By Rakhee Bhatt | January 29, 2016 | People
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are the writing partners behind FX’s hotly-anticipated series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, premiering Tuesday, February 2 at 10 p.m. We chat with the duo about bringing the case of the century to the small screen and how Ryan Murphy was able to shut down an LA freeway to film the infamous Bronco car chase.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (LEFT) stars as O.J. Simpson in FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Friends since freshman year at USC, writing pair Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are known for their biopic films such as The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, and Big Eyes. Now the two are bringing their expertise to television with FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, based on a book by Jeffrey Toobin about the 1995 trial of the fallen football legend accused of the double homicide of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. In the series, Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as the titular character alongside John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, and David Schwimmer.
We caught up with Alexander and Karaszewski in advance of the premiere to discuss the process of turning the O.J. Simpson case into a miniseries, how the ensuing trial led to his acquittal, and what it was like to film scenes in Robert Kardashian’s former Encino home.
What was it about the O.J. Simpson case that made you want to tell it now, more than 20 years after the verdict?
Larry Karaszewski: We just feel that it's one of the most pivotal moments of our time. We thought we could do it justice using this mini-series format of 10 hours that's being embraced right now. I don’t think we realized how alive the story would seem in terms of the conflict between African Americans and the police departments that's come to the forefront in the past year.
Is that why you chose to open the series with footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots?
Scott Alexander: Absolutely. After we read Jeff Toobin’s book and started talking about scenes we could cover, it seemed that at the end of the day it's about race. That is what the trial became and was the big important idea that we could make the show about. People may have believed that after the riots and the Christopher Commission, that America was moving into some kind of post-racial society, but Johnnie Cochran knew in his heart that is not true. That things hadn’t changed, and he wanted to use the trial to demonstrate to the world—to a national TV audience—that the police department had decades of violence against blacks in Los Angeles. There's nothing technically connected between Rodney King and the two victims on Bundy, but we felt that by opening with the Rodney King beating that was a way to sort of say this is what it’s going to be about. Then we show the riots and fade out to two years later. That would frame the next 10 hours.
Sarah Paulson (LEFT) stars as head prosecutor Marcia Clark and Christian Clemenson (RIGHT) as assistant district attorney Bill Hodgman.
What was the writing process like for the show?
LK: We were brought into this by [executive producers] Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, who had gotten the rights to Toobin’s book. We approached it differently than our other pieces because it’s such a famous case. All our movies tend to be about obscure fringe characters. This is the first time that we’re doing something that people have so many opinions about and lived through. We wound up with Nina and Brad holding these salons where we would bring up a subject matter or a theme.
SA: It was like we were in an O.J. symposium where we would say, “Tomorrow we are going to talk about gender issues in the workplace and what Marcia was going through.” [We were] accumulating ideas and factoids that might be useful and then trying to figure out how to dump that material into the outline.
Why did you decide to focus more on the behind-the-scenes events rather than the courtroom proceedings?
LK: Our goal was to show you the things you don’t know. The trial was shown on television every day from gavel to gavel. We weren’t trying to retry O.J. Simpson. We wanted to show you what was happening in Los Angeles and America, and what was happening behind the scenes that allowed this particular case [to go from a] sure-thing conviction to an acquittal. We wanted you to understand the verdict and how it all came together.
David Schwimmer (LEFT) stars as O.J. Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian and John Travolta (RIGHT) as defense attorney Robert Shapiro.
Did you both approach the series from the perspective of innocence or guilt?
LK: It was more than that. I think everyone just kind of made up their mind on how they felt about O.J.’s innocence or guilt. I think the fact that there hasn’t been any other real suspect in the case after 20 years says a lot. We wanted to look at how this murder trial went from being a case about the two innocent victims on Bundy into a referendum on LAPD race relations. How Johnnie Cochran used this imperfect vessel of O.J. Simpson and basically turned the spotlight onto all those things that have happened between African Americans and the LAPD. This comes to a head in later episodes, like Episode 9 which is all about the Mark Fuhrman tapes.
Were any of the scenes filmed in the actual LA locations they occurred?
SA: All the Robert Kardashian scenes are filmed in Robert Kardashian’s [former] house in Encino. It was one of those crazy things where the location scout came back one day with this big grin saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but I found the actual house he lived in and the guy who lives there said we can shoot there.” And they hadn’t redecorated it, so it actually still looks like the '90s.
What was it like working with Ryan Murphy?
LK: Ryan came around as a huge champion and believer in the project. Scott and I had never done television before. So to be able to have this television powerhouse come in and not just teach us, but allow us to get away with things that maybe we wouldn’t as first-timers—something as simple as having the show shut down a freeway to recreate the Bronco chase. Also, Ryan is a master of casting and actors feel comfortable working with him. I think that’s why we ended up getting this parade of movie stars onto the show like John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAY MICKSHAW/FX