When Ezra Edelman set out to make the documentary O.J.: Made in America, he had one goal: To make a five-hour movie about how the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder case became a flashpoint for talking about race and the American criminal justice system. Not only did he hit his goal, but he overshot that runtime by about three hours.
“No sane person would do this,” Edelman says now, sitting in a lounge in New York’s Post Factory, where his doc was edited. “Talking about it now it’s like ‘This is fucking crazy.’ The whole thing is a huge leap of faith. You have no knowledge of what exists from an archival standpoint–you don’t know anything. You just go, ‘Let’s try to tackle this to the best of our abilities.'”
In the end, he took some 800 hours of footage–some from archive material, some from interviews with 72 people–and boiled it down into one single 467-minute movie. It took him more than two years. But he didn’t do it alone. In fact, it wasn’t even entirely his idea. We spoke with Edelman and his creative partners to get the story of how they created the wildly ambitious documentary.
February, 2014: The Beginning
Connor Schell, executive producer and senior VP, ESPN Films: We’ve been producing a series of documentary films at ESPN called “30 for 30” since 2009. In that time, we gained more of a foothold in documentary filmmaking, working with various directors, and tackling topics of real cultural importance where sports is your window in. I certainly knew Ezra’s work and I’d been thinking about O.J. Simpson for a long time, but our pursuit of wanting to do something on O.J. Simpson always started from, “Well, how do you conceive of something that’s not obvious?” This is territory that’s very well-covered, be that in books, articles, or other documentary films. Obviously, there’s a section of this story that’s from [the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in] June 1994 to [Simpson’s acquittal in] October of 1995 that, if you make a project about O.J. Simpson, you’re going to have to cover. But I was always interested in the full picture. What came before and what came after. And where could O.J.’s story take you? That led to a few conversations between Ezra and I and he conceived of this approach and of this film.
Edelman: The thing he first said was “We want to make a five-hour film.” That’s what interested me. That was before he even told me what it was about. When he told me what it was about I was not that interested. My thought was “What can I add to this story?” They had already done a film on O.J.–June 17, 1994, Brett Morgen’s rendition of the day of the Bronco chase. Connor wanted to do something more challenging and that jibed with something I wanted to do.
Schell: We were interested in the context, in the story of race, of celebrity, and how O.J. helps you tell that story. We started the conversation about a really long movie by saying “OK, when you get to that period, why was it so meaningful? Why did it mean so much to white American and black American and why did they view it so differently?” That’s a story we’re really interested–in telling and therefore, it needs to be long.
April 2014: The Research
Because Edelman’s movie details the history of the relationship between the the Los Angeles Police Department and African-American communities long before Simpson was a student the University of Southern California, his team had to find footage of events like the Watts riots and families from the South moving to LA.
Edelman: From there it was a few months of me just reading. That’s all I did: I got up and I read. Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, Lawrence Schiller’s book American Tragedy. This great book by Lou Cannon called Official Negligence, which is about the history of the LAPD. But the first thing I did, was address the practical question of “How the fuck do we get this done?” So that meant just calling Caroline [Waterlow, the movie’s producer] and being like “Caroline, so there’s this thing. It’s going to be big. I think it’ll be interesting. It might not be so fun, but I can think of no other person who I would want to help me craft this.”
Caroline Waterlow: I remember we had pizza. My initial reaction was “O.J.?” You feel like it’s a story that surely we know about. All the films I’ve worked on have been predominantly archival, historical docs, so the idea of being able to get into the early context and history became interesting to me quickly. Then my job was to hire people to figure out how to do that. This is not a job for a young associate producer who’s like just starting out. You can’t ask them, “So, can you call the former DA of Los Angeles?” We needed really experienced people who knew what they were doing.
Edelman: She found all the people for the team and from there it was just the combination of experience and alchemy.
Edelman and and Waterlow soon brought on producer Tamara Rosenberg, who was tasked with tracking down all of the doc’s sources, and producer Nina Krstic, who had to find and create a database of 500-600 hours of archival footage.
