The key locations connected to the 1994-95 trial of O.J.
Simpson—two houses in Brentwood, a courthouse in downtown LA, a white Bronco on
the 405 freeway—have gained an almost iconic status over the past 20 years.
Historians can now add another pivotal venue to this storied gallery, that
being ... a nondescript bookstore in Vancouver?
FX’s celebrated limited
drama series The
People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story had its roots in that establishment’s used
book section. Producer Brad Simpson was browsing one day and came across a copy
of Jeffrey Toobin’s best-seller, The Run of His Life. The big story here isn’t
that bookstores still exist, but rather how the chain of events that began in
that store led to Simpson and producing partner Nina Jacobson developing a
project that at first blush, may have sounded like played-out subject matter
but in practice proved to be scintillating and well-received by critics and
The series also stands as
testament to an extraordinary friendship and working relationship between the
two PGA members.
"Nina and I are both fans
of really good long-form non-fiction,” Simpson explains. "Just for fun, not as
part of any strategy for the company. We’ve swapped a lot of articles and
books. I bought the Jeffrey Toobin book not because I was particularly
interested in reading about the O.J. case—because I watched it happen—but
because I was a fan of Jeffrey Toobin. I loved his writing in The New Yorker. I loved his books on the
"I was reading it on set
and a) it was such a great page turner, but b) it also exploded everything I
thought I knew about the O.J. Simpson trial. It had all the behind-the-scenes
machinations. And Jeffrey, from the very beginning, has claimed this was a
story about race. I sat there and said to Nina, ‘You gotta read this book.’ She
read it and had the same reaction. We both loved it. But we didn’t think
anything else about it. We didn’t think of it as a movie. It was a big
sprawling story and you couldn’t really tell it in a movie.”
Of course, there are many ways to tell a story.
In some ways, this one starts at that Vancouver bookstore. In another, it
starts, of all places, at Disney.
Jacobson and Simpson have
known each other for years. Their paths had crossed when Jacobson was a Disney
studio executive and Simpson was producing elsewhere, including a stint running
Leo DiCaprio’s Appian Way Productions. They first worked together when Simpson
had a project called Wednesday set up at DreamWorks and
Jacobson was called in to work on it.
"They put her on my
project. At the time, I was really upset when they did it,” laughs Simpson. "It
was a blow to me. Here I was feeling cocky, with this great project, and I knew
with Nina’s reputation that she’d come in and take over the project. I remember
going to my bedroom and crying thinking it’ll end up being terrible. But Nina
has actually been one of the better things to happen to me in my career.”
would have it,Wednesday was shut down right before the most recent
writers’ strike. But the two bonded and established an outstanding working
relationship as well as a friendship. They are now together at Color Force,
founded in 2007 by Jacobson, who remains its CEO. Color Force has since churned
out such high-profile material as The Hunger Games and Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchises.
It was only a matter of time before the company
heard the siren call of television.
"In 2012, when we decided
to move aggressively into TV—a move that was driven both out of our desire to
survive as producers but also creative jealousy at what was happening in TV—we
did a first-look deal with FX,” Simpson said. "We thought they were the
smartest place in town, making TV that we love. In our very first meeting with
Gina Balian, who had just come over as an executive from HBO, she said, ‘Do you
have any ideas?’ We told her about the Jeffrey Toobin book. She said, ‘We’ll do
Recalls Jacobson: "We were like, ‘Whoa, did
that just happen?’”
The first step was to find a writing team. They
compiled their list, and at the very top was the veteran duo of Scott Alexander
and Larry Karaszewski, the pair behind such notable titles as Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
"I’d known them forever from my executive
days,” Jacobson said, "and Scott was in my brother’s class in high school. We
wanted writers like them. So we started with them, figuring that after they
turned us down, we would then go after writers like them. But we got them!
Again, it was just very fortuitous.”
When the writers came on board, the whole
team—including prolific director-producer Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story)—had several discussions about doing a delicate tonal dance. The People v. O.J. Simpson was material that was powerful high drama, but in key moments, it
also needed a sense of humor.
"Scott and Larry have a
very distinctive tone and that’s why they were who we wanted,” Jacobson states.
"They are able to take on the subject matter and treat it with respect, and to
have compassion and affection for all of their characters. But they were also
able to find the kind of intelligent sense of humor in the work all at once.
That’s very hard to do. It takes a rare talent, what they accomplished tonally.
It was absurd, and yet it was a tragedy.”
The casting process was relatively smooth, both
agreed, with the producers landing almost all of their first choices. Courtney
B. Vance was clearly Johnnie Cochran, especially after he related to the
producers a story about how he was once raided by police in his own home in an
upscale neighborhood because they thought he was a burglar. Sarah Paulson
(Marcia Clark) was apparently told outright by Murphy, "You’re doing this.”
Cuba Gooding Jr. had the star power and charisma the project needed to play the
larger-than-life O.J., Jacobson and Simpson both observe.
The casting of John Travolta as Robert Shapiro,
though, was hardly a quick touchdown.
"I had worked with
Travolta a couple of times when I was an executive at Disney,” Jacobson
explains. "We have a very good relationship. He was a fan of Ryan’s. We met up
with him for a meal ... just talking for an hour or two. He was very unsure
about coming back to television after all of this time.” Travolta, of course,
hadn’t done a TV series since his star-making turn on Welcome Back, Kotter in the late 1970s.
"Clearly many fantastic actors have done so,” Jacobson continues. "He wanted to
be very careful about what he chose to do if he was going to make a return.
"I got his attention in
that meeting, and he was engaged,” she adds. "But it took us quite a long
period of him processing the decision before he said yes. Brad thought we were
out of our minds to think we could get him. I thought we had a good shot.”
Even beyond the producer’s most optimistic
hopes, The People v. O.J. Simpson was embraced by audiences and critics alike. A
project that very easily could have been dismissed as a 20-year-old rerun
instead seduced viewers, building an uncanny amount of human drama into a story
that most of the home audience—like Brad Simpson in that bookstore—thought they
already knew by heart.
"Obviously it’s a dream to capture an
audience’s attention and the respect of critics,” Jacobson smiles. "In giving
people emotional access to these characters and really helping people to
understand how this verdict was reached— no matter what side you were on, no
matter how you felt about the outcome—we hoped people would come out with an
understanding of the process and what the people involved with it went through.
"I don’t think anyone
could have ever anticipated how it played out, the amount of talk and
conversation,” she marvels. "We were watching people watch it live on Twitter.
From 7 p.m. when it started in the east to 11 p.m. when it finished in the
west, we sat there obsessively and read what was being said. We got enormous
gratification and many lost hours watching people watch the show.”
The pair has a full slate
in the works including: a new edition of American Crime Story with Murphy aboard that
will focus on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; a film adaptation of Kevin
Kwan’s debut novel, Crazy
Rich Asians; an
adaption of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch; and a series for FX
based on the cult hit graphic novel, Y: The Last Man.
"We’re interested in authorship,” Simpson
declares. "We want writers with a strong voice to bring stories to the screen
we like to watch. We don’t want to be constrained by genre.”
Jacobson agrees, "Whether it’s the author of a book or a
screenwriter or a director, if they look at the thing they did with us as some
of their best work and feel that it represented their voice, and the ethics of
their intentions were honored, that’s our definition of success. It’s not about
putting our stamp on it. It’s about getting their stamp right.”