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A recent Entertainment Weekly piece looking at the upcoming TV season had me smiling, but not in an, “Oh, how interesting!” kind of way. More the way you smile when you have a high school gym class flashback of the day you stopped a rocketing soccer ball with your ’nads. Yeah, it’s funny now, but then you figured if you didn’t die, you’d probably never take a deep breath again. It was that kind of smile.
Part of that piece concerned this year’s American Crime Story entry: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The reason the piece sparked a funny-now-painful-then memory was because it reminded me that almost exactly 20 years before, I’d had the (dis)honor of writing the screenplay for the first movie made about the famed designer’s murder. That you’ve never heard of it is possible proof that there is a God, and that God is a merciful one.
My writing “career” was, if not in the toilet, certainly circling the bowl (I put “career” in quotes because considering its propulsive downward trajectory, intermittency, and the amount of junk I turned out, it reads more like a bad habit than a career). I’d started out in the 1980s with some respectable gigs, doing work for Brian DePalma, for Emmy-winning producer/writer/director Bill Persky, and, for a few months, being part of RKO’s attempt to resuscitate itself as a serious production entity. But none of those projects had turned into anything, and by the 1990s, I was like Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler after he’s been broken by Minnesota Fats; scuffling around here and there in the outermost fringes of the business in the hope of picking up a few bucks. That’s how I met Sam Lupowitz.
As I came to understand it, Sam had been a lawyer with Cannon Films during their 1980s heyday. Run by the cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon had been one of the first movie companies to understand the financial impact of the then-new ancillaries of pay-TV, basic cable, home video, and the growing overseas market. Pumping out a steady stream of low-budget schlock like Chuck Norris’s Missing in Action flicks and Death Wish sequels, Cannon had figured out that by making action-filled junk cheaply and aggressively pre-selling ancillary rights, they could put a project in the black before it was ever released. Then they got it into their heads they could apply the same financial structure to more upscale projects, and it might’ve worked if they’d known how to make good pictures. They didn’t. By the end of the 1980s, the company was on the rocks.
Sam had bailed on Cannon, re-settled in Florida where he’d hoped to re-play the early Cannon model on an even smaller, cheaper scale making even junkier stuff like Kickboxing Academy. A friend of mine was doing production work for Sam, knew I was looking for work and Sam was looking for shootable material, so he hooked us up.
Sam had set himself up as Pan Am Pictures, and had even bought the rights to use the defunct Pan Am Airlines’ logo for his company. Why he thought the logo of a busted airline lent any glamour to his VHS fodder outfit, I’ll never know, but in retrospect, it was typical Sam Lupowitz thinking.
I banged out a couple of quick screenplays for Sam. He liked that I could turn out fairly decent material fitting his $500,000 budgets on quick turnarounds of just a week or two. It was fun working with Sam; he was a charming guy, a bit of a huckster, almost like something out of a movie: “I’ve heard enough. I like you, let’s make some movies together!” Unfortunately, he had this annoying quirk of not always paying me. I did four screenplays for him, he paid me for one, didn’t shoot any of them, and I was starting to think maybe it was time to close the Sam Lupowitz chapter of my biography.
On July 15, 1997, male prostitute Andrew Cunanan, after leaving a trail of bodies extending back to California, gunned down internationally famous fashion designer Gianni Versace in front of his Miami home.
On July 17, 1997, Sam Lupowitz was on the phone to me saying, “I want to be the first person to make a movie about the murder of Gianni Versace!”
Sam’s jumping on the Versace story didn’t come as a complete surprise to me (although his quickness did send my head spinning a bit). Not long after we’d begun working together he’d developed a go-to strategy of glomming on to headline topics and commissioning me to turn them into screenplays i.e. a story on a spike in carjackings in Miami led to Carjacked! Welcome to Miami Beach; the defection of a Cuban air force fighter pilot produced Cuba: The Time is Now; and the death of Princess Diana sparked Paparazzi: Anything for the Shot. But this Versace commission was a quantum escalation; the first time Sam was going to directly take on an above-the-fold banner headline subject.
“Jeez, Sam, the guy’s not even cold yet!”
Which was actually an incentive to Sam. He was sure the major movie companies and broadcast networks would be quick to be all over the story. I guess he was thinking of how, just a few years earlier, all three of the major nets had had TV movies about the Amy Fisher scandal on the air within a year of her arrest. Still, Sam assured me this wouldn’t be some cheesy exploitation flick, that this would be a “classy” endeavor.
Unlike the other headline-connected pieces I’d done for Sam, this wasn’t going to be an “inspired by” kind of thing. We were going to be dealing with real incidents and real people…who I was sure all had real lawyers. I asked about permissions from the involved parties or their estates.
“We don’t need that,” he explained. “We’re going to work straight from public sources, newspapers and that stuff. Just stick to the news accounts and we’ll be fine.” He was already putting together a bundle of newspaper clippings and magazine articles for me and was going to mail it off as soon as he got off the phone.
