'American Crime Story' Season 2 Writer Tom Rob Smith On Versace, Cunanan And Jolt Cola [Interview]

American Crime Story returns tonight. Ryan Murphy's anthology series, which captivated audiences with The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, now tackles The Assassination of Gianni Versace. This murder is a little different than Simpson's, though. Andrew Cunanan murdered Versace at the end of a spree totaling five murders. The series is about the crimes, not the trial.

Executive producer and writer Tom Rob Smith spoke with /Film after a Television Critics Association panel for the second season. Based on Maureen Orth's book Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, The Assassination of Gianni Versace begins with the killing and moves backwards. Smith explained some of the details we'll see in the show's opening scenes and later episodes.

If The People Vs. O.J. Simpsons was a circus, like the trial was, what is the tone of The Assassination of Gianni Versace?

Of course, the media circus didn't happen until Versace was killed. Part of that is one of the stories, which is when you go back with these murders, you're de-escalating the scale of the police investigation. In Miami, it was the biggest failed manhunt of all time, but the murders in Minneapolis got almost no press coverage. They got a tiny bit in the Minneapolis local paper. No national coverage and the police investigation was as small as you could imagine. So you're watching the evolution of a cultural phenomenon rather than going straight into the cultural phenomenon.

So we've seen the very last scene of the story right up top?

No, we will jump at the end and show how he was caught. Episode nine jumps forward.

But Versace remains a main character even though it opens with his death?

He's a presence all the way through, yeah. We're taking his story backwards and Cunanan's story backwards.

With Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz, did you try looks that maybe were too much and scaled it back?

They have a real sense of "what is the sense of this person?" It's almost like they embody a sensibility rather than a series of physical characteristics. They both have this extraordinary kind of empathy for the character, this person would say this but not this, this person would sit like this. The detail is really precise and thorough. There's a real love actually. When we're looking at these characters, one of the tragedies is all of this love, family love, relationship love, love for the work was destroyed. That's the real loss so we're trying to really get into that.

Of the four other murders, were some more well known, if not as well known as Versace?

Some were really well known like the Versaces. Lee Miglin in Chicago was well known in the city but not well known nationally. And in Minneapolis, those murders are not known at all, so it's really interesting to give everyone that equality, to say everyone's story is worth exploring.

Is the series compassionate towards Andrew Cunanan?

I think what Darren was trying to say is if you go back far enough, you find a human and not a monster. I mean, he becomes someone who is terrifying, someone who is very disturbed, someone who caused a huge amount of misery. So there are parts when this man is despicable. In some ways that was one of the reasons why we decided to tell it backwards because then you're taking him and saying he is secondary, less than the victims and their life because they're the heart of these episodes. The killer becomes pushed back, almost this force that drives a destructive force through them, but they were the center. Then when you go back before the murders, you can say this person is a human then. You're looking at what went wrong.

There's a lesion on his leg in the pre-title scene. Did he have AIDS himself?

He didn't have HIV/AIDS. That was known. One of the early things was they were like, "Oh, he must've had HIV/AIDS because he's this killer." That's just not true. It was one of the stigmas of HIV/AIDS. The autopsy said he didn't have it.

So is it a misdirect?

No, it's one of those clues about story. He had this horrific abscess on his leg. It's from drug use. It's trying to signal physical decay. You're looking at this man who was once beautiful, coveted and wanted, and his disintegration physically.

It made me nostalgic seeing Cunanan swig a Jolt cola. Are there other signs of the '90s you include?

There were all kinds of things. You have to get into the way the police work, the way in which cell phones were used to track things, all these details that are really important period details that aren't just random. They're part of the story.

Does Jolt cola still exist or did they have to dress that up?

I don't know. I actually scripted it as an energy drink. The props department are amazing. The thing about that is where it's important, like in the book it will tell you, and you can Google it and find pictures. The gun is the exact same gun, all that kind of stuff. Then I just said energy drink and they found that. I can ask the props department. All I put in the script was he's drinking an energy drink and I guess Red Bull must've been later or something.

I tried Jolt once and I couldn't finish a can. It was awful.

That I will have to hand onto them. I'll tell the props department you were impressed with that. I'll ask them, I'm interested. Jolt Cola. It's funny because I was looking at it, like, "What is that can?" I didn't know it.

Did you give the entire layout of the Versace estate in the opening sequence?

That's pretty much it. It's that courtyard and then he knocked down the hotel that was next to it and built a pool. So it's those two rectangles. He worked on those. So yeah, we got a really good sense, flowing through all the corridors. My favorite part of it is the Spanish villa courtyard with the planetarium on the top. That's beautiful. It has a real magic about it. Everyone loves the pool. It was the most expensive pool of all time when they built it. Whatever was shipped in from Italy.

What might viewers learn about the fashion business in this series?

I think it's less a story about the particulars of the fashion business, more about what it is to go from someone who has nothing to someone who builds a really successful business and the key points in that journey. Hard work, love, an amazing team. Then you're contrasting that with someone who was of a similar position, who has actually many of the privileges, he was sent to a great school, and what goes wrong. You're kind of building out these two stories like that. The fashion industry, we're interested in it because it has lots of interesting elements, details, period details, but you're kind of digging deeper and saying this is a story about someone who achieved so much. He's a Steve Jobs-like figure.


American Crime Story airs Wednesday nights on FX.