Kary Antholis: This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where stories of crime and justice are told.
Today’s podcast is Part One of a two-part conversation with Ezra Edelman, Producer and director of the Oscar and Emmy winning, ten hour documentary O.J.: Made in America.
The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice.
During our conversation, we discussed Ezra’s path into storytelling, the development of his craft as a cinematic storyteller, the evolution of his interest in sports and African-American history, how he was convinced to make the film, and the process of conceptualizing and producing the documentary.
And so without further ado, here is my conversation with Ezra Edelman.
Kary Antholis: Where I’d like to start is, um, by asking you to, to tell us a bit about your path into being a filmmaker and along the way key incidents, influences, especially influences, and people that helped guide you and helped you shape your aesthetic and your, the things that matter to you.
Ezra Edelman: So, um, you guys might be a little disappointed ’cause, um, my path is, I guess, a little nontraditional. Um, I am, I’m sort of envious of what you guys are doing, sitting in a class with Kary right now. This is something I never got to do. Um, my path was really, um, learning on the job through a, uh, variety of professional opportunities. I mean, very quickly, I, I sort of got a job right out of college and I worked as a researcher on the Olympics for CBS the last time CBS had the Olympics. And so I had a job for a couple years where I got to travel around the world and interview athletes and was responsible with a couple other people for all the background material for the Olympics, and that was basically being a reporter, journalist, writer. And off of that and, you know, there was a big TV production, obviously, but I had never been on a shoot.
Ezra Edelman: And then literally after that job, which is very, a lot of responsibility and very well thought of, someone gave me a job as a, as a producer making feature stories for, on Olympic athletes, four, five minutes long. And I remember the first time I got an assignment to go out there to do a story. Like, I’d never been on a shoot. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know where the camera was supposed to go. I didn’t know where I was supposed to stand. And it was this really incredible on-the-job training.
Ezra Edelman: And I did this for a, for a year working at a smaller production company, and even I remember the first story I had to do. This is dating myself a little bit. This was probably 20 years ago now. But the first story I did, we were still cutting on a linear editing system. That’s the equivalent, I guess, of working with a typewriter. You had to be completely set with what you were doing from beginning to end, and if you decided halfway through that you wanted to, like, make a change, you had to go back to the beginning. And that was a lesson very quickly of, of… let’s just say I wasn’t prepared. I got a chance to make some mistakes in a place that was fine to make a mistake and I, I did that, learned how to interview people, learned whether this was something I wanted to do. As a one-man band, I sorta would go out and shoot and, you know, transcribe all my stuff and, and write my stories.
Ezra Edelman: And then soon after that, I got a job working at HBO on a show called Real Sports. And I spent, you know, six, seven years as a producer producing magazine pieces. And I didn’t have any experience doing that. I had no experience with long-form. I had no experience working with a correspondent. And, again, I was very fortunate that someone gave me an opportunity before I actually had experience. That gave me, sort of… again, it was another on-the-job training, and I happened to be, um, at a, at a company that did documentaries and I sort of asked. I raised my hand and said, “Do you guys do these long-form documentaries?” I worked in the sports department, and I said, “I would love to do one if you guys would let me.”
Ezra Edelman: And it was sort of begging that for a couple years and they finally let me, um, make a film and it was about the Brooklyn Dodgers and it was primarily centered around them leaving, leaving Brooklyn to come to L.A. and it was a lot about city politics and a lot about race in sports. And as soon as I got an opportunity to work on a documentary, it felt like I’d found my thing. That was what I realized that that’s what I wanted to do. I loved interviewing people versus working with talent. I really loved this longer period of really sinking into a story. I got nine, ten months to work on the film. And everything about it and what it was about was right up my alley.
Ezra Edelman: And so from that point on, I realized that what I wanted to do was make documentaries. I mean, the point is that I sort of have in my professional life the move forward with opportunity that I’ve had and, and been allowed to grow in terms of the medium and style as far as what I would be able to do. And I did a few films for HBO and then I left and then I sort of started doing things independently. I mean, to answer your question, Kary, as far as influence and style, I mean, I would sort of say I probably suffer from having f- fewer influences than most. It’s just sort of feeling my way through what I’ve done.