Tamara Rosenberg: I got a phone call from Caroline first and I was like, “O.J.?” Nothing in my resume points me towards that subject. But then I had my first meeting with Ezra and he already had an outline of what he wanted to do and it was very apparent to me that that wasn’t going to be any other O.J. story. This was going to be different–and great.
Nina Krstic: His enthusiasm was a clincher. Also, it was like, “How can you refuse such a challenge?” How do you find archive of that that someone has never seen before? I think it was a challenge I’d dreamed about my whole life and there it was.
Edelman: [Deadpan] I just want, for the record, to note how much both of them talked about my enthusiasm.
Schell: He jokes about it, but when he’s engaged, it’s all he can think or talk about. He’s in.
Edelman: Which I imagine is comforting for an executive. [Laughs.]
August 2014: Building the Story
Edelman: With this large of a canvas, there was a need and an ambition to tell O.J.’s story with some sort of thoroughness. I was interested in telling the story of what happened to him after the trial; at the same time, I wanted to tell this other story about the relationship between the black community and the police department in LA, and that that was going to inform this greater story about race in America. Then there was this story about him as a cultural icon that existed on this other level. But it all came back where we were going with the trial. It feels like the ultimate American Studies paper.
O.J. becomes famous for football, and that’s all he has to do to get noticed. Then right down the coast there’s a community of people in Watts that were so frustrated and outraged with how they were being treated by the police that this sort of ends up inciting the riots in 1965. And this is what this community is doing to have their voices heard. So there’s this juxtaposition. Then O.J. arrives next door to that like a year later, but he’s in this really white, conservative, apolitical place, right next to a place that had just burned out of frustration. You see all these parallel tracks and it’s like, “Isn’t this everything we were talking about with the trial years later?”
Waterlow: There was a big bulletin board that I had made. That was the first place that we started building timelines of O.J.’s life and what was going on in the world. Then just names. [Prosecutor] Marcia Clark, of course, but also the names of childhood friends. It was just a board of a million names.
Edelman: It was organized chaos. I was looking for first-person voices: people who lived through this history at every point, whether it’s O.J.’s football career or the LAPD. When you look at the people who are the most important and impactful people in the film, you’re like “I didn’t know who any of these people were.” I was standing on a train platform somewhere in Connecticut, and Tamara called me up and she was like, “So I just talked these guys, I dunno, they were a couple of O.J.’s childhood friends…” and I had never heard of them, but that’s exactly where this whole thing comes together. Every time that happens, it’s like a small victory.
Rosenberg: My character list is a 100-page Word document. In there are people we did interview, people who were maybes, and just people we looked at, and people who just said “no.” It was a big casting job. It was a constant dialogue with Ezra. As he felt ready to tackle a certain period of O.J.’s life, then we started populating those areas with people. So it would be “OK, we’re ready to talk about his USC years,” and then I would go on the hunt for his team players from those years.
We had a great PA on the team, who was very good at tracking people down. I would just send names to him, and he would triangulate and I don’t know what to find people. He would post on message boards. I don’t even know what he did and I don’t want to know. He would just send me a phone number and be like “I have a good feeling about this one.” Then it was just a job of calling them and saying “Hey, this is what we’re doing” and really trying to impress upon them that this was not just another O.J. doc, and that was hard because a lot of these people had approached by the press before, so we were guilty by association.
Waterlow: And then as soon as we found a person it was a matter of “Is there any footage of that amazing USC game?” and Nina [Krstic] would have to get involved.
Nina Krstic: When I got started in September the first goal was: find every single interview with O.J. And then it was filling in the historical stuff. So there were two layers to it. There was also finding stuff that was pre-’90s and then it was Rodney King, murder trial, and everything else. Once you get to the ’90s there’s tons of stuff, but we don’t want to see the same footage all over again. Also, with news stories, I wanted raw footage, because I don’t want a news editor from ’94 deciding what’s good and what’s not good.
