Kary Antholis: This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where stories of crime and justice are told.
Today’s podcast is the second part of my 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 this part of our conversation we discussed Ezra’s editorial process, the most essential interviews of the film, the cultural impact of the documentary, the responses of some of the interview subjects to the project as well as some questions from the USC students.
And so without further ado, here is the conclusion to my conversation with Ezra Edelman.
Kary Antholis: So, during editorial, things are being pieced together I imagine with a rough sense of th- the linear order of things. When did you get to the point on this film where you started making decisions on how it was going to start, how it was going to progress through the movements, and then how you were going to end it? When did those conversations and the choices get made?
Ezra Edelman: Pretty immediately. I mean, look. I knew by and large that this was a story that was going to be most effective told more or less chronologically. The hardest part of the film was the first 30 minutes. I knew that at the same time that I wanted to start with him in the prison, how specifically what it would like and, you know, like the footage we had with him from the internal security camera. Like, I didn’t have that for a while. But I went and shot the prison. I knew I wanted to start there, ’cause I knew I was going to end there. I didn’t exactly know what was going to be the content.
Ezra Edelman: But in terms of getting the movements right in the first half hour, that was the trickiest thing because it was about integrating a story that was about him, what you’re foregrounding, um, trying to make sure you’re telling a story about him and setting the precedent that you know that you’re telling a story also about the history and about the city. And so you’re announcing to the audience that it’s not going to be… I’m preparing you for what I’m going to do.
Ezra Edelman: And so that took the longest to get right, but I’m someone when I work, like, I’m pretty fine in how I work. I don’t like just slapping stuff together. As soon as I am, like, like, I’m, I know the movements and so I want to just cut the scenes and I kinda fine cut scenes pretty quickly. And so I kinda knew… like, I either didn’t have the material or I had the material. And if I had the material, I’m going to keep going and then you go, “Do I have enough material?”
Ezra Edelman: And in some ways, sometimes you think you had enough but, like, didn’t interview Marcia Clark and Mark Fuhrman until the end. Didn’t know that I’d get either of them. And so part of me… once you’re already in deep in editing a film, you went like, “Do I need them?” Because I’m already telling this story and you’re sort of reluctant to open it up to do more. But of course the answer is yes. I knew that it was going to be one part up to the trial, then everything through the trial, and then afterwards. And so I kinda thought of it in, as three big, big movements. And then I had stuff I was covering within it. And that’s how I sort of thought about it.
Kary Antholis: Which interviews were the most impactful, both sitting in the room and sitting in the editing room? Which, which of the interviews do you look back on and say, “Man, I’m so glad I got that one”?
Ezra Edelman: Yeah, no, but it’s kind of a joke, because when you do some interviews that go, “Well, you know, what would the film be like if they’re, like, Joe Bell wasn’t in it? Would it be the same film?” Well, I mean, it’d be the same film, but it wouldn’t be because the unique credibility that he offers as someone who knew the guy and was validating a perspective and was disappointed in him, you know, himself in him-
Kary Antholis: Right.
Ezra Edelman: But still, by the way, was loyal to him, like, that’s something that just sort of gives you credibility throughout the whole thing that I think the film’s fundamentally different if he’s not in it. Um, Carrie Bess, who’s one of the jurors, it’s like… she’s not in the film very much, but the film in some ways is a consolidation of all these ideas together to tell a bigger story. How much of it’s new? I don’t know. But, like, having a juror sit down and admit to something that hadn’t been ever admitted before, that was new. And so that felt different and necessary and I realized that was something different and necessary.
Ezra Edelman: I think that same with Mark Fuhrman in many ways. It’s a perspective as far as someone who is at the center of this media storm and there’s an assumption about who he is and to see the humanity of this person in the film, to sit there and have to wrestle with that. That is a different perspective that I think that was necessary, certainly for that part of the film. Film would’ve been different without him. I mean, I’m just thinking about, like, different characters. For me, it’s like, who fundamentally changed the film and who are just great characters?
Kary Antholis: Right.
Ezra Edelman: And the film itself, it’s like whether it’s Joe Bell or Tom Riccio, can’t make these people up. They’re not only great characters but they speak to the worlds that OJ went through and lived in in these different parts of his life. And you go, “Oh, wait. You’re a guy who, you know, went from, you know, being at USC and, like, embodied a certain time.” Then you’re, you’re listening to Jim Brown and Dr. Harry Edwards, and then now we’re listening to a guy who set up this really seedy robbery in a little hotel in Las Vegas. That speaks to the trajectory of one’s life.
