“If you look at the projects that Scott and I have chosen to do over the years,” says screenwriter/producer Larry Karaszewski, “whether it’s Ed Wood or Larry Flynt or Andy Kaufman or Bob Crane or Margaret Keane, these are all fairly fringe, odd….”
“You think so?” interrupts Scott Alexander. “You think, Larry?”
There’s a slight difference with "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson" (FX), though. “Odd” certainly applies more than ever with these characters; we’ll take your Tor Johnson and raise you one Kato Kaelin. But “fringe”? Not so much. The writing duo had the luxury of assuming that every real-life detail in "Ed Wood" or "Big Eyes" would come as a freshly absurd revelation to 99 percent of a mainstream audience. But the Simpson trial had a cult fandom comprised of nearly every living American with analog TV access in 1995.
It’s one of the many triumphs of "People v. O.J.," then, that as with "Breaking Bad" or any other serialized hit of recent years, viewers are likely to feel besides themselves at not being able to binge, but having to wait a week between episodes to find out what happens next — in terms of emotions, relationships, and palace intrigue, if not the key legal beats. “It’s a weird thing that even though everybody knows so much about what happened 20 years ago, I do feel like we have spoilers,” laughs Karaszewski.
He and Alexander have a “developed for television by” credit on the 10-hour miniseries, beyond their separate executive producer stripes, and screenplay credit on several of the episodes. As a writing duo, they’ve developed their own offbeat-biopic brand. The Simpson project has plenty of other powerful names attached, including director/showrunner Ryan Murphy ("Glee," "American Horror Story"); fellow executive producers Nina Jacobson (the former Disney studio chief and "Hunger Games" producer) and Brad Simpson; and John Travolta, who gets his own producer credit. If there was any worry all these cooks might spoil the broth, happily, "People v. O.J." bears the distinctive stamp of Karaszewski and Alexander’s half-sensitive, half-satirical sensibility, even as the potboiler elements establish it as a far more mainstream entertainment than anything they’ve ever worked on.
“When we decided to do this three years ago, we didn’t know if people were still sick of the O.J. Simpson trial, or we waited too long and people no longer cared,” Karaszewski admits. Some of the original trial watchers might still be nursing ulcers over alleged miscarriages of justice, while others have died off, so two decades might just be the sweet spot after all.
“The quick history is: Brad and Nina got the rights to the book” — Jeffrey Toobin’s definitive 1996 recap, "The Run of His Life" — “and they came to us exactly three years ago,” Alexander says. “The four of us walked in and sold the project at Fox, and then Larry and I spent 2013 writing an outline and writing the pilot. And then in early 2014, we did the writers’ room, and Larry and I wrote episode 2, and then with the other writers, generated 3, 4, and 5. Then in the fall of 2014 Ryan was looking for his next project, and he asked his agent if there were any good scripts lying around. He quickly read our drafts of episodes 1 and 2 and waved his hand saying, ‘Can I come on board?’”
“We had been looking for a way of possibly making it a continuing thing, and Ryan brought in the idea of doing it as an American Crime Story," Karaszewski adds. "Also, with the fact that Nina, Brad, myself and Scott had never done television before, having Ryan on board — who is sort of the king of it right now — was able to make Fox feel good, and also allowed us to do it at a scale and a budget that we probably wouldn’t have gotten as first-timers. So we proceeded to do the last bunch of scripts with the original writers and Ryan’s input.”
This was the first time Alexander and Karaszewski had overseen other writers, except for 2002's "Auto Focus." "With this, Scott and I wrote the first episode and a series bible for all 10 episodes, and then we got together in a writers’ room with a group of really interesting people," Karaszewski says. "D.V. DeVincentis ['High Fidelity,' 'Grosse Pointe Blank'] was our right-hand man during all this. Joe Robert Cole [the upcoming 'Black Panther'], who wrote episode 5 ['The Race Card'], did an amazing job. We were introduced to him through a script that he wrote about the police, and it was one of those things where we realized how Scott and I don’t write cop shows. He was also an African-American, which we thought was very important, since we’re sort of Hollywood screenwriting white guys. And Maya Forbes, who is also African-American, worked with her husband Wally Wolodarsky. I feel it was less of a normal writers’ room than it was a salon. We would basically hand out assignments, like ‘Go read the juries’ books and come back and tell us what’s important from the jurors’ point of view.’"
“I think all the writers were trying to hit the weird and bizarre tone that Larry and I like," Alexander says. "So they would do a few drafts, and then Larry and I would do a few drafts on their drafts, and then we’d pass it back. It was important that the 10 hours sort of have the same voice.”
