‘O.J.: Made in America’ Director Ezra Edelman on Bringing The Story of O.J. Simpson to Sundance

'O.J.: Made in America' Director Ezra Edelman on Bringing The Story of O.J. Simpson to Sundance

Get ready. For the next few months, O.J. Simpson is going to be all we want to talk about. And it begins with the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series “O.J.: Made in America,” which premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival in the Special Events section. All five parts of the epic-length look at the famous/infamous man who held the nation in rapture upon multiple occasions — for very different reasons — will be screening in Park City, weeks before the Ryan Murphy-produced drama series “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres on FX.

READ MORE: The Best Things Robert Redford Said on the Opening Day of Sundance 2016

Director Ezra Edelman hasn’t seen “American Crime Story,” but he has been living with the story of O.J. like no one else, telling the entire story of Simpson’s journey and what it signified about American culture. At the TCA Winter Press Tour, Edelman sat down with Indiewire to talk about what it means for him to go to Sundance, what didn’t interest him and what did when it came to Simpson’s life, and the difficulties of telling a story about one of America’s most complex public figures (at the same time as somebody else). An edited transcript is below.

This is your first TCAs. How are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling fine. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about it. I wouldn’t say this exercise, in general, is my favorite thing. It’s a joke among documentary filmmakers — the hypocrisy of getting people to sit and do interviews and bare their souls, but I’m reluctant to do so myself.

What is really interesting is that, both at the Sundance premiere and in this version, you are really leaning into the idea of binge-viewing.

Yeah, the funny thing about it is, that when I was approached to do this I was very clear from the get-go. It started off as a five-hour thing for television, so which would be an hour and 10 minutes, or whatever it would be, and I was very clear to Connor, the head of ESPN Films, I don’t want to do a miniseries. I don’t want to do five one-hours. I want to make one film. I’m interested in making a longer film with all of these things that interweave to make this story rich. In some ways, it’s twice as long as it was initially set out to be, but it was the same ambition. I don’t think this would work if you aired an hour or two hours every week because everything is connected. There’s not a lot of recap. It’s just one long story. I don’t know if it speaks to binge viewing. That’s based on whether it’s actually good enough for someone to sit and watch it for that long. That’s the hope, though.

While people are eventually going to bring up “American Crime Story” in relation to all this, I think it speaks in general to how there is definitely something about the story, about how O.J.’s life in general is fascinating enough to sit people down for 10 hours at a time.

I hope so. Look, I think that there is a level to which O.J., the story is about everything. It really is, in terms of our American culture. It’s about everything. There is a joke with a friend of mine, who lives out here: You can do 50 hours on O.J. I mean, you could go off in all these different directions, in some ways, in every narrative and the amount of characters that are in it. This is something that I don’t do. So, there’s 10 hours of an FX series, and it’s focused on the murder and the trial. But you have these characters, and to me a lot of the characters in my film, there’re really at most one degree away from the narrative itself, in terms of who they are. Outside of O.J. himself, as a character, they are actors in this story. I don’t go home with Marcia Clark. That’s the difference.

I do think that there are strands that you can continue to unravel or roads to go down where I can make this thing interminable. But I do think there is a public fascination to this that sort of confuses me, but no longer surprises me. As I was saying before, part of it frankly just lies in the continual lack of resolution about it. There is just the fact that we as a society, when you look at the percentage, when you look at the polls at this point — the majority of Americans believe that he is guilty of murder, and yet here is a guy who has never admitted that he is guilty of murder. And until there is that resolution, we are going to continue to be fascinated. I just think that’s the facts. We want an answer and we all think we know the answer. We don’t.

For you, personally, is there one core idea or image or element to the story that made you sit down and think, “I really need to tell this one?”

It’s funny because, in the initial conversation about it, I didn’t want to do it. Because, like everyone else my age, I was in college — I lived through it. I don’t need to spend so much time on this thing. Then I thought about it, and with the time that was being offered for me to dig into it: “What are the things I am interested in?” I’m interested in history, I’m interested in race, I’m interested in culture. This story has everything and I understand that you can’t tell without telling the story of the murder and the trial. The murder doesn’t mean much to me, like the whodunnit aspect doesn’t mean much to me. My philosophy was, you’ll get a sense of the way I feel about it when you watch the movie, but I’m interested in the story that predated it. I’m interested in everything that led up to that moment. That’s why there’s three hours before there is a murder, because there is a story of this guy’s life and it’s important to emotionally engage with him.

But to answer your question, I was interested in the story of race in Los Angeles. I was interested in the police department. I was interested in all of these things that went into the emotional connection to him as a character into this trial. To me, I understood very clearly it wasn’t a lot about O.J. I understood that, having gone through it. I understood that as soon as I started looking into it.

I think — and this is me admitting to some weird cultural blind spot — I had no idea he was currently in prison. Until it came up today, and I quickly went to Wikipedia. 

He’s been in prison for the last seven years.

And you’re leading off with that in the first episode.

