Editor Adam Penn had no idea what to expect when he hired on to FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” To him, “The Trial of the Century” was a caricatured media circus. But he trusted director Ryan Murphy after collaborating on several series, most recently “American Horror Story.” The experience not only earned him an Emmy nom for the pilot (“From the Ashes of Tragedy”), but was also a revelation concerning the personal lives of these larger than life players.
“The biggest challenge was taking people that everybody’s familiar with and reshaping it a little bit so you’re not necessarily thinking Cuba Gooding Jr., you’re thinking O.J.,” said Penn, who splits his time as a screenwriter and co-producer on another buzzy Emmy series, “Mr. Robot.”
So Penn stood back and got out of the way of the performances and camera movement and relied on invisible cutting. “A lot of that, again, was making it quiet…and not forcing anything into making them versions of people we already know,” he said.
In addition to letting the performances carry the episode and not over-cutting, it was crucial to focus on everyday details to humanize Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown).
That’s a lesson that Penn gleaned from writing, particularly in working with “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, who’s a master at conveying the splintered psychology of vigilante hacker Elliot (Rami Malek).
However, the importance of the opening montage featuring Rodney King footage and the ensuing riots didn’t occur to Penn until he was deep into editing. “This is the backdrop for the entire season and I had just never thought of it in those terms,” Penn said. “It was framed as the anger, the frustration and the ticking time bomb, which I think was really effective. It builds and builds with sounds and the pace of the editing and just explodes at the end. And then we cut to the very quiet night outside the Rockingham mansion when we catch up to O.J. in 1994.”
The brooding silence for the next 10 minutes, snaking around the crime scene and meeting the players was an effective intro. “It was creepy and weird and that was in the footage that I got, and I was surprised at how tense it all felt considering we all know what happened,” Penn said.
The opening presented a microcosm of how the entire season unfolded with lots of humanizing details: the spoon in the melted ice cream bowl, a bathtub filled with water, the kids asleep upstairs. “That was the statement from Ryan and the other filmmakers: We’re going to do a deep-dive into this,” Penn said.
The most challenging scene to edit was a frantic one in Simpson’s living room with lots of people and TV footage of cops handcuffing him. Despite the layers of the media circus building, Penn needed to concentrate on Simpson’s state of mind, which was panic-stricken and filled with frustration.
But what shocked Penn was that his perception of Simpson changed. “At a certain point, most people assume he was behind all of this — I certainly do,” he said. “Yet there are times in the show when, in a weird way, I found myself feeling a little bad for O.J. Simpson. It was unsettling at first, but I like the fact that we’re treating everyone here as a person regardless of the evidence. “
Penn even got personal with a music choice in a later episode involving the wild Bronco chase (“The Run of His Life”). “Two teenagers were driving beside the Bronco and I thought it needed some music and the memory of ‘The Sabotage’ video jumped back in my head,” Penn said. “That’s what I was watching the day of the Bronco chase. Instantly, it just worked and, fortunately, the Beastie Boys agreed.”