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HOLDING COURT - How Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson Rediscovered The Trial of the Century

Posted By Michael Ventre, Thursday, June 09, 2016


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 audiences alike.

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 Supreme Court.

"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.”

As fate 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 that.’”

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.”

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