The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story may have been Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s first TV project, but it’s right in their wheelhouse. You may know the creators of the FX show as the writers behind biopics like The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood, and Man on the Moon. The writing duo joined The Vulture TV Podcast this week to discuss their relationship with veracity, what they left out of the show, and why all film is manipulation. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation, which you can listen to in full here.
You two have been working as a team in film for a long time. What made you decide to move to TV for the first time for this project?
Scott Alexander: For this project, we kind of only saw it as a television show. We've only written features before, and specialize in biographical materials. But when we heard about this O.J. project, we instantly said yes. We'd never do O.J. as a movie because you'd only have time to tell you the things you already know. The greatest hits — the murder, the Bronco chase. We thought that this is exactly the kind of thing that the ten-hour mini-series format is perfect for. With ten hours, we could go into all the crazy themes that this trial brought up. All the characters that we felt were so rich, that deserved to have their humanity revealed.
It's often said that film is a director’s medium and TV is a writer’s medium. Have you felt that difference at all in terms of how you are integrated into the whole process?
Larry Karaszewski: We've always been really lucky, and that's one of the reasons we’ve stayed in the biographical film genre, in that we were film writers who weren't treated like normal film writers. We became the historians and the experts, and because we were dealing with pretty obscure people, whether it's Andy Kaufman or the murder of Bob Crane, a film we produced. So when directors came on, even when they were huge directors, like Tim Burton, they didn't see us as being disposable. They always kept us by their side, and they would use us to help various crew people like production designers or costume designers. We'd get a call from Tim saying, "What does Tor Johnson's house look like, you guys have a picture, right?"
SA: What was most important to us was to get across our tone. We try to balance social observation, high drama, terrible tragedy, and absurd comedy. It's true to life and life is complex, and we always said, “Why do movies have to be only a comedy or only a drama?” We're really happy between Ryan [Murphy] and Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton, our three directors. That tone we really love to do got across in the ten hours.
The O.J. trial looms so large in the American imagination. How difficult was it taking on a project where people already had a lot of — whether they are correct or incorrect — memories of this story? Did that change your approach? Did that make anything harder or easier?
LK: It's a little bit of both, in that what we decided to concentrate on was the stuff you didn't know. Everyone can remember where they were during the Bronco chase, but they didn't really know what was going on in the Bronco. You saw Marcia Clark on television and had an opinion about her, and you read people making jokes about her in People magazine, and people feel so polarized about Johnnie Cochran. Most people don't know that she filed for divorce three days before the murders happened. Most people don't know that Chris Darden looked up to Johnnie Cochran as a mentor.
I think a big mistake that a lot of people make in true-life stories is they treat it kind of like manifest destiny. “This is what happened, and it was always supposed to happen this way, and it's sort of a march to greatness.” What we like to do is look at all the little details that add up to them making those decisions. So you see the thousand different ways the outcome could have gone in a different direction.
What’s interesting to me is that each episode is so tightly wound in terms of its narrative. How did you decide how to structure all of that when you have all these details you're working with?
SA: We spent a long time outlining the show originally. This goes back three years. We spent most of 2013 outlining the ten hours. We made a choice that each night was going to have a theme. That gave us a way to shape the narrative a bit and, in terms of where we're going, to compress time, where we're going to slow things down. Episode three, Larry and I called it "the unraveling of certainty." What that meant was, you come out of the Bronco chase, Marcia Clark has more evidence than she's ever had in a double murder before. The suspect fled. And the DNA matches. So, for her, it's a slam dunk. That's how she begins episode three. Suddenly, the defense starts throwing jabs at her that she doesn't see coming. All this crazy stuff she could not have anticipated [is] like sand slipping through her fingers.
LK: Even ideas you wouldn't necessarily think are associated with the O.J. Simpson trial. To bring up Marcia Clark again, the issues of gender, I don't think, were as obvious or discussed in the public. We spend most of episode six talking about how everyone could make fun of her hair. She got attacked on a level that people like F. Lee Bailey or Robert Shapiro were not getting attacked.
You mentioned having this huge body of factual material. You also mentioned you had to simplify some of the story. How would you describe your relationship to veracity?
LK: Veracity is our best friend. We love the truth. We think the truth is more interesting than anything we could make up.
SA: Here's something that got left out. This is just a fun piece of bizarre trivia, but we only had ten hours. We didn't have 20 hours.
Would you have wanted 20 hours?
LK: We might have lost our minds.
SA: In the show, O.J. gets dissatisfied with his first lawyer, Howard Weitzman, and then [Robert] Kardashian suggests he should hire another lawyer. Then he calls Bob Shapiro. The missing piece of the story, which is just completely berserk and interesting, is that there was a third player, a guy named Roger King, who is the owner of King World [Productions], which was a syndicator of game shows. He did not know O.J., and he did not know Bob Shapiro. He was simply following the case. I don't even think he lived in Los Angeles. He literally cold-called O.J. Simpson, saying, "I've heard about this lawyer named Robert Shapiro who I think you should hire." O.J. was really impressed that this man who owned this giant TV company was calling him. So O.J. said, "Good enough for me," and he called Bob Shapiro and interviewed him, and then ended up hiring him. A man who had nothing to do with either party was the facilitator. It's sort of a fun, weird story. But for our purposes, we've got to get to that Bronco by the end of the first night. The idea of introducing this character, who you're never going to see again in the rest of the mini-series, we couldn't afford the real estate.
Even if you have ten hours, you can't include everything. That's where the art comes in. Barry Scheck presenting his DNA evidence. That went on for over a week. We had to make it a three-minute scene. And it's so painstaking to do, searching those transcripts for the five or six great lines that Barry said in the courtroom. Searching for those, being able to connect them, and then the presentation so people can actually see what's going on and understand what's going on, and make it entertaining.
