[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” Episode 7, “Creator/Destroyer.”]
The penultimate episode of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” is almost like a checklist of all the challenges a director might face in crafting an episode of TV. For Matt Bomer, that’s exactly why it made for the perfect directorial debut.
“We had two child protagonists in the first couple acts of the episode, so you’re already on child hours. We’re in three different countries, five different cities. Party scenes, trading floor scenes, a period piece,” Bomer told IndieWire. “I was so grateful to be thrown so many challenges my first time directing because I was able to tick off so many boxes of things that I don’t have to worry about any more. Half of it was just getting it done and knowing you can do it and do it on schedule.”
Known for his work in front of the camera, Bomer had other opportunities to direct before but always wanted to wait for the optimum chance to immerse himself in a project. When “American Crime Story” became a possibility, Bomer devised his own personal film school to get himself ready to meet the challenge.
“I was waiting patiently in the wings. Ryan had reached out to me back in December  and asked me to direct. After I passed out and regained consciousness, I said yes and really spent four and a half months on this episode,” Bomer said. “I read over 3,000 pages of books on directing, I shadowed two different directors on the show. I sat down with film and television directors who are friends of mine who were willing to be mentors. I did an intensive at the DGA. I knew the level of artistry that was [happening] on set and I wanted to meet everyone on their level.”
Part of Bomer’s signing up for “American Crime Story” was the chance to fully commit to the task. He was on set for a month of shoots while the show was filming other episodes in the season, affording him the chance to know the full crew before he started.
“I didn’t want that partial directorial experience. I wanted to really immerse myself and approach it like any director would. I wanted to be there for all the scouts. I wanted to be in the room for all the casting. I wanted to be in all the design meetings. I didn’t want to just lean on the director of photography to get me through while I worked with actors,” Bomer said.
For an episode that meant turning L.A. into locations as wide-ranging as San Diego and the Philippines, it was an investment that paid off down the road.
“I had to find three different countries within a Los Angeles area,” Bomer said. “We had an incredible production designer in Jamie Walker McCall. She worked her magic, particularly what she did in the Baliuag shack. That final confrontation between Andrew and his father is a setpiece we talked through that she built. I think her work on that was tremendous.”
The pivotal piece in the “Creator/Destroyer” puzzle is Jon Jon Briones, who plays Andrew Cunanan’s father Modesto, a man whose pathological drive to appease his son lays the groundwork for the rest of the “Versace” saga that came before this. Briones’ reputation as a performer had preceded him on set, with “Versace” star Darren Criss and writer Tom Rob Smith both praising his legendary, long-running work as The Engineer in “Miss Saigon.” Through the audition and right up through the first day of shooting, Bomer knew they had the perfect man to play Modesto.
“We started with that move-out scene early on. He had this guy and he knew this man. We were also shooting this while he was in a Broadway show, so we had to shoot all of his stuff out in six days straight and then he had to fly back to New York,” Bomer said. “That final scene, that ‘Heart of Darkness’/’Apocalypse Now’ confrontation at the end of the episode, that was really when I went, ‘OK, this guy is sensational. He’s got this all mapped out and he knows how to do this.'”
Building a relationship with the two performers at the heart of the episode was key. Even though Bomer didn’t come in with a predetermined directorial style, he had the advantage of having already seen what Criss was doing with Andrew Cunanan as a character before it came time to show how he got there.
“I had been witness to what Darren was doing on set and had been blown away by it from Day One. I knew how he liked to work. I think a big part of directing is when you’ve got something great, get out of the way. Just set a good frame that tells the story right, stage it right,” Bomer said. “I try to give the actors a lot of information about what the scene’s about by how I stage it. There are also times when it’s a three-page scene between two people and I go, ‘I’m not giving you anything. Let’s rehearse until we get something that’s organic and true and then we’ll shoot that.’ So there’s no one-size-fits-all. You’re always dealing with a different box of crayons, depending on which artist you’re working with in any given scene.”
That preparation meant that even the smaller moments in the episodes, ones on a much simpler scale, had the opportunity to take advantage of everyone’s shorthand.
“One of my favorite things we did was that really quick scene where he puts on the CD and he’s picking out his big reveal outfit for the party. It was a tiny little thing, but we were just vibing creatively with the camera people, with Darren. Everything was coming together at that point. I think we did it in one take,” Bomer said.
That sense of understanding came from collaborating with people that Bomer had previously worked with on other Ryan Murphy projects. Those individuals were part of every step of the “Creator/Destroyer” process, from the on-set crew to the stewards of the post process.
“I was so fortunate because when you’re working with Ryan Murphy, you’re working with the best people in the industry. I’m not talking about episodic. I’m talking about in the industry,” Bomer said. “The camera crew, the production designers. Simon Dennis, the director of photography. Alexis [Martin] Woodall, what she does in post-production, the way she tones these shows is phenomenal. My editor, Shelly Westerman, was a personal hero of mine. She did ‘Velvet Goldmine’ and worked on so many of the films that were really central to my cinematic experience as a young man.”
That editing process shines in the boardroom scenes where Modesto is essentially pitching the American dream to his employers, both before he’s hired and after his penny stock scheme has been sniffed out.
“This is Sidney Lumet-esque style, where these performers are all bringing their A-game. Shelly and I knew we wanted these scenes to live for a long time, not to be this MTV, jump-cutting thing. Stay in masters longer and not chop and chop and chop to distract,” Bomer said. “Particularly in an episode like this, it’s so psychological, you needed to have this creepy drifty feel and live in these moments that are uncomfortable and horrific and scary. Especially when you have performers operating at this level.”
Bomer said he’s back to being patient about any future directing opportunities, but having this finished and released to the world is the first step in keeping those future options open.
“It was all a learning process, but I feel like with anything, discipline can give you freedom. I was so overly prepared because I had the time and the luxury to be overly prepared. The first couple days we finished a bit early and I was able to take some deep breaths,” Bomer said. “I know that there will be a time when I am directing and I’m having to deal with some much harsher realities that you don’t have to deal with when you’re working for Ryan Murphy television. The best thing this gave me was this sense that I can do it.”
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.