Ezra Edelman: Um, you know, I remember watching One Day in September when it came out in 2000, and that was before I’d done a documentary. That was really the first long-form thing I watched that I felt like, “That’s something I…” I didn’t know how to do it at the time, but I thought, “That’s what I would… that’s something I really aspire to be able to do,” which I’ve since been, you know, fortunate enough to tell Kevin Macdonald that when I met him. But it felt like, “Oh, this was mixing… this is long-form, mixing sports and history and journalism.” I was really amazed that they could find one of the terrorists in the film that the Mossad couldn’t find and I didn’t have any idea how that could be done. But that was definitely… at that point, I was 25 years old when that came out, and I thought if I could ever do something like that, I would be very happy.
Ezra Edelman: And then, you know, through the course of working on, on documentaries, I just arrived at my own style as far as interviewing style, as far as aesthetic. I mean, I probably borrowed a little bit of the aesthetic from news magazine days as far as how I like subjects to look and how tight I like to shoot things and the intimacy of a dynamic between a subject and the interviewer. So, I don’t know how much I answered your question, but that’s a quick-
Kary Antholis: That was great. That was fantastic. Going back to, uh, your university days, you studied history at Yale. Was there a particular area of history and were there particular thinkers, writers, journalists, historians that influenced your worldview?
Ezra Edelman: Simply put, history is… where I went to school, it’s a popular major. It’s a very, sort of… it’s very all-encompassing in terms of, uh, you’re made sure you have to take stuff all over the place, from American, internationally, all different historical periods. Um, but I really focused on African American history primarily. 20th Century African American history would’ve been what I really focused on, and I always… as much as I was a history major, I probably… if I’d gone back, I would’ve been an American studies major, um, if not an English major, because, I mean, still my focus was on, again, a certain contemporary bent.
Ezra Edelman: As far as people I, that influenced me, I don’t that there were historians that influenced me. I mean, there’s certainly people that, you know, write history and non-fiction that I always love. I mean, I love the, the Halberstams and the Remnicks and people like that. You know, it’s like growing up and reading all the, the Black writers from, you know, 20th Century America, the Richard Wrights and the Baldwins. And then I was just always a sports nerd, and so, like, any sort of text that had to do with non-fiction in sports from the 20th Century I read. That’s just what I’m, you know, schooled in. And so as much as I was a history major, you know, I… you know and I wrote for the paper. That was always my beat. I’ve weirdly always been a sports savant and sports and race have been my, you know, the concurrent areas of expertise that I’ve been focused on and I’ve just absorbed everything in front of me without… so, there’s no seminal people or texts that I really point to. I inhaled it all. `I don’t know.
Kary Antholis: That’s terrific. So, what was the film you worked on immediately preceding OJ: Made in America? And then what were the circumstances that, as I understand it, you were enticed to make the OJ film?
Ezra Edelman: I mean, by the way, it’s an interesting thing, because, again, I didn’t have the wherewithal, I don’t think I had the, sort of, direction to have made a choice to go to film school, for instance. To, to go, like, “I want to make films. I want to make feature films or documentaries.” I’ve just been someone that’s always been slightly more reactive, even though I’ve had areas that I was interested in. And so, frankly, when I left HBO, it was like I’d also been very protected in the world. I’d always sort of worked in institutions.
Ezra Edelman: And so in terms of what was going to happen, it was, it was very scary and I had been very frustrated, frankly, by being in this institution and feeling like I had something as an artist, but I would’ve never ever considered myself an artist, but something more to… it’s like you’re, you’re a worker. You’re a worker in a place, and I think y- you know this, um, where it’s like other people might take credit for your work and it’s the institution that’s doing it. And I kind of was always like, “But I’m really doing this. I’m really working my ass off to, like, make these films,” and then you see outside of… you know people who make documentaries independently and it’s all about them and you’re like, “But why don’t I get the same…” I don’t know.
Ezra Edelman: And so there’s a little bit of a weird ego thing, but then you leave and I go, “Oh, this is really hard to generate stuff. And how do you actually do this?” And what I was fortunate was that I had sort of worked in a genre that in some ways had been (laughs) HBO for all of the sports documentaries they had done. You know, by the time I left, ESPN had sort of taken over the mantle as far as just even the glut of doing them with their 30 for 30 series and I knew the people who made the films and when I left, they said, “Any time you want to do something.”