Fall 2014-Winter 2015: The Interviews
Waterlow: Ezra did every one of those interviews, so to prep for those was major.
Edelman: There is a method to the madness. You know you want Marcia Clark, you know you want these bigger characters, but you’re not going to call them up initially. You want to be as prepared before you get to that point. But also, you just have to start. So we interviewed 72 people; 66 are in the film, but two of the people that aren’t we interviewed on the first day because you just need to get going.
Rosenberg: Some people I would talk to for many months before we finally got them. Hands down, as a group, the jurors [for Simpson’s murder trial] were the hardest to convince. We reached out to a bunch of them. Some we couldn’t find. Ezra and I met with Yolanda Crawford at some stage and although she was hard to find, once we found her and talked to her she was on board.
Edelman: We ended up going to shoot in Las Vegas in January of 2015 to interview someone we didn’t actually end up getting to interview, which is one of the jury consultants for the defense. But we were going there so it was like, “We should probably try to talk to people involved in the robbery. Talk about a place we’re not at yet. But sometimes you just have to figure it out.” That’s where you’re making a mini movie within the massive movie.
Waterlow: With this film, more than any others that I’ve worked on, there was a lot of “Don’t say ‘no’–let me have coffee with you.” We had to make our case about who we are and what we were doing. There were several trips to LA, in October, November, and December. Las Vegas in January. There were five or six shoots in the fall.
Edelman: The jury was a big part of the canvas, but the prosecution was an even bigger part. And we were having no luck. There were just four main people [in the prosecution], and we need at least one. That was really stressful. I really wanted Chris Darden. I spent a week reading his book and writing him a letter–no response, no response, no response. But we had to keep going. I finally got [district attorney] Gil Garcetti’s email from a family friend in January or February, four months after we’d started shooting, and he said, “You’re welcome to come out and talk to me next time you’re in LA, but I won’t do an interview.” You go and have a lovely conversation for two hours and he’s like “I’m still not doing an interview” and I’m like, “Dude, that could have been the interview. This could be done.” But after three conversations and two visits to his house, it was like 10:30 pm on a Tuesday night and he wrote me an email or sent me a text and said, “Alright, I’m going to do it.” There was a palpable sense of relief. We had already gotten to the point where we were going to start editing.
February, 2015: Editing Begins
Waterlow: There was lots of archival being gathered the whole time. We knew there would be plenty for [Bret Granato, one of the film’s three editors] to start. Thirty interviews, maybe.
Granato: I had wasted a lot of my sophomore year in college following the trial. When we first started, the first thing I put my hands on was the Watts riots section. When I first talked to Ezra I had mentioned that I knew a lot about the trial, and he was kind of unimpressed by that. [Laughs] He said that he really wanted Los Angeles to be a character. So that was the first thing we touched.
Edelman: While he was working on another film, before he was officially working on this, he was taking the audio of the interviews that we had shot and listening to them on his own. So he showed up with this sense of where we were going.
Granato: How Ezra works is he creates this 50-60 page document of the roadmap. We met a few times before the edit to go over that. It’s very specific with him: “We’re going to start with Watts.”
Krstic: I made sure that every section of O.J.’s life had at least a representative amount of footage to give Bret the freedom to start with it. Then there was also the massive job of organizing over 500 hours of footage, sub-clipping it, keywording it, making the job a year down the line so much easier. My eyes still cross when I think about this, but I basically made a huge database, and then every entry in the database has a clip and it’s all searchable.
Schell: The amazing thing is the exercise in logistics. Ezra’s off researching and doing an interview, Tamara is three or five shoots ahead of him, trying to get people lined up. Then Bret’s trying to tell a story around all of these parts…
Waterlow: And Nina is IM-ing all day with three people being like “What do you need? What do you need? What do you need?”
Schell: The idea that it could all come together to fit the vision laid out is quite astonishing.
