How much do you know about the trial of O.J. Simpson? You might think you know a lot, but you don’t know nearly as much as Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the award-winning writers of acclaimed biopics for unconventional figures like “Ed Wood” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” who served as showrunners and executive producers for the upcoming FX drama “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
Indiewire spoke with Alexander and Karaszewski at the TCA Winter Press Tour about the series, and, well, it’s complicated. It’s not so much that there are spoilers in the below interview, as it is that we dig into the series in much the same way that “American Crime Story” digs into the tale of O.J. Simpson’s 1994 arrest and subsequent prosecution for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. In short, we get into a few details well-known to anyone who watched the trial, but perhaps a tad spoiler-y for newcomers.
So below, find details about how they worked to adapt real-life events into one of the year’s most exciting new series, why process and details matter so much, and why the thought of creating a TV show before now had them “paralyzed.” An edited transcript follows.
Coming into the project, what was your initial focus? In terms of trying to take the whole book and taking the whole narrative to life.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: Toobin’s whole thesis is [that] there was an incredible amount of evidence. Why did he get off? We thought that was really cool. Then when we started talking about going to adapt this into a miniseries, we got really excited about all of the big themes we can bring into this. When we write movies, we get two hours. With this thing, we started talking about this, like one of those Charles Dickens novels. Every week a new chapter would show up. There were all these big ideas.
The predominant idea was LAPD’s history with African Americans in Los Angeles. Then you have the beginning of celebrity culture, you have the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. Also, you have what it’s like to be a single working mom juggling the biggest case in the world and what’s it like for a single working mom who has just filed for divorce three days before the trial and is running back and forth between two different courthouses and how she is being judged differently than the men in the case. Also, how civil servant prosecutors have it harder than highly compensated criminal defense attorneys. It’s so many ideas in there, that’s what really excited us that’s what got us to do our first TV show.
LARRY KARASZEWSKI: Yeah, we’d never done television before and I don’t think we would have done O.J. as a movie, because with a movie you just have two hours and we have to tell you the stuff you already know, but 10-hours gave us this thing where we could explore all the things that make the O.J. trial so interesting. So, the question was, ‘what’s the thing that got you started?’ It was the multitude of things and the multitude of characters that we thought, this is how we can use the medium, in a way that I’m not sure has quite been done.
Was television ever before something that interested you?
ALEXANDER: We were always paralyzed by television because we were always thinking of it as, “It’s a bunch of characters in a living room and something happens every week.”
ALEXANDER: And I think we were always petrified by Season 3. What are they going to talk about in that living room?
KARASZEWSKI: What are they going to do?!
ALEXANDER: I think that 10 hours was perfect for us and, also, it has an ending — which we like. I think the open-ended nature of most television, we find frightening. Which is why we resisted it all along.
KARASZEWSKI: But what we really love, in this case, is the ability to explore so many characters so deeply: Johnnie Cochran, Chris Darden and Marcia [Clark] and even smaller characters like Dominick Dunne. He shows up and you’re able to really spend some time and actually get to know these people, and that was great.
Watching the first six episodes made me realize how very little I understood about the case at the time. When you start digging into the research, were you surprised by how much surprised you?
ALEXANDER: Sure. I think it showed up in one of Johnnie’s memoirs. He mentions the fact that he got pulled over by the cops in his $200,000 car with his kids in the backseat. Making the point that he could be at the absolute pinnacle of success, but he is still being pulled over because he was black. It suddenly invested him with a credibility and a sincerity that we might have otherwise not known about. He wasn’t just trying to win and get O.J. off. He had larger issues he wanted to put out there.
KARASZEWSKI: And I think we felt that way about almost all the characters because they were also famous and all of them had somebody out there who’s vying them in the media for something they did. We were able to say, “All right, this is how people looked at Chris Darden” or “This is how people looked at Marcia Clark.” “What was actually going on in Chris Darden’s life that explains what was happening,” or “What was going on in Marcia’s life?” All that digging up was great.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, whichever book it was in. Chris was so despondent about his role at the D.A.’s office that he was ready to quit before the case started because it was crazy. Then suddenly he finds himself as co-chair prosecuting the biggest case on the planet.
KARASZEWSKI: And the fact that he and Johnnie had a previous relationship, I think most people didn’t know that. We joke that for a case that has been so looked at and everyone watched so much about and is 20 years old, that our show has a lot of spoilers.
It is fascinating. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to read the Wikipedia page beyond a certain point, because I’m on the edge of my seat now. “What’s going to happen with this Mark Fuhrman guy?”
KARASZEWSKI: Well, trust me…
ALEXANDER: Episode 9 has a lot stuff.
