American Crime: The People v. O.J. Simpson is Playing on Television
Screenwriter Karaszewski Tackles O.J. for Television Miniseries
(from Sag Harbor Express February 7, 2016)
Will it happen again? Will we again become a nation of TV watchers obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial, as we were from the time the original jury swore to be impartial in November 1994 to when a revamped jury delivered its shocking verdict in October 1995, acquitting him of allegedly brutally murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, waiter Ron Goldman, just past midnight on June 13,1994, outside her condo in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles? During the ten weeks FX telecasts its much-ballyhooed miniseries, beginning this Tuesday — several critics claim it’s the first must-see TV show of the year — I anticipate the same heated water-cooler debates, partly about the innocence or guilt of the former gridiron superstar and part-time actor (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), but more about how each bit of evidence and each sideshow trick was being processed by the (unseen) jury. In addition, a special treat for us viewers is promised—we will be able to follow all the participants who became household names out of the courtroom and see what really went on behind the scenes as the trial went on and on and on, and the verdict, which we assumed as Guilty from day one, suddenly seemed up for grabs. Gooding Jr. heads an all-star cast that includes Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro), Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey), and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran). And there is star power on the other side of the camera. Just as Simpson called in the big guns to be his ‘Dream” defense team, FX brought in the supreme writing team of quirky-celebrity biopics to tell the familiar story in a new way: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who are also executive producers along with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk). Their impressive previous biopics are Ed Wood, Man on the Moon (about comic Andy Kaufman), Auto Focus (about actor Bob Crane),The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Big Eyes (about Margaret and Walter Keane). I interviewed Larry Karaszewski for Sag Harbor Express Online in December 2014 for Big Eyes(http://sagharboronline.com/a-revealing-chat-with-larry-karaszewski-the-cowriter-of-big-eyes/) Here is a conversation we had this week about his first venture into television.
Danny Peary: My impression was that when FX started slowly promoting its upcoming miniseries about the trial of O.J. Simpson there was little reaction, at least here on the east coast. But now, with The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Series set to premiere on Tuesday, there is suddenly tremendous excitement, with scores of people saying, “I can’t wait to watch it!” How has the anticipation been on the West Coast, particularly where you are in Los Angeles, where it all happened?
Larry Karaszewski: Scott and I felt an immediate interest in the story from everywhere. For the last three years it’s ruined every dinner party that we’ve gone to. Once people found out I was working on the O.J. project, it’s all they wanted to talk about. If you were around in 1994-95 the case became ingrained in your life. That being said, it is the ultimate west coast story. It’s a cliché for a filmmaker to say that the location is a character, but in this case it’s true. The O.J. case is the story of Los Angeles at that moment in time. So many of the locations are iconic–Brentwood, Rockingham, Bundy, Mezzaluna, the downtown court building, the 405 freeway. We are so happy that we were able to insist on shooting in L.A. You feel the city in the show. There were a few quicky O.J. TV projects in the late ’90s that shot in Canada for budgetary reasons, and five minutes in they feel totally fraudulent.
DP: When I interviewed you in 2014 about Big Eyes, you told me that you and your long-time writing partner Scott Alexander had been trying to make a film about Walter and Margaret Keane for eleven years. At the time you told me you were also working on the O.J. Simpson miniseries, but didn’t say for how long. Although it is adapted from Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, was it your idea that you sold to FX, resulting in its creating an “American Crime Series” format? Or did FX bring the idea to you because of your experience with celebrity-trial movies? I am thinking the latter because you two had written only film scripts before.
LK: The project was initiated by producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. They are amazing. They got the rights to Jeff Toobin’s book and brought it to FX. We had never done TV before, having always turned it down. But the second we heard about this as a miniseries we said, “Yes!” It is a story that always fascinated us, but we never would have done it as a movie.
DP: In 2014, you told me: “The O.J. Simpson miniseries we’re doing right now is the most ambitious project we’ve ever done. It has given us a bigger canvas than we’ve ever had. It’s ten hours starting with the night of the murder and ending at his acquittal. What we’re doing is a big a very juicy Altmanesque portrait of Los Angeles with all these different characters, the birth of 24-hour media, the LAPD and Rodney King and race relations, and, of course, the court case.” From that description, I would think this story had to be told in ten hours, not two, so was getting “a bigger canvas” something you were pleased with from the start?
LK: With a two-hour limitation we would be able to tell only the major events, the stuff that people already know. But ten hours—that format gave us the freedom to explore all the characters in this story and the rich themes. Race issues, class issues, gender issues. The birth of 24 hour media and reality TV. The history of the conflict between the LAPD and African Americans. How money played a role in the case. How fame played a role. How Marcia Clark was judged differently than everyone else because she is a woman. No one was critiquing F Lee Bailey because of his hair.
DP: I think “Altmanesque” is a key word in your statement because of his multicharacter, films likeNashville, in which he had several storylines going at once, all over town.
LK: Yes. Altman was an influence because there are no supporting characters in this miniseries. Everyone is the lead in their story. They all have agendas. We talked a lot about other films of the 1970’s as well. Dog Day Afternoon was a big influence. The way a true story becomes a media event. The way that film is both funny and tragic… and most importantly real. Network was another. And All The President’s Men in terms of making a thriller out of a story in which you already know the ending.
