“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.”