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How ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ Looks Beyond Its Subject

Screenwriter Tom Rob Smith on the Versace controversy, adapting true crime, and the Ryan Murphy empire

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The titular event of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story happens within the first 10 minutes of the nine-hour show. It’s a beautiful day in South Beach, i.e., a normal day in South Beach, and the legendary designer is on his way home to the man he loves. He’s returned from his daily outing to fetch some magazines, unlocking the gates to a mansion that’s unabashedly ostentatious, just like him. Then there are two gunshots, and in between, Versace’s final word: “No.”

And so Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series dispatches with the version of the story many critics and viewers anticipated: a celebration of a proudly over-the-top titan of fashion, brought to you by a proudly over-the-top titan of TV. That was the expectation set by an Entertainment Weekly cover showcasing Edgar Ramírez as Versace, Penélope Cruz as his sister Donatella, and Ricky Martin as his longtime partner Antonio D’Amico; long before that, it was the reputation afforded by Murphy’s decade-plus of vamping, shark jumping, and general sensibility offending. From the mind that conceived of Nip/Tuck, a retro-ish Florida crime romp even felt like a return to the very form that gave Murphy his start in prestige TV.

Instead, it turns out, Assasination is less about Versace than the five-murder spree that concluded in his gruesome death in July 1997 at the hands of a disturbed young gay man named Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). This season of American Crime Story begins with the splashiest, most tabloid-friendly part of its narrative and pulls the audience backward into a deeper, sadder story, the majority of whose casualties are much less famous than Versace but no less deserving of our grief and admiration.

“All I knew — as, I think, will be true for most of the audience — was that Versace was shot in Miami on the steps of his house, and I knew the houseboat siege [where Cunanan died by suicide after an eight-day manhunt]. And that was it,” recalls screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, who wrote all nine chapters of Assassination. Then producers Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson approached him about adapting the Versace story for the second season of the nascent American Crime Story, which had yet to achieve blockbuster success with its first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson. The more Smith researched the Cunanan story, the more he found lying beyond its infamous climax: “I was really taken aback at how [the Versace murder] was really just the tip of this iceberglike structure that went down into this road movie across America, the American Dream, ambition, [and] homophobia.”

Such a broad focus doesn’t mean that Assassination has been warmly received by the Versace family itself, which has greeted the series with the same condemnation it extended to Vulgar Favors, the 1999 book about the Cunanan killings by Vanity Fair contributing writer Maureen Orth. “As we have said, the Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace, which should only be considered as a work of fiction,” read a statement issued last week. “Of all the possible portrayals of his life and legacy, it is sad and reprehensible that the producers have chosen to present the distorted and bogus version created by Maureen Orth.”

Long before the family denounced the series, however, Smith had to figure out how to replicate his own experience of being drawn into the Cunanan saga for a larger audience, presumably as ignorant of the lead-up to the Versace killing as he was. So he decided to leverage that ignorance to his advantage, using Versace’s murder as an entry point into a larger story rather than an end in itself. “You start with the thing that everyone knows, and then you guide them backward through the bits that they don’t know,” Smith explains. His approach to the script “became about how we understand the case, myself included, which was that we didn’t understand it.”

Such thinking gave rise to Assassination’s highly unorthodox structure: a reverse-chronological account of Cunanan’s unraveling and its consequences, with every episode moving further back in time from the eponymous event. Along the way, most of Cunanan’s victims get their own spotlight installments, making Assassination almost an anthology within an anthology: A Chicago real estate titan’s dedicated wife throws herself into preserving his legacy. A promising Minneapolis architect comes to terms with his father, who loves his son even as he struggles to understand him. A gay ex-soldier wrestles with the dual identities that the Clinton-era military has ruled to be mutually exclusive.

The result is the only Murphy-associated production that could conceivably be described as “slow,” methodically pausing and pulling apart the action to make space for people whose names have largely been lost to history, except as a footnote to Versace’s sensational death. Though Cunanan is the thread that unites these men and undoubtedly Assassination’s central figure, it isn’t quite accurate to say the show is a character study, at least until its final stretch of episodes, because the viewer watches his monstrous actions without any background information that can excuse or even explain them. “We wanted to say that the victims are the heroes of those episodes. They are the central characters,” Smith says. “Cunanan, in a weird way, is this kind of vortex, a dark abyss. Once he starts killing people, he crosses a line, and he isn’t really human in a way that we understand.” Cunanan’s inscrutability can make Assassination an excruciating watch, but the show consistently foregrounds the killed over their killer.

