Of the true crime, murder-mystery, pulpy shows that air on Investigation Discovery, there’s a bit of an aberration, a series that gets its name from one of the most respected institutions in journalism: Vanity Fair Confidential.
The show draws its stories from the pages and archives of Vanity Fair, which are adapted and added to for the television screen by Truly Original, the new production company that’s the result of the recent merger between Original Media (Ink Master) and True Entertainment (The Real Housewives of Atlanta).
It’s different for its network and the true crime genre not just because its stories are based on the work of journalists, but also because it does not rely on recreations or dramatizations of crimes.
As it concludes its third season next week—having just been renewed for a fourth season—I talked to Stephanya Bareham, the series’ showrunner, about why that is, how episodes come together, and how the show straddles the world of both Vanity Fair and ID.
Finding a story—and its subjects
The production team begins by searching through the magazine’s archives. But significantly, “what we really don’t want to do is just copy what’s in the article,” Bareham told me.
Episodes are “not just a reiteration of what’s in the articles,” she said, “and the article can be a springboard into other cases,” and producers often “expand on the original reporting.”
That’s possible sometimes because time has passed, so a court case might have a resolution or people might be willing to talk. The show’s production team also tries to “bringing new voices to the story”; for example, for the “Murder at Drama Club” episode about a murder in Louisiana, the show spoke to both the victim and the murderer’s mothers, who were not quoted in the original article.
“We really love working with the journalists, but we have a great group of producers who help research and investigate the story,” Bareham said. “We start reaching out to potential interviews, to potential subjects. If we don’t have the right voices to tell the story, it’s really hard to do” an episode—and sometimes that means abandoning a story and not using it for the show.
Some people don’t want to be interviewed because their cases are well-known enough that they’ve been interviewed for other true-crime reality TV shows—”maybe even other shows on ID,” Bareham said. “Sometimes there is some fatigue with people; the feel like they’ve told their story enough times and they’re done.”
The writers aren’t obligated to work with Vanity Fair Confidential, which forms a new relationship with them. But Bareham said “the writers have been unbelievable” and “always willing to work with us.”
Vanity Fair “the magazine is certainly very involved in the process,” too, she said. Once there’s an idea for an episode (or the season’s episodes), “we run it by them and then we run it by the network,” and later, “they screen and they give us notes.”
True crime, no recreations
Though many of Vanity Fair Confidential’s stories involve true crime stories, there is a major difference in the way those are shared on screen: there are no recreations.
Actors don’t recreate a murder, or show a violent confrontation.
“We have to constantly remind ourselves that we may be making a television show and a documentary series for TV, and there is a visual aspect to it, clearly, but at the end of the day, for me, the stories are about real people,” Bareham told me. “And we can never forget about either the trauma or the tragedy that they’ve experienced, and that we keep reminding ourselves that we have an obligation to remind not only ourselves, but [remind] the audiences of that fact.”
“I believe that dramatizations can sometimes distract or take away from reality, and so we really made a creative choice to really rely on archival materials or locations to visually tell a story, rather than doing dramatizations,” she added.
“The story and the journalism that we’re presenting to the audience is enough, and we’ve really been able to find creative ways to bring the story to life without doing dramatizations.”
Besides footage of original interviews conducted for the show and archival footage, the series also relies on the work of a still photographer from Vanity Fair. He creates what Bareham called a “reportage series of photographs that we then incorporate into the program,” which are “visually stimulating and help to place people, rather than having to reenact something.”
There is also footage of locations that are central to the story being told.
The only minor exception to the recreation rule is that occasionally that location footage is staged. For example, if a building no longer exists, “sometimes we do have to take some creative liberties” with those location shoots if “some reason we don’t have access,” Bareham said, but “most often we are going back to authentic locations.”
The narrator sets the tone
While it demonstrates care for its subjects, Vanity Fair Confidential would not be confused with a PBS documentary. The tone the narrator takes is the most aggressively sensational part of the show, and the narrator also sets up frequent cliffhangers for the commercial breaks.
True crime is “what they’re known for” at ID, Bareham told me, so “part of what we have to do is find that balance between straightforward documentary and also presenting something that feels like you’re moving through and there’s a certain level of engagement that you don’t necessarily get in a documentary, per se. And I think that the narrator is able to help do that for us.”
“We certainly do lean on the narrator to help connect the dots,” she said. “Some episodes have more narration than other episodes.”
The narrator is also “helping to signpost questions for the audience that we want them to consider as we’re unraveling the story. … It’s really a hybrid of leaning on the journalism that we are able to extract from the writers and all of the interview subjects, and then also presenting it in a fashion that does work for the ID audience.”
Another thing that sets the show apart is that “it’s not like so many crime series where there’s a real formula,” Bareham said, either in terms of its episodic structure or thematically.
Episodes this season have included subjects as diverse as the founder of Bikram yoga; 1980 serial killer murders on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles; and Natalee Holloway, the teenager who disappeared on a trip to the Caribbean.
Tonight’s episode focuses on Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist who murdered nine people during Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s a little bit different from some of our episodes where it’s not the classic mystery unfolding,” she said. “It was an opportunity for us to tap into talking about important issues.”
It’s possible for Vanity Fair Confidential to branch out like that because “it’s not like there’s a recipe. There’s certainly things that we know that we always want to present to the audience when you’re telling a story. But at the same time, they’re all very different—from serial killers to stories about young women on campuses,” Bareham told me. “The challenge—and why I love working on this show—is each one is a standalone.”