It would seem Ezra Edelman took on a borderline-insane task when he agreed to make a five-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson, especially as he initially wasn’t wild about the subject matter. “We lived through this,” he says, “and I knew enough about the story and what it’s about thematically and certainly surrounding the trial. I just didn’t think there was much to add to it.” Edelman was, however, excited to make something of such epic length. In fact, the finished film O.J.: Made in America spans seven and-a-half hours, in what amounts to ESPN Films’ longest 30 for 30 documentary. Already the recipient of the Critics’ Choice Best Director award, the film recently made the Academy’s documentary shortlist and won the International Documentary Association’s Best Feature award.
AwardsLine asked Edelman how he worked out a different approach for a much-covered topic and how he handled the weight of making seven and-a-half hours of documentary film.
How did you first get involved in such an epic project?
Conner Schell, who is the Executive Vice President of ESPN Films, started the 30 For 30 series with a few other people. They had probably done 75 or 80 or so films over the course of six years or seven years. I’d worked on stuff for them and he said he was looking to do stuff that was more ambitious. He came to me and basically said, “What would you think about making a five-hour film?” My initial response to that was, “Yes, I’m interested.” That was before I knew what it was he wanted me to make a five hour film about. Then, when he did say it was about O.J. I was less enthusiastic. He was offering me this huge canvas on which to make a film about O.J. It was, make a film about whatever you want to make it. For me, that meant I could explore the things that I was more interested about, which was I wanted to tell a story about race in America through the lens of this guy, but also in a way that could explore the history of Los Angeles and the black community here and juxtaposing that with O.J.
I understood enough about what the trial became and the divisiveness of it and what the opposing viewpoints were. For me, that was less interesting, what was interesting was trying to trace the trajectory of how we got to that point and try to explain it.
When Ryan Murphy’s FX show The People v. O.J. came out, I can only imagine that wasn’t an ideal scenario.
What I can say is I truly underestimated the public’s fascination with O.J. and with his story in general. Yeah, you’re correct, I was less than happy when I found out there was a 10-hour scripted series about the O.J. trial.
What were some of the tougher interviews you did for this film when you had to really push yourself journalistically? Mark Fuhrman for example?
I don’t think it’s wrong to say that he was arguably one of the, if not the most challenging person to interview. It was the same as with any other interview, which is how best can I have a conversation with this person or engage him in a way that I feel befits his part in the film. To not get caught up in what the world assumes about him and to treat him with the same amount of empathy I would treat anybody I was interviewing. To really just hear his personal recollections of that time and what he went through. I wasn’t putting him on trial, that’s not why. I knew that he wasn’t overjoyed to do the interview, and I understood that.
With someone who’s had his life changed by these series of events, I was very sensitive to that. For me it was just trying to engage him as sensitively as possible, but having said that, it was very tough. You have a feeling about who this guy might be in your head and it doesn’t necessarily jive with who that person is sitting in front of you. He was tough.
For me, I went through the same process philosophical with everybody, which is prepare as much as possible and really have an understanding of what I’m trying to talk about and have a base of knowledge in that way. They feel at ease and they feel comfortable talking to me and that’s what I did with everybody.
The film doesn’t try and give a specific conclusion about O.J. as a person or whether he’s guilty. It’s a complex portrait. Is that the way you always knew you wanted it to be from the beginning?
Yes in a sense that, getting back to that initial idea of me doing it in the first place, I wasn’t interested in the question of guilt or innocence. I’m not a true crime person, I wouldn’t have signed up to do a film about that. Then it’s also like, that’s what everybody does. That’s what everybody has done. You’re talking about a story and a case and a crime that has been picked over ad nauseam for 20-something years. For me it’s like, “What am I going to add to it?” I felt like if I shed enough light on who he was as a man and the events that surrounded him in Los Angeles and in the country as a whole, you would have a greater understanding for that crime maybe and for that case. That was more the intent than, I’m going to convince you of something you didn’t know before. I think it ended up happening the way I hoped it could do. I think people came away with a greater understanding or appreciation of all those things, even if I didn’t set out to solve anything or retry something.
In approaching O.J. for interview, did you have particular hopes about what his participation might bring?
I never really thought that he was going to say yes. I didn’t reach out to him until I was done with most of my shooting. I had a film in my mind of what I was trying to do and I would have loved for him to have taken part, but it wasn’t going to affect how I went about doing it. Even when I reached out to him, I was very matter of fact about what I was doing and who I talked to. It would be great if he participated and did an interview, but if not, the film was going to be what it is.
What was that was like for you, tackling something that’s seven and-a-half hours long?
It was exhausting. Flat out. Honestly, I still weirdly am exhausted by it in a way that’s hard to even articulate. The subject matter is not exactly… It’s dark. You’re living with this thing that is all-consuming and it’s also exploring chapters of a man’s life in a relationship and different aspects of the way we treat each other as people that doesn’t exactly bring a smile to your face. As invigorating as it is to try to sort out a challenge that’s putting something together like this and doing it cohesively, it is also like the feeling of you’re just living under this cloud constantly.
Maybe I am a little bit of a killjoy, but that’s just how it felt. To do something of that length in the little time you had, I sort of understood how all-consuming it was going to be, and it was. In that way, it’s very nice to see that people did engage with it on the other end, because it’s almost impossible to script out in you head like, “Oh, sure, people are really going to want to watch an almost eight-hour film.” That’s kind of silly to think that that’s going to happen. You just try to put your head down and make the thing as cohesive and engaging as possible and then hope people engage with it.