To say I had qualms was an understatement. From the phone call alone I already felt like I needed a decontamination shower. There was the obvious ick factor of jumping on a true-life horror like a vulture, the practical side that Versace’s killer was still on the loose so the story had no ending, and that I knew Sam, despite any good intentions he might have had, had neither the money nor the sensibility to deliver on his promise of “class.” That was evident in his offer. I can’t remember exactly what I was paid, but it was a couple of thousand dollars up front, with another few thousand on the back end; maybe $6,000-7,000 total. For a feature. About a murder making headlines around the world.
I held my nose and said yes.
As it happened, around this time my fiancé and I were planning our wedding. Neither of our families had any money to speak of so we were going to be paying for the wedding ourselves. Modest as our plans were, any extra dollars I could pick up would be a big help. It was that pathetically simple.
I spent the rest of the week going over the material Sam had sent me. By the time I’d finished, Andrew Cunanan had provided a tragic end to an already tragic story. Five days after killing Gianni Versace, Cunanan, with SWAT teams closing in on where he was hiding on a Miami houseboat, put the same gun with which he’d murdered the famed designer to his own head and pulled the trigger. The story now had its finish.
By the time I’d gotten through the clippings Sam had sent, two things became clear to me:
One, there was a legitimate story to tell here, and it was bigger than the murder of a celebrity. I hadn’t known much about Gianni Versace other than that he was a famous guy who designed clothes I couldn’t afford and who hobnobbed with a lot of people who could. But from my reading, I found this was a guy who’d earned his good life. He was creative, hard-working, and not the all-night-every-night partier I’d assumed from tabloid pics of him among the glitterati. He was a guy who often preferred a quiet night reading something from his substantial library.
Andrew Cunanan, on the other hand, seemed a product of what I felt was a distinctly American hunger for riches and fame but as the goal, not the reward. Gianni Versace, as I saw it, got rich and famous doing something he loved. Andrew Cunanan was a funhouse mirror reflection of that kind of arc, wanting to skip to the rewards whether or not he had an ability or talent to earn them. It was a powerful parable of American celebrity.
The other thing that quickly became clear was that Sam Lupowitz, with his sensibility and limited resources, was not going to be able to tell that story. Classy? Not cheesy? Sam didn’t know how to do that.
The script wasn’t very hard to write. By sticking to the news reports which, that early in the case, were a bit sketchy, trying extra carefully to avoid getting anybody p.o.’d enough to call a lawyer, and attempting to work within what I guessed Sam’s budget limits would probably be, a lot of the screenplay was only moderately better than the crime reenactments you see on TV news magazines like 48 Hours and America’s Most Wanted. The news accounts didn’t offer any major law enforcement figures in the case, so, in the only major fictionalization in the story, I made up two Miami police detectives to provide some kind of mouthpiece for exposition on the manhunt for Cunanan. Other than that, I think I stayed pretty close to the facts of the case as they were known at the time. Which is not a brag.
The script was bland. I mean really white-toast bland. I knew Sam wouldn’t care, but I did. Look, at my level, you don’t worry about writing a good piece. You’re not being offered that opportunity. But you do aim for trying to make something less bad.
I remembered a device Warren Beatty had used in Reds, his 1981 biopic about journalist and socialist sympathizer John Reed. Beatty did a number of talking-head interviews with people who could offer commentary and insight on the times, events, and characters covered in Reed’s story, and used those pieces as interstitial bridges at key points in the narrative. It’s a common device now – you even see it in sitcoms like Modern Family – but it was still kind of novel back then. So, I created a series of talking-head interviews with fictional characters who could provide the kind of commentary on the larger themes I thought were inherent in the story, and also provide exposition (like a cop talking about the nationwide manhunt I knew Sam wouldn’t have the money to depict). This gave the movie some little bit of style, of dramatic energy, of… Well, it was something.
I banged the draft out in six days which thrilled Sam who was convinced he was in a race with bigger outfits. I hadn’t written an awful screenplay, but it wasn’t very good, and I figured that combined with what Sam would probably do with/to it, The Versace Murder had all the makings of a stinker. After I delivered my draft I told Sam I was out.
“Look, Sam,” I said in a phone call, “I appreciate the opportunity, but I don’t want to do any more on this. I’ll keep the upfront money and we’ll call that payment for the draft. You use the backend money to pay whatever writer comes on for rewrites if you need them. And you can give that writer sole screen credit.”
“You don’t want a credit?”
“I figure between now and the time you shoot this, someone’s going to have to do some heavy work on this and they should get the credit.”
Sam kept trying to get me to change my mind, sure I was blowing a career-boosting opportunity. Bless him, he couldn’t tell I was running for cover.
“If you change your mind,” he told me, “you let me know and you’re back on it!”
