At a certain point during the below conversation about the end of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Scott Alexander (who was conferenced in via phone) got distracted from the other thing he was doing at the time: driving. “Oh my God, I’m so busy talking to you about O.J., I just missed my exit!” he exclaimed, as his longtime collaborator Larry Karaszewski and I laughed. “I am on the wrong freeway. This is crazy. Wow. O.J. is just so fascinating.”
Anyone who’s watched all 10 episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” would be hard-pressed to disagree. The first installment of Ryan Murphy’s newest FX anthology series, “American Crime Story,” was a gripping deep dive into the nuances of the case that failed to convict one-time NFL legend O.J. Simpson of a double murder in Brentwood, California.
Indiewire also spoke with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski before the season premiere, but relished the opportunity to post-game with two of the most experienced men in the biopics business (including “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon”) about what they wished they’d been able to include and who they thought the main characters of the story really were. An edited transcript is below.
Congratulations on making it to the end. How does it feel?
KARASZEWSKI: It feels really good. We’ve been on this thing for three years and it was a big, big effort and the fact it was received so well was really gratifying. It’s more than just people watching. It’s that people are discussing the show, and even beyond the show, discussing the themes that we bring up, such as race relations in the United States and gender politics and stuff like that. So I feel like if we did nothing else, we, at least, got people talking about these things and reexamining how they felt about these characters and these people. Twenty years ago, everyone had a real set idea of what they thought of Marcia Clark, Chris Darden and Johnnie Cochran, and I think maybe after the show they have a different view of them.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, this is an unusual biopic for us. We really try to change the viewer’s opinion of the subject because the very hardened, cartoony versions of all the players had lived in everyone’s minds, but Larry and I were really able to go backstage and humanize all the characters and give them time to go into their personal lives and their struggles and what was important to them and what they cared about what they’re fighting for. I think that caught viewers by surprise in that they found themselves caring for Marcia and Chris and Johnnie in ways they did not when the trial originally ran.
KARASZEWSKI: I would say that’s one of the things that people come up to, I think, both of us, at dinner parties — to say random things like, “You know, during the trial I hated Marcia Clark, but man I didn’t know what she was going through,” or “Wow, I really couldn’t stand Johnnie Cochrane.” The show has given them insight into what these people were going through and what they actually thought.
I think the thing that everyone was really surprised by was the relationship between Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, something I talked a little about when I first sat down with you. Over the full 10 episodes, it really is such a major force of the series.
KARASZEWSKI: Well, it’s interesting that the defense lawyers were all made up of all professional pundits. Guys who were used to being in the media spotlight. Guys used to being famous. And Chris and Marcia were not and certainly not to the level that happened in the middle of this trial. And all the cast that surrounded them and the weird prejudice against both of them. I think they found themselves in a bubble where only the other person understood what they were going through.
ALEXANDER: Marcia and Chris were trying to score points. I think Marcia particularly was so driven by the idea of justice for the victim. And Chris was on board with her. I don’t think anyone on the defense team was trying to get justice for O.J. Simpson. I don’t think that’s what they were tormented by every time they would go to sleep, thinking “tomorrow I got to wake up and get justice for O.J.” I think Johnnie certainly wanted to have a referendum on the LAPD’s treatment of black people in Los Angeles. That drove him. But I don’t think Johnnie, or Dershowitz, or Lee Bailey, or Bob Shapiro were tortured about the idea of whether O.J. was or was not going to go to jail. You end up with just desperation on the part of the prosecutors. The big emotions between Marcia and Chris probably weren’t expected by the audience.
KARASZEWSKI: Also I think what really surprised people was that 20 years ago — even if you watched every minute of the trial — you were just seeing this kind of passive court TV, overhead shot, in which these people just acted out their public persona. The way that that got filtered through Jay Leno or “Seinfeld” or even up to “Kimmy Schmidt” last year, where all these people just became caricatures… I think it was our job to turn everyone back into human beings.
Looking back, is there anyone you think you could have done more with?
KARASZEWSKI: I think we were surprised. I mean 10 hours is a lot but I think we could have gone on for quite a long ways. I think we could have done more with Shapiro. We could have done more with– I love the Dominick Dunne character. We had all these characters and we wound up picking the three most important characters: Johnnie, Chris and Marcia, because at the end of the day we felt they were the characters that cared the most. That had some sort of personal investment. Johnnie Cochran had been working his entire life to expose the racism in the LAPD and used O.J. Simpson in this huge gigantic case as, what we called in one of the episodes, an imperfect vessel, as a way to get his point across. Darden was this African American prosecutor who was seen as a traitor because they couldn’t understand how an African American could be prosecuting another African American. He lost any kind of bond with the community. Marcia — because she was a woman in all of this — was treated in such a different way than anybody else. I mean nobody was calling Bailey frumpy, or writing about Shapiro’s hair. They had all these obstacles that no one else had to deal with, so we thought these were the three people who really, at the core, cared about what was going on every single moment, and they became our main characters.
