Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden.
Though The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is set in the mid-’90s, its deep dive into the issues that still plague us today has made the series among the most topical shows of recent years. And with its racially diverse cast, writing staff, and mix of directors, it could also serve as a prototype for Hollywood, as the largely intractable industry finally begins to reform itself.
The Bronco chase. The gloves. The Mark Fuhrman tapes. The O.J. Simpson trial was so cinematic as it unfolded in real life, its story has for years seemed unsuited for fiction: Why bother, after all? After nine episodes of well-acted, inventively paced, intricate storytelling in The People v. O.J. Simpson, it turns out that we were just waiting for the right version to come along. In Nielsen’s Live+7 ratings, the show has drawn an average audience of 7.7 million.
Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander at the Los Angeles premiere of The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander developed the limited series from Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Successful feature-film writers, known especially for real-life stories such as The People vs. Larry Flynt and Ed Wood, Karaszewski and Alexander were hired by executive producers Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson (of the Hunger Games movies) in early 2013 for what would be a first foray into television for all of them. The project was initially meant to be a miniseries for Fox, but it migrated to Fox’s cable sibling FX in 2014. Soon after its move, Ryan Murphy signed on as an executive producer and director, and it became his second FX anthology series, American Crime Story, a follow-up to the successful American Horror Story.
Alexander and Karaszewski’s office on the historic Culver Studios lot in Los Angeles – where Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane were both filmed – would look like an airy, if overstuffed, professor’s office, were it not for all the movie posters on the walls featuring the duo’s past work. There was also a storyboard for their latest project: an adaptation of Toobin’s next book, an account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping and its aftermath, due out later this year.
Over the course of more than two hours, Alexander and Karaszewski discussed The People v. O.J. Simpson with BuzzFeed News, delving into their approach, its characters, Simpson’s guilt, and the series’s intense parallels with contemporary horrors.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran.
1. The writers read every book written by those involved in the Simpson trial, and had lengthy conversations about gender politics, racism, classism, and tabloid journalism.
The Run of His Life is the story of how the lawyers experienced the case, and through them, Toobin illustrates how the crime ended up providing an ugly reflection of racism, misogyny, class inequities, chaotic policing, media exploitation, and fealty to fame. Karaszewski and Alexander told Fox that they wanted to delve into all of those topics, using the same tone they had for The People vs. Larry Flynt. “A lot of serious stuff here, a lot of tragedy, but there’s a lot of social satire,” said Alexander. “We sort of said, ‘We’re going to cover it all! We’re going to take it all on!'”
Given that the Simpson case had come to symbolize tabloid indulgence, everyone wanted a highbrow approach for The People v. O.J. Simpson. “No one wanted the exploitation version of it, or the cheesy version,” said Karaszewski.
Toobin provided their base, but everyone involved in the Simpson trial had written a book – Karaszewski and Alexander read them all. In the earliest stages of writing, they would meet with executive producers Jacobson and Simpson for hours at a time. “Most busy producers don’t carve out four-hour afternoons repeatedly just to talk idea where there’s no agenda,” Alexander said. “Like, What do we think it means to be a celebrity? We would just babble. Anything that sounded cool, Larry and I would scribble down. We would come out with a lot of heads-y liberal arts ideas.”
It took them nearly a year to write the pilot. “But I think the project really benefited from all that luxuriating,” Alexander said.
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) would be the primary characters, Alexander and Karaszewski decided, and would bear the series’s thematic weight. When they formed a small writers room – adding Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, D.V. DeVincentis, and Joe Robert Cole – the scholarly approach continued. Alexander said: “We’d say, ‘OK, tomorrow we’re going to talk about gender politics. We’ve got 30 books here, just grab something, do some highlighting, and come in tomorrow and give a little report about fun facts about the O.J. trial and gender politics that we don’t know about.'”
For film writers used to compressing biographical material into two hours, 10 hours seemed extravagant. “In a two-hour format, you’d be telling people all the stuff they already know, all the highlights,” said Karaszewski. With 10 hours, he said, “Our key marching order for the show was: Tell people what they don’t know.”
2. The story would be told from the point of view that Simpson had committed the murders.
In the prologue to The Run of His Life, Toobin writes, “Of course Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran knew from the start what any reasonably attentive student of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman could see: that O.J. Simpson was guilty of killing them.”
Starting with the murders – showing clearly that Simpson did it – and ending with his not guilty verdict is where Alexander and Karaszewski wanted the drama of The People v. O.J. Simpson to live: How could this have happened?
