The latest installment of FX and Ryan Murphy’s anthology drama “American Crime Story,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” starts with the murder of the fashion icon (played here by Edgar Ramirez), but that is just the jumping off point for a deep dive into a handful of horrific crimes committed by Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss) in the 1990s.
“This case is famous because of the murder of Versace,” executive producer Tom Rob Smith said at FX’s Television Critics Assn. press tour Friday in Pasadena, Calif. “That’s all I knew, but it was the tip of the iceberg.”
Smith, alongside executive producers Murphy, Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson used Maureen Orth’s 1999 book “Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in US History” as research and the basis for the nine-episode series.
Since Cunanan’s victims were no longer alive to confirm exactly how events took place, Smith, who also wrote the episodes, pieced together the facts from Orth’s book and imagined what might have happened in between the gaps. “We have these tiny points of truth, and you try to connect the tissue between them, but I would never use the term ’embellish,'” Smith said.
While Simpson pointed out that Versace is a “thread that goes all the way through” all nine episodes, the show is designed to be an ensemble, and they wanted to pay respect to all of Cunanan’s victims, including Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), David Madson (Cody Fern) and Jeffrey Trail (Finn Wittrock). “Each victims were tragic in their own way,” he said.
Although the show follows Cunanan as he dips in and out of these other men’s lives (and ultimately takes their lives), Simpson noted they didn’t want to put his name in the title because it felt like it would have been “elevating him to a place we didn’t want to put him.”
Jacobson pointed out the title of the series instead describes the political and public action that made Cunanan famous. “Some of the themes [in the series are] the contrasts between Cunanan and Versace in the destroyer and the curator. One character is an authentic, honest creator drawing on his heritage, his background his family… and the other goes on a path of destruction because he wants the fame without the work or the talent,” she said.
Jacobson also felt strongly that Versace did not have to die, but the homophobia at the time allowed the prior victims’ cases to be mishandled or under-investigated. “Cunanan was going out clubbing right across the street from the police department. The neglect and the isolation and the ‘otherness’ in the way the police handled the deaths of gay men, with the exception of one of the victims, [made Versace’s death] a death that didn’t have to happen,” Jacobson said.
The distinction between victims is an important element not only for the way their cases were handled but also for the way the murders occurred and the motivations behind them, per Smith. “When Andrew’s life fell apart, he murdered his closest friend and his lover, but those murders are different from Lee Miglin and Gianni Versace,” he said. “Once he crossed the line and became a killer, he began to kill to pursue ideas.”
Those ideas, according to Murphy, included targeting people “specifically to shame them and out them and have a form of payback for a life that he felt he could not live.” And Smith was adamant about calling Cunanan a “spree killer” whose pathology more closely mirrored terrorism than that of a “serial killer.”
“This is someone who had a [great] education and was brilliant and was witty and had the world at his feet. Why does this person end up killing five people? You have to explore the intellect. You have to explore what went wrong,” Smith said, noting that Cunanan was a man who felt invisible who was desperate to find a way to be seen.
“Once he realizes he lost everything, either you build something that impresses someone which takes a lot of work, or if you don’t want anonymity, you can try to rip something down,” Smith continued. “Andrew ripped down the success of Lee Miglin and Versace.”
Orth, as well, felt Cunanan’s desperation was what drove him — and ultimately what doomed him. “He was willing to kill to become famous. Now you can be an Instagram star or a YouTube star. If he had been born later, maybe that’s what he would have gone for, but he wanted to be famous that he was willing to kill for it,” Orth said.
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” premieres Jan. 17 at 10pm on FX.