Midway through its season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story pivots away from its title character. The series takes the death of the famed fashion designer as a jumping-off point, leaving Miami behind and working backward through Andrew Cunanan’s nationwide killing spree. According to writer Tom Rob Smith, who adapted Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors into the series, that structure mimics the process of his research into that grisly story. Cunanan killed four other men before Versace, but he got famous because he killed a celebrity. ACS: Versace starts with Cunanan’s infamy, then peels back his lies to get at who he really was. Smith, who has experience writing crime TV like London Spy as well as crime novels, talked to Vulture about the Versace family’s condemnation of the series, Cunanan’s racial identity, and how he approached writing true crime for the first time.
After the first few episodes, the show shifts away from the Versaces and works backward through Cunanan’s killing spree. How did you arrive at that structure?
It really came about from the nature of the story itself and our understanding of it. Before Maureen Orth’s book was sent to me, I didn’t really know anything about Andrew Cunanan. I just knew the murder of Versace. It feels like that’s true for most people. We thought, “Can you really go from O.J., which is one of the biggest criminal cases the country’s ever seen, to Andrew Cunanan growing up in San Diego with his dad?” You have to start with that thing that everyone knows, which is the Versace murder, and say, “We’re now telling you the story that you don’t know.” The backwards movement came from thinking about our understanding of the story and how people would react to it. There was no sense of, “This would be an interesting device.” There was no desire to do something for the sake of it.
There are huge advantages to this kind of story, because if he was plotting to kill Versace from age, I don’t know, 17, then you could jump in at any point. But it’s an evolution. If you had met Andrew and spoken to him when he was 18, 19, 20, and said, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to become a killer,” he would’ve found that outlandish. He certainly didn’t have any violence in his life that would’ve been a signal — you know, lots of killers are arsonists, they kill animals, or they have sexual assault. The things that are significant in the early part of his life, you only really understand as being significant when you go backwards.
The episodes almost become vignettes about Cunanan’s other victims . How did you approach those side stories?
I don’t see them necessarily as side stories. Once Andrew becomes a killer, he, to me, is no longer the protagonist of the episode. He’s a force of destruction, but the heroic people are the people he’s coming up against: Jeff [Trail], David [Madson], and Lee [Miglin]. They become the focus because he doesn’t kill people by accident. They symbolize something that’s missing from his own life, whether it’s love, friendship, honor, ambition, or success. He’s cutting a path through all of the things he failed to achieve.
It seems like Andrew is motivated by jealousy toward these men, who can be open about their sexuality because of fame or power, or their friendships, in the case of David and Jeff.
If you’re looking at the battle of episode four between these two characters, Andrew is saying, “The world hates us, therefore we have every right to be hateful,” and David is saying, “Well, you might be right, but they’re wrong to hate us and I’m going to cling on to that.” He doesn’t submit to that level of pathology. I think the pathology of Andrew is that he is, without question, the most homophobic character in this story, even though he’s gay.
This character soaks up the homophobia of society and embodies it more viciously and more lethally than anyone else. When he kills Lee Miglin, he becomes the most horrific, homophobic bully that you could imagine. He’s saying, “I’m going to out you, I’m going to shame you. I’m not just going to kill you, I’m gonna attack your reputation.” All of the shaming that he pours onto Lee with the pornography is extreme homophobia.
That’s also the battle of both Marilyn Miglin and Donatella, not just dealing with the loss of someone they love very much, but saying, “I’m not gonna allow this killer to attack their legacy.” What a terrible world it is that, whether it’s having HIV/AIDS or being gay, these things were seen as a direct attack on their legacy and could shame them and destroy their reputation.
Speaking of legacies, the Versace family has said that the show isn’t a fair representation. Were you surprised by that?
Their statements were pretty consistent with the statements that they released with the publication of Maureen’s book, so we weren’t surprised in that sense. Look, I think it’s a complicated thing writing about people’s lives. I’ve never done true crime before. I’ve never dramatized real people. I think our approach as a group was to say, “We want to contrast the destructive force with what is great about the people that he destroyed.” We were coming very much from a position of love and admiration for those characters.
The show, based on Maureen Orth’s reporting, depicts that Versace was HIV-positive at the time of his death. Why did you decide to include that detail?
We’re taking Maureen’s book and her sources and her research. If I, as someone who had no counter-research, looked and it and thought, “I’m gonna ignore the HIV/AIDS story,” I mean, why? Was I doing it because I thought there was something wrong? Was I doing it because I thought the stigma held up? I completely disagree with the stigma.