Versace remains in the picture via flashback throughout the season, albeit mostly as a foil to Cunanan, a habitual liar who uses his looks and extravagant inventions to place himself in proximity to wealth and power. “To me, the shape of the story was always how these two people grow up to be so different,” Smith observes. “They struggle with many of the same issues: homophobia, ambition, being the outsider. One conquers all these problems and becomes this great creator and great celebrator of life. One is beaten and ends up ripping down other people’s success.” Assassination’s view of Versace is almost beatific, holding up the designer as a paragon of vivacity, commitment, and creative genius. Cunanan is a parasite — in the words of one astute observer, “too lazy to work, too proud to be kept.” Versace, on the other hand, is both generative and generous.

Assassination’s flattering presentation of Versace represents an expansion of his presence in Orth’s report, which Smith was tasked with fictionalizing into compelling dramatic television while also doing justice to his real subjects. “It weighs very heavily on you,” Smith says of his first experience writing true crime. (Smith has written four crime novels, including Child 44, and a BBC miniseries, London Spy.) “It’s a great responsibility. These are such amazing people, and I always felt a great sense of privilege to get to know them a little.” Still, there were passages when Smith was obligated to make use of creative license, like the multiday stretch from David Madson’s abduction to his eventual murder. In those cases, Smith says, he did his best to extrapolate from the known facts “in support of those larger truths.” We may not know exactly what Madson and Cunanan said to each other, but we know where each man was coming from, and where they ended up. On Cunanan’s end, “There was some sense that he was in some upside-down, sick way trying to extend the relationship that had long since ended”; on Madson’s, “that was a mix of both fear for your life, but also a sense of, If you go to the police, will they believe you?” From that dynamic, Smith draws almost the entirety of Assassination’s horrific, elegiac fourth episode.

Then there was the biography of Versace himself. One of the Versace family’s principal objections to Vulgar Favors is its assertion that Gianni was HIV-positive, a claim that Orth says is backed up by accounts from the Miami police and is written into the show as canon. “It’s interesting; the book was written in a certain period of time, when things were considered shameful which are now not,” Smith reflects. “I thought we were really trying to undermine [the stigma], and break away all those assumptions. … That was the reason we decided to put that in, as opposed to being salacious or engaging in gossip. Versace was this great breaker-down of convention. He was one of the first out gay celebrities, and he was living with his partner for 15 years. It’s something we celebrate. He represented love in a way that Andrew didn’t.”

Assassination’s handling of HIV is just one dimension of how the show sets out to tell a specifically gay story, looking back on the repression of the ’90s from the more progressive, though by no means perfect, climate of 2018. At the time, Cunanan’s and Versace’s sexuality gave the murder’s media coverage a condescending, almost sadistic edge. In his review of Vulgar Favors for The New York Times, Frank Bruni accused Orth of titillation, though Smith puts it more diplomatically: “At some point, [the book] reads very much like an outsider commenting on a world of which they’re not part, and sometimes that can make you seem quite removed from it. … It’s not contesting some of the descriptions of what’s going on; it’s just saying that some of the words lacked a sense of what the wider picture might have been, emotionally, behind some of these scenarios.”

Conversely, Assassination is not an outsider’s perspective on what it means to be gay in a culture openly hostile to your identity; with the benefit of Smith and Murphy’s insights, the show depicts both a broader culture of homophobia and the tools that helped Versace weather the storm of coming out (namely, his wealth and public acclaim). “The options were, either you’re as successful as Versace … [or] you have to be in the closet,” Smith says. “There were so few options and ways of exploring in this world. I think fundamentally, if you boil it down, it’s a survival show: What decisions do you make to survive in society?” Many people didn’t, and with empathy and hindsight, Assassination aims to explore why.

With two gay men serving as writer and executive producer, Assassination stands out even in TV’s rapidly diversifying landscape for the specificity of its story and the nuance of its psychological observations, however cut-and-dry Cunanan’s grandiose pathology. The season makes for a fascinating follow-up to Feud: Bette and Joan, another potentially high-camp Murphy production that surprised many with its grounded approach. Assassination is also an intriguing prelude to Pose, the ’80s-set New York drama that will break the record for the most trans actors in series regular roles on a single show and presents an opportunity to extend this more somber trend into a new phase of Murphy’s career. Whatever one thinks of Murphy’s infamously maximalist style, the mega-showrunner (Assassination is his second major launch of the month) has played an undeniable role in pluralizing the faces and voices on our televisions.

“I think Ryan is big on telling stories that aren’t told, that have been ignored by people,” Smith says early in our conversation. “This is certainly one of them.” In this sense, Assassination is the opposite of its predecessor. Nearly two years ago, The People v. O.J. took the most over-covered case in the world and confronted the audience with what it had still managed to miss. The Assassination of Gianni Versace shows us what’s allowed to fester when we condemn an entire segment of the population to the dark — and in the process, makes a forceful argument for bringing both bad and good into the light. “Andrew didn’t kill [these people] randomly,” Smith notes. “He was very much motivated by jealousy, and the good that they represented. When you’re telling the story, you feel like you’re celebrating their lives.”