So, this is what’s funny. I don’t have an answer about this FX thing other than being like, this thing exists, it sort of sucks for me because I worked really hard to put something together that’s this long and someone else is going to tell the story. And they’re going to dive even deeper into this part of it, which is two-fifths of our movie. But what I wanted to make clear from the beginning was this isn’t about the murder and the trial. This is a much bigger story. So, if you understand from the beginning of the story and you see a guy on his parole hearing, we’re going to be back to it, and so even when the story — October 3rd, 1995 — happens and the verdict comes, whichever people react in the courtroom and outside the courtroom, the story is not over. I do think, that is one reason why it starts that way, to have you understand that the treatment of him as a character goes beyond what happened in those 15 months.

How did you feel about him before you started, and now how do you feel about him?

Okay. So, how I felt about him before: I was like everyone else. As a child, O.J. was not a tangential figure in my childhood. I’m a huge sports fan. I grew up with older brothers. If you go into my parents’ house right now, there’s a photo of me and my brothers wearing our O.J. Simpson jerseys. I would run through airports thinking about O.J. dodging people from Hertz commercials. He was a fundamental part of my existence, and I was a rabid sports fan, so it’s like, O.J. is O.J. That informs one treatment of… You really need to emotionally connect with this guy. You need to feel now what people felt for him then and understand how good-looking he was, how charming he was, how funny he was, to understand how shocking it was that this guy was accused of murder and might be capable of this thing.

As far as the last 20 years, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about O.J. I probably fit into the percentages of people in America, in terms of my opinion about his guilt. And I will say this: It is impossible because what you’re dealing with — in terms of some of the intimacy of the story and the stuff that happened — is that no one exists to know beyond him what happened, so no one is ever going to know. When you’re telling the story very fundamentally… I don’t know actually what happened, so there’s that. There is a woman who was killed on June 12, 1994, and I have diary entries of her talking about the abuse that she went through at the hands of O.J. I have anecdotal evidence from other people, in terms of hearsay, what she told them. These are all things that are relevant and believable, and even I am susceptible to the notion of, “This guy did that… consistently!” and it’s hard not to go, intellectually, “This is a terrible person.” How is he not? But it’s really hard when I have not engaged with someone in flesh and blood and sat across from him.

By the way, there is this guy, who is his manager in the last few years leading up to him being in prison, who shot all this video of him and says, “You’ll like him. I guarantee you that you’ll like him.” He’s this charmer. Someone said to me that charm is the first manifestation of brutality — that came from this book called “The Charm Manifesto.” The author who wrote the two best long articles about him post-trial, a woman named Celia Farber, wrote one for Esquire and one for Rolling Stone. She spent a lot of time with him. She embodies this notion of “I really like this guy.” She felt sympathetic to the way the world treated him in the aftermath of the murders: “As a person dealing with him, intellectually I know you’re guilty of murder, but I don’t want you to be guilty of murder. I like you. And that, how do I feel about him?”

It’s complicated because there is also so much of the story that is wrapped up into race, in this aspirational quality of a guy who grew up when he grew up, which is the ’50s and ’60s and realized, I’m going to be me. I want to be this famous person, I’m not going to be defined by or held back by my race, and that’s the very positive lens through which we can look at O.J.’s story and who he was.

The flipside of that, which is also in the film, [is] he also came up at a time of intense political strife and the forebearers of him as an athlete, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell — all of this stuff when he became famous at USC, there was this movement of militant black athletes, and O.J. very clearly was like, “Nope! I’m going that way.” And that’s where… You’ve seen the FX series?

I’ve seen the first six episodes.

Okay, so there’s that line — I’ve only seen the commercials — where it’s, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” He said that to Harry Edwards, who’s a sociologist, in 1967, when he was approached to be part of the Olympic boycott movement. He said, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” For me, again, it’s context. There’s a path he went down. He trail-blazed a path that ended up in the Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods of the world, of the deep politicized black athletes, who decided, “I’m going to be me.” Their significance to O.J. as a cultural figure, we have just thrown in the trash because it’s overwhelmed by everything that has happened. I’m not here to lobby for his significance as an athlete. I don’t care. His having gone through this ordeal of being accused of murder and/or being in jail now, does not take away how good he was as an athlete. For me and the story, you should at least understand, not only how great he was, but how beautiful he was. That’s part of it. He was a beautiful looking person, and he was that charming, and he was beautiful to watch. He didn’t just score a lot of touchdowns. He did it in the most graceful balletic way and when you’re living this and immersed in this character again, you get a sense of– Hopefully, you’re charmed a little bit by him, too.

I think you said something during the panel about not coming to it necessarily with an agenda, but, at the same time, everything is subjective in the end.

