Spring 2018

The Trials and Tribulations of True Crime TV

The directors behind three fact-based murder dramas walk the tightrope between reality and dramatic license

By Hugh Hart

Director Anthony Hemingway on the set of Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. (Photo: Isabella Vosmikova/USA Network)

Whodunit and why? For millennia, those questions have driven storytellers to obsess over crimes, real or imagined, showcasing the darkest recesses of human nature. And while it's hard enough to concoct fictional thrillers, the challenges multiply when television directors risk objections from real-life survivors by recreating heinous crimes that actually happened.

The 1984 miniseries Fatal Vision set a riveting precedent for the genre in its account of how Army officer Jeffrey MacDonald killed his pregnant wife and two kids in 1970. But even now, from prison, MacDonald insists he's innocent. Decades later, NBC's 2015-2016 Aquarius, a detective series that incorporated stories about Charles Manson and his cult, sparked protests from Debra Tate for its "insensitive" portrayal of her sister Sharon Tate's murder.

But the true crime genre galvanized the public two years ago when The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story attracted viewers by the droves and won the outstanding limited series Emmy for depicting the "crime of the century" and its aftermath. Since then, real-crime anthologies have proliferated. Earlier this year, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story examined serial killer Andrew Cunanan's backstory; Waco serialized the lethal assault on Branch Davidian leader David Koresh's compound; Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. connected the dots between the two rappers' slayings in 1996 and 1997, respectively; and Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders reconstructed brothers Lyle and Erik's 1989 double homicides and their subsequent trials.

For Unsolved:, director Anthony Hemingway often filmed at original locations, such as the Vegas crime scene where Tupac Shakur was gunned down (top) and hired actors who closely resembled their real-life counterparts (middle & bottom). (Photos: (Top) Malcolm Payne/Getty Images; (Middle) Photofest; (Bottom) James Minchin III/USA Network)

For Anthony Hemingway, who directed five episodes of USA Network's 10-part Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., delving into the lives and deaths of iconic hiphop artists instilled a deep sense of responsibility. "It requires a great deal of sensitivity when you know family members are still being affected by these senseless murders," he says. "We reached out to both estates so they'd have some awareness of how we planned to respect these stories. But there's a distinction between a normal biopic or documentary versus what we're doing. We're dramatizing a story and making it entertaining so in some instances we fictionalize things in order to make the narrative move."

Hemingway, who also executive produced Unsolved, relied on ex- LAPD detective Greg Kading as a primary source. Kading (portrayed in the series by Josh Duhamel) authored Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations, based on his task force investigations. For additional perspective, Unsolved creators brought on reformed gang members. Hemingway says, "These guys recreated moments in the show by playing themselves or by sharing things they'd seen happening at the time. It contributed in a big way to what we were looking to accomplish."

Whenever possible, Hemingway filmed at original locations, including the intersection in Las Vegas where Shakur was gunned down in his car. To anchor the pre-murder flashback scenes, Hemingway cast Marcc Rose (Straight Outta Compton) to portray Tupac Shakur and hired the late rapper's stepbrother Mopreme as a consultant. "Mopreme shared a lot of beautiful nuance about Tupac, even down to his mannerisms," Hemingway recalls. "That was helpful for Marcc because he really got to know Tupac as a person. Going through post, there are moments and certain angles where Marcc's so perfect as Tupac, it's eerie."

Hemingway, Emmy-nominated for his direction of The People v. O.J. Simpson, hired a nonprofessional hip-hop fan named Wavyy Jonez to portray Biggie. "I was very open to finding someone who had never acted before, so I put an announcement about an open casting call on my socialmedia page, which then got shared," says Hemingway. "Wavvy very closely resembled Biggie physically, and we also tapped into his innocence to show how Biggie as a young man tried to deal with all this pressure in his life. When you're making a show about people who are as well known as Tupac and Biggie, you can't come at the casting any other way than being as accurate as possible."

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, based on Maureen Orth's nonfiction book Vulgar Favors, also excelled in true-to-life casting. Actors Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez and a blonde-wigged Penelope Cruz bear uncanny resemblances to serial killer Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace and Donatella Versace. Director/executive producer Daniel J. Minahan (Deadwood, Game of Thrones), who helmed three episodes, says: "In this day and age, people can Google things and make their own comparisons, so you need to be vigilant about making sure people look correct, between wigs and prosthetics and makeup. Darren looks remarkably like Andrew Cunanan. And people who personally knew Gianni Versace were astounded by the similarity when they saw Edgar in costume, hair and makeup."

(From top) Daniel Minahan, standing, directed episodes of The Assassination of Gianni Versace that focused squarely on murderer Andrew Cunanan, and had an exact replica made of the houseboat Cunanan hid in. (Photos: (Top) Ray Mickshaw/FX; (Middle) Pari Dukovic/FX; (Bottom) Robert Sullivan/Getty Images)

For all it's verisimilitude in casting, Assassination displeased the Versace family. In a statement, they criticized the series for being an unauthorized "work of fiction" and objected to an early episode insinuating that Versace had AIDS. Series executive producer Ryan Murphy defended Assassination, citing Orth's fact-vetted book and additional research as foundation for the show's reenactments.

Later installments directed by Minahan focused squarely on the murderer. "Authenticity was paramount," says Minahan, who directed the finale detailing Cunanan's demise. "The houseboat Cunanan hid in after he shot Versace was dismantled and sunk, but it was well documented by police videos and photographs, so we had a great reference," Minahan says. "We built an exact replica and moored it at the original location, which is where we staged the final siege with the FBI."

Assassination dramatizes the designer's slaying minutes into the first episode, eliminating any suspense about who committed the crime. Instead, the mystery has more to do with how Cunanan became a cold-blooded serial killer. Minahan says, "People don't realize everything that came before in the life of Andrew Cunanan that brought him to the point of wanting to murder Versace for seemingly no reason." By moving through time in reverse chronological order, Minahan says, "We're able to look at the making of a sociopathic monster. And the other story is the way [Cunanan's early murders] were written off as gay-on-gay crimes. The police maybe weren't equipped to figure out what was happening and maybe didn't take it as seriously as they could have."

Minahan understands the tightrope walk that demands a balance between plausible fiction and hard-boiled evidence. "We're dramatists," he says. "We have a sense of what these people's voices are, the things they were interested in, the hurts they had. You try to dramatize all of that around circumstances and events that you know actually happened. With Versace, I felt an obligation to honor these characters and tell the story as best we could in the way that we reimagined it."

Episodes directed by Minahan feature extensive private dialogue between Cunanan and architect David Madson. Minahan says, "Through Maureen Orth's research and our own research, we tried to put ourselves in Andrew Cunanan's shoes and figure out or try to imagine what might have happened when Cunanan took David hostage and went on the road before he murdered him."

Minahan worked with Criss to shape a subtext for the actor's chilling performance. "Andrew was a fantasist, but he believes all those lies," Minahan says. "Rather than have Darren play them as lies, we played them as truths, which produced, I think, a more interesting performance. Based on interviews I've read with people who knew Cunanan, he was known to be generous but also lethally damaged. He tried to present an idealized version of himself, and we thought that was more interesting."

One of the most disturbing "reimaginings" called for Minahan to restage the murders of Cunanan victims Jeffrey Trail and Madson. "We had FBI reports and a lot of crime scene photographs, so I could see the blood spray against the door, where the blood pooled on the floor, where the body was moved," Minahan says. "That really helped me determine how to block the whole thing."

But on an emotional level, immersion in true-crime storytelling can exact a toll, says Minahan, who worked on Assassination for eight months. "You try to focus on the details, but there are moments where it's absolutely exhausting to be living in the mind of a serial killer. I remember after we shot this very long scene where David's pleading for his life, a kind of a pall went over the crew."

Director Lesli Linka Glatter, top, says she discovered in tackling The Menendez Murders that "things are not what they appear to be." (Photos: (Top & Bottom) Justin Lubin/NBC; (Middle) Photofest)

Two-time DGA Award winner Lesli Linka Glatter rarely ventures into the realm of true crime, specializing instead in hour-long dramas like Homeland and Mad Men. But when producer Dick Wolf invited her to executive produce and direct the first two episodes of NBC's Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, her curiosity about human nature took precedence. "One reason I wanted to do this show is that I'd made a lot of assumptions about the Menendez brothers," Glatter explains. "I thought they were these rich Beverly Hills kids who killed their parents. What interested me about this particular case is what always interests me as a storyteller: When you look deeper into something and see what's really going on, you discover that things are not what they appear to be."

Working with casting director Sara Isaacson, Glatter picked relatively unknown actors Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper to play Lyle and younger brother Erik, respectively. "The Menendez brothers became so well known through televised court coverage that it was important to find actors who bore a physical resemblance to Lyle and Erik, but they also needed to act," Glatter says. "Gus played Lyle as much tougher, since he was not being abused at the time of the murders, whereas Erik was still being abused."

Filmmakers channeled much of their narrative through the perspective of Erik Menendez's pugnacious lawyer Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco). "Some people believe the Menendez brothers were not abused, that it was just a technique the lawyers used to evoke sympathy," Glatter says. "I personally don't think that's the case. Leslie had a really strong connection to her clients and believed that your past has a big impact on your behavior."

The Menendez Murders juggles multiple timelines, toggling back-and-forth between pre-murder, murder and post-murder events. Glatter, who defined her flashbacks visually by shooting in anamorphic, embraced the plethora of moving parts. "You've got a bit of a Rashomon situation because there are many points of view," she says. "It's a procedural, and a detective story and a legal story, all of that. A lot of the dialogue came out of transcripts from the police reports or from the court case." Still, she points out, "There's a lot of ambiguity and many shades of gray."

In pulling back the curtain on acts of real-life violence, scripted TV anthologies succeed largely on the strength of their factbased particulars. But Unsolved director Hemingway believes the true-crime genre also resonates on a more universal level.

"I think there's a lot of interest in true-crime cases now because people want to understand the human condition as it plays out in the world we live in," he says. "For me as a young black male, waking up every day to news about police shootings of innocent men or gang-related crimes, I see true crime stories like Biggie and Tupac as a reflection of the times, where we are today, what's changed, what's not changed. As a society, we can look at these examples of what's happened before to give us insights about what's going on now."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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