Not just that, I thought there was something remarkable in his love for life — this very specific case of, “I’m coming close to death, and I’m gonna fight this illness and cling on until I can survive.” He comes back from the illness and he carries on creating, I found that very inspirational. Furthermore, the interesting and sad thing about HIV/AIDS is that no one really paid it attention in the media and society until celebrities were killed. This is a story about gay men dying and it not really making the news until a celebrity is killed. You know, Andrew himself was accused, and the press was saying, “He’s a killer, he must have AIDS, he must be full of fury.” And actually it was the reverse. The killer wasn’t suffering from AIDS, and this great genius of the fashion world was living with HIV/AIDS. It was the exact reverse of the prejudice, and that struck as powerful as well.
The way the story is structured, we don’t get to Cunanan’s childhood and his relationship with his father until later in the series. In that episode, you discuss his racial identity, the fact that his father was an immigrant from the Philippines, and the prejudice against Asian-Americans that’s especially prevalent among gay men. How much did you see that as part of Cunanan’s motivation?
I think it’s a big part. It’s interesting that he excludes his own racial identity, which is why you don’t get to it until a later part of the episodes, because he lies about it. He would say he’s from Portugal, he would say he’s from Israel, he would never tell people his heritage was Philippine-Italian. He just wouldn’t.
It’s interesting to unpick the lies and say, “There’s a racial identity that he is running from.” His dad was running from [it], but his dad didn’t lie about it. His dad was very much like, “I’m gonna be the quintessential American. I’ve come to this country, I was in Navy, and now I’m serving in Merrill Lynch. I’m gonna earn money. I’m gonna buy the house. I’m gonna live the American Dream.” His dad was telling him, “I can only go so far, you’re gonna go the last stretch because you were born in America.”
I went to San Diego and I went to [Andrew’s] house and I went to his school, and it’s very interesting that he lived in an a city which had a very mixed, diverse population — I think it has one of the highest Philippine-American populations in the country — and he then gets sent to this school in La Jolla which is very white. He is being taught, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, that being pushed up the ladder is being pushed away from this racial identity. Once he is in his 20s, he feels like he’s left that behind. That’s the reason it becomes much more prominent at the end of the series. You’re dealing with something he’s leaving behind.
You said this is your first time writing a true-crime story. You wrote London Spy and crime novels, but how does the approach change when you’re constructing something based on fact? How much freedom you have?
My guiding principle is that I have no freedom to tell some version that I feel to be fundamentally wrong, but where I do think there is freedom is trying to construct a scene that you absolutely admit wouldn’t have happened in that way but tells a bigger truth.
With all of the outlines, I tried to start with, “Just literally put down the truth,” and then you look at it and think, “Okay, we’re going to have a gap here, we’re going to have to project into what happened.” You can’t present uncertainty in a dramatization. Maureen can say, “Look, this might have happened.” You have to show people a version. This is our interpretation of the fragments of truth that we have.
Antonio [D’Amico] came out and said that he didn’t pick up Gianni’s body when it was on the steps, that he was just in shock. We thought he did because we read that he had blood on his clothes. Even looking at it now, even knowing the truth, we want the audience to feel that this is one of the key relationships in the show and how terrible it is and what a sense of grief. Sometimes you sidestep the details in order to try and communicate a bigger truth. That was our approach.
You worked with Ryan Murphy and the other ACS producers to develop this story. How did those conversations go?
It was just endless discussions. Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson were the people I was working with most intensely. Once we had figured something out, we took it to Ryan and there would be a second wave of intensive discussion and changes. There were amazing researchers and [production] execs, so it was a team of people in those conversations.
Do you have any memories of Versace’s killing?
No, it was just that Miami murder and the houseboat siege. What was interesting is that I didn’t have any sense that it had any significance and why that is, why there are some stories we give great scrutiny to and others we don’t. There were a lots of people going, “Oh, he just wanted fame,” and I’m like, “Is it as simple as that?” If this is a man who obsessed with fame, why did he kill himself in the houseboat when he would have had the most extraordinary amount of coverage at the trial?
There must have been a process of things going very wrong. This must have been a story that speaks to wider feelings than just someone who was crazy, because clearly he wasn’t crazy when he was a kid. He was an articulate and thoughtful young man. How did that person end up doing these really horrific things? I think it talks about one of the biggest things today, which is the process by which someone can be so full of hate that they destroy things.
You seem interested in understanding all the ways the world broke him, in a way.
Yes, and that sense that we’re all surrounded by prejudices and injustices. Some of them we feel much more strongly than others. Some people have the most awful upbringings, some people have experienced more homophobia than Andrew and haven’t reacted like him, but he is very much a sponge for that. For whatever reason, he can’t overcome the hatred of the world, so it breaks him. It doesn’t break anyone else — it doesn’t break Jeff, it doesn’t break David, it doesn’t break Versace, it doesn’t break the other gay men in San Diego, but it breaks him and he then absorbs it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.