But not right at the beginning of the show. If you’re looking for the trademark Karaszewski/Alexander wit in the first half of the first episode, you won’t find much, and that’s by design. “We made a point of coming in very straight,” Alexander says. “There is absurdity in the case, but at the end of the day, everything begins because two innocent people got murdered. So it’s done very straight up as a Joe Friday police procedural in that first section. Only once all the lawyers start jumping into the scene does it start to sneak into the satire from the edges.”
APPROACHING THE GREAT DIVIDE
The writer-producers were determined to give each episode its own theme, while also keeping all the balls of various subplots in the air. Two of the most riveting episodes already shown to critics are, “The Race Card,” which focuses on Johnny Cochran’s and Chris Darden’s initially parallel and then divergent paths to getting ahead in a white man’s world, and the following episode, “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” about the troubles faced by strong women and/or single moms in the workplace.
When it came to how to approach the racial issues that still cause a great divide in how different communities remember the case, “I’ll admit there was a bit of walking on eggshells initially,” Alexander says. “And then it just became: This is the show and these are the people.” But, adds Karaszewski, “It was very important to us to have diversity on the show. Anthony Hemingway is also an African American, and he directed five of the episodes and was an executive producer on the show. It was always important to have a different point of view and make sure that we weren’t missing something.”
The Emmys probably won’t have to worry about any #OscarsSoWhite-style controversies this year, because it’s almost inconceivable that Courtney B. Vance will not be nominated for his portrayal of Cochran, with Sterling K. Brown also being a strong bet for his take on Darden. Viewers who believe Simpson obviously committed the murders, many of whom came to see Cochran as a preening showman, may be surprised how many sympathetic moments the attorney is given here. (That’s more the case on screen than in Toobin’s book, where the author immediately declares that both Cochran and Robert Shapiro knew from the start that Simpson was guilty.)
“Initially we were going to do more of a slow reveal with Johnny,” says Alexander, “but then as we got further into the project, there was [less of] the idea of ‘Is he a strutting peacock, or is he sincere?’ Once you really do your research into Johnny, you know he’d been taking on these cases going back to the 1960s. Yeah, the showboat in the purple coat took on celebrity trials once in a while. But the bulk of his career was spent as the lawyer for a lot of blacks in South Central who had been victimized by the LAPD. I mean, he’s so complex. He certainly understood the theatrics of the courtroom better than anybody, and got being able to play to a camera better than anybody. Yeah, it was win at all costs. But for him, he was fighting for a higher cause. O.J. was just a vehicle to get his larger message across.”
Sarah Paulson is also a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination. Clark, too, gets a more sympathetic characterization on screen than in the original book by Toobin, who zeroed in on her “arrogance” in prosecuting what originally seemed to her like an open-and-shut case. The writers don’t skimp on the attorney’s lack of foresight in seeing what the defense had coming, but are just as concerned with the unfair levels of scrutiny that no other player in the court case faced.
“We all knew that Marcia got made fun of for her [new] haircut [midway through the trial], but to actually see what she’s going through that makes her have the haircut is so heart-wrenching,” says Karaszewski. “The woman was being treated in a completely different way than anyone else. It was all being done comically, too. That wasn’t happening with F. Lee Bailey. He wasn’t being called ‘frumpy.’ So she had to negotiate this public sphere that she really wasn’t prepared for. All these guys on the other side were pundits who knew how to work a camera and how to work media to their advantage. Marcia did not. People might have known that Marcia was going through child care issues, since she mentioned it in court, but you probably didn’t know that she’d filed for divorce three days before the murder took place, and that she had all this stuff going on in her life while this huge spotlight is shining on her.”
But she’s hardly played strictly for victimhood. “Something that I took from Toobin’s book was his opening description of Marcia, which was something to the effect of her being quick-witted, fast to jump to conclusions, and cheerfully profane," Alexander says. "To me, that read as almost like a 'His Girl Friday' kind of a character — the Rosalind Russell who just comes barging into the room and starts barking out orders at all the men. Certainly right off the bat, in our first couple scenes with Marcia, we wanted to define her as this very bright, witty, super-confident woman, but ultimately maybe being her own worst enemy in not recognizing when she was making a mistake or overreaching. And then, like Larry was saying, becoming a victim of being the only woman on the case and being judged by a different standard.”
Travolta’s performance has already turned out to be the most polarizing in early reviews, with some critics seizing on his lack of resemblance to the late attorney, and others maintaining he gets Shapiro’s stiff self-possession just right. No one would mistake him for the most sympathetic character in the early episodes, and he makes a sort of comic foil as Cochran’s complete takeover of the case leaves him with a punctured ego. The writers say there’s a different angle to Shapiro’s powerlessness in the final episodes.
