killer Films producer Christine Vachon introduced the idea of turning the story into a series, once the rights to Gaines' book became available again, it finally came together.
Minahan revamped the idea to center each episode around the creation of a Halston collection or a major event, like the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show told in the Netflix show's second episode. McGregor came on board to play the role in 2019 after "a fantastic first meeting," Minahan recalls, during which he put on a show-and-tell with all his research. Ryan Murphy, whom Minahan worked with directing episodes of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, followed by 2020 and then it was a go at Netflix, where the executive producer has been developing multiple shows, like Hollywood and The Politician.
LGBTQ representation on screen has come a long way, especially in the age of streaming, but Minahan is reminded of where acceptance was back when he first tried developing what would become Halston. "Certainly I was not as experienced as a director at that time, so I'm really glad I made it now," he remarks.
Minahan, who directs all five episodes, already heard some feedback to the premiere, which sees the designer meeting his lover Ed Austin (played by Sullivan Jones) and spending a night together. "People keep saying to me, 'Wow, it's like the first 10 minutes of the show and there's this full-on gay sex scene.' I'm like, 'That's funny. I think of it as a love scene,'" Minahan says. "I think they fall in love in that moment."
It seemed McGregor was just as committed to the authenticity of this story. The actor is known for playing roles like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars and struggling writer Christian in Moulin Rouge!, but he also portrayed gay characters in the past, most notably opposite Jim Carrey in 2010's I Love You Phillip Morris.
Minahan says he was "constantly surprised" by McGregor. "There were times where we would do a scene — and it wasn't just the sex scenes," the director remembers. "There were these moments when he would do something that was so well observed and so honest and so gay." Minahan chuckles to himself saying that. "I wanted to walk up to him and just say, 'How did you know that?' He's such a great observer of people and so empathetic."
The Halston Archives and Family have since come out to state they were "not consulted on the upcoming Netflix series" and called Halston "an inaccurate, fictionalized account" of the designer. "Even though the family hasn't seen it yet, I respect that they have an opinion," Minahan says in response. "I've been working on this for more than 20 years. It's really been a labor of love for myself and my producers."
Minahan says he was in contact with the family in developing the show, and consulted with people who worked with Halston, including his models and those present in the fashion maven's workroom. Minahan was also in touch with David Mahoney, the businessman behind Norton Simon, Inc. which acquired the Halston company, before his death in 2000. (Bill Pullman portrays Mahoney in the series.)
"I consider this a dramatic homage to Halston and a celebration of his genius," Minahan says. "It was really touching to know that the close friends of Halston who have seen it felt like it was a loving and accurate depiction of the guy. I've devoted a lot of my life to telling this story. I hope that when [the family] sees it, they will feel the same way."
Halston is now available to stream on Netflix.
[This article has been updated to reflect a clarification from Minahan asserting that he was in contact with the Halston family while developing the show.]