Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story returned after its first season, The People Versus O.J. Simpson, with a very different kind of show for its second: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
Tracing the murder of the Miami-based designer Gianni Versace (Edgar Ramírez) by serial killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), this season of American Crime Story looks and feels quite different from the first. Written by Tom Rob Smith, who spent years researching the subject, and based on Maureen Orth's book, Vulgar Favors, the season opens with the titular event outside Versace's opulent Miami mansion and then progresses backward in time, following in the murder spree that preceded that gruesome event. Penélope Cruz also appears as Versace's sister Donatella and Ricky Martin as his lover, Antonio.
"The first rule with Ryan is we always want to be different tonally, visually, in every way," explains Ryan's frequent collaborator, cinematographer Nelson Cragg ASC, who shot the entire O.J. season of ACS and the premiere season of Feud. Cragg handled cinematography for the first two episodes of Versace, and also directed the second. "Ryan did not want to do another courtroom drama. I shot O.J. on longer lenses. It was a lot of courtrooms and offices. We used a lot of close-ups. It didn't require the same kind of scope."
Cragg explains how the conception for Versace was different. "These are larger-than-life people and contrasting worlds," he says. "It's a larger-than-life house. His world is full of opulence, beauty, symmetry. And Cunanan's world is raw and infused with emotional and moral bankruptcy.
"That's how we structured the first episode—the beauty and brightness and colors Versace surrounded himself and the much more down, scattered look of Cunanan's environment."
It would be clear even with the sound off what the characters and themes of the season are as we're introduced to Versace in his home (shot in the actual mansion he called home, now a working hotel). "Versace's world is very controlled, built, designed, and loved," Cragg says.
Contrast obviously comes from the locations—Versace's palatial home compared to Cunanan's seedy hotel—but Murphy and Cragg also like to enhance the visuals formally and conceptually.
"I wanted most of the shots of him at home to highlight that symmetry. Most of them are symmetrical compositions with crane moves that are straight up or straight down. It called for shooting with wide lenses and sweeping moves. First and foremost, the wide lenses are to show spaces. The real house Versace lived in and the best way to do that is be really wide—12mm, 14mm, maybe 16mm and 18mm. And on cranes to show space."
Meanwhile, the murderer's disjointed behavior in obviously poorer areas of South Beach, is covered in a less ordered, less formally pleasant way.
While later episodes would use sets on the 20 Century Fox lot and some Los Angeles exteriors to stand in for other cities, these first two shows, cross-boarded and shot like one movie, were filmed in and around South Beach to capture the location's textures, colors and contrasts.
Cragg, production designer Judy Becker, costume designer Lou Eyrich—all frequent contributors to Murphy's work—planned out their approaches in preproduction based on early discussions with Murphy.
"When led by an auteur like Ryan, it comes out and these great teams do so much research and create huge boards with color palette. We don't so much talk about all these ideas," he says, "as feel it as we go."
Cragg utilized Angenieux Optimo lightweight 15-40mm zooms and Zeiss Ultra Primes for the season. The cameras—ARRI Alexa Mini and SXT Plus shooting at 3.2K ProRes 4:4:4:4 —were often mounted on 30- or 50-foot Technocranes with various three-axis stabilized heads. In more confined spaces, the crew would use smaller telescoping cranes, such as the MovieBird.
As with other Murphy projects, shooting days are built around the idea of creating multiple setups concurrently to bring in a significant amount of material per day. "We'd always have three cameras," Cragg says, "but one or two of them would usually break off and set up additional shots all over the Versace mansion. That's how we got so much done on a tight schedule. We had Penélope Cruz and Ricky Martin in different rooms of the mansion doing very emotional scenes. The Versace mansion is a working hotel and we shot there and all along South Beach was in the middle of tourist seasons so it was very expensive to shoot there.
"I think I'd only work that way with Ryan," Cragg notes. "He's the master multitasker. With Ryan, he's going to write as he goes. He'll see something or a room he likes and he'll create scenes based on things he sees."
Cragg definitely approves of this approach: "It's good for performance and the speed of the set," he offers. "We get a lot of material each day. I don't like long, laborious lighting setups. I don't feel they ultimately help tell the story." That said, he notes, "With Ryan's show you do want a lot of scenes nicely lit and glossy, especially the Versace portions."
The solution he and gaffer David Kagen came up with had to do with lighting day interiors from outside as much as possible and using smaller, energy-efficient LEDs inside.
"Of course, we couldn't break anything or do anything to the walls with these million dollar mosaics or doors with hand inlaid marble," Cragg recalls. "We would light the mansion from the outside when we could," Kagen adds. "We'd have big HMI units outside mixing with the natural sunlight but the mansion is so beautiful and has natural light from the big windows a lot of it we didn't need to add too much light."
Inside, they'd bounce Source 4 Lekos into unbleached muslin and for larger spaces, ARRI Sky Panel and Litegear/Quasar LED units and some homemade units Kagen and crew built, particularly to fit in small spaces. Despite the mansion's restrictions and abundance of irreplaceable artifacts, Kagen credits the team's avoidance of disaster on, "a skilled union crew who knows how to navigate any setting without damaging things."
Although much of the season beyond these first two episodes is set in other locations throughout the country, the look and feel of that South Beach mansion permeates everything that transpires, it represents exactly the kind of success and validation that Cunanan desperately craves in his own malignant way.
In addition to the filmmakers' use of the real location and the department heads' extensive research and design, Cragg also enlisted the help of colorist Kevin Kirwan of Encore in Hollywood, "to help us get those coral colors and pastels of Miami from the time period—the warm reds, the pinks, the specific look of Versace's robe. I've worked with Kevin on Ryan's shows for a long time and we have a kind of shorthand when we work together."
Cragg was able to choose his successor for the remainder of the season and proposed British cinematographer Simon Dennis. "I've known Simon for 10 years," Cragg says. "I really like his lighting. He did some episodes of [Netflix's British '20s-era crime series] Peaky Blinders and the work was great, really atmospheric. He'd never done American TV so it took some convincing with producers but once they talked to him and saw his reel, they were convinced."
Of the season's unusual structure, Cragg admits, "We weren't sure if it would work. I think it's interesting and unique to tell the story in reverse. It adds to the sense of dread because you meet these characters that you know are going to die. But I think it works."
He goes on to explain how inspiring he found Murphy's conception of the series as a "bright thriller," noting, "The closest thing I've seen is The Talented Mr. Ripley. We wanted to tell very dark story about homophobia and gay culture, AIDS and persecution, and being in the closet in that time period and we liked the idea of all that happening in 1990s Miami with the bright pastels and its strong sunlight contrasting with darkness that's happening in the story."