What is the effect of gaudy cinematography on a true story of murder and madness?
There is a lot to love about the second season of American Crime Story. The performances are fantastic. It has a fun, pop soundtrack, which comments on gay culture as Judy Berman writes about for Pitchfork. It has a chilling and tragic true story of a serial killer. All of these aspects that make the show great are overshadowed by the way it is shot. How we see the story has a lot to do with how we interpret it, which could be damning for the show if not handled right.
The show flashes between the aftereffects of the killing of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace and what came before with his killer Andrew Cunanan. Even though the scenes are dramatized in a fictional way, the underlying story is true. Andrew did kill several men before finally murdering Versace on his doorstep, and he got away with every single one. This true story is why many of us are watching the show, so it is an important element to consider when making it.
However, the style of this show doesn’t reflect the kind of filmmaking we associate with true stories. Far away from a documentary style, the show uses a style that pulls us out of the reality of the story and makes us feel like it is like any other fictional show we watch. This could benefit the entertainment aspect of the show, but when it is done in excess, it makes the show cheap.
This dramatic style of camerawork includes an overload of wide shots, overheads, dolly shots, and lens flares. Many scenes begin in overhead, birdseye views of settings or characters. Even in rather serious scenes like one where Andrew murders someone, the lens flares in the sun, giving beauty to the shot that feels out of place with the tone.
Versace was shot in Gianni’s real Florida mansion, where he was murdered. The home is enormous, and the camerawork constantly reminds you of this, panning out in large rooms or staying wide while actors are talking or giving emotional performances. There’s one way to make use of the space of a location, and then there’s letting it drown out the story.
The constant movement of the camera doesn’t just give the story a fictional feel; it takes away from the remarkable performances by an incredible cast, including Ricky Martin and Penélope Cruz. When so much of a scene is in a wide shot or panning all over the place, it’s hard to focus on the actor. Darren Criss plays Andrew Cunanan so well; it’s hard to imagine he came from a show like Glee. He’s serious, charming, emotional and in an instant, he can switch between the three. He’s a terrifying character and one that is so interesting to the viewer since this show is really about him.
Much of the season so far has been about Andrew and what he did even long before he met Versace. The main question everyone is drawn to is Why did he do this? The best way to try to understand this would be to give us a sense of Andrew’s interior. We need to be close to him, literately close to him with the camera, to appreciate the emotion coming across his face and interpret it ourselves. We hardly get this throughout the show since so much emphasis is put on the settings or ridiculous shots. A good example of the overload of movement by the camera is in the clip below.
In the scene, Andrew is about to trick the motel owner to think he’s from France and get a motel room where he makes plans to murder Versace. The shitty, run down hotel is introduced with a wide, panning shot that makes it look glamorous. The only close and static shots we get are in the brief conversation Andrew has with the owner. Not only does this scene give us a good sense of Andrew’s character, but it also sets up the most important act of the show– the murder of Versace. Instead, the focus is on the camera movement, like so much of the show.
If you think this style is familiar, you’re not mistaken. Cinematographer for the first two episodes Nelson Cragg has worked with the producer of American Crime Story Ryan Murphy one several of his projects before this. Each of Murphy’s other dramas Feud: Bette & Joan and American Horror Story employ much of the same dramatic camerawork by Cragg that is as gaudy as the plotlines. The influence is not entirely on Cragg, since he has experience that is not as overdone as his work with Murphy, including Breaking Bad and Homeland. This style is very much Murphy-esque, but it doesn’t fit with this show like his other dramas that rely heavily on cheap stories. American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson wasn’t popular for the camerawork. It was the writing and performances that won big during awards season.
This show holds the Murphy style when it shouldn’t. It needs a simple and serious tone that reflects the nature of this story. This story is about sexual repression, mental illness, and violent murders at the hands of a deeply troubled man. It’s about the loss of a true legend, by a man he may have befriended. It’s a sad story, full of gruesome violence that’s unsettling. The style of the show shouldn’t glamorize these events by focusing on the material settings and the artificial beauty of the era, but the true pain Andrew Cunanan caused so many families and himself. The show holds true potential for a successful follow-up to the first season if the rest of the season focuses on the story rather than the spectacle of cinematography.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace airs on FX at 10 ET Wednesdays.