Archive focus: Inside “O.J. Made In America”

Realscreen talks to one of the producers behind ESPN's seven-hour-plus doc event, O.J.: Made in America, about the major role archive of all forms played in its production.
June 15, 2016

The 20th anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s double murder trial ending in a “not guilty” verdict has inspired several outlets to revisit the landmark case and its enduring legacy with programming. O.J: Made in America, director Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half hour doc series for ESPN about the former NFL star’s life and career before, during and after the case, is the most ambitious.

The doc premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and screened in marathon sessions at the Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Docs. ABC debuted the first episode of the series on June 11 and the remaining four are airing this week on ESPN as part of the cable net’s ’30 For 30′ doc strand.

Although the first two 90-minute episodes delve into Simpson’s early years before the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, roughly 50% of the series’ run-time is nonetheless devoted to archival imagery related to the trial and crime scene.

Footage not only came from big archive houses and broadcasters such as ESPN, ABC, the NFL, Corbis and Getty, but also from sources interviewed in the film including Goldman’s father Fred, author and photographer Lawrence Schiller, Simpson’s former manager Norman Pardo, his former agent Mike Gilbert and Thomas Riccio, the collectibles dealer involved in the Las Vegas heist that landed Simpson in a Nevada prison on a 33-year sentence.

Ahead of the broadcast premiere, realscreen spoke with O.J.: Made in America producer Caroline Waterlow about the archival undertaking behind the film. (Read an earlier interview with Edelman about the film here.)

How big was the archival effort on O.J.: Made In America?

It was a massive archival effort. I oversaw a bit of everything and I also hired an archival producer, Nina Krstic, to oversee the specific archival requests coming in from the editors. We also had several researchers under her.

The issue with many historic films is you are trying to find things and find out if things even exist. Whereas this film is the opposite: there is so much stuff in the world that’s been documented. There were two trials – the criminal trial and a civil trial. That was useful from a research point of view because they did discovery for both trials.

We went through all the trial transcripts and pulled specific days and chunks that we needed along the way because we just couldn’t bring in nine months of trial footage. I don’t have the storage space or manpower.

Did knowing you would have so much trial footage inform how you used the other archival material?

The trial footage is a certain number of cameras and it’s crappy video from the ’90s. It’s not the most beautiful looking footage but it is familiar to people who saw it at the time. Knowing that footage was a big element in the film we wanted to flush out the other parts of the story with more diverse textures.

Tell me about the decision to include the uncensored crime scene photos.

It was a big discussion. We felt it was necessary to show you what kind of crime this was. I don’t think I’d ever really thought about how long the crime took place for, what exactly happened, where the knife went and how many times the knife went into each victim. It’s gory detail but it does speak to the nature of the crime in a powerful way. It’s not like someone walked up with a gun and a silencer, shot somebody and left. It was important to show what specifically happened to these victims because that gets lost in the shuffle. This was a different kind of crime.

How difficult was it to persuade sources to give you footage?

Everybody had a certain amount of fatigue around the press coverage of this topic. Whether it was asking them for footage or to do interviews, that fatigue was something we all slightly underestimated. All of these people have had a bad media experience around this case. We were coming in the wake of that, so trying to prove trustworthiness and convince people you’re trying to do a deeper analysis of the story was hard. We did have to spend a lot of time getting people to trust us.

  • This article first appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.