Ryan Murphy is bring the harrowing 1997 murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace to the screen in the upcoming season of American Crime Story, and FX revealed the opening minutes of the premiere episode at the Television Critics Association press tour on Wednesday.
The first episode starts off with a title card that reads July 15, 1997, the morning of Versace’s murder. The legendary fashion designer (played by Edgar Ramirez) wakes up in bed and walks out onto the balcony of his home in Miami Beach, Florida.
Meanwhile, serial killer Andrew Cunanan (played by Darren Criss) sits on the beach with a book featuring Versace on the cover, as he pulls a gun out of his backpack. Struggling with some internal conflict, Cunanan walks into the surf and screams at the sky.
In his home, Versace takes some morning medication, changes into a black shirt and some light pants, and heads out into the city, walking to a newsstand to buy copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair (which features Princess Diana, who had not yet been killed, on the cover). As he goes about his day, Cunanan is throwing up in a bathroom.
The tension mounts as Versace returns home and walks up his steps — shot on location where the real Versace was actually killed. As he opens the gate to his opulent estate, Cunanan runs at him, gun drawn, and fires off a round. The first shot misses, but the second doesn’t, and as the murder occurs, the episode cuts to the show’s official title card — The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
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Speaking with reporters at TCA on Wednesday, Murphy opened up about why the show chose to use the word “assassination” in the title, as opposed to murder or homicide, and the producer explained that they chose it for its “political overtones.”
“It denotes somebody who’s taking the life of somebody else to make a point. That’s exactly what Andrew Cunanan did and what he was trying to do and that’s explored in the show,” Murphy shared. “The interesting thing that we’re doing with this show is we’re telling the story backwards. The first episode deals with the literal murder or assassination itself and then we tell the story in reverse, so we get into how he had that motive and why he wanted to do what he wanted to do.”
For Murphy, delving into the nuances of Versace’s death and Cunanan’s motivations and murder spree was vitally important to elevate the series above just retelling the details surrounding the event. The show’s true intent is to examine the pervasive political climate of the 1990s that allowed the crime to happen.
“More than why [Versace] was killed, it’s [about] why it was allowed to happen,” Murphy said. “The thing about American Crime Story is that we’re not just doing a crime, we’re trying to talk about a crime within a social idea… Versace, who was the last victim, really did not have to die.”
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Cunanan was responsible for at least five other murders in the months leading up to shooting Versace. He committed suicide a week later.
“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 a homophobia at the time,” he continued. “So we thought that that was a really interesting thing to examine, to look at again, particularly with the president we have and the world that we live in.”
Murphy explained that one episode of the upcoming season is dedicated to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was enacted under President Bill Clinton and generated a lot of controversy at the time.
“I just thought it was topical and really social and about something, which I think is this show at its best,” Murphy added.
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Before the first episode of the show even aired, it was already facing push-back from some of the real-life people involved — chiefly Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s lover, who denounced the mini-series when photos of the cast were first leaked online.
However, Murphy explained that he’s subsequently reached out to D’Amico, as has Ricky Martin, who plays him in the series.
“Ricky spoke to him today and he was very great and excited to talk to Ricky,” Murphy said, adding that it’s “very hard to judge anything that you’re watching based on a paparazzi photograph, which is apparently what his judgment was about.”
“When you’re doing a show like this or a show like [The People v. O.J. Simpson], you’re not really doing a documentary, you’re doing a docu-drama. So there are always certain things that you’ll take liberties with,” Murphy explained. “You have to be respectful but you also have to make it your own.”
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“Our version of the show is based on a book that Maureen Orth wrote,” Murphy said, referring to the extensively researched true crime tome Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, first published in 1999. “She has a definite point of view in that book. We’re true to that point of view.”
Executive Producer Brad Simpson reiterated Murphy’s point, explaining that the series is “really about the victims.”
“We examine the victims [on this show],” Simpson said. “In many ways we’re trying to bring to life and celebrate the lives of these people that Andrew Cunanan snuffed out.”
Murphy later opened up about the show’s stellar cast — which also includes Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace, Max Greenfield as Santo Versace, and Finn Wittrock and Jeffrey Trail, one of Cunanan’s earlier victims — and marveled, “The thing that’s amazing about this cast is they were all of our first choices.”
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Reflecting on casting Ramirez as Versace, Murphy said he was “the only one” he ever considered.
“I had many meetings with Edgar. I was literally like, ‘I’m not going to let you say no. I just know that you are that character,'” he shared. “I’ve seen a lot of his work and I think his previous work is incredibly soulful and Edgar has a great soul and a great mystery. You cannot deny the physical appearance and the resemblance, which is startling.”
Ramirez, who joined the cast and crew at the TCA panel, had nothing but praise for Murphy and for what the show has managed to accomplish.
“For the first time he combined sexiness and glamour and opulence like no one had done before,” the Gold star explained. “It’s very interesting how the story captures an amazing story but also captures the spirit of the time.”
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story will premiere in January 2018 on FX.
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