How do you breathe life into a 21-year-old murder case that took over the TV airwaves and was watched by more than 95 million people? This was the task that screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski faced when adapting Jeffrey Toobin’s bestseller The Run Of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson for the small screen.
“It scared us,” Karaszewksi said about the final episode of FX’s limited series, The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. “However, we were enthralled by the story and we knew enough information about the people and things to make nine episodes compelling. But strangely, by knowing the outcome, it makes it more powerful, like Titanic or United 93. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck happen; seeing how people’s lives were about to be ruined.”
The finale, “The Verdict,” was screened tonight at The Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, drawing cheers and laughs akin to a Friday night at the multiplex. During the post-screening Q&A, the cast and executive producers spoke about the challenges of turning the 1995-1996 court case, which some credit as the first modern-day reality TV show, into a serialized drama.
“Since this was 10 hours, we had this big umbrella,” explained Alexander. “It’s not just about the O.J. trial, but it’s about race in America, it’s about the bad relationships between black Americans and police departments, problems that don’t go away. Then we could deal with the gender issues that Marcia (Clark) deals with, and how celebrities get treated differently than civilians. There were so many ideas with this giant 10-hour presentation.”
Added Kraszewski: “It was about context. The O.J. Simpson trial was a reaction to the Rodney King verdict.” To emphasize the point, they used news footage of the Rodney King riots as the opening image for the series.
When Ryan Murphy joined the project under his American Crime Story franchise, he suggested that The People V. O.J. Simpson be akin to Alan J Pakula’s Oscar-winning movie All The President’s Men. That film took a headline news story about Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and made it fresh again for the masses. “You knew what happened in that movie,” Murphy recalled. “You knew the people and you were at the edge of your seat. It was presented as a thriller.
“We knew so much about this case that at the end of it, we didn’t want to hear again,” Murphy continued. “What was the approach in terms of how we were going to shoot it, the angle, the lighting to make it feel like a thriller and give the storytelling urgency?” Murphy said he drew inspiration from Sidney Lumet’s Network. Since Tuesday night’s episode deals with the part of the trial most TV viewers are already familiar with, Murphy mentioned that the production team took two and half days to get the clothes, wigs, make-up and sets just right.
The American Horror Story co-creator had a rule for the ACS actors: They couldn’t meet their real-life characters in preparing for their roles. That is, until production was almost finished. It’s a rule of thumb Murphy borrowed from his friend Julia Roberts, who practiced the same thespian process for Erin Brockovich. Essentially, this prevents prejudices from influencing an actor’s performance. Sarah Paulson told Deadline at the Paley Fest American Horror Story: Hotel event that she had a four-hour dinner with Marcia Clark “way, way into shooting, we were almost done.” What struck Paulson following the meeting was how Clark was “a powerful moral compass; that drove her above all else.”
Actor Sterling K. Brown tried to reach out to the actual Christopher Darden, but never heard back. “That was fine. I can understand, spending a few months in his shoes, why he didn’t take the call. However, I hope that he recognizes a kernel of himself in my performance. Being a champion of the defense and what happened with the acquittal, it was interesting (for me) to step into the shoes of the prosecution. My initial perception of Darden was that he was someone who was on the wrong side of history. But he was someone who was trying to do his job.”
Brown and Paulson also spoke about one of the great creative licenses that the series takes: The romance between Darden and Clark. Some of this is alluded to in Toobin’s book as well as other tomes. Paulson told us at Paley, “Neither Marcia or Chris ever confirmed that happened…I have my opinions and Sterling has his [on the situation], and we let that inform some of our choices.” Tonight, Paulson added, “It might have happened, there was a great deal of affection there.”
While Paulson as well as John Travolta, who plays Robert Shapiro, indulged in video footage when studying up on their characters, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran said, “I wouldn’t look at any footage. I just wanted to read as much as I could to capture the spirit of the man.”
Travolta said his performance was fueled by the studio executives, directors he had worked with throughout his career and their “idiosyncratic behavior…I know people like Robert. It’s a collective and there’s through-lines to other people who behave like him.”
Nathan Lane said he only had 10 days to prepare for his role as attorney F. Lee Bailey. Luckily, he had a great knowledge about him growing up thanks to his mother who was a huge fan; she was a secretary in the Jersey City prosecutor’s office. Lane did get the chance to speak with Bailey, now 82. “He wanted to make sure that Robert Shapiro wasn’t favorably portrayed,” said Lane to great laughs. Following the Simpson trial, Shapiro testified against Bailey at a trial that resulted in the lawyer’s disbarment.
Cuba Gooding Jr. spoke about how he would give Murphy and the directors various takes that they could use in the editing room, so they could manipulate viewers’ perceptions when necessary on whether Simpson was guilty or innocent. Murphy saw that like Simpson, Gooding was well-liked by a number of fans with a good-guy image. Murphy sought to harness that in Gooding’s turn as Simpson and then proceed to deconstruct it.
Also sitting on tonight’s panel, which was moderated by Toobin, were EPs Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, co-EP Anthony Hemingway and Connie Britton, who portrays Faye Resnick.