Hot Docs ’16: Making “O.J. Made In America”

Director Ezra Edelman and ESPN's Libby Geist talk to realscreen about finding a new way in to the O.J. Simpson story via their 7.5-hour film.
April 29, 2016

Just over two years ago, ESPN Films producer Libby Geist met with director Ezra Edelman in a New York cafe and said something many directors would not mind hearing: “We’re thinking of doing a five-hour film.”

That was the good news.

“I was like, ‘OK, you got me, but what’s it about?’” Edelman recalls. “She said, ‘O.J. Simpson.’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’”

The former football hero is probably one of the most contentious figures in recent American history. The media circus that erupted after Simpson’s arrest in connection with the brutal slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and waiter Ron Goldman was so intense that many of the participants in his nearly seven month-trial stopped talking after the jury handed down a verdict of not guilty.

Edelman was a college student at the time. “Not only did I live through it, I’m very cognizant of how over-reported this subject has been,” he says. “What could I add to it? It didn’t seem like fertile ground.”

Initially, execs at ESPN could not figure out how to approach Simpson’s story either. Since the ’30 for 30′ documentary strand launched eight years, producers at the Disney-owned cable sports network had Simpson’s name up on a whiteboard of profiles to tackle at some point.

His story always seemed too big for the strand, but after doing 90 documentaries, executive producers Connor Schell and Geist decided a five-hour account of the Heisman Trophy winner’s life that went beyond the murder trial would be a way to take ’30 for 30′ to a new level.

They thought of Edelman, who had directed the HBO doc Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals and the ’30 for 30′ doc Requiem for the Big East.

ezra edelman, libby geist

Ezra Edelman, Libby Geist

“So much of our audience – especially [those] 35 and under ­­– haven’t seen O.J. play football,” says Geist. “Maybe they heard about him as the Hertz guy, the actor in The Naked Gun or the guy who was accused of committing two murders, but why did America love him the way it did and why did he become as successful as he was? Those questions became really fascinating.”

Over two years, O.J.: Made in America would grow from a five-hour doc to seven and a half hours – or 10 hours of television with commercial breaks. The first episode will premiere on ABC on June 11 before moving to ESPN for the remaining four episodes. It will also air on Canadian broadcaster CTV in a five-part event this June. The doc premiered at Sundance in January and continues its festival run at Hot Docs in Toronto this weekend.

The doc builds two intertwining narratives that then converge during the murder trial. Edelman spends the first two 90-minute episodes delving into Simpson’s rise to fame as a child from San Francisco’s housing projects who attended University of Southern California, a wealthy school full of predominately white students, and became a break-out star in the late 1960s.

“I was not interested in having [the] conversation about his guilt or innocence, retrying the case or re-investigating the murder,” says Edelman. “I was interested in going backwards 40 years and discussing the environment of the city.”

Using a mix of archival footage and interviews with childhood friends, sports journalists and business associates, Made In America covers Simpson’s crossover appeal among white audiences first as a star athlete and later as the first black celebrity pitchman for brands such as Hertz.

Although the Black Power movement reached a boil around the same time, Simpson had an aversion to the kind of firebrand activism that made other black athletes of the era, such as Muhammad Ali, polarizing figures. Simpson, the film shows, did not want to be known for his race and consequently marketed himself in ways that were palatable for white audiences.

Concurrently, Edelman delves into the strained relationship between the African-American residents of southern Los Angeles and the LAPD, which exploded in the Watts riots of 1965. Racial tensions continued to simmer throughout the 1980s as Simpson moved into the tony, predominantly white neighborhood of Brentwood.

Race riots erupted again in 1992 after four police officers were acquitted on excessive force charges in the videotaped arrest and beating of Rodney King. By the time Simpson was charged with double homicide in 1994, there was a charged atmosphere in the city that some believe his defense team successfully exploited.

“This was like the ultimate American studies paper,” says Edelman. “It’s a deep dive into a place and time over decades and through the lens of this unique cultural force.”

The scope of the project made it easier for Edelman and his production team – which included producer Caroline Waterlow, Tamara Rosenberg and Nina Krstic – to approach interviewees, many of whom had been burned by the media circus during the trial.

Edelman conducted 72 interviews, 66 of which made it into the final cut. Interviewees included defense lawyer Carl Douglas, Simpson’s former agent Mike Gilbert, prosecutor Marcia Clark, former LA district attorney Gil Garcetti and the key players involved in the bizarre 2008 robbery case that landed Simpson in a Nevada prison with a 33-year prison term.

In Edelman’s Brooklyn production office, the production team put up a 12-foot-long canvas board full of color-coded note cards outlining the doc’s storyline, themes and interview wish list. Simpson’s first wife Marguerite, friend Al Cowlings and his USC teammates refused to talk, as did prosecutor Christopher Darden and Judge Lance Ito.

“We paid for the sins of the quote-unquote media because people are so burnt out from being manipulated,” Edelman recalls. “It was difficult to get people to acknowledge us, but they soon realized we’d done a lot more work than anyone else had. So many times we’d be done with an interview and people would [say] ‘That was by far the best, most informed conversation about this we’ve had.’”

Since many of the figures in Simpson’s early life had either passed away or declined interviews, archival footage became especially important in shaping the first two episodes.

Krstic and Waterlow led the archival effort with support from Geist’s team at ESPN. Hundreds of archive sources contribute to the film, including the NFL, Getty Images, ABC and content from home movie footage. Key finds included an early ABC interview Simpson gave as a USC student, and staged footage Gilbert shot of Simpson removing the American flag from his Brentwood home.

“I’m still fascinated by that transformation of a guy coming from poverty in the projects of San Francisco and arriving at this elite, white, conservative place full of wealthy students,” says Edelman. “His self-possession at that age is fascinating. There was no model for him to say, ‘There are all these black athletes who’ve done this before me so I’m gonna become a pitch man.’ How did that happen?”

By last September, Edelman’s cut had grown from five hours to seven-and-a-half. Geist arrived at a rough cut screening with pen and notebook in hand, ready to provide notes on where to chop two hours off the run time.

Instead, Geist and Schell emerged from the marathon screening in a kind of daze and decided that the length felt right. After several meetings with higher-ups at the network, they were able to secure more financing for the extra hours (and archive).

“We fought hard. We said, ‘We think this is going to be the biggest thing we’ve ever done,’” says Geist. “It’s pretty rare to love something that much in the rough cut stage.”

Another challenge was programming 10 hours of television. Once ESPN settled on a June airdate, Geist and Schell decided to do a festival roll-out beginning with Sundance in January.

The strategy was partly a reaction to the Ryan Murphy-produced scripted series American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson, which premiered on FX in February and aired for 10 episodes.

“Sundance was important to us just in terms of the timing of the FX roll-out,” Geist says, adding that ESPN’s doc was underway before she knew about the FX show. “Once we landed on the June air date, we wanted our film to be out there to gain momentum and get people talking.”

More broadly, O.J.: Made In America is arriving at a time when police brutality and systemic racism are both back in the news.

Edelman hopes the doc’s focus on the historical context for the murder trial will act as a meaningful contribution to conversations that are already happening, but says he does not have a specific agenda.

“We go through periods where we have public discussions on police brutality,” he says. “The notion that there were riots in 1965 and 1992 speak to this consistent cycle of history. Certain segments of the population tune in when things happen and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible,’ but it’s always been terrible. It’s about understanding history and how, frankly, we don’t learn from it.”

O.J. Made In America screens at Hot Docs on April 30 at 12:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Visit the festival’s website for ticket info.

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