My suspicions that this was going to be a clunker were confirmed when Sam told me he’d brought on his old Cannon Films buddy, Menahem Golan, to do rewrites and to direct. Great! The guy who’d built his reputation on pumping out an endless flow of low budget schlock for an audience that measured a film’s quality by its body count before running his company into the ground was going to be responsible for fulfilling Sam’s mandate to make The Versace Murder “classy.”
As shooting on Versace came close to wrapping, Sam – who was good at hustling if nothing else – managed to get a half-page story in the Sunday magazine supplement of The New York Times about Versace, and another piece in the Times’ coverage of the Cannes film festival where he’d gone to shill the flick. When Sam called to tell me he’d gotten the movie a segment on an Access Hollywood-type show, I started wondering if maybe I’d made a strategic career mistake in keeping my name off the project.
Look, even if the flick was a dog, if it came out and kept generating this kind of buzz, well, sorry to say, that kind of attention can be a career booster.
Then I watched the TV piece which included a clip of the film, and even in those few seconds I knew I’d done the right thing yanking the eject lever.
That feeling was cemented when Sam sent me a VHS of the completed film.
Sam had been touting the film’s $5 million budget. My friend who’d worked for Sam told me it was probably closer to $3 million; at the time, somewhere between the cost of a single episode of a one-hour drama and a typical made-for-TV movie. And, it was not a well-spent $3 million.
Sam had managed to get a couple of “names” for the movie: Franco Nero as Versace, Steven Bauer (Al Pacino’s Scarface sidekick) as the senior of my two fictional Miami detectives, but the rest of the cast didn’t provide much thespian muscle, and the casting for the role of Cunanan was lethally bad. He was a young guy named Shane Perdue. I don’t know where Sam and Golan had found him; Versace was his first film role (and, according to IMDB, his last). But the poor guy had no screen ability or presence at all.
In the press around the film (which, thankfully, didn’t mention me), Golan was listed as the writer and claimed he’d put the movie through 10 drafts. Maybe he didn’t like my typing job and that’s where all his effort went because he didn’t change much. The talking-head interstitials were gone, and he flattened what little energy I’d given the dialogue, and he added a bizarre drug delirium passage for Cunanan, but other than that, the screenplay wasn’t much different from what I’d delivered to Sam.
And the filmmaking was just plain bad. I mean really bad. The kind of bad that could only find a home on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The nationwide manhunt consisted of Steven Bauer and his partner sitting at little desks yakking on phones in front of a wall on which was tacked a map of the United States. Not a big, cool-looking map, but the kind of stationery store cheapie high school kids used to put up in their bedrooms.
One of Cunanan’s victims had been found out by a lake in the Minnesota woods. Sam had shot the entire movie in and around Miami, so they tried to find some woods that didn’t look too Floridian. One of the shots had been framed so badly that you could see cars zipping by an overpass up in one corner of the frame.
My favorite scene has Perdue running from his hotel in Miami just as the cops are going in. You see Perdue running down to the end of the block, make a turn, and then thinking that a shrub at the corner conceals him, pulls up short.
These are bush league mistakes, the kind of screw-ups high school kids stumbling through their first five-minute movie make.
Still, by God, Sam got his wish: he was the first guy to produce a movie about the Gianni Versace murder with the film being released in 1998, less than a year after the designer’s murder. Actually, up until the American Crime Story announcement, despite Sam’s paranoia about a flock of producers latching on to the story, Sam was the only guy to make a movie about the designer’s killing.
And, I suppose, it’s not quite accurate to say the film was “released” in 1998. That’s the copyright year for the film, but for a film to be released, it has to be, well, released. And The Versace Murder wasn’t.
Sam had grossly overestimated the hunger for a world-class tragedy…well, for an outrageously bad movie about a world-class tragedy. There was no theatrical distribution, no pickup by a broadcast, pay-TV, or basic cable network. There were a few overseas video releases, and it did come out in the U.S. on DVD in 2005, but despite the pre-completion press buzz, it’s like The Versace Murder never happened which, all things considered, isn’t a bad thing.
A few years after Versace, Pan Am Pictures folded and Sam dropped out of sight. He resurfaced in Los Angeles a few years later, asking me if I’d like to work on a package of soft core cheapies for the late night pay-TV market. I considered the score: I’d written seven screenplays for Sam, been paid for three, and only one – Versace – had been produced. I passed. That was the last I heard from or of Sam Lupowitz.
Despite my name not being on the movie, if you Google around you’ll still see me listed in some places as one of the writers on the project along with Menahem Golan. It is not a credit which has done much for me, nor in which I take much pride. The only thing it’s good for is, well, this. And it did pay for a lot of my wedding.
Bill Mesce, Jr. is the author of recently published The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them (McFarland) which not only includes more on his adventures with Sam Lupowitz and his other screenwriting experiences, but commentary from industry professionals like Goodfellas screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, best-selling author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan, and others.
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