I also found myself really fascinated by the relationship between Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. I’ve been told by people that there were rumors of something happening, that they’ve always denied, but it feels like you guys pushed that a little further.
ALEXANDER: I think we walked up to the line, but we did not disrespect what either them said in either of their books. Both Marcia and Chris are a bit coy about it. They both talk about a trip up to the Bay Area, they made together. But we did not put in anything that neither of them has ever acknowledged.
Another element too, I heard, the line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” was something actually uttered decades before.
KARASZEWSKI: I think it was in the New York Times somewhere, at some point in the past.
There was a racial boycott of the Olympics, I think, that they were trying to execute and this was his quote as to why he wouldn’t boycott the Olympics.
ALEXANDER: Wait, the ’84 olympics?
KARASZEWSKI: No, before that.
It was like the ’60s. [Note: 1967, to be precise.] But this is not your first time adapting a true story?
KARASZEWSKI: Correct, correct. What you do is find interesting things people said. One of the major things in our career was when we did “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” The studio was very, very worried about Jerry Falwell suing us. We actually had to go through Jerry Falwell’s… almost everything Jerry Falwell says in that movie, actually, is something that Jerry Falwell uttered somewhere in his life.
So, if you were ever subpoenaed…
KARASZEWSKI: “No, he said this there!”
ALEXANDER: It would be, literally, impossible to write a script if you had to vet every single sentence of dialogue. If I had to recreate dialogue from my wife said to me last night I wouldn’t be able to do it. But you bring up, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” which says so much about O.J’s role within America. How he perceives himself and how him living with a lot of white friends in Brentwood and then being recast as the biggest victim of police attitude towards black Americans. And then this flip from one to the other, was so crazy and interesting that I don’t really care where or when O.J. said that. He did say it, and it works in our purpose, at least.
KARASZEWSKI: Also because very deep in that one sentence is this conception that America constantly thinks that they’re becoming post-racial. All through the last 50 years Americans think, “No, we’re post-racial. Race doesn’t matter anymore.” But race always ends up mattering.
For me watching it, there was a point where Marcia was becoming the center of the show for me. In many respects she really felt like a wonderful guide post, especially given the fact that you can see what’s coming for her and it’s not great.
ALEXANDER: Marcia was always held to extreme moral standards, but sometimes to her own detriment — as we show when she tosses really great witnesses because they haven’t adhered to her standards of proper court conduct.
In terms of finding moments like that for all the characters, how much did you look to the research?
KARASZEWSKI: Research is everything.
ALEXANDER: Toobin. All roads lead back to Toobin because the book has so many goodies in it. But I would say our office has 40 books.
KARASZEWSKI: At least.
ALEXANDER: At least 40 books, 50 books on O.J.
KARASZEWSKI: And there’s transcripts from the trial are just thousands and thousands of pages. What we were looking for is, trying to find small details that say something about the character in a big way. That’s what you’re constantly searching for. The other thing about the 10-hour format for us is we like process. We think process also shows character — how someone does things. A lot of times in a movie, movies based on true stories, because it happened, it just kind of happens that way. We like to show how many things have to go wrong in order for it to happen that way. Every little detail adds up to that decision to do that.
ALEXANDER: I don’t want to give away too much, but a bunch of really nutty things had to happen to lead to Chris Darden ending up as co-prosecutor. Which nobody could have anticipated.
KARASZEWSKI: Whereas in other movies, “Oh, he’s on the team. Why do you want to get into those old details? It’s so much easier to just have him on the team already.” It’s like, “No, what’s interesting is how we got there.”
What do you hope people come away with at the end of the series?
KARASZEWSKI: I hope they talk. I think that is one of the most fascinating things for us over the whole last three years. We joked that it’s ruined every dinner party we’ve ever gone to. Everyone will be having a regular discussion, and then, “What are you working on?” “We’re doing this thing on the O.J. Simpson trial.” And people start talking. There’s still this fascination. There’s so many interesting topics involved in this thing that I think, that if people watch this show and discuss, I can’t ask for anything better than that.
ALEXANDER: When we pitched the project three years ago, we just led with, “We’re going to open with the Rodney King beating, and then we’re going to cut to the L.A. riots.” In the room, it seemed like a non sequitur. We said, “This is how we’re going to frame the show, this is what the show is about.” There are so many of these shootings in the last year or two that I think it’s going to provoke a lot of discussion because O.J. ended up being this odd beneficiary of this social problem.
Finally, I know there is talk about a Season 2. Would you guys be involved with it?
KARASZEWSKI: We are definitely going to stay involved as producers. Right now we’re about to launch into doing a movie about the Patty Hearst kidnapping and that’s a feature for Fox 2000, also based on a Jeffery Toobin book. I think that’s going to take us off the table for Season 2. But we will definitely keep our hands in.