“We didn’t see this as, We’re going to retry O.J. Simpson,” Karaszewski said. “We’re going to show you how the case proceeded, and all the unusual things that happened, so that you will understand the verdict.”
Providing that backdrop begins as soon as the first images of the show: the beating of Rodney King, then footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which followed the acquittals of the four police officers who had attacked King. Indisputable problems within the LAPD, a quasi-military institution with racist strains in its DNA, had been shown in sharp relief during the King trial – and would be again in the Simpson case, especially as embodied by the racist detective, Mark Fuhrman (played by Steven Pasquale), who was one of its first investigators.
It was through Fuhrman’s documented history that the defense – especially Cochran, but Shapiro concocted the strategy first – was able to advance the idea that there had been a police conspiracy against Simpson, and that they had planted the damning evidence against him. But before the audience sees the lawyers dream up that path, the show deliberately lays out the case against Simpson early in Episode 1. “Here’s the bloody glove; there’s the other bloody glove. His blood’s at her house; her blood’s at his house,” Alexander said. “It’s all in there. We see it. As it was presented to the prosecution, it’s been presented to the TV audience. Then if we start to question what we saw over the next nine weeks, that’s the experience that the jurors had.”
Episode 7, called “Conspiracy Theories,” depicts the trial’s most famous visual moment, and the fatal bullet to the prosecution’s case: when Darden asks Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to try on those bloody gloves, and they appear not to fit. But earlier in the episode, Clark and Darden – and their unspoken romantic tension – take a road trip to Oakland for his friend’s birthday party. In the company of a group of black men, happily drunk and at ease, Clark lucidly and charmingly schools Darden’s friend who claims that the police framed Simpson.
The scene reveals how ludicrous the idea of the conspiracy is – how many people would have had to have been involved, all to frame a man the police generally revered and favored, who may well have had a solid alibi for his whereabouts. And when Darden’s friend, after he listens to Clark’s monologue spoofing the conspiracy, says, “Maybe,” it also reveals something else.
That, as Karaszewski said, “the facts have nothing to do with it!”
Vance in “Manna From Heaven.”
Byron Cohen /FX
3. The deaths of black men like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner made the trial, and Johnnie Cochran’s argument especially, particularly resonant today.
Simpson’s guilt makes him an imperfect vessel to show an argument about national police corruption, but that did not bother Cochran. Though his methods were theatrical, Cochran had a fully formed, virtuous thesis about racist police methods on which he had based his law practice and public reputation. When Karaszewski and Alexander first conceived of creating him as a character, they thought they would lead with his flash, and eventually reveal, as Alexander called it, “the beating heart of Johnnie.”
Then, after “a year or so working on the project, all the shootings started of black Americans by police all around the country,” Alexander said. And it was clear there was nothing clownish about Cochran’s philosophy. “We were saying to each other that the stuff that Johnnie was complaining about going back to the 1960s is still going on today – the country has not changed at all,” Alexander said. They decided to insert a scene into the first episode in which Cochran and Darden discuss an instance of racially motivated police violence in which Cochran is clearly in the right.
Throughout the trial, Cochran stokes the embers still burning from the L.A. riots. But even he couldn’t have imagined the existence of hours of tapes of Fuhrman explaining to a screenwriter that the LAPD was an institution propelled by racism, violations of suspects’ civil rights, violence, and misogyny – in the most vile language imaginable. The series’s penultimate episode this week, “Manna From Heaven,” focused on the Fuhrman tapes, a last-minute entry into the trial after they were discovered.
“This is what black people have always known,” Cochran says during the episode, calling the tapes in court a matter of “national concern.” (To which Clark retorts that they are trying a double homicide, not “Iran–Contra.”)
Karaszewski said that Cochran’s view about what Fuhrman said was straightforward: “This is a smoking gun against police in the United States. This is beyond the O.J. Simpson trial. Everything we’ve always thought was being said, we have it on tape.“
And that idea sets up the finale, according to Alexander. “The story is a tragedy for every character on screen, except for Johnnie Cochran,” he said. “Because those tapes allowed Johnnie to get his message across, which is, at the end of the day, what he cared about.”
4. The writers got no pushback from FX about uses of the n-word (and the f-word).
Considering the language in the Fuhrman tapes, which contained repeated use of the n-word, and how often it came up during the trial in general, Alexander and Karaszewski worried that FX would not allow it in the show. Their fears, however, were unwarranted: “I don’t think they had us pull back on any,” said Alexander. “But I don’t think anyone on the team was being gratuitous about it.”
