“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” ended Tuesday, with Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) standing beneath the statue that celebrated him. Just O.J. and his personal memorial, left alone at the end of this 10-episode ride -- nothing more.
But that does beg the question: why this scene?
Many creative decisions contributed to this FX hit, many of them shaped by creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. A pair of veteran movie writers who have worked together for decades -- their films include “Man on the Moon,” about Andy Kaufman, and “Ed Wood,” which starred Johnny Depp as the director of the anti-masterpiece, “Plan 9 from Outer Space” -- “The People” was their first live-action TV series.
I spoke with them about these many decisions before the finale. An edited outtake:
This was your first and only live action series -- why this choice?
Karaszewski: “Scott and I over the past 25 years have really kind of specialized in the eccentric true life story, whether it’s Ed Wood, or Larry Flynt [1996’s ‘The People vs. Larry Flynt’]or Andy Kaufman. They are sort of fringe characters and we figured out a way to turn their lives into compelling films. We also grew up in the ’70s and had this ’70s idea that television is what people have in their living room every week. What happened with this is that we had a new agent and he mentioned that Nina and Brad Simpson [both top film and TV producers]had just bought the rights to a book [Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Run of his Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson’]and we said we’re in. We saw what could be done here and particularly done as a 10- or 12-hour event. We would never have done this as a movie because that would have been two hours of highlights. Here we knew we could create this epic story that had all these characters that we wanted to do justice to, and also bring gender politics and races relations into it. Then we spent the next two years reading every single book [about the case]and deep-diving with Brad and Nina figuring out how to do this.”
Beyond the Toobin book, what other research went into this?
Alexander: “Jeff’s book was the gold standard for us. But we wanted to get everyone’s POV and every single person who is a character here has written a book, or even three books [with the exception of Judge Lance Ito]. We read all of those and in each one, they had discussed their feelings toward the case, and what happened in the early days. We also had a lot of time with Brad and Nina talking out the ideas and themes we were interested in, and we thought we had found some themes that had never been written about before -- for example, the socio-economic disparity between high-paid criminal defense attorneys and attorneys in the public sector -- the civil servants who don’t get paid all that much and take their work home every night, and how that affects the outcome of a case, and the issues that arise from that. We were also interested in how events were reported in the black press and the white press ...”
Every good series -- which yours certainly was -- is bound by some big idea or theme. What was that idea behind “The People?”
Karaszewski: “It was important to us that the whole series had an arc, but that each episode stood alone and had a particular theme to it. There was so much evidence that points to O.J.’s guilt in this case and yet the jury comes back with the verdict of not guilty, we wanted people to understand why that verdict separated Americans and we also wanted to look at things from different sides, put them in different shoes, so they would know what it felt like to be Marcia Clark or Chris Darden. Twenty years ago, you saw them only from one angle, on Court TV, and got a very superficial view of them and it was easy to turn them into caricatures. We wanted to get inside their humanity -- that was the most satisfying thing for us. People were talking about, ‘wow, I hated Marcia Clark, but your show helped me re-evaluate that,’ or ‘we always thought Johnnie Cochran manipulated the courtroom but he was also in fear of police brutality.’ Or Chris Darden. Many thought he was a race traitor, and now we can see he was in this impossible situation he was in.
“But I think when we were writing the ninth episode, and we were talking about how black Americans and white Americans experience life differently -- to me, that felt like what this show was about. For me, that episode was the summation of all the big ideas.”
The Goldman family has been critical of the film -- how did you square their role in this?
Alexander: “We tried to be respectful towards the families, both the Browns and the Goldmans. There is a lot of social satire in the series but it had nothing to do with them. When appropriate, we tried to give them moments, Fred particularly, like his big monologue in episode four when he was talking about his son becoming a footnote to his own trial, where people weren’t even interested ... ‘have you people gone crazy! People have forgotten why they are here. Why has this turned into a referendum on the LAPD? ... The world has gone upside down ...’”
Karaszewski: “It was important to us that in the final episode, where there were these cards showing how all these lives played out, and then coming to the end, with only Nicole and Ron’s name, along with their birthdays, and the day they were murdered. They didn’t have the opportunity to live on, and Ron didn’t go on to have his own family. We thought that would be the appropriate thing to end with, that silence and the names of these two people.”
Obviously, there are many private moments in the series -- people saying things, or thinking things, that no one else could have witnessed. How much creative license was taken throughout? For example that powerful moment in the finale where Darden confronts Cochran, who says he will bring him back “into the community ...”?
Alexander: “It’s a grab bag, trying to pull from all these sources, and Jeff’s book is full dialogue. But one of the books said [that conversation]did not happen the day of the verdict, but in the general time frame, when Johnny goes up to Chris and says, ‘I’ll bring you back into the community.’”
How did you learn of the final scene, or was that an instance of creative license?
Karaszewski: “License is a strong word to use. This was not a court TV transcript but we needed to have a way of showing in that last scene that O.J. Simpson, although he was acquitted of murder, could not go back to his regular life of being O.J. Simpson. Those last seven or so minutes [when he was at a party at his home, mingling with people he didn’t know]were designed to encapsulate that in one section. I wouldn’t call it creative license, but creative in the sense that you have to let the audience know that even O.J. knows his life is over.
Alexander: We are screenwriters. We love to have our characters find those individual moments, then run with them, and the idea of the statue as a metaphor for who he is and will be from now on struck us as a beautiful and chilling way to end the show.”