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February 14, 2018

The Overdramatic Camerawork in ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’

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.

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