“Fuck” has also been said on the show twice, once at the end of the third episode, “The Dream Team,” after Clark sees that Cochran has been hired for the defense. “Cochran: motherfucker!” she says as she reads the news in the paper. Its second utterance, in “Conspiracy Theories,” is by Cochran after his ex-wife and former mistress appear on A Current Affair. His ex is asked about him physically abusing her. “Fuck!” Cochran yells as he turns off the TV.
“No one at the network said anything!” said Alexander.
Paulson and Brown.
5. There was one person raising red flags about Fuhrman from the start: Darden. And no one listened to him.
As they contend with the Fuhrman fallout in “Manna From Heaven,” Darden explodes at Clark. “You put me on this trial because you wanted a black face,” he says. “But the truth is, you never wanted a black voice.”
“I hope we weren’t too on the nose for you,” Alexander said of that moment.
“Our show was very clear about it,” Karaszewski added. “Chris was put on the case because the DA’s office was afraid of Johnnie Cochran, and needed different ‘optics.‘” Instead of turning the decision into a strength, Clark ignored Darden about his insistence that Fuhrman would hurt them.
Toobin in his writing is critical of Darden’s skills as a trial lawyer, which reach their nadir when he gets Simpson to put on the gloves (against Clark’s orders). When writing the character, Karaszewski and Alexander wanted it to come across that Darden was both out of practice in court and in over his head in a trial of this scale. It proved to be hard to find an actor who could exude earnestness, compassion, and charm – especially with Clark – and also be somewhat weak in court. “It was, on paper, an impossible part to play,” Alexander said. “Larry and I kept calling him Charlie Brown in the first couple of episodes, because he’s just this sad sack who hates his job and doesn’t want to work there.”
Brown auditioned early, but “got lost in the mountains of actors who were reading,” according to Alexander. When they returned to him, they saw that Brown got the nuance of Darden. “When actors come in and audition with sides out of context, they’re just reading the fiery speech, they’re just selling it,” Alexander said. “And Sterling might have been the only actor who understood that he’s selling it – but we’re not buying it. He captured that.”
Considering the divisiveness of the case between black and white Americans, Darden was “totally torn apart for being a black man on the ‘wrong side,'” Karaszewski said. “And all he was trying to do was put a murderer behind bars.”
When it came to the image wars during the trial, Darden and Clark were never going to win. “The defense team were professional pundits – they were all used to going on Larry King,” Karaszewski said. “Marcia and Chris were not, and so they made missteps. And those missteps made them seem weak.”
6. The misogyny directed toward Marcia Clark mirrored the misogyny aimed at Nicole Simpson.
With the hindsight of 20 years, Clark’s journey through the Simpson trial – shown most particularly in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the show’s sixth episode – is both poignant and enraging. Her style was ripped apart by the viperous commentariat around the trial, she contended with daily childcare issues her male counterparts did not have to deal with, and she fought with her second husband for custody of their two children as she worked on the biggest case of her career. She couldn’t even buy tampons in peace: “Uh oh. I guess the defense is in for a hell of a week!” a cashier says to her in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
It was another role that Alexander and Karaszewski knew needed to be played by someone who would reveal Clark’s humanity under a tough surface. Paulson was the first actor executive producer/director Murphy cast – she has been a mainstay of American Horror Story – and the writers said that as soon as they saw her performance, they knew that “she was knocking it out of the park,” Karaszewski said.
FX / Via gifthetv.tumblr.com
“She’s getting what we’re trying to do on the page,” he continued. “We’re not white-washing Marcia. Marcia is very strong in her beliefs and she has no problem saying it and sometimes she says it too bluntly – but that shouldn’t be a problem. But what Sarah gave us was a real person in there.”
If the show is filled with resonance to the racial strife of today, Karaszewski and Alexander also point out how little has changed in the media’s portrayal of serious, driven women. Karaszewski said, “All you have to do is listen to any 15 minutes after a Hillary Clinton debate: ‘Strident.’ ‘Why is she yelling?’ ‘Why doesn’t she smile more?’ ‘Why does she dress that way?'”
The tabloid press and public’s knee-jerk dislike of Clark was presumably – and more harmfully – felt by the jury as well, who also seem to have been susceptible to Cochran’s argument that Nicole Simpson had been a slutty gold-digger who deserved what she got. “I think the world was blind to this 20 years ago: that the battering of Nicole led to the murder of Nicole,” Alexander said, which was “disregarded by the defense and by the jurors.”
The vicious mistreatment of Clark and the easy stereotyping of Nicole Simpson mirror each other in The People v. O.J. Simpson. “You had these dual layers of misogyny going on,” Alexander said.
Paulson and Brown.