Edelman: I’m used to feeling like I have to be in control of everything. But this was the first time where it was like, “That shit ain’t gonna work.” I talked to Tamara a lot because we’re talking about the characters and interviews. And Caroline and I have this … it’s a little more fraternal.
Waterlow: I’m the truth-teller.
Edelman: We just have our own thing. Bret and I get to talk about the story, but–unfortunately for him–I’m sitting behind him like Pig-Pen and the sky is always falling and he’s like “Dude, this is hard enough.” But with Nina, she’s the one person, and I say this lovingly, she’s a machine.
Krstic: It was never-ending. Even when we were locked, there was still always one little thing we’d need.
Granato: I feel like all of our scenes were built initially to just tell it the best way it could be told, then we would make it better–but when we were making it better, we weren’t necessarily making it shorter.
Spring/Summer, 2015: Interviews Continue
Rosenberg: We found Carrie Bess, one of the jurors, pretty early on and Ezra and I met her and had coffee and she was fairly non-committal. I made it a habit ever time we’d land in LA to drive to her place. She didn’t use email and barely used the phone, so it was just about me showing up and saying “hi.” She would give me lemons from her lemon tree. We had a cute relationship that way. But she never fully committed. So finally on one of our last trips to LA, I remember sitting with her under her lemon tree and saying, “Carrie, you have to do this.” Luckily enough she was like, “OK, come back in a couple of days.”
Edelman: She didn’t have any interest in us and this thing. Sometimes she’s engaged and sometimes not. Sometimes she’d say something profound and wonderful, sometimes she says something kooky. There’s a realness to her. As a documentary filmmaker, what more do you want?
Rosenberg: I had a feeling on the day of the interview that I had to show up before the team, so I drove over and of course Carrie Bess had completely forgotten. She was covered in paint because she was re-painting her house. I pushed her in the shower and went to her closet and opened it and took out like three different outfits and was like “Wear this!”
Edelman: That wasn’t even the last LA trip. The last real shoot that Tamara and I went on in LA was we interviewed [Ron Goldman’s father] Fred Goldman and Mark Fuhrman. Fuhrman was reluctant to do the interview and, like a lot of people, was not thrilled at the idea of this being done–but he also didn’t know who we were. Why would you trust someone with your sensitive feelings and your past? I found someone who engaged us respectfully, and in a trusting manner. I think the guy deserves a lot of credit.
Waterlow: That’s a testament to the job Tamara and Ezra did on the interviews. Many people after the interview would say “That’s the smartest interview anybody’s ever done and I’ve talked about this a lot.” Including Marcia Clark.
Rosenberg: I remember just sitting for a whole week just reading her book, reading articles, watching stuff, and not picking up the phone. I think it’s in Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Joan Didion just sits next to the phone for three hours, staring at it. I had the same thing. And by the time I talked to her I was fully prepared. The first 10 minutes of the phone call did not go so well, and I remember in that call where I was like, “Ugh, she’s gonna say ‘no.'” Then we turned a corner. She asked me what I was doing during the trial and I wasn’t here. [Rosenberg was studying in Israel.] I think that made a huge difference. The fact that I wasn’t one of these people who was obsessively following it and aware of every single flaw and what was going on with her hair and wardrobe, that changed something. Then she was great. I love Marcia. And she sat for how long? Six hours?
Edelman: About five hours. She’s pretty fierce. She is so in control of who she is and what she experienced.
Rosenberg: Somebody like [news helicopter pilot] Zoey Tur, was one of those wonderful moments where archival and casting were working together because she was on both our radars for different reasons. Nina was looking at her because the footage she had shot of the riots and the Bronco chase and I had her on my radar as a storyteller. We both pursued her and got this great material.
Waterlow: And I loved how unabashed she was about things. She’s like “Yeah, I’m a journalist, I’m going to get the fucking story.” She represented that so well, and owned it.
Krstic: All told, there was about between 500-600 hours of archival footage and then 72 interviews.