Ezra Edelman: And they approached me about doing a film about the Big East Conference. I don’t know. This was probably 2013 and, like, again, not, like, something I was dying to do in my life, but it was also something that was the story that meant something to me, having grown up in Washington. Was a huge Georgetown fan, and actually about six months before that, I had really wanted to make a film about John Thompson, who was the coach for Georgetown for all these years. And I was doing it. I spent some time with it, and he initially didn’t take to me after, like, agreeing to do it.
Ezra Edelman: And so then I thought that was, like, that was, again, a very jarring thing for me emotionally. And all of the sudden, he sort of kicked me to the curb, and then ESPN came and asked me to do this thing and it was… the subject matter was similar, but it was also my way of telling a story about him and the school within the bounds of this film and it was nostalgic and historical and I said sure. So, I did that. And it was a film called Requiem for the Big East.
Ezra Edelman: And I also did a short film for them about, um, the Chilean national soccer team in 1973 called The Opposition, and it was about the team trying to qualify for the World Cup. Um, and they had, um, uh, one last game to qualify when they were supposed to this, the, the Soviet Union when the coup happened. And, and Pinochet turned the, the national stadium into a detention/torture center. And so the film was about how the teams qualified and, you know, in the midst of a country that was in upheaval and, long story short, because of politics, s- strangely the Soviet, Soviet Union of all places ended up boycotting playing there because they thought the conditions were so terrible and Chile qualified for the World Cup because they didn’t show up and they went on the field 11 on zero and they went down and they scored a goal against nobody. That, to me, was right up my alley as what my interests were.
Ezra Edelman: I did that film about the Big East and then they… yeah, so, they approached me. And they came to me and said, “Would you be interested in making a five-hour film?” And my first response was, “Yes, I’m interested in making a five-hour film.” And then they told me what it was about and I said, “I don’t want to make a film about OJ.” You know, I sorta went away for a minute and thought, “Yeah, I don’t want to make a film about OJ, ’cause everyone who wants to make a film want, about OJ wants to make a film about the trial and wants to make a film that is a referendum on his guilt or innocence. And I’m not interested in that. I lived through it.”
Ezra Edelman: And then I thought, “Well, you’re giving me all this time. What I am interested in is the guy who played football at USC, the guy who played football at USC, you know, and arrived there two years after the Watts riots. The guy who became famous running a football almost concurrent to the Watts riots in San Francisco in the, you know, in the fall of ’65.” And I already understood that there was a story about him in terms of him as an athlete and as a black athlete in the late ’60s and the choices that he made that really had bearing on, on what happened in the trial and how he was defended and how he represented himself then versus how the people supported him.
Ezra Edelman: And I thought, like, if I could tell a story that drew a line directly from a guy who essentially said no to the Olympic Project for Human Rights and, and, and Dr. Harry Edwards, who wanted him to be a part of the politicization of black athletes at the time that culminated in many ways with Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising a fist on the medal stand, and then here’s a guy who really deracialized himself publicly and became this very obviously famous, successful football player, pitch man, movie star, and all that.
Ezra Edelman: And then you get to a trial and someone who had sort of in some ways gone out of his way to erase race from his public persona, you know, as we know the story, falls back on using race as a, as a theme to get acquitted to the point where a guy walks out on, you know, when he leaves the jury box and he raises a fist. So, for me, it was like, “Wait. How did the guy who, like, walked out of a move and th- that culminated in that ends up being acquitted of murder, you know, 27 years later with a guy walking out?” An- and I’m like, “That’s the story. If I connect those two dots, that’s a good film.”
Kary Antholis: So, you agreed to make the film and what was your first step in assembling a team on the one hand and then in planning your course?
Ezra Edelman: Well, I think the first thing, I just started reading. I mean, I, I read for months. Yeah, I, I, like, assembled one person. There was one person I went to and said, “I need you to produce this,” but, again, I even had to pitch her. I had to say, “It’s about everything and it’s about this big thing and…” but for me, it was knowing sort of, uh, instinctively how many things had been done and how, and, like, what the media, sort of, saturation was around this.
Ezra Edelman: I thought the only way that this, that I could succeed in doing this if I was so steeped in all of it and really came to it with an historical perspective. So, every person I talked to, I could really say, “I’m not doing the thing that you’re used to everyone doing. I’m really trying to, you know, take this huge, long view and I’m really trying to tell this comprehensive, historical piece that is not at all salacious. And I’ve done my homework,” and that, to me, was the most important thing.
