Yesterday, television critics got a first glimpse of the opening scene from The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story as part of the TCA Press Tour. Premiering January, the FX mini-series recounts the fashion designer’s murder in reverse—beginning with the day he was shot outside of his Miami Beach home and then unraveling the events leading up to that day across 10 episodes.
Creator Ryan Murphy was joined by screenwriter/executive producer Tom Rob Smith, EP Brad Simpson, and series stars Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez and Ricky Martin for a panel about the series, which is still in production. Ramirez stars as Versace, who was at the height of his success when he was gunned down by Andrew Cunanan (Criss) in 1997. Martin plays his lover, Antonio D’amico, who recently expressed his distaste for the show.
“The picture of Ricky Martin holding the body in his arms is ridiculous,” D’Amico said. “Maybe it’s the director’s poetic license, but that is not how I reacted.” But during the panel, Martin revealed he’d since spoken with D’Amico.
“The first thing that came out of my mouth when he picked up the phone [was], ’I’m so happy we’re talking. And I just want you to know that this is treated with utmost respect,'” Martin said at the panel. “But more than anything, there is a level of injustice with this story.”
“I told him that ’I will make sure that people fall in love with your relationship with Gianni,” the out singer added. “That is what I’m here for. I really want them to see the beauty and the connection that you guys had.’ And he was extremely happy about it.”
Like all Murphy productions, painstaking detail was put into The Assassination of Gianni Versace, with scenes shot in Versace’s home, Casa Casuarina, now a hotel.
“I was very emotional shooting it, as we all were,” Murphy said. “I mean, Darren and I were, and Ricky. The assassination was important and tough to shoot, and the crew was crying, and we were very emotional doing it. We shot exactly on the exact step where he died.”
Production designer Judy Becker (Carol) was also able to recreate the home and Versace’s design studio/office on the Fox studio lot.
“It is tiny things I love,” said Murphy, who placed Versace’s favorite orchid on a table as a tribute. “There was an ashtray that was actually made that year that he designed that Edgar snatches the keys out of. I really loved hunting those things down and finding them as a tribute to that character.”
Murphy has long been a fan of Versace, whom he called a fearless designer and an inspiration for being out when even fashion designers seldom did.
“I was always very moved by him. He was a very important and cultural figure, and he lived outrageously and daringly, and he was a disrupter,” he said. “And I think his life was opera… I remember being so proud and excited when he did that interview in the Advocate, because, at the time, there wasn’t really a lot of people who were brave enough to live their life in the open. I was very emotional shooting it, as we all were.”
Murphy’s inspiration for the series was two-fold: Besides his love of Versace, he also wanted to explore the cultural context in which his murder took place. As EP Brad Simpson mentioned, Versace was killed just three months after Ellen DeGeneres came out.
“Nobody was out. There were no out celebrities,” Simpson said. “There was Elton John. There were no out fashion designers. You know, Versace had given an interview with his lover, and chosen to live openly as a gay man, and that was part of the reason why he was targeted and killed. Andrew Cunanan was a serial killer who killed other gay men.”
The exploration of Cunanan’s motives are a huge part of The Assassination of Gianni Versace, something Murphy believes hasn’t been touched on yet. Cunanan was a 27-year-old hustler who had relationships with wealthy older men. Those who knew him describe his desire for status symbols—lavish houses, fine clothes, vacations. But his access to the men who could provide these luxuries was limited and eventually, he began a killing spree, murdering five gay men across the U.S.
“We pay tribute to all of the victims that are in many ways forgotten and not talked about,” Murphy said. “And I think having episodes that center on their lives and how they were taken too soon is important.”
Cunanan’s other victims include his ex-lover David Madson, Chicago real estate developer Lee Miglin, friend Jeffrey Trail, and cemetery caretaker William Reese. The murders of Trail and Miglin were particularly violent—Trail was beaten to death with a claw hammer, and 72-year-old Miglin was stabbed more than 20 times with a screwdriver, his throat sawed open with a hacksaw.
“Nobody’s really, sort of, traced the Andrew Cunanan of it all that I think Darren does so brilliantly,” Murphy said. “The pain that he brings to that, and why and answer why did he do it. Was he a madman or was he a victim of the times? And I think the answer is, sort of, both. And both things we examine in the show.”
Criss met with dozens of people who knew Cunanan at different points in his life, all of whom describe him very differently.
“There’s a lot left a lot of blanks to fill in, which has been a very interesting ride,” he explained. “Andrew was so many different personalities to so many different people,” he added. “That makes things a bit easier because we’re not just following what we would assume to be a murderous, horrible person all the time. We see him at his best; we see him at his worst; we see him at his most charming; we see him at his most hurt.”
Screenwriter Tom Rob Smith penned all 10 episodes, largely based on Maureen Orth’s 2000 true crime book Vulgar Favors. He said he wanted to connect any similarities Cunanan and Versace had, like their interest in living large. But of course, Versace’s career provided for him in a way that was out of Cunanan’s grasp.
“It’s much closer to a story of radicalization than a typical serial killer,” Smith said. “I mean, he killed five people… Technically, he went on a spree. But if you go back a year from most serial killers, they’re committing crimes of one description or another, like assault or arson. There are these signals. With Andrew Cunanan, you go back a year and he’s in a million-dollar condo in La Jolla talking about politics or art, and charming people. How do you get from that person in that condo to someone who can attack someone with a hammer and brutally kill them?”
Smith said it was important for him to present Cunanan “not just someone who is intrinsically monstrous, but who, has similarities to Versace from the outset” and explore “why his footsteps go in one direction and Versace’s go in a completely different direction.”
But don’t expect the series to be a pity party for Versace’s killer.
“It’s about the choices you make,” said Smith. “We’re tracking those choices and seeing how society impacted them, and how he chose various things and the people around him. You’re taking a murder that we all know… and you’re taking it apart and going back to the very nuts and bolts [of it.]”
For Murphy and the other producers, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a larger story than just a celebrity murder. It’s about being out of the closet in 1990s America.
“I think it’s more than why [Versace] was killed. It was sort of why it was allowed to happen,” Murphy said. “I think the thing about American Crime Story is that we’re not just doing a crime. We’re trying to sort of talk about a crime within a social idea. Versace, who was the last victim, really did not have to die. Part of the thing that we talk about in the show is one of the reasons Andrew Cunanan was able to make his way across the country and pick off these victims, many of whom were gay, was because of the homophobia at the time.”
He recalled how police in Miami refused to put up wanted posters for Cunanan even though they knew Cunanan was a major suspect and likely headed toward the city. “I thought that that was a really interesting thing to examine,” Murphy added, “particularly with the president we have now and the world that we live in.”