The People v. O.J. Simpson has captivated viewers all over again with the 22-year-old trial of athlete turned actor Orenthal James Simpson. It is the first in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series, which just like his American Horror Story, will tackle a new crime each season.
I got to speak with The People v. O.J. Simpson and American Crime Story producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson before they presented a panel to the Television Critics Association. We discussed adapting Jeffrey Toobin’s book about the case and the gravity of dealing with a true life murder trial. The People v. O.J. Simpson airs Tuesdays at 10pm ET/PT on FX.
Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson Interview
There have been so many books written about this trial.
Brad Simpson: “So many books.”
What was it about Jeffrey Toobin’s?
Nina Jacobson: “Toobin’s an extraordinary author. He’s one of our favorite writers as far as journalism goes in general. It’s the thoughtful, character-based page turner that has a real point of view. It doesn’t seek to just document the trial or give you an understanding of a chronology. It pursues the story with a real perspective on what the underlying themes at play were. I think it’s really a remarkable book for that reason.”
Did you look at Marcia Clark’s book, Christopher Darden’s or even O.J.’s?
Brad Simpson: “The writers in the writers room and also Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski read every book. We had a full time researcher. This case was endlessly documented. Everybody who became involved in it wrote a book. They often have different narratives about what happened, B narratives. We read every nonfiction book. It was really important for us to consume everything that had been written about the case, but at the end of the day, the spine of Jeff’s book, his prism, what he was writing about was the story we wanted to tell.”
Nina Jacobson: “It was character based and context driven.”
Was it sobering to recreate the crime scene and the crime scene photos?
Brad Simpson: “That was probably one of the most intense moments in the shoot. We made the decision not to ever show the faces of the victims, not have actors really play them. We recreated Bundy and we had a closed set that day. We didn’t want anybody who wasn’t necessary to be there. It was chilling and it was also a good reminder that at the center of this story were two real victims, which is what got lost in the trial. It was part of the reason the victims’ families were so upset which was it became about the LAPD and race and celebrity and not about the victims. It was a really sobering day when we recreated that crime scene. And you also realize the power, how intense the murders have been, how close the murderer had been to them and how brutal those deaths were. It was haunting.”
The show really captures what a circus this whole thing was from the beginning. Was that Ryan’s take from the beginning?
Nina Jacobson: “I think there was no way you could tell the story of the O.J. trial without portraying the circus that it was. I think one of the things that was important to us was actually be mindful of the fact that it was a circus that spiraled so far away from what was at the center of it, which was the death of these two innocent people. What Fred Goldman says in episode four to Marcia Clark, which is, ‘My son is a footnote in his own murder trial.’ Remembering that at the center of it were these victims and their families was something we really tried to do, but at the same time there was no way that you could ever tell the story without capturing the circus. I actually think that what was interesting was that originally the journalists and the coverage and the talking heads and the news consumption of the story had a bigger presence in the script. It was Ryan actually who kept stripping those things down to get more and more rooted in the characters that we cared about and in their stories and in what it was like to be at the center of the circus as opposed to the circus itself.”
Did you have any biases about the trial that were changed through doing the series?
Brad Simpson: “Yeah, I think that we all viewed the verdict through our own cultural lens at the time. I think that I didn’t understand why a large group of African-Americans were cheering for the verdict. With time and distance and reading, and reading Jeff’s book, part of that is the realization that if you have a different experience with the criminal justice system, you viewed the case differently. And that those cheers were more complicated than white people saw them as being.”
Is there as much of a story, or at least an epilogue, about the civil trial?
Brad Simpson: “I don’t think so. I think what happened to O.J. after this, O.J. was sort of broken. He thought he was going to go back to his life and he didn’t. He wasn’t able to. He wasn’t able to go back to being O.J. Simpson and that’s sort of the tragedy for him. He thought not guilty meant he could go back to becoming this famous celebrity that people loved and he never got that back.”
Does the series end at the verdict?
Brad Simpson: “The series concludes the day of the verdict.”
Had you ever developed this as a movie?
Brad Simpson: “No. We never thought of it as a movie. It was too big, too complicated.”
Nina Jacobson: “Too sprawling.”
When there are those moments we all know, how did you want to portray scenes like the Bronco chase and trying on the glove?
Nina Jacobson: “We always wanted to show people the parts of the story they didn’t know. Again, that was something that Ryan was great to always focus on, which is every episode needs to have some major things that nobody else knew that we discovered through the research. All of it was available to be known, but there shouldn’t be one episode where you don’t go, ‘I had no idea that…’ So with the glove, there’s the whole context to the events leading up to trying on the glove. With the Bronco, nobody knew what was going on inside the Bronco and just how dire things were in that Bronco, or what was going on in the house and the kind of painful waiting for him to come home.”
How many seasons of American Crime Stories have you thought about cases for?
Brad Simpson: “We have multiple things in development, none of which we can talk about. What we want to do is things that have a real before and after moment, and broadly interpret the idea of crime. We’re not going to do another great trial again.”
There’s talk of Hurricane Katrina and that makes sense. It was a crime how that was handled.
Brad Simpson: “That’s what we want, things that resonate. I think what makes our show different from some other true crime is that it needs to have a bigger cultural significance. What happened needs to change our culture in some way. There needs to be a before and after to the crime.”
Is Katrina a go?
Brad Simpson: “Katrina is the next season, yeah.”
That’s a little more recent. Are there books about Katrina?
Brad Simpson: “There’s been a lot of books written about Katrina. We’re going to do the same research. We’re optioning a piece of material that we can’t announce yet. We have our same research. We’re working on it and we’re going to dive in to all the many complicated stories and narratives and tell a sprawling story about that hurricane and its aftermath.”
You just ended the Hunger Games franchise and you weren’t the first to do a two part finale. I’m wondering, how long do you think it will be before they divide each book into two films?
Nina Jacobson: “I don’t know. In the case of Hunger Games, we really felt we needed two movies to get the themes and emotional payoff of that last book. I wouldn’t have known how to do it in one. People who are entrusted with telling these stories or adapting a good book, you try to do your best by the book and make decisions which serve it.”
People accept when the last book is two movies. Since fans of books want to see every scene from the book in the movie, would they accept other parts being expanded to two movies?
Nina Jacobson: “I don’t know, I think fans of books just want people to do justice to the book that they love. They want the experience of seeing the movie to feel like the experience of reading the book, to feel the feelings that they had for the characters, for the big emotional moments. Whatever it takes to achieve that.”
Have any of the People v. O.J. cast indicated interest in coming back for the next American Crime Story?
Brad Simpson: “Yes, they have. Not to toot our own horns but they had a great time and they’ve loved the result. We’d love to have some of them back.”
American Horror Story does the repertory company but they’re playing fictional characters. Do you think it would be different having a repertory company come back and play different real life characters?
Brad Simpson: “I think it has to work for the character. For Horror Story, they can invent a character around Sarah Paulson. True life characters, you have to feel like the actor has the essence of that character you’re portraying so it’ll probably prove its own challenges. Look, I love that Ryan’s like Robert Altman. He works with a group of actors over and over again and gets the best out of them. I’d love to work with this cast again next season.”
More on The People v. O.J. Simpson:
- Sarah Paulson Interview
- John Travolta Interview
- Sterling K Brown Interview
- Anthony Hemingway Interview