‘Assassination of Gianni Versace’ Writer on Adapting David Madson’s Murder

The subtitle of the second installment of “American Crime Story,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” emphasized Andrew Cunanan’s (played by Darren Criss) most infamous murder, but writer Tom Rob Smith was determined to not overlook the killer’s other victims in his adaptation of Maureen Orth’s nonfiction book “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History.”

With a Friend Like This…

Cunanan’s first murders were close to home. As depicted in the fourth episode Andrew snaps and ambushes his friend, Jeffrey (Finn Wittrock), much to the horror of former boyfriend, David (Cody Fern), who becomes his second victim.

“There is a difference in tone and in the way Andrew saw [those] murders compared to [those] of Versace and the others,” Smith says. “It’s someone who has had a nervous breakdown, in effect, who crumbled to nothing — who is full of loathing in his life, and is lashing out at the two people who he feels have drifted from him. Once he crosses the line, he thinks, ‘Now that I’m a killer, what should I do?’”

With these two killings Andrew’s potential future life collapses, Smith says.

Orth’s reporting was vital for Smith’s research and gave vital insight into the real-life mindset of everyone as it was happening. Smith credits Orth’s book with helping to establish how “American Crime Story” would handle David’s death, which occurred after Andrew coerced his ex to go on the run with him post-Jeffrey’s murder.

“What Maureen’s book did was go to the family, and their grief, after describing his death,” Smith says.

Drawing Out the Death(s)

Smith took great pains to make David’s final moments on-screen appear as close to reality as possible (replicating the lake, tall grass, and the home nearby that was evident in crime scene photos), but because the murder itself “would have taken a couple of seconds.” Smith lingered on the moment.

“Clearly, we don’t know what went through his mind in those few seconds, but I really wanted to contrast Andrew, and it became about the love of his family,” Smith says.

Though the show would quickly reveal these are David’s final thoughts, “it was about trying to take that part of the book, which deals with the grief of the family, and put it into that moment, so it didn’t become a series of mechanical facts about the murder,” Smith says.

To give the proper respect to the other deaths, Smith’s limited anthology series jumped around in time, starting with Versace’s (Edgar Ramírez) homicide, and then backing up to show what led to it.

“The other murders aren’t just a prelude to the thing that everyone knows,” he says. “The format was a way of increasing their weight in the structure of the story, and not make them just look like they were a stepping stone on the way to a thing that everyone knew. These victims, who had been given no attention, were incredible people. To be able to pull their story into the light was sad, rewarding and emotional.”

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