Anthony Hemingway had already directed two of Ryan Murphy’s shows — “Glee” and “American Horror Story” — when Murphy and his producing partner Brad Falchuk approached Hemingway about joining the creative team behind “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” about 18 months ago. According to Hemingway, who also directed the film “Red Tails” in addition to dozens of TV shows, before they even approached him on the set of “Glee,” Murphy’s mind was already made up.
“Basically, he didn’t allow me to say no. He told me I was doing the [O.J.] show,” Hemingway recalled with a laugh.
Below, Hemingway talks about shooting the Feb. 16 and Feb. 23 episodes of the show — crucial installments in which O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team is assembled. Hemingway, who is also a co-executive producer on the project, also directed the seventh, eighth and ninth installments of the drama — and for the last of those, he was a behind the camera when the show re-created the infamous Johnnie Cochran glove moment in the courtroom.
That’s a topic for another day — and for Part 2 of this interview — but below, Hemingway discusses why he took the “American Crime Story” gig and how he approached it creatively.
When Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk approached you about doing this, what was your response based on the subject matter?
It definitely raised many questions for me. I wanted to know what the angle was going to be, what the through-line or the point of view of the show was going to be. Having lived through the most galvanizing story in our history, I wanted to know what we were going to learn that we didn’t already know about the case. At the same time, what was the show’s purpose? Was it going to make a statement or not?
They quickly assured me and kind of enlightened me as to what you’re seeing [on the show]. So I quickly said yes and I’m so thankful and excited to be part of it. I mean, having lived it then and being very in tune to the millennial generation of now and realizing how important this show is – it’s almost more important now than when it actually happened. It is somewhat of a commentary of where we are in our society and in the world.
One of the things I find compelling about it is that it shows that there has not been much progress in these key areas of American life, and yet I think that the show does not give an easy solution or try to create easy targets.
Absolutely. The things that we forgot kind of make it fascinating. It shines a light on so many things, on the distrust of the system and so many things that are broken. And it helps us hopefully continue to figure out a solution to the progress that we need in this world.
If this had come out before Hurricane Katrina, before the Black Lives Matter movement, before Eric Garner or the Charleston shooting, I think there’s a substantial number of people in this country who would not have been ready to hear this or see this.
I would agree. The opportunities I’ve had [to direct] and the privilege that I’ve had to work on stories like this and [WGN’s] “Underground” — they are stories that can be seen as old as time, but they’re as contemporary as these headlines. I think they mean so much more now.
When you were first talking to Ryan and Brad, did you talk about how this would be different from their other projects? “Glee” and “AHS” and “Scream Queens” can be very theatrical or heightened, whereas this has its very dramatic moments but has a different overall approach.
Well, first of all, Ryan is a genius. He’s smart. Not to be a cliché, but the Dream Team that was formed by our creative [team behind the camera] – that would really answer any concern. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, when you see what they’ve done in terms of the writing, Ryan and Brad, Nina [Jacobson] and Brad [Simpson] and then my background — seeing the collaboration and all the hands that were going to be involved, I wasn’t concerned at all. I never at any moment thought that we were going to make this anything other than what you’re viewing.
When you looked at the scripts, when you thought about the material and the story, what were your thoughts as you all formulated the style and the visual template for the series?
I always look to be truthful to the material of the story that I’m telling. And being respectful. With this kind of material that has any historical relevance or connection, you have to be respectful, and this one in particular required a lot of sensitivity, just due to the lives that were lost and the families of those deceased people. That was constantly remembered amongst the team — making sure that we were being respectful and not looking to demonize or be antagonistic toward any particular person. We just wanted to balance all the social observation and the drama and the terrible tragedy. I come from doing “The Wire” and “Treme” and doing historical stories. Thankfully there are so many references to pull from with this story. Almost every player involved wrote a book.
That said, you were shooting a lot in courtrooms and offices, and there are some shows that get into a rut with shooting that kind of scene.
I look at it as, life isn’t static. That was actually also one of the questions that I had going into — just how much courtroom [work] was involved, and making sure that it wasn’t going to be a dud, making sure it wasn’t going to fall flat.
One of the things I didn’t want anyone to have is the kind of historical journey where it’s like you’re looking at a picture on the wall. I wanted to take the picture off the wall and have them live in it. I love energy, in terms of camera style, so it was definitely about having the camera be an observant part of the narrative. To me, every scene requires something different. It’s about really getting into that scene and figuring out the right approach to it, whether it’s [emphasizing] the intimacy of it or whether it’s the intensity of it — I think each scene it really dictates the approach.
And then just to add to the challenge, you’ve got some scenes set in a tiny jailhouse meeting room or in a cell.
Yeah, and when you’re shooting 10 episodes — you’re shooting in that room for a big percentage of the show. It’s about trying to keep [the energy] alive and not repeating what you’ve done before, unless it was necessary to the storytelling. Definitely there were challenges of just trying to figure out how to get [a scene] up on its feet or come alive without it feeling forced or implausible.
From the perspective of the cast, there was a dream team assembled there. What was that like, wrangling all those actors as well?
I was like a kid in a candy store. The caliber of talent was just a dream. And I think everyone was in sync just in terms of humanizing these characters and wanting to respect them and honor them. So it was for me as a director it was just a joy, and being able to play and to stretch them and to push them [was great]. With that caliber of talent, it was endless just in terms of what you can do or how you can stretch them or shape them. They all have so much range and talent and skill. You could dream of something for them to do and they would do it effortlessly.
And they all are such professionals and veterans — everyone came to work. With TV, the pacing is [brisk]. You have to be efficient and you have to come in ready to work. This was a cast who have large film careers, but thankfully they all have had experience in TV, so they understood what was required of them. They just came to work ready.
Can you talk a little bit about episode 3 and what took place in it?
It started off as, we come out of the Bronco chase, and it gets into Marcia [Clark] having so much more evidence than she ever could dream of in a double murder. It was about her trying to put all the pieces together, and at the same time, deal with all the jabs that the Dream Team was throwing at her.
Episode four really gets more into Cochran coming on board. At the end of episode three, they had reached out to him, but in four, we see the decision to join the team after he had a chance to talk to O.J.
We’ve also seen little glimpses of Connie Britton as Nicole’s friend Faye Resnick, and we see a lot more of her in episode four. It’s a great comedic performance, but can you talk about balancing that with some of the more sad or difficult material? Did you ever worry about being able to get all of those different elements to mesh well?
It’s the balancing act of being respectful and staying true to life. As absurd as the comedy can be, we have this terrible tragedy and also moments of high drama. I love the process, because you get to do it several times — in the writing, in filming it, and then you have editing. So you have three opportunities to get it right and make sure that the intent and tone and everything you want is there.
What sets this apart from other projects you’ve worked on?
It’s not too different from some of the other projects that I’ve worked on. There is a common denominator of story that I do love doing, which is a story that has some level of importance and integrity to it. A story with a purpose, really. We can entertain all day long, but for me having the opportunity to be a part of a change or to collaborate in that and contribute to it really excites me. Those are the stories that really speak to me.
Click for more of Variety’s coverage of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”