The most unforgettable moment in “The People v. O.J. Simpson” occurs during “The Race Card” episode when Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) redecorates the Juice’s (Cuba Gooding Jr.) Brentwood estate with more racially appealing African artwork, crucially replacing a Norman Rockwell print above the fireplace depicting two Caucasian boys in leather helmets playing football with his own Rockwell portraying African-American schoolgirl Ruby Bridges. It was a brilliant stroke of genius by production designer Jeff Mossa, which summarizes “the trial of the century” and brings it eerily full-circle today.
“It was something I found [during the research] and the writers [Joe Robert Coe and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski] responded to it and liked it,” Mossa recalled. “We know that Johnnie redecorated O.J.’s house, we know the kinds of things he replaced. Most of the research that I have of O.J.’s house shows family pictures on the wall. Of course, we had to take license occasionally. John Singleton [who directed the episode] recommended using the Patrick Nagel prints.”
But it almost didn’t happen as planned. The football print, even though it was still within the Rockwell estate, was managed through another licensing company. “We didn’t know if we were going to have permission to actually film it, so we had a backup piece, and I think it was 45 minutes before filming began that we actually got a signed release,” Mossa added.
For Mossa, the design challenge was not only about period authenticity with regard to LA in ’95, but also filling in the gaps of what we didn’t know and making it relevant to our own racially divisive zeitgeist. “I had a police technical adviser who was very helpful to me,” he said. “And we discussed what was going on nationally while we were making it with Ferguson and it just snowballed from there.”
And Mossa found the best way into the backstories of flamboyant “Dream Team” leader Cochrane and beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) was through their homes. Indeed, some of the juiciest scenes take place in Cochrane’s Beverly Hills mansion while Clark often appears constrained by her claustrophobic surroundings.
“We weren’t making a documentary but wanted to be true to the spirit and aware of contemporary sensibilities,” Mossa continued. “And certainly within the research you come across wardrobes and hairstyles and decor that make you buckle. And my theory on this is that because it’s more recent history, that stuff will make you laugh more than a ’70s piece.”
The production designer had to be particularly wary of cars and TVs (scrapping a very dated-looking Circuit City sequence) and craftily covering parking meters rather than paying the extra expense to have them removed or digitally erased.
But conveying the contrast between public and private lives is what Mossa strives for. “If an actor walks onto one of my sets and reacts with, ‘I know where I am now,’ it only makes their performances better. I want my audience to see my set without any of the actors and understand the characters.”