Ezra Edelman: The other couple people I would say that would change… Barry Scheck. He was one of the most difficult and certainly unwilling subjects from even when I approached him. He’s kind of like, “I don’t really do this.” And, like, I liked the guy instinctively based on who he is and what he does. And he was a guy who got up after the interview and said, “I shouldn’t have done this.” And it’s like these little things that give you a certain, little more than just telling the story, because it’s really putting the people on trial themselves a little bit for their roles in this thing. And so he’s as important for how he didn’t answer the questions as Carl Douglas is for being as proud as he was for doing everything. And, again, that film would not be the same without him.
Kary Antholis: Right.
Ezra Edelman: Because he’s the most willing subject. You know, when I showed up to interview Carl Douglas, we’re shooting the shit. It was… he was hilarious. We sat down, we started the interview. He started talking so deliberately, like in this other way from the time… I’m like, “Wait. What happened to the guy that we were just hanging out for the last hour talking?” And it was ’cause I was like, “This is unusable.” He started talking really slowly. And so I stopped him. I said, “Carl, with all due respect, what happened to the other guy?”
Kary Antholis: Well, I, I have to say, his presentation, the presentation you elicited from him about how they dressed OJ’s house is o- one of the most stunning things in the film. That set against Marcia Clark’s description-
Ezra Edelman: Right.
Kary Antholis: … of her reaction. Getting those people to be that candid, it really brought you there in a way that, you know, that a scripted drama can’t.
Ezra Edelman: Right, and that’s the thing. And so I got lucky with him. He goes, “Okay.” After that, it was, you know, the floodgates opened. And then with someone like Marcia, again, like, literally I think we were doing the film and I thought… the threshold that I knew I had to cross was I, I wanted to make sure that… I needed first-person voices from every part of this film. I needed people who, who were a part of whatever part of the story, whatever movement I was commenting on. These people who were telling a story had to have been there. And so for me, at the get-go knowing that the prosecution didn’t talk basically for 20 years, the jurors basically didn’t talk, and it was you… again, it’s you go, “It’s just, it’s just a leap of faith.” You gotta go, like, “I don’t know. Like, I know OJ’s family’s not going to talk to me. Fine.” But, like, I had to figure out a way.
Ezra Edelman: So, I went months and months and months and months without getting anybody in the prosecution to talk to me. And it was really lucky that I got an email from Gil Garcetti through a family friend, and my hope was I just needed one. And everyone said no or didn’t respond to me. And then he met with me and then said, “I won’t do an interview.” And then he met with me again and said, “I still won’t do an interview.” And then finally, like, after literally three meetings, he, he sent me an email and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And once he said to do it, I said, “Okay.”
Ezra Edelman: Then Bill Hodgman said he’d do it. And you can go then to Marcia Clark and say, “By the way, both these guys did it.” I cut a whole film without her, but she’s just so fierce. And, again, that’s the thing. What makes a good film, like, or what makes a really good film? It’s the characters make the film. And she sat there for five hours and just went toe-to-toe with me and it was, it was great. But it also has to do with you gotta just be prepared, ’cause as soon as you were there and you’re looking down at your questions, like, it’s over.
Kary Antholis: Found it really interesting and, and insightful to hear you talk about going from John Carlos standing on the podium of the ’68 Olympics raising his fist to OJ after the verdict raising his fist. And it helps explain the feeling that you’ve evoked in the way you’ve constructed particularly the trial into the verdict. Can you talk a bit about presenting the crime scene toward the end of the film and Hodgman’s explication of his theory of, of what happened?
Ezra Edelman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Um, well, that came from, in the same process of trying to get people to talk. So, after Garcetti had said yes and maybe after he’d done an interview, Bill Hodgman, who was someone who hadn’t responded, invited myself and Tamara, one of our producer, to meet with him for an off-the-record conversation in the DA’s office. And we had a conversation. I told him essentially, “This is what I’m doing. This is my perspective. This is what I think happened, for me,” and he seemed to be okay with that.
Ezra Edelman: And then… he was a nice guy, but then he goes, “I’m gonna give you the presentation.” He’s like, “I teach this case to, to students.” And he’s like, “I have a presentation that I give.” So, he brought Tamara and I into a conference room and he went through, like, a half-hour presentation of the material and, and the crime scene and, and then he had these photos, which I’d never seen. And he went through this whole thing and I was like, “Well…” very honestly, it was one of those things where at that point I had been working on this for over a year. I was pretty desensitized to the whole thing. I wasn’t desensitized to that. And I remember distinctly being like, “Wait.”
