The unexpected journey to making ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’

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This is the first of two posts by Brad Simpson, executive producer of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which premieres Feb. 2, at 10 p.m. EST on FX.

The journey to making “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” starts in a used bookstore in Vancouver roughly six years ago. I was shooting a film there when I spotted a copy of “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson” on the shelf. I bought it because I was a fan of Jeffrey Toobin, the journalist who wrote it. I had no idea that he’d made his reputation covering the O.J. case in the mid-1990s.

I brought the book to set, started reading it – and I couldn’t put it down. I turned to my producing partner Nina Jacobson and said, “You’ve got to read this. It’s a total page-turner, and it explodes everything you thought you knew about the O.J. Simpson trial.” Nina read it and tore through it in no time, too. Jeffrey’s writing brought the case to life in vivid detail – the oversize personalities, the clash of egos, and the twists and turns of the case. But he also had a thesis: that race was at the center of the case from the very beginning. Neither of us thought about optioning it. It was too complicated a story to tell as a feature.

The deal

Fast-forward a few years and we decided to expand into television. We made a production deal at FX Productions because we loved the shows they made and we loved the people who worked there. During my first meeting with Gina Balian, EVP of Limited Series at FX, she asked if there was anything I’d read that would work as a limited series. Jeffrey’s book popped into my head and I said, “Well, there was this book about the O.J. Simpson trial. It’s not really about O.J. – it’s about the lawyers and the way a slam-dunk case fell apart.” She instantly said, “We’ll buy it.” It was initially set up as a show for FX Productions to produce for Fox.

The writers

Nina and I went to work finding writers. Jeffrey’s book is about a serious subject, but it has larger-than-life characters and flashes of humor. We needed someone who could balance tone the way he did in his book. As a producer, you always put together a wish list of writers you’d love to work with but rarely get the person at the top. This time, however, we got the guys at the very top of our list: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They’ve developed a completely distinctive voice and tone in movies like “Ed Wood,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon.” It turned out they’d just signed at CAA with the hope of getting into TV. They read it overnight and signed up.

Scott and Larry wrote a brilliant pilot and format. From there, we opened a writers’ room. We pulled together four great writers – D.V. DeVincentis, Joe Robert Cole, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky – and spent eight weeks crafting a 100-page bible. Working in the room with the writers was a new experience for us and it was incredibly fulfilling. We conducted it like a salon, first talking about the major issues of the case: race, class, domestic violence, celebrity and feminism. Then we narrowed down our key characters and crafted a season of TV.

Scott and Larry wrote a spellbinding second episode (“The Bronco Chase”) and we submitted it and the bible to Fox and FX. The material was loved internally but the project called for a massive scale. It had such ambition that there was a question as to how we were going to mount it. It was destined to be complicated and expensive, if it could be done at all.

Ryan Murphy sets things in motion

As we waited to hear if the show could be made, we got a call from Peter Rice. Ryan Murphy had called him to say he had read the O.J. scripts and would love to direct and produce. It turned out that Ryan, finding an unexpected gap in his schedule, had asked his agent Joe Cohen to send him the best unmade television scripts in town. Joe sent our first two episodes over and Ryan tore through them.

Ryan is the biggest name in television for a reason: Year after year he crafts groundbreaking shows that get America talking. But we had to wonder if he would see the show the way we did. Nina and I sat down with him and were thrilled (and relieved) to hear that he was interested in the show for the exact same reasons we were. He had always loved the film “Network” and saw this project as spiritually connected to it. He didn’t want to change our scripts – at least, not much. He wanted to augment them and make them more emotional. 

With the addition of Ryan, the show turned from a one-off into the first installment of “American Crime Story,” a spin-off of Ryan’s award-winning hit anthology series “American Horror Story.” On parallel planes, FX head John Landgraf had previously bought the “American Crime Story” pitch from Ryan, Dana Walden and Gary Newman at 20th Century Fox Television, with whom Ryan has an overall production deal. “American Crime Story” would be a scripted anthology series where a true crime is explored each year. Ryan, along with Dana and John, thought “The People v. O.J. Simpson” would be a good launch point for the “American Crime Story” franchise, and Dana was gracious enough to let us move the show from Fox over to FX, with Fox 21 joining FX Productions as a studio partner.

Casting the characters

It became clear just how ingenious Ryan was once we started the casting process. His reputation precedes him for a reason. He’s renowned for taking care of actors, casting them correctly and getting great performances out of them. And again, we had the experience where everyone on our wish list said yes. We were incredibly lucky to get all of our first choices. The combination of the scripts and Ryan’s reputation and vision was magnetic.