“He’s like some king who’s been put out to pasture,” says Alexander. “At a certain point he’s lost control of the dream team which he assembled. By the end of the trial he was sort of sitting glumly at that table without anything to do while Johnny runs the show. He is very comic a lot of times. But we tried to bring in some material in the last run of episodes, where he starts to really regret what he has created. He starts to feel that the race defense and taking it to trial and not settling is going to tear the city apart, and he feels really bad about what has come out of this. Hopefully you’ll feel sorry for him by the end.”
“People give Cochran all the credit for the race defense, but it really did come from Shapiro," Karaszewski says. "After the Bronco chase, he basically had a case that looked like a sure conviction, and Bob Shapiro came up with this whole plan of hiring Cochran and making it about the LAPD. What he was doing was a piece of strategy. But it was more than strategy for Johnny. This was what his whole career was leading up to.”
“When we first stated doing the series, Scott and I were treating it like a 10-hour movie, just introducing characters when they became a part of the O.J. Simpson trial,” Karaszewski says. “Darden didn’t even show up for the first couple episodes. But you’ve got to think of it as a television show and introduce your main characters right in that first episode. So we wanted to back it up and do research into what Darden’s life was about leading into the trial. It was fascinating, that Darden looked up to Johnny as a mentor, and that he was all about prosecuting the police for their misconduct, and that he was thinking about quitting because he felt he wasn’t able to do anything he wanted to through the system anymore. You were able to see this quagmire that he got stuck in, where he became the African-American gentleman on the prosecution side, and he got so much heat in the African-American press. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t be someone that they looked up to. Why wasn’t being a prosecutor a positive thing? It put Chris in such a weird position.”
There are some knowing winks early in the series, as we see the very young Kardashian kids fall hard for fame when they see their dad become a peripheral celebrity via the O.J. case. But no one wanted to overdo the Kim-‘n’-Kourtney foreshadowing in lieu of making their late father a surprising character in his own right. “When we first started, I don’t think we realized we were gonna make him a major character,” Alexander says. “But then we just really grew to like him” — as reflected in the surprising and ultimately rewarding casting of an actor famous for being lovably forlorn, David Schwimmer.
“There’s very little” with the Kardashian kids, promises Karaszewski. “Because a lot of reality television and 24-hour media came from this case, it would be ridiculous of us not to have the family in there. But they’re really only in like five minutes of the entire 10-hour miniseries. But Kardashian himself is an important part of the show. If anything, he’s the heart of the defense team, in that he’s the only guy who’s there for non-selfish reasons. He has nothing to gain. It’s not for money; it’s not for fame. It’s because he can’t believe his friend would be capable of doing such a horrible thing. He certainly has doubts, and we play with that, particularly in the final episodes, where he becomes a very conflicted character. But certainly the more we found out about the real Robert Kardashian, he was a very moral man, a very religious man, and when he gave his friendship to someone, loyalty was very important to him. If going into it, someone said, ‘Kardashian is gonna be the most heartfelt character in the show,’ you’d say, well, really? But the more research we did, the more we found out he actually was.”
Toobin’s book didn’t leave any question about Simpson’s guilt in the double murder. The series doesn’t take an overt position on that, although the overwhelming mountain of evidence against him is seen as something the defense was able to render irrelevant rather than actually disprove. Cuba Gooding, Jr. comes off as a man who certainly seems to believe in his own innocence, if only because he’s been so in control of his own happy-go-lucky public narrative his entire life.
“What was important with O.J. was to try to remind you of who O.J. was before the trial,” says Alexander. “It gets very muddled in people’s memories, because we’ve now had 20 years of National Enquirer photos of him getting chubby and sitting in a Nevada jail. Until June of ’94, he was such a charismatic, likable, good-looking hero and beloved figure in sports, movies, and television... It’s funny. When we started talking about casting him, some friends called up saying, ‘Why did you go with Cuba? He’s totally wrong. He’s too likable.’ But that’s why Cuba was perfect.”
BEST SUPPORTING WITNESSES
Beyond those six main characters, there are close to a dozen more whose names would be instantly recognizable to anyone who was a sentient adult in the mid-'90s, from the non-dancing but celebrity-friendly Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) to perjury-friendly detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). Some bit players are inevitably played for wry laughs, but there’s no escaping that, at its funniest, this is still tragicomedy. A wrenching scene with victim Ron Goldman’s grieving father may send guilty shivers down the spine of anyone who ever enjoyed a chuckle over the media circus.
“We always talk about how even supporting characters in Robert Altman movies don’t know they’re supporting characters,” says Karaszewski. “So even some of these smaller parts, when they come into the show… Dominic Dunne (played by Robert Morse) is not aware that it was not the Dominic Dunne show, so we have scenes where he’s all by himself holding court, and he’s the star of his own scenes. And with Faye Resnick [Connie Britton, in a delicious cameo] and Kato Kaelin [Billy Magnussen] both, we do see this as being a bit of the beginning of reality television, and these people who were just connected to the case became media sensations and were doing 'Talk Soup' and all these shows. Faye Resnick wrote a book and posed for Playboy. We thought it was important to include that aspect of the trial.”