Ezra Edelman: There’s something that went through me when I saw those that I thought, “I need these photos,” and I said to him afterwards, I said, you know, “Bill, like, can I use them?” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” And then it was up to me after that, though, so, that was before I interviewed him, to figure out how best to do it. But he went through his theory in that presentation. So then when I did the interview with him, I just thought, “Can you go through this?” And he’s a prosecutor and he went through it so well, I knew that that was a moment.
Ezra Edelman: And that, to me, honestly, I can take some credit for some things, but that’s where a great editor comes into play, because I cut the thing down a little bit and I shot the stuff I shot, but I remember leaving my editor, Bret, alone for a day or two and then he created a scene that was just sound design without score that was as harrowing as it was. There are a lot of things I really love about the film, but that scene blew me away, to be honest, that he created. And I thought, “This is the magic of making movies,” because you can have ideas about what you want to include from a story standpoint, but that’s drama and that’s art. And that’s where you know you can only do so much as a director. That’s the, that’s the talent of someone you’re working with.
Kary Antholis: What was the relative release window between the FX series and your documentary?
Ezra Edelman: Uh, the best thing that happened was that our documentary premiered at Sundance before… it wasn’t finished, but it premiered at Sundance before the FX s- series was out. So, at least it felt like we planted a flag. But I remember being at the, the TCAs, which is like a thing where they announce projects for network season. And I was sitting up there in January of 2016 talking about this and all anybody in the audience was doing was asking me questions about the FX show ’cause they’d seen the first five episodes. And I was like, “Fuck, man. I don’t have anything to say about this.” And, so the answer to your question, that I think came out February, March and our film came out in theaters in May and was on TV in June. So, the, the FX series had fully played and it ended up being great, so.
Kary Antholis: And when did you feel the groundswell of advocacy, support, praise of your film? When did you feel it mushrooming?
Ezra Edelman: I don’t know if I ever felt it mushrooming. I basically, I live with a lot of anxiety. So, the response at Sundance was very good, you know, from the first reviews that came out that are embargoed until the thing plays. And, like, again, you walk out and you put an eight-hour film at Sundance and so you’re like, “I don’t know what just happened.” And then you read these things and you’re like, “Oh.” And because at that point it was a, a little bit of a unique circumstance that they were playing this huge thing, you’re like, “Oh, everyone seemed to know about this.” And so that was the first indication that maybe things were going to be okay. And then after that, we were releasing in the theaters and you’re waiting for reviews. Once that happened, once the New York Times review came out and then I thought, I was like, “I’m good.” I didn’t really care. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just was like, for me personally, I was like, “Okay. That was okay.”
Kary Antholis: What kind of response did you get from some of the interview subjects? And I don’t think we should move on without you talking a bit about any efforts you made to talk to OJ or any anecdotal response you may have heard from OJ to the, the series.
Ezra Edelman: I wrote him an email in jail. I never heard back from him. So, that’s it. Uh, never heard anything. He’s been in my dreams, unfortunately, in the last six months.
Ezra Edelman: That’s been a problem for me. But, you know. Uh, but no. Thankfully I’ve never… don’t know.
Kary Antholis: Okay.
Ezra Edelman: Uh, and-
Kary Antholis: Other people in the film?
Ezra Edelman: Yeah, no. I mean, honestly, like, you know, I don’t know if I heard from, like, a lotta, like, Tamara heard from a lot of people. I mean, look. Here’s the thing. Everyone is… mostly everyone is very positive. Um, I think anybody likes to be a part of something that people seem to like. But I think the main thing is, like, I, you know, and the thing that I feel good about is we followed through on what we told everybody we were doing. We said, “We’re making this really long film that’s going to be about all of these things and it’s gonna… it’s a 50-year story. It’s not a three-year story.” And so, you know, I think especially with people who were involved with this story who were so used to the media burning them and incessantly knocking on their door or calling their phone. So, to have someone, I think, that came to them and approached them soberly and maybe intelligently and, and to follow through on the vision that we offered and that we did give them time and space to talk. I think everyone was-
Kary Antholis: It feels that way. It feels like you’ve humanized every single individual and there was no ambushing. There was no glibness. It was very human. Um, and I- I’m, I’m not surprised to hear but I’m glad to hear that they appreciated it, whether it’s Fuhrman or-
Ezra Edelman: Yeah, yeah.
Kary Antholis: Before I ask our students to ask some questions, my last question: what is the best piece of advice you ever got or what piece of advice would you care to impart to a group of 70 undergraduate students?