Waterlow: It’s probably 800 hours total, if we’re talking about interviews and archival footage.
Granato: It felt infinite. It’s like looking at the sun, though, you don’t want to ever look at the big picture. You trust the process. My job is to create as compelling a five-minute thing as I can, and then take a step back and see if it connects. But I would’ve melted if I’d actually thought about what we were trying to do. It’s too much to comprehend.
January, 2016: That Other Massive O.J. Show
Edelman had known about it for a while, but in January 2016, when he took his forthcoming doc to a Television Critics Association event, he had to come face-to-face with the fact that Ryan Murphy and his FX juggernaut were also releasing a massive retelling of Simpson’s tale: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Not only would it be based on a book by Jeffrey Toobin, who was one of Edelman’s sources, it would be coming out months before Made in America hit theaters or ESPN.
Edelman: To be honest, there were concurrent documentary projects that were being done that were causing a lot more stress than that. Having said that when you’re making this huge thing and you find out someone else is doing a 10-hour series nominally about the same thing, you’re like “What the fuck?” But you can only worry about it so much. I’ll admit to being personally not thrilled. What are the odds? When we went to the TCAs in January to basically publicly announce the existence of this film three weeks before Sundance, all the journalists in the room had already seen the first six episodes of the FX series and they were all telling us how incredible it was.
Waterlow: We kept being like, “I didn’t make that. I don’t know how to answer that.”
Edelman: My legitimate fear was: Here is a 10-hour television series about O.J., about the trial, it’s going to be on television before ours will be out in the world, I don’t know that people have that appetite to watch another huge thing about O.J. That’s why it was important for me for it to screen at Sundance, because that was before it was on TV. That way it was clear we weren’t drafting off of the success of that. That made me feel OK. Frankly, that did–I can now say–absolutely whet the appetite and re-engage people with this story in a way that they wanted the non-fiction narrative. It worked.
January to May 2016: The End (Sort of)
Granato: Ezra and I would stay late nights and work on the film and I don’t think there was a single walk back to the train that wasn’t about the film and how to make the film better.
Edelman: I didn’t ask about your kid?
Granato: Did you know I have a kid? [Laughs] The last night when we locked it–it didn’t feel like a lock, but it was my last night there–we were still talking about the film. I don’t know that I ever had a moment where I was like “Ah, that’s done!” It is such a living, breathing creature. It still doesn’t feel done.
Schell: Even when we had gotten to picture lock and submitted the film to Sundance, and it was accepted … Even after it screened there, Ezra was obsessed with the fact that it was still a temp score.
Edelman: That was causing me a lot of angst. It was a continual process. The first few months of this year, I was still working on the film. We upgraded footage after Sundance, we swapped out the score. We were working up until the time it was screened in theaters in the middle of May. We were working up to the day we had to deliver the hard drives [to theaters]. I watched the last two hours of this on Vice the other night, against my better judgment, and if I could go into the edit room today there would be some things I’d want to do.
Waterlow: Because we had these intermissions built in, there’s three drives for each version of the film. I remember calling box offices and calling theater managers and being like “Did you get it?!”
Schell: This is not a small ask of someone’s time, to have people commit to an entire day of having someone watch something. But then to understand how engaged they are and the conversations they want to have afterwards is incredible to see.
Edelman: Again, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve never started.
Schell: But to add to that, what’s incredible about the media environment we exist in right now, is that this can exist as a film, and also on ESPN and via video-on-demand, and via DVD, and streaming. We can expose millions of people to that story.
Edelman: People don’t necessarily have eight hours and 15 minutes to spend in a movie theater. I get that. So, we worked really hard to create this thing, and if people watch it on their TVs streaming, that’s fine. I’ve never seen it on TV. I’ll never watch something I’ve done on ESPN with commercials. Not the previous film I did, not this one. It makes me want to throw up in my mouth. I know this should be experienced as this beginning-to-end thing, but we have fractured lives. That’s not the world we live in.