Everything is subjective. But also, if there’s a both-and universe, I can both not have an agenda, which is true, but I can’t divorce myself as far as who I am within this process. I think that we all have our worldviews based on how we grew up and who our parents are, and who we are racially, sexually or what have you, that’s going to inform the way that we think of a story. Now, I can’t let that override the sort of story I’m telling, in terms of, I have to maintain my objectivity. In some ways, I had to more so than anything I’ve ever done, really did have to tune it all out. If you’re sitting across from Mark Fuhrman, who is portrayed as the vilest, worst racist in the world, and all of a sudden you’re sitting three feet from him and doing an interview with him, how are you supposed to approach that? Are you supposed to treat him like a human being? This is what I’ve read about you, this is what I think about you. Do you believe, really, that black people and white people shouldn’t be together? My mom’s black. My dad’s white. Are you devaluing who I am as a human being? Or do you just go like, “You’re part of the story. I get the way the media and the defense framed this narrative. I get there are probably parts of you I’m not down with, but is it my goal to put you on trial, sitting out here? No.”

I’m fascinated by little cultural moments, like the dancing Itos on Jay Leno. Stupid stuff like that. The sort of stuff you remember 20 years from now, as someone who is just consuming this as a pop culture event rather than a very serious moment.

I basically tried to turn my brain off from that. I don’t want to do that, I’m less fascinated by that. The celebrity part of the story is fundamental to how we engaged him as a character when he was on trial for murder. Also, how the world reacted to him post-murder, in terms of, you see in the film, you see people coming up to him in airports or restaurants and how awe-struck they are just to be in the presence of someone that famous. But, that’s not the narrative — “I thought he was the most hated man in America.” Nope, people just want to be around a celebrity and you’re like whoa, that sort of blew my mind. The whole celebrification of the trial and the 24-hour news, yeah, that’s covered in the film, but it’s not something I wanted to make a meal of. There were certain characters, I just wasn’t interested in as far as, yeah, that’s not for me.

Can I ask who?

Kato Kaelin. Someone asked me earlier today, ‘Did you interview Kato Kaelin?” I said, “No. I didn’t ask him. I don’t care about Kato Kaelin.” That’s a terrible thing to say, I just don’t…the other thing is that there is little about what you can take from him. I understand what his role is. He to me is an embodiment of this celebrity culture, of someone who had a very specific part, who looks the part, and we all glommed on to him. So, is he in the movie? Yeah, just his image and as an example of, “I don’t want to sit down and talk to him,” and partly it’s also I wasn’t going to spend an hour reconstructing the night of the murder.

I do want to circle back on Sundance, just because, I imagine that’s a first time thing for you, as well?

Yes. I was a producer on a film that was there a couple years ago called “Cutie and the Boxer,” but that was my friend’s film. That was a different thing from being the person who is wholly responsible. I can’t lie, it’s a nice thing.

What does it mean to you to go to Sundance?

It means a lot. I have a TV background but I essentially spent the last 10, 11 years of my life making what I would say, are documentary films, either for HBO or ESPN. Yes, you can have independently produced, financed things that ultimately screen at a theater, and could have theatrical releases and have money that comes from a TV network. There’s always that sense of, you want the community of independent filmmakers, you have the cred of being able to have your film at any festival. I think Sundance in that way is a holy grail for any documentary filmmaker, it’s like: “yes, I would like my work to be shown at Sundance.” That in this case, they are showing the entire thing, it’s slightly more meaningful because it validates the story that I set out to tell in its totality. It wasn’t just, “Oh, yeah, I see how this is an interesting thing, and oh this is going to be on TV, so we’ll show the one part.” You’re like, no, there is thought that went into, if you’re engaged with it, the beginning of the story agrees with the end of the story. So it’s a little bit more meaningful to me that they decided to sort of take this much time. It’s like, really, you’re going to show a seven-hour and 45-minute movie?

What’s next for you?

Disappearance. Someone asked me earlier that this must not be a fun story to live with. It’s not a fun story to live with on a lot of levels. I kind of need to get my groove back a little bit. Another thing is, what happens when you spend so much time in something this long. This in some ways feels slightly transitional for me in some ways. I don’t know what that means in terms of the types of films I want to do. Do I want to continue to do things in the same way, this was such an immersive project and process and still is right now as we’re sitting here, that part of me just wants to escape and be done with it. The process that people are not going to watch it, it’s sort of… [sighs and groans] Okay, because it’s been that intense for the last year and a half of trying to do this and get it done, and that we’re almost finished is great, but I honestly, have not thought about what I’m going to do next beyond… I need a vacation. I need a break. There’s a burden that, not just me, but a lot of us have been living under for a while. this is nonstop, it’s everything about it. I’ve never gone through a process of getting people to talk. It seemed like every single person had its own issue. And then you’re like, “So, it’s that, but it’s not a core group of three things.” We interviewed 72 people and there’s a lot of legwork and stress and leg pulling just to get people to come in. You go through that process and you have to then prepare for the interviews and then you feel like you’ve gone through this whole thing. “Oh, right. I have to put the other phone down.” And then you’re like, “Can I just go away?” That’s where I am at. I just need to go away.

“O.J.: Made in America” will premiere on ESPN in June 2016. 

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

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