Ezra Edelman: Do your homework. Like, do your research. I mean, s- seriously. Be prepared. Especially as a documentary filmmaker, like, I can’t tell you how much it matters when you come across people and you’ve done your homework and you’ve thought about who they are and what you’re doing. It puts people at ease. It’s, that’s the least you can do. Tha- that’s not going above and beyond. It’s your job. But I, it just doesn’t happen as often as you would think. It seems like a very logical thing to say, but, like, I think that’s the thing I, I’m always surprised by that people don’t do. And so I would always just say it’s like just be prepared in that way. And especially in a medium when you think about documentaries as being like, “It’s documentary. We’re just gonna go figure this shit out as we’re…” you’re like, “No. You gotta have a plan.” And so, you know, that’s my advice.
Kary Antholis: Great. We have a few questions from the students. Here’s the first one. When the Hertz commercial director says of OJ, “He was a good-looking man. He has almost white features,” it’s pretty shocking. Can you describe to us the moment when you heard him say it and the process of cutting it into the film?
Ezra Edelman: The funny thing about that is, you know… you know, that was Fred Levinson, who was the director of the Hertz commercial. Maybe Fred is one of the people I didn’t hear from after the film. And in some ways it’s like you, even when you’re sitting across from someone, you sometimes don’t know exactly what they just said. And then I remember just, like, watching the interview and I was like, “Wait, what?”
Ezra Edelman: So, and so, i- it isn’t a hard decision. Actually, that’s what you’re after. That’s as, that’s as true as anything else. It’s as honest as anything else in terms of, again, like, you’re talking about a guy who directs commercials and you have one of the few Black men, Black people in America at that time who were on TV and on commercials in that way, and he’s talking about, oh, why this guy is palatable and why he’s, um, someone who can sell cars, you know.
Ezra Edelman: So, I really… and then, like, and he does it in a way that it’s, like, reflective of an attitude. You know, that’s great, even though it’s like I feel bad for the guy ’cause he’s a really nice guy. And you feel like, “I don’t even know you… I don’t even think you know what you’re saying.” And there are different people, by the way, who, like, say shit and you’re like, “Yeah. All right, I don’t want to fuck with you.” But, like, he’s nice. And so I felt a little bit bad about that, but it was also just necessary.
Kary Antholis: Next question is, how did you come to title the film OJ: Made in America?
Ezra Edelman: I had everyone put a bunch of things in a hat and I just, like, picked one out. I was like, “That, that works.”
Ezra Edelman: I mean, honestly, like-
Ezra Edelman: … I wanted something that was, like, a little more, uh, a little less obvious. Maybe a little more like, uh, hardy and that kind of actually came from Tamara, our producer, and then, like, I… let’s just say I got voted down. So, like, I’m like, “Okay, fine.” And then it ended up being perfect. I mean, I can’t, you know… ’cause I thought it was, like, Made in America. There’s a movie Made in America. Then Jay-Z had a documentary that was Made in America. I was just like, “I’d like something a little bit more original.” But I will say that the, the title for this, it ended up being perfect. So, I can, I cannot take credit.
Kary Antholis: And then this’ll be the last question. How did you target younger audiences who were not really aware of OJ as an athlete and only know him as a man who stood trial for the murder of his wife?
Ezra Edelman: Um, well, I didn’t really, you know, consciously target audiences in any way specifically, but I knew that, um… I was aware that there were generations of people that only knew OJ Simpson as a guy who’s on trial for murder. Pardon my sports metaphor. It was a layup for me to know that I could tell a story about this guy who… I used to imitate him running through the airport when I was a kid. I, I, like, remember him playing football and he was the most beautiful football player ever.
Ezra Edelman: And so the idea that, like, I knew you could, I could spend time telling the story about this beautiful athlete and, and that was actually part of the intent of the film, was to be able to seduce audiences who either didn’t know that side of him or nostalgically hadn’t been in touch with that person for 40-odd years and to fall in love with him again. That’s the thing that was necessary to understand why the trial and why, you know, that sorta sense of disbelief set in when OJ was in the Bronco, ’cause you’re like, OJ was OJ as far as not only as this incredible athlete but as this commercial superstar.
Ezra Edelman: And so it was intentional from the standpoint of just wanting an audience to fall in love with him, but I just knew that no one knew that story and no one knew him. And so that was part of the intent of the film, and it was something that I knew that people who were under 25 had no idea who OJ Simpson was before the trial. And so it was a fortunate thing for me to know that, if you were hardened to who he was, that would be strange, ’cause I just, just knew that that was something that could be added. Again, it’s like feeling like did I tell something new? No. But I [inaudible] a person that didn’t exist to a lot of people before. And that I was aware of for younger generations.
Kary Antholis: Please join me in thanking Ezra Edelman for being with us.