FX Networks saved their best for last at TCA with an hour long panel dedicated to their February 2 limited series The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The session canvassed a number of topics, from the creators’ challenge in making a polarizing court case accessible to today’s TV viewers to EP/director Ryan Murphy’s approach to African American characters in his shows Scream Queens and American Horror Story.
It’s been close to 21 years since the Simpson verdict was announced. Commenting on why it took so long for Hollywood to pick up the story when sensational true stories are so much of its bread-and-butter, EP Nina Jacobson blamed “over-saturation. The O.J. case was the subject of tabloid fodder to a degree that was unprecedented and still not rivaled. Even in the era of the internet, we have not had a phenomenon like O.J. They (Hollywood) were over-saturated and the thought of returning to it was that we needed time and distance to come back and look at it from a character perspective so we can be compassionate and have emotional access to them and not just react to what you think they stood for. People are always wanting to reassure themselves, I think white people in particular, that these racial earthquakes; that they will come and go, that they’re behind us. But the fault lines that are exposed by them, they’re still there…Right now is a time when people are able to converse.”
Episode 1 opens on the Rodney King beatings before it jumps two years to the Brentwood murder scene of Nicole Brown Simpson. That was a key segue per EP Brad Simpon “Because at the end of the day, that’s what the (O.J.) case was about.”
Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson on which the series is based, said Americans continue to be fixated on the case because, “it’s about everything they obsess about: race, sex, Hollywood, sports — and the only eye witness is the dog!”
For Larry Karaszewski who co-adapted the book with his writing partner Scott Alexander, The People V. O.J. Simpson was about “the unraveling of uncertainty”: The prosecutors for the case thought they had it in the bag, and were gradually pulled apart by Simpson’s “Dream Team” of attorneys.
When the question was raised whether the victims in the case, i.e. Ronald Goldman’s family, were contacted for research purposes, Jacobson said that the production relied chiefly on Toobin as the primary consultant. Nonetheless, Murphy said, “I’ve never worked on a show that had so much legal vetting. Every copy of the script was gone over by five lawyers.”
When it came to the actors contacting actual on-screen alter egos, Murphy took a note from his friend Julia Roberts when she prepped for Erin Brockovich: That the actors shouldn’t consult the actual people until they were half-way through production, so that any prejudices wouldn’t interfere with their portrayals. David Schwimmer met with Kris Jenner in advance and learned how religious the actual Rob Kardashian was; intel that greatly informed his performance.
One reporter asked whether Simpson himself was set to receive any royalties from the FX series. Simpson answered, “O.J. doesn’t stand to receive any compensation. He has no where to spend it.”
Murphy has taken hits from some critics for what they assert is his stereotypical portrayal of “sassy” African Americans on American Horror Story and Scream Queens. A TCA reporter grilled Murphy about whether that’s carried over to The People V. O.J. Simpson.
“I think the show tackles it (race) and is incredibly responsible about it,” he replied, “and I don’t think Angela Bassett would say that about my characters.”
Commenting on the hoopla over Scream Queens, Murphy said, “I found that criticism to be valid and interesting at the same time. That show particularly was about a group of young people in the sorority and fraternity system. A lot of that was based on actual things that Ian (Brennan) and Brad (Falchuk) were reading about; what this group of privileged white kids were doing. If you watch the end of the show, you’ll see the girls who said those things were charged with crimes, found criminally insane and put into an insane institution. So, I think that’s how I felt about those awful things. I don’t think they were gloried or were great. I think what we were saying was that they were broken, the system they were working in was broken and that they should be brought to some form of justice.”
Each O.J. script revealed to Murphy something he never knew from the case. All the President’s Men was a key reference in making the show. “Everyone knew the ending (of that film), but it was paced with such urgency. It kept you involved and that was something, I was always thinking about,” said the EP. Murphy was also intrigued by the sexism that State of California-LA County prosecutor Marcia Clark faced at the time during the case.
“This is the hardest character I’ve ever played. Six months of an emotional roller coaster” said Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. about playing Simpson. While film productions hop around the script, the actor physically and emotionally morphed over 10 episodes as he went from a man on the golf course to a convict behind bars.
During the FX executive session earlier in the day, CEO John Landgraf briefed the TCA press corps on how American Crime Story came to fruition.
Murphy called Landgraf approximately two years ago with the idea of an AHS spinoff about the greatest crimes. Landgraf took to the project however, “We had trouble finding material. It was different from writing American Horror Story, which is a fictional show,” said the exec.
“When there are real people in it, actual victims, you have to be really buttoned up when doing that kind of adaptation.” At a certain point, American Crime Story stalled.
In 2012, FX Productions senior VP Gina Balian and then Fox president of entertainment Kevin Reilly, separately took to the concept of using the Simpson case as a potential project for their long-form division. Coincidentally Jacobson and Simpson pitched a Simpson project based on Toobin’s book the following day. By early 2013, Man on the Moon scribes Alexander and Karaszewski were adapting. The project was set to go as a miniseries on Fox. Soon after Reilly left the network in 2014, the project segued to Murphy and FX who used it as the springboard for American Crime Story.
“I told Dana (Walden) that it should be an FX show. She was very gracious and let the project come from FBC,” said Landgraf.