Casting Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark was sort of fait accompli. Ryan casually asked us, “I’m thinking about Sarah. What do you think?” It turned out he’d already shown her the script and told her she was cast. But she’d have been our first choice, anyway. She’s perfect. Plus, she can’t say no to Ryan. She trusts him completely.

The second performer we cast was Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. We had a meeting and realized nobody else could play this fallen idol. Not only does Cuba have great skill and depth as an actor; he also brings the perfect energy. O.J. was a star – you couldn’t cast someone who didn’t have that likeability, charisma and charm. So hiring Cuba was a no-brainer.

Ryan had seen Courtney B. Vance perform on Broadway. He’s a Tony winner. We all admired him, and it was clear he was just the best actor to play Johnnie Cochran. We met him. We cast him. Done.

Photo credit: Frank Micelotta/FX
Brad Simpson, Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance at the party following the premiere of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” at STK Restaurant on January 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.

Scott Alexander had the idea of offering the role of Robert Kardashian to David Schwimmer, but David had resisted coming back to TV since his many years on the smash hit “Friends.” Fortuitously, Nina had gone to school with David and knew him. David trusted her. He read the scripts and it was a quick conversation. He just wanted to hear that we were serious and planned to execute the project exactly the way the scripts were written.

From there, Ryan’s great casting instincts landed us Selma Blair to play Kris Jenner, Malcolm-Jamal Warner to portray “A.C.” Cowlings and Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey. All were unexpected choices who in hindsight make perfect sense.

The toughest character to cast was Chris Darden. We needed someone who was compelling as an actor and yet who could be overshadowed by Johnnie Cochran. We read hundreds of actors, and Sterling K. Brown became one of the truly great discoveries of the show. We already knew Sterling from “Army Wives,” where he played an attractive leading man. He had been in “Starved,” one of FX’s early comedy series in 2006. But he was unrecognizable in his audition. He came in and killed it. He has one of the toughest roles: Everyone else gets to have these big flashy speeches, but he has to do all of this internal stuff. And he was just amazing.

The only actor we wanted who played hard-to-get was John Travolta. Ryan has always loved him, and Nina had made several movies with him. When they went to meet with him about playing Robert Shapiro, I thought it was a fool’s errand. John hadn’t done a TV series since “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 70s. There was no way he would sign on.

He was very hesitant and concerned and had a lot of questions. It took four months, but John eventually agreed to play Robert Shapiro. Cuba told us that when Travolta signed on, it validated his own choice to play O.J.

Attention to detail

With this unbelievable cast in place, we finally started shooting last spring. It stretched for 110 days in locations all over L.A. We were able to use some of the actual locations, like inside Kardashian’s real house. We re-created Nicole’s condo entrance on Bundy and closed down a freeway for our recreation of the Bronco chase. We meticulously recreated Ito’s courtroom on a sound stage, down to the doorknobs and chairs. 

As first-timers working in television, we had been assured that non-writing TV producers don’t need to do that much, but we found it was the opposite. We rolled up our sleeves and paid attention to every detail. We wanted every element to be perfect – from what objects Johnnie had on his desk to the casting of the day players. What helped immeasurably was having Ryan as a mentor. He has made literally hundreds of hours of TV and knows how it all works up, down and sideways. We weren’t really prepared for the speed and immediacy of TV, or for the sheer amount of work and intensity of preparation. Prepping while we were shooting was just a new, exhilarating and often nail-biting experience.

That said, we were incredibly lucky to be in business with FX and Fox 21. John Landgraf, Dana Walden and Gary Newman headed a literal dream team of executives that helped us through the process. They all understand that a key part of their job is to let creators do their work and give them the support that they need. That made it a great partnership. They supported the crazy ambition of this show. We had a complicated shooting schedule and did things you don’t do in TV (like close down a freeway). They backed us the whole way.

As we edited the show, we started to realize how timely all our themes had become. I wish we could say we were geniuses and timed it to hit the zeitgeist just right, but we could never have envisioned when we started working on this series three years ago that the country would become obsessed with true crime, and that protests over police misconduct would break out again.

Brad’s next post about why the O.J. Simpson trial is as relevant as ever will be published tomorrow.

Read more about “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and follow the show’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for exclusive content. The limited series premieres Feb. 2, at 10 p.m. EST on FX.