The series may also remind trial viewers of some less indelible characters they’ve forgotten. “I mean, the fact that we could turn [prosecuting attorney] Bill Hodgman’s heart issues into a big plot device — I’m not sure if history has necessarily remembered him. I was thinking about Janet Leigh in 'Psycho.' We’re introducing this bearded partner for Marcia Clark, and I want the audience to be going, ‘Who is this guy? I don’t remember him sitting next to her at the trial, and he seems really important!’”
THE SCALES OF JUSTICE, TIME, AND TONE
A pure court procedural this isn’t. The focus was on issues and personalities, not “a recreation or greatest hits,” Karaszewski says. “So there are memorable parts of the trial that are not even in the 10 hours. We weren’t interested in retrying O.J. Simpson. We had to follow the general shape of the trial, but we were also trying to focus on the themes of the week, and attack half a dozen big ideas about race or class or gender or the birth of reality television. So we ended up having to drop some stuff that we really liked because it didn’t hit that kind of theme and structure. We’d get to a point where there were still big pieces of the trial and crazy things about it that we wanted to put in, but by episode 7 or 8, we’re sort of moving into the home stretch, and we just couldn’t afford to pause for those things.
“Plus, there are things we wanted to do in, say, episode 8, which we tell from the jurors’ point of view. So we actually back up the trial and you see just what the jurors went through, having to spend nine months sequestered in a hotel. You’re introducing a whole new set of characters really late into the show. You have to cut quite a bit, but hopefully you give people a new perspective on the verdict.”
How much leeway did they feel they had to find the humor as well as the accumulated social wisdom? "The People v. O.J. Simpson" has less outright wit in it than most of the duo’s most celebrated scripts, although by the standards of the Golden Globes, it may count as an out-and-out comedy.
“A hell of a lot funnier than 'The Martian'!” agrees Karaszewski. “Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of absurdity in this case and a lot of larger-than-life figures bouncing around. It’s Shakespearian at times, with a fallen idol and all of these backroom politics. But when we would talk about the movies that we wanted this show to resemble, we talked a bit about 'Larry Flynt,' but we also talked about 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'Network.' 'Dog Day Afternoon' was probably the most relevant, in that it’s taking a true-life event that involved a bit of a media circus. And keeping in mind that there is death there. But it doesn’t lose sight of the absurdity of real life, and the fact that things can be funny and sad and tragic and satirical at the same time. It’s a high-wire act, but it’s one that Scott and I like to do.”
Given the fatalistic view that most screenwriters who don’t usually direct their own work usually end up taking, Karaszewski and Alexander have enjoyed one of the most enviable adaptation runs in Hollywood, finding highly sympathetic collaborators like Tim Burton, Milos Forman, and, now Ryan Murphy. Although they’ve delved into pure fancy on occasion (from "Problem Child" to their story credit on "Goosebumps"), they have a distinctive brand, as king of the slightly twisted biopics. Their filmography has very few blips…
“All of the 2000s — that blip,” interrupts Karaszewski. “No, we’ve been very lucky. We’ve chosen this path to make very eccentric kinds of movies, and now television, and the only way you can get this kind of stuff through the system sometimes is by having people are very powerful and large attached to it. So you wind up making movies with Oliver Stone and Jim Carrey and Johnny Depp and Tim Burton and Danny DeVito and Milos and all these characters that have a certain gravitas in the industry and can push things through that maybe normally wouldn’t be able to be pushed through. Certainly Nina Jacobsen was that here, and so was Ryan. It’s created a niche for us, which is nice. We were very fortunate that people think of us in a certain way. It’s sometimes silly to say ‘Is an author an auteur?,’ because it’s basically the same word. But we’re lucky that we’re screenwriters that have a certain brand, and we’re very aware of how fortunate that makes us.”
Next up: their ballyhooed Patricia Hearst biopic, which was
first revealed as a Fox project last spring, with Jacobson and Brad Simpson
again producing — once again based on a Jeffrey Toobin book, this one scheduled to come
out some time in 2016. Jennifer Lawrence has been mentioned as everyone’s most
desirable get. Breath-holding is not advised, however. “We literally have not
written one word. We are about to start outlining,” says Alexander. “We’re
looking at the mug shots of the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army] right now, as
we speak, spread out in front of us. There’s obviously a lot of stuff
happening, but we have to finish the script first before anything happens. And
Jeff has to finish the book!”