Were there certain moments that were added in just to add color to the narrative? For example, there’s a scene where Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) tells his children not to be obsessed with fame.
SA: Yes, he did take his kids out to Chin Chin for Father's Day on the Sunday after the Bronco chase. That is all true. We know that Robert Kardashian was not a man who sought the limelight. We do know that Shapiro pushed him in front of the TV cameras to read the suicide note that day, which was not something he was comfortable with. And we do know, hilariously, that the reporters afterwards said, "What's your name? How do you spell it?" It's an unusual Armenian name, and he had to spell it out for them. We assume his four kids are all watching TV. They're going to see their dad on TV and they're going to be excited, like any kids would be.
LK: We can make a quick satirical point, and then we moved on. Not to get your hopes up — the kids are only in five minutes out of the ten hours. What's interesting about Kardashian is he was someone I don't think Scott and I had any particular opinion about before we started researching. We discovered he was a good man. He was the one guy in this case that didn't have any other weird motive involved. He was there because his best friend said he didn't do it, and he loved his friend, and he was going to remain loyal to his pal and see this to the end. Eventually, he gets very conflicted and he starts to wonder whether his friend actually did do it. For us he became a very rich, heartfelt character.
What was the casting process like for all of these real-life figures?
SA: Everyone sits around the room and just has endless discussions. Speaking of Kardashian, a friend of ours, Roger Kumble, had written a series of Hollywood plays about 20 years ago, and David Schwimmer had starred in a couple of them. We were so dazzled by Schwimmer — this is decades ago — and it has always stuck with us. The idea of Kardashian being the figure with the biggest heart in this show, and David's got those sad eyes and that empathy, the way he draws you in. So we lobbied hard for him.
LK: Ryan [Murphy]'s very good, particularly the way he casts his shows. A lot of big stars are very comfortable working with him. So, like, getting someone like Travolta.
SA: He was fixated on nailing down Travolta and his grand return to television.
Was casting O.J. a more difficult process?
LK: Here's the thing. Both Scott and I have teenage children. When you say "O.J. Simpson" to them, they know about him. They know about the Bronco chase. They know all these things. But they really only know O.J. as the guy in jail. We felt we needed to cast somebody who would remind people of the general likability.
SA: He was this poor black kid who had become a sports superstar, he had won the Heisman, he had set all of these running records. He had become the spokesman for Hertz. That was a big deal in that era, that a black man was a spokesman for one of the biggest companies in the world. And he was a movie star. And he was always the guy with a smile. So the idea that O.J. couldn't have done it — that first week when you heard it happened, and it was just, “Not O.J. — O.J.'s a good guy." So we thought you needed to cast somebody in that role that had that general likability. That's really where Cuba comes in perfectly, because Cuba is a great guy. Everyone loves Cuba. He's won the Academy Award. He played a football player. If you heard that Cuba killed someone, you'd be like, "There's no way Cuba could do it."
These are all real people, many of whom are still alive. Were you in touch with any of them?
SA: We spoke to nobody. We felt it was important to keep our perspective. Everyone has written books and put across their perspective in endless interviews. Also, as soon as you sit down and meet somebody, you're going to form an impression, and you might suddenly want to be nicer to them. Or you might get a bad feeling and want to paint them in a harsher light. We felt like we had so much good research to work off of that we could take all that research and then distill it and, at the end of the day, say, "Okay, this is the version of Chris Darden that we choose to present in this show." And there's many people from the case who are no longer with us. Someone like Johnnie Cochran or Robert Kardashian. We just didn't want to get to the point where we're only talking to some people and not other people.
Jeffrey Toobin said recently that the series acts like a ten-hour trailer for Black Lives Matter. I'm wondering if you feel it takes any kind of political stance?
LK: Well, what was very interesting for us is, three years ago, when we first pitched the project, I don't think we realized how topical it was going to be. We were talking about something that happened 20 years ago. But when we went into the meeting with 20th Century Fox, was we said, "The first shot of the series is the Rodney King beating and the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots." We wanted to put people back to [that] mind-set and really understand why this trial became a referendum on race and the LAPD.
SA: We knew that at its core, this was going to be the major theme of the show, and this was going to be the genius of Johnnie Cochran — how he used this imperfect vessel of O.J. Simpson in order to prove a bigger point to the world. What happened is, as we were making it, America got trapped back in that endless cycle it has. Ferguson was happening, and Eric Garner. It felt like the show was beginning to feel torn from today's headlines.
Speaking about what's going on in the culture right now, the show also comes at a time when we're in the middle of all these true-crime documentaries.
SA: That's because we went into a time machine, and we knew this was going to happen. We actually reverse-engineered our show so that it would be exactly in the middle of the Zeitgeist.
Do you have any thoughts on this whole trend? Have you watched Making a Murderer?
SA: Yes. All of this stuff is great. It's fascinating. Less so in The Jinx, more so in Making a Murderer and Serial, it almost takes you back to sort of like the early '70s and the distrust of government. It takes you to a distrust of authority and a distrust of police.
LK: All the shows we get compared to are documentaries. We are a work of drama, and that sometimes allows us to go dig deeper. [But] even documentaries aren't as truthful as you think they are. [If] someone says something in a documentary and you cut to someone else's face, that filmmaker has made a decision. That filmmaker is taking you on a journey and making a connection. They are shaping the story.
SA: If you're watching a documentary and the guy says, "There's no way I coulda done it," and then you cut to a meadow and some butterflies on the flowers, that’s one choice. The guy says, "There's no way I coulda done it," and then there's a musical thing, “bum bum.” Well, that's two different ways in postproduction you change the audience's opinion of what the guy just said. Audiences oftentimes don't realize this. All film in manipulation.