Ezra Edelman: And just to get my ducks in a row as far as, like, I had thoughts, I had ideas. I had a basic architecture I thought I wanted to try to, you know, follow, but I really needed to read as much about OJ, certainly, but also about the LAPD and also about the City of Los Angeles and, you know, about the trial itself and all these different things that went into telling this. I mean, it really is the story. When I said I w- would’ve preferred majoring in American studies, this was the ultimate American studies paper. And so for me, it’s like, “That’s great. You gave me an assignment that I get to spend three, four months just reading books? I’m pretty happy.” But that was the first thing I did and that, it was that until I started hiring people four months after.
Kary Antholis: And then did you identify interview subjects? H- how many of the interviews did you bank before you started editing-
Ezra Edelman: Oh [crosstalk 00:15:20].
Kary Antholis: … and, uh, collecting footage?
Ezra Edelman: Well, it was a really, like, so, uh, gigantic of an undertaking that I had to do enough interviews to have material to start editing, but there was no way the whole thing was going to be completed and was going to be a work-in-progress. So, I started, myself, reading in May. We started shooting in October. We started editing in February.
Kary Antholis: And what percentage of the interviews had you completed-
Ezra Edelman: Oh, I would say I-
Kary Antholis: … by the time you started editing?
Ezra Edelman: … completed half to, half to 60%.
Kary Antholis: And-
Ezra Edelman: And that was because of the way that the film is done. Um, they were… in terms of then how we would edit, it was all about what we had the material to actually work on.
Kary Antholis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ezra Edelman: And so I was sorta cognizant about certain things I would try to have completed, but there’s certain things I just couldn’t have done. And so we started working on the sections where we had enough material to start. And so, no, I had probably 60% of the stuff done probably, my, my guess. 50 to 60. And, um, and then my last interview I did was probably in, in J- July. We were done editing in, in November, December.
Kary Antholis: So, a- a- about, uh, 13, 14 months after you started shooting.
Ezra Edelman: Yes.
Kary Antholis: And going into the filming, how were you thinking about the movements of the film? ‘Cause I- I’ve, I’ve read and, and heard you say that you think of the entire piece as one film. But I would imagine you thought of it as movements or sections as you d- described them. What were the major sections in your mind th- that you wanted to make sure that you covered?
Ezra Edelman: Uh, yeah. I think that’s right. I mean, I, I think I would consider that movements or that’s, tha- that’d be a correct terminology. Well, for instance, I knew that it was easy for me and my brain to know that everything after the trial was after the trial. And so that was not something I was focused on at the beginning. That being said, you know, this is where you have to improvise when you have to improvise that, you know… we ended up doing a shoot in Las Vegas based on just sort of where we were at and how certain things came before I was even prepared or had thought about it. And so I shot interviews in Las Vegas and shot in the hotel room before I had actually conceived of, like, really what I was doing. And that was premature and that’s sometimes you just can’t map it out.
Ezra Edelman: But I really just started with the historical stuff. I tried to start with the beginning and so… I mean, like, literally the first sh- shoot we did was in San Francisco where OJ was from, and so, like, the first day we did three interviews and it was with one of his childhood friends, a coach of his at junior college who’d also taught him, and an author. It was like, that was, like, the, the first day and it’s always hard to just, like, pull the ripcord and start going. And, you know, we did 72 interviews. 66 of them are in the film, but two of them that are, that were on the film were in that first day.
Ezra Edelman: You’re just getting your feet wet and then you’re going like, “Oh, no.” You’re like, “This guy was terrible. This doesn’t…” and then, you know, at the same time, one of his friends who we interviewed tells this perfect story. You know, I’m curious about, you know… the fact that, for instance, OJ’s dad is gay, is something that, frankly, no one knew. It was one line in a book. I didn’t know that. I read it and was like, “Okay, so I don’t know how his friends or anyone around him… I don’t know if this is something that people know, if they would volunteer, if this is something… like, how am I, because I’m not in the film, there’s not narrator, how am I going to be able to, like, really get someone to talk about this?”
Ezra Edelman: But you’re fueled by these things that happen in these, in these unpredictable settings. And I remember interviewing this guy, Cal [inaudible] in the first day and, like, he brought up his mom and he was talking about his mom and how he, they’d go over, he’d go over to OJ’s house and there was nothing in the refrigerator and how his mom works at the hospital. And then I sorta said, “Well, what about his dad? Did you ever meet his dad?”
