“Fellow Travelers” Director/ Executive Producer Daniel Minahan’s Scorching Trip Through Turbulent Times
Director and executive producer Daniel Minahan wanted to be part of Fellow Travelers as soon as he read the first script by Ron Nyswaner, an Oscar nominee for Philadelphia.
“It was a beautifully devised script. Ron saw parallels between the 1950s persecution of gay people in government and what happens in San Francisco with activism and trying to survive AIDS in the ‘80s,” said Minahan. “Ron and I worked together before [on the series Ray Donovan] and knew each other socially from Provincetown. We had been trying to find something to do; I’d sent him a novel I was trying to adapt, and he sent me a script he was developing, but we could not find a fit. As soon as I read the first script [for Fellow Travelers], I knew I wanted to be involved. Ron really had a solid idea of what it should feel like and the tone of the piece.”
Nyswaner adapted Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of historical fiction set in Joseph McCarthy-era Washington for Fellow Travelers, an 8-part series debuting on Paramount+ beginning October 27 and on Showtime October 29. It spans four decades in the lives of several LGBTQ characters, starting with the Lavender Scare of 1950s Washington, DC, to AIDS activism in 1980s San Francisco. But the series expands the scope of the story about political operative Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and idealistic Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), who begin a clandestine romance just as McCarthy and Roy Cohn declare war on “subversives and sexual deviants” for suspected Communist sympathies and alleged homosexuality, ruining lives and careers and sometimes triggering suicides.
“The scope of it was intimidating,” said Minahan, whose many television directing credits include Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, and the five-part Netflix series Halston, starring Ewan McGregor as the legendary gay fashion designer. “It was a tall order, but we had the right production designer in Anastasia Masaro and costume designer in Joseph La Corte to make it look and feel like that world. It was world-building — like Game of Thrones where you are creating four different worlds in an hour, although we shot it in Toronto, which looks nothing like Washington or San Francisco.”
Minahan, a Danbury, Connecticut native who divides his time between New York City and Provincetown, where he lives with his partner, artist John Dowd, served as executive producer for the entire series and directed the first two episodes. These provide the introduction to the characters, their power dynamics, and the darkening forces gathering in Washington.
“I would have directed the entire series the way I did with Halston, but I had another commitment to shoot a film,” said Minahan. “I agreed to help set it up; we found a team, and then I went right into shooting the first two hours and setting the look for the series.”
Fellow Travelers is anchored by Bomer and Bailey, who create a fraught but passionate closeted relationship, including no-holds-barred sex scenes. “The sex was scripted very clearly, and we ran with it and developed it a bit. But when I read it, I got what Ron was after,” Minahan said. “It is about people risking everything to be who they are; their sexuality is the clearest and easiest way to dramatize that. It’s always important to me that sex scenes move the story forward, and one of the controlling ideas we had throughout was that every exchange was an exchange of power.”
The series includes fascinatingly complex depictions of two virulent homophobes with their own skeletons in Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, who continued to publicly deny his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis right up until he died in 1986 at age 59.
“I remember seeing Roy Cohn out in the ’80s when I was a student [in New York],” said Minahan. “I was in a nightclub talking with a friend, and suddenly he was staring back at [someone], like ‘what are you looking at?’ and there was Roy Cohn standing 20 feet behind me burning a hole into somebody on the dance floor.”
Minahan knew he wanted actor Will Brill to portray Cohn in Fellow Travelers.
“He’s an actor’s actor. I was watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and he plays [Midge Maisel’s] brother, and I immediately thought, ‘Oh my God’ and sent his photo to Ron. Chris Bauer, who plays Joe McCarthy, is very easygoing, a big guy, gregarious. We wanted McCarthy to be sexy. He’s charismatic; he’s a demagogue. We went right to both actors, and they were the only ones we saw for those roles,” he says.
“A piece is only as good as its villain, so it was important casting,” said Minahan, adding that the actors achieved the aim of showing Cohn and McCarthy as “real, fallible humans” even as they were “the worst villains you can imagine.”
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Featured image: (L-R): Jonathan Bailey as Tim and Matt Bomer as Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller in FELLOW TRAVELERS, “Bulletproof”. Photo Credit: Courtesy of SHOWTIME.