ALEXANDER: Somebody on the show introduced us to the TV concept of “real estate” which is, you only have so much real estate. At the time, with the real estate, when Larry and I were mapping out the 10 hours and we had to bible it, and we were writing the early script, and even when we started working with the writers’ room, we had grand plans to expand the universe of the players. So there was a lot more between Marcia and Gordon, the husband who she was divorcing. There was a lot of stuff with Chris and his family, with his daughter Jenee, who’s the daughter he never really got to see because she was out in the Bay Area and he took the glamour job in LA. And it sort of felt like he made a bad life choice. There was a true story where Jenee came down during the trial and Chris got invited to a big legal event. Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court Justice, was there and he had the pleasure of introducing his daughter to a Supreme Court Justice.
And then Chris’s brother, Michael, was dying of AIDS during the trial. We had a lot between Chris and Michael, but then the plot just started becoming this TV real estate, which, as generous as FX was with the running time, we couldn’t make 42 minutes to save our lives, it was always 48, 55. Even with that, the idea of carving out themes that we could keep bringing back up — like driving Chris Darden back up to Oakland — we couldn’t keep pulling Chris out of the LA courtroom. So some of these side plots involving the characters started pulling away. Having these options often happens in screenwriting, which is you’re trying to paint this incredibly huge canvas but then at a certain point you fall in love with your main characters and you want to give them as many key choice moments as you can. And so it becomes, “Well, we can drive Chris up to Oakland or he could have another scene with Marcia. Well, we really like those scenes between Chris and Marcia, so let’s just keep having those.”
In terms of choices, I wanted to talk to you a bit about the ending, because when watching the finale, there was this part in my brain that was thinking, “What is the ending of the story because there are so many different options for it?”
KARASZEWSKI: It’s funny, we always believe there is enough drama. There was this whole joke, especially on social media in the past couple of months, where people were joking, “Oh, don’t spoil the ending” or “No spoilers in the O.J. trial.” We know the verdict, and one thing Scott and I didn’t want to happen was you get to the end and there’s some kind of anti-climax.
What we found in the writing and in the execution — the way Ryan directed it — is that knowing the verdict actually ends up giving the episode more power. There’s a sense of dread, that there’s this runaway train, this crash in slow motion… Everyone on the defense team technically had a victory, but O.J. Simpson thought, “Oh, I’m not guilty. I can go back to my old life. I can go back to the Hertz commercials, I can go back to ‘Naked Gun’ movies, I can go back to being O.J.” — which really was his career at that time, being this likable celebrity. But what we wanted to point out was, “No, you can’t. You will never be that guy that’s in that big statue in your back garden again. You will always be this pariah.”
So it was important to us that we get that sense. We almost divide the episode into two parts: There’s before the verdict and after the verdict, and each section had its own power because you see what this trial has done to these people. You know, Marcia and Chris both quit their jobs. It really tore these people apart.
I feel like I’ve been waiting the entire season for that final montage of what’s become pretty standard for the classic biopic: Here’s what happened to everyone. Was that always something you knew you wanted to do, and were you happy to do it?
ALEXANDER: We knew we would have to do it. We knew we had an obligation because every time we’ve done a biopic and we did not have those cards, all you have to do is have one test screening and then everyone in the audience gets angry that they didn’t find out what happened in the end. People always want to know, and so we knew it was part of the process.
We always enjoy trying to put that final spin on the characters and to give them final context to everybody. What really became kind of ridiculous was how many characters there are. I think we wrote two full pages of cards. There were so many pages of cards that we actually had to start over the music, because there were too many people. But it’s always good to put a bit of a bittersweet, a little bit of context, some satire, and some tragedy are what happened to everyone’s life. People at the trial were worse for wear, and we wanted to hammer that home.
KARASZEWSKI: What’s interesting is that someone came up to us after one of the screenings and said that they’ve never cried at a “whatever happened” sequence at the end of a show before, and this one made them do it. And I think it’s that final image of Ron and Nicole, which was very important to us. While showing you how all these other people’s lives went, there were two lives that weren’t able to continue.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” can be streamed now on FXNOW. Coming soon from FX…