Ezra Edelman: And then the guy just told me the most perfect story, which is in the film, about, like, having never met his dad and he went over one day with, with OJ to, like, pick up the check from his dad and he walked in and OJ’s dad was in a bathrobe and there’s another… and he’s like, “It turned out and his… it’s obvious his dad was gay.” And, you know, and I’m going like, “Oh, that’s, that’s pretty good.”
Kary Antholis: (laughs).
Ezra Edelman: “I couldn’t have, couldn’t have possibly, like, gained that.” And then, like, one little thing like that sorta gets you going. It happened at the next shoot two days later. Was with his other friend, Joe Bell, who’s my favorite character in the film, and with Dr. Harry Edwards, who it’s like… it was like I could just talk, say anything, and he’s gonna give me… and I’m like, “All right, now I feel good,” but I really wanted to start in, sort of, the origin a little bit and grounded in the material and the history in a way that was I knew not salacious, in a way that once you get into the stuff later would be challenging and difficult and people who knew him when he was in L.A.
Ezra Edelman: And so that’s where I started and then after that, it’s a little bit of a free-for-all, because you’re organizing shoots based on what you can do. So, I, you know, I worked in New York. We would plan a trip to L.A. It was kind of like a once every month thing. And then you’re going, like, “Who can we get to talk to us?” And we might get one p- person or two people, but then you’re trying to justify a trip to go and do more stuff and then you end up having to, like, go forward. So, then you just start to improvise.
Ezra Edelman: And so there were days where… you know, there was one day I interviewed Tom Riccio, who’s the guy who was in the robbery in the hotel. It was the same day I interviewed Nicole Brown’s sister. And there was another day you interview Carl Douglas; then I went and interviewed a guy at USC, a professor there. And so that’s another reason why you have to be so grounded with all the research at the beginning and you have to have a sense of what you’re doing, because you can’t control how you’re doing it and you can’t be doing your research incrementally and going, like, “Oh, so now I’m going to do this.”
Ezra Edelman: It’s all a blueprint somewhere in there that you fluidly can go from person to person and then within an interview, you’re going from subject to subject based on that’s how I’ll do interviews. I’m not sitting with a piece of paper in front of me. I sorta prepare for an interview like I’m preparing for a test. And so then you don’t know what question you’re going to get, ’cause you don’t know what’s gonna come outta someone’s mouth. You don’t know where your head’s going to go, to veer in a different direction because you want to have a conversation. That’s the best interview. And so that’s just sort of-
Kary Antholis: Did you do all 72 interviews yourself? And who was your chief sounding board during this process?
Ezra Edelman: Me.
Kary Antholis: Really? So, there’s not a creative producer that you have or the ESPN executive? Is there anybody-
Ezra Edelman: I had three producers on the film. One main producer, Caroline Waterlow, and we hired two really talented women, Tamara Rosenberg and Nina Krstic. And Nina’s an archival producer. She’s incredible. Tamara was the one who was… so, it would be Tamara in terms of she was the one that was in, uh, responsible for outreach and, and talked to a lot of people and called a lot of people, which is my least favorite thing. I don’t like cold calling people. I don’t always love doing pre-interviews with people. And so I guess with her, but, you know, I do all this work and I write out, like, a 65-page document that’s, like, me writing the story.
Kary Antholis: Got it.
Ezra Edelman: So, like, everyone’s already catching up. I mean, I don’t mean this in a weird way. I just sort of have obsessively thought about this and so I might… I do talk to people and I do talk to Tamara, but in some ways I just take the onus on myself. With this, because of the time and because of the, the scope of it, I gave my editors… there’s a lot more freedom to create the scenes. So, even with that, I would still want to put the architecture of a scene together with the sound and then they could just go. But, like, I had never done a film where I hadn’t seen every piece of footage and with this it was impossible. So, I would be watching scenes after putting together a paper cut with just sound that, like, I’d go, “Oh, I didn’t know about any of this stuff…” and I’d be asking questions. So, i- it works both ways. There’s certain things you do make sure you watch beforehand. If you’re going to watch someone who’s on the stand or in the trial, I’m going to watch their testimony and stuff like that.