Emmys: 'The Assassination of Gianni Versace' Producers on "Being Respectful" to Victims
The series, which earned 18 nominations, was a hefty task to take on for Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, who wanted the story of Andrew Cunanan to reveal "both the internalized homophobia and the homophobia that surrounded the investigation."
Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson followed up their critically acclaimed (and Emmy-winning) FX limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson with another '90s-set true-crime saga: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. It was an even darker and more Byzantine tale exploring the bloody trail of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and the victims he claimed before murdering the famed fashion designer. For their efforts, the show earned 18 nominations.
As seasoned as you both are, what aspect of this series was unlike anything you've ever had to tackle before?
NINA JACOBSON We had the benefit of Maureen Orth's book, but it was really the only significant text that covered Cunanan and the victims. And there was much more that had to be imagined in the context of what we didn't know, as opposed to having the abundance of source material to work with [as on The People v. O.J. Simpson]. We wanted to get it right and to be respectful of people whose stories would be told who weren't around to speak for themselves.
BRAD SIMPSON The victims were all — for the most part, except for Versace — friends with or knew Andrew Cunanan, so it also meant that Andrew Cunanan was the centerpiece of the show. We had to figure out a way to make a character whom you'd want to stay with for nine episodes and invest in. And It was a practical challenge, from a casting level, that every two episodes we needed to find great new members of the cast to come in and give their tour de force performances
JACOBSON Each episode, you would be losing somebody you cared about, but staying with somebody who was responsible for that loss.
How were you able to find the right balance of having an artistic vision, but also staying as true as you can to the story's particulars?
JACOBSON Make sure to add to the difficulty that we keep telling the story backward — that was also very challenging! Because there would be things that you would realize, "No, you can't tell that yet, because we don't know that yet. That hasn't happened yet." Having to be mindful on where we were in this complex timeline was a challenge.
SIMPSON It's a really complicated thing when you're doing true crime or any true stories. We try to be ethical. We try to be mindful of our responsibility as producers and that there are real people at the center of this. Marcia Clark said something about our "O.J." show, once she watched it: "Sometimes I would quibble with their facts, but they always caught the correct emotional truth." You had to look at the evidence that was out there, the police reports, everything else, and say to yourself, "What do we think is emotionally true about what happened?" I think we achieved that. We never wanted to romanticize Andrew. We wanted to humanize his victims while also asking, "How did this happen?" He wasn't born a sociopath. He wasn't born a killer. I'm not excusing what he did, but he was made into a killer by his father, society and the shame that he felt as a gay man in the '90s.
What were the elements that you felt were going to really resonate with the audience?
JACOBSON Right around the time we were just developing the script, I went with my daughter to my alma mater, and she was asking me about my memories of college. So many were about my own internalized homophobia and my desire to not be gay. To bring that shame and both the internalized homophobia and the homophobia that surrounded the investigation — that was something that was really important to us.
Were there elements of the story that struck a chord with the audience that you didn't see coming?
SIMPSON The emotional connection that the audience felt toward not just Gianni Versace but to Judith Light's character and Ricky Martin's character — to these normal people who got caught up in Andrew's murdering spree. It was gratifying to do a show where I hope we did right by the victims but also got to show what was possible for them in their lives.
Who has the most difficult job on the show?
JACOBSON I would have to say Darren [Criss] because to live in that darkness, rage, shame and all of that and yet be the person who he is on set — who is so positive, warm, embracing.
SIMPSON He had to carry the show and do these horrible things and not excuse them, but make you want to watch it every week, despite the fact that he was doing terrible things to people he really grew to care about.
What other nominated show are you obsessed with?
SIMPSON I don't want to sound like a suck-up to FX, but we're both obsessed with The Americans and Atlanta.
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.