COPENHAGEN — For filmmaker Ezra Edelman, it was the racial divide, made evident by how Americans viewed the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, that was a driving force to make the Academy-Award-winning documentary, O.J.: Made in America.
“I was making a film about a trial that, up to this election last year, was arguably the most divisive point racially in our country for the past 40 years,” he told an audience at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival on Wednesday, March 23.
Edelman was on stage to discuss the making of his nearly eight-hour documentary — for ESPN’s 30 for 30 — that took the famous legal case and examined it through the lens of race relations, media, celebrity and the criminal justice system.
“When I sit down with them, I’m going to ask them who they are, how they fit into the landscape of Los Angeles. Whether they are a cop, athlete, celebrity, they all have stories. They all have a relationship to these events and this city over the decades.”
Despite the media buzz the trial generated, getting jurists, defence and other key figures to agree to interviews proved to be a huge challenge, leading to dead ends or with subjects outright refusing to go on the record.
It was a valuable lesson for the young filmmaker.
“You have to be at peace at what you are not going to get and make the best film you can,” he said.
At the same time, Edelman was determined to capture the voices of those involved in the O.J. trial, noting they are part of the story, whether they liked it or not, and the making of this documentary was an opportunity for them to articulate their own story. It proved a winning strategy.
“That speaks to people. Instead of having their story defined for them, let them talk about it themselves,” he said.
That said, having former L.A. detective Mark Fuhrman, who was a key witness in the case and was responsible for investigating the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, go on camera was a major coup that took patience. Fuhrman originally requested $30,000 for an interview, but Edelman refused. He held firm to a strong belief in how he crafts a documentary: no pay, no questions before the interview and no say in production.
It took Fuhrman a month after that initial conversation to agree to talk.
Fuhrman famously helped turn the case in O.J.’s favor after it emerged during the trial that he had made racial slurs against African-Americans. But Edelman said his job was not about coming into the interview with preconceived notions of Furhman.
Rather, he said, “I’m interviewing him to reflect on his time through his lens and what he went through.”
Some of the interviews taken during production ran longer than six hours — a necessity, said the filmmaker, to craft a truly character-driven story.
“When I sit down with them, I’m going to ask them who they are, how they fit into the landscape of Los Angeles. Whether they are a cop, athlete, celebrity, they all have stories. They all have a relationship to these events and this city over the decades,” he said.
It was imperative to listen to as many people as possible if the opportunity arose, Edelman said. Even when he knew the main points about a subject, the outcome of an interview could be surprising.
That proved to be the case with Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who befriended O.J. and testified against him in the trial. Although Shipp had previously done many interviews about the case, Edelman gave him the space to discuss his personal life and relationship with the former pro-football player. By the time Shipp was looking back on the crime scene photos, he was tearing up, thinking about the first time he saw those images.
“I couldn’t have anticipated he was going to go there. He couldn’t have. But that’s where the time aspect of being able to let this subject marinate allows yourself to go to these places you didn’t think would be germane to the narrative, but it worked out,” said Edelman.
For more from Ezra Edelman, read realscreen‘s in-person interview with the filmmaker ahead of the the 2016 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto.