‘People vs. O.J. Simpson’ Production Design Had to Mirror Reality — and Distort It

The People vs. O.J. Simpson” — this season’s installment of FX’s “American Crime Story” anthology — was a huge critical and popular hit. But for those who created the look of the 10-part series, the challenge was to be both scrupulously exacting and plausibly inventive.

Production designers Jeff Mossa and Richard Sherman were mindful to faithfully reproduce the settings and situations that were seared into the memories of millions of viewers who, in 1994 and 1995, watched the saga of the actor and former NFL star running back, accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, unfold on TV — from the slo-mo Ford Bronco chase over L.A. freeways to O.J.’s eventual courtroom acquittal.

But other events in the story took place in more mundane locations, unseen by the public, and to these the artisan duo added the kind of visual sweeteners that befit a TV drama.

Mossa — who cut his teeth at FX on “The Riches” — acknowledged the importance of accurately reproducing everything people remember: “If you get those things wrong, they’re going to [call BS on it],” he says.

But their concern for accuracy varied depending on what scene they were designing. Mossa, Sherman and cinematographer Nelson Cragg held to a mantra they repeated from pre-production through post: “We’re not making a documentary.”

For the scene of the crime — where Brown and Goldman’s bodies were found — Mossa and Sherman searched diligently for the perfect location. Though they considered  using Brown’s actual home, they ended up building a replica of  exterior in an empty lot not far from the original in Brentwood — reproducing the walkway, landscaping and gating with meticulous detail.

“Everyone had seen the pictures of Nicole just beyond that gate,” Mossa says. “And that walkway where the police officers were standing on the curb — that was one we had to make sure was perfect.”

The network insisted that no one on the production contact anyone who had anything to do with the actual trial or coverage of the events, so Sherman and Mossa were left to scour found footage for their template. Accuracy was critical. “It got down to, ‘This plant goes here and that one goes there.’ It was the one place that was highly publicized on the news, along with O.J.’s house — which is gone now,” says Sherman, who worked with “People vs. O.J.” producer-director Ryan Murphy on the 2006 movie “Running with Scissors.”

The design team had more creative freedom with the district attorney’s office. Once the two scouted that location, they realized they didn’t need to make it 100% accurate. “It was as boring and as ugly as you could get,” Sherman says. “And we were going to be in there for 70% of the story.”

In fact, few images existed of D.A. Marcia Clark and her team working inside the building — a site that was hardly conducive to shooting. “It was kind of a hodge-podge in there,” Mossa explains. “You go into one space that’s not very open [that leads into another] space that’s not very open. There are not many windows. Rooms are tiny. We wanted something a bit more cinematic — something that showed the energy of the place.”

Focusing on the details — the doors, the windows, the ceilings — they built a set on the Fox lot. “The desire to be accurate changed,” Mossa says.

For Brown’s over-the-top funeral scene, the design team also took liberties with reality, says Sherman. “To do all of it on a TV budget became quite the challenge,” he adds. “It was like we were inside a flower shop.”

More Artisans

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

  • Costume designer Michele Clapton

    Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

    The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los

    On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los Angeles in Second Quarter

    Held down by a lack of soundstage space, total on-location filming in greater Los Angeles declined 3.9% in the second quarter to 8,632 shoot days, permitting agency FilmLA reported Thursday. “Although our latest report reveals a decline in filming on location, local production facilities tell us that they are operating at capacity,” said FilmLA president [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    How 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' Turned the Clock Back for Its Shoot

    Crossing the street took months for the crew that turned back the clock 50 years on Hollywood Boulevard for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Production designer Barbara Ling created false fronts for buildings that were constructed off-site and installed by crane just ahead of the shoot. Set decorator Nancy Haigh described [...]

  • Just Roll With It Disney Channel

    Disney Channel's Scripted-Improv Comedy Crew Shares How They 'Just Roll With It'

    The title of the new Disney Channel series “Just Roll With It” appears to be as much a directive for its cast and crew as it is a description of the multi-camera hybrid sitcom, which is part scripted and part improv. The plot revolves around the blended Bennett-Blatt family — strict mom Rachel (Suzi Barrett), [...]

  • "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" cast

    'SpongeBob' Voice Cast on Acting Together in Live-Action for 20th Anniversary Special

    On a brisk morning in February, the members of the voice cast of Nickelodeon’s flagship animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” gathered to work on a new episode, like they’ve done most weeks over the past 20 years. But instead of being in a recording booth, this time they’ve assembled at a diner in Castaic, Calif., shooting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content