DP: I’m sure people ask you if Making a Murderer, The Thin Blue Line, West of Memphis or any other trial documentaries about the miscarriage of justice influenced you. My guess is that you use your own films with trials as your primary models.
LK: Making a Murderer could not have been an influence because we didn’t see it until our series was already wrapped! But what a fascinating show. All the true crime stuff that is captivating people right now–The Jinx, Serial–is all great stuff. But yes, our biggest influence on this show was probably our film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. We wanted to revisit that mixture of serious themes and crazy, larger-than-life characters.
DP: How much planning did you and Scott do prior to beginning the writing and did you follow your plan completely? Did you say to each other that every segment had to have a certain tone, reveal certain facts, have certain twists, reveal more about certain characters, raise certain questions, and elicit certain reactions from viewers?
LK: We spent over a year planning. Working with Brad and Nina on making sure every episode had a big idea behind it. Then we brought in an ace writing staff– D.V. DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky–and everyone jumped into the research. Toobin’s book was the main source but there was so much more to look at. Every person connected to the case wrote at least one book. All the court transcripts had to be looked at–10,000s of pages. Just as an example: Barry Scheck’s DNA testimony went on for a week, but we had to turn it into a three-minute scene while keeping all the ideas and drama.
DP: So what were your biggest challenges and what bad choices did you want to avoid?
LK: The biggest challenge was marshaling all the information. And keeping a consistent tone. Scott and I feel that real life films tend to be dry–just the facts. We think life has a mixture of seriousness and absurdity. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” certainly applies to the O.J. Simpson case. So we were going for that and it was important to us to treat Nicole and Ron Goldman, and their families, with respect.
DP: Everyone in the world had and still has an opinion about this case, especially about whether Simpson was guilty or not. In your discussions with Scott, was it a major concern to figure out how to express themes important to you and your own viewpoints without coming across as biased?
LK: The idea was not to try to retry O.J. I think everyone has already made up their own minds about that. We wanted to look at the case and try to understand the verdict. Why did the jury come back with Not Guilty? How did Johnnie Cochran turn it from a case about the murder of two innocent people into a referendum on the LAPD?
DP: In the video promos, you get our attention by saying that we viewers don’t know half of the story. How did you get to know that half of the story? What was THE biggest discovery you made?
LK: Too many to single out. Every episode has tons of stuff that most people are not familiar with–what actually went on in the Bronco, what was going on with the jurors, what happened at Kardashian’s house the day O.J. got arrested; the relationship between Cochran and Christopher Darden before the case started, the fact that Marcia filed for divorce three days before the murder took place. It’s endless.
DP: Of all the people involved in the trial that you researched, are there one or two that you discovered were more fascinating than you knew and enjoyed depicting in your scripts?
LK: I’m not dodging the question by saying all of them. I think if you have a strong opinion of any of these characters–and how can you not?–you will come out from watching the show seeing another side of them. It was important that we showed them all as human beings.
DP: In the promos, Simpson says “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” Is that a key line for you in regard to the entire story?
LK: There have been many times in American’s history where people mistakenly believe the country has reached the point of being post racial. And then something horrible happens and reality slaps us in the face. O.J.’s trial exposed this…as has the last year and half with all the police shootings and Black Lives Matter.
DP: I’m not sure if you had conversations with Cuba Gooding Jr., but what was the most important thing you wanted him to think as he played Simpson?
LK: My children are 19 and 22. They know O.J. only as a prisoner, as a person who the world thinks of as a murderer. We wanted to remind people of how beloved O.J. was before the tragedy. Everyone loved O.J. He was a football star, a TV performer, a movie star, a corporate pitchman. Cuba was perfect casting because we needed someone you couldn’t believe was a killer. Plus Cuba is such a great actor he can do anything–he won an Oscar for playing a football player.
DP: Did Simpson think if he got off, he would be accepted back into the world as he had once been?
LK: Sure. Toobin has a term in his book. He says that O.J.’s job was “Being O.J.” But after the trial he could never go back to just “Being O.J.”
DP: Because of the Bronco chase, white people always assumed he was guilty and that the trial would be a slamdunk for conviction. But a great number of black people assumed he was framed anyway. They ignored the chase. As did the prosecution, amazingly, because they didn’t bring it up during the trial.
LK: After the chase the prosecution thinks they have an open and shut case. But our plot is about the unraveling of certainty. How it all slips through their fingers.
DP: You, Scott, and I went to USC, as did Simpson. It still crosses my mind that he went to our school. Did you and Scott ever talk about that?
LK: A little. More so for Scott. He not only went to USC, he grew up in Brentwood, only a few minutes away from Rockingham. So this felt like a territory he really knew.
DP: If Bill Cosby ever goes to trial, would it be like the Simpson trial?
LK: A Cosby trial would be huge, but I doubt the networks would shut down all daytime programming to play the case. The Simpson trial happened at a specific time when 24-hour media was just blasting onto the scene. It took over everything.