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‘People v. O.J. Simpson’ Producers on the Secrets of that Famous Trial: ‘It’s Stranger Than Fiction’

Screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander are self-proclaimed “total TV novices.” Renowned for their film credits — which range from “Big Eyes” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt” — they’d never tried their hands at television. It took the persuasive powers of producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson and the prospect of adapting Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” to finally lure them to the medium.

“It was just exploding with characters and weird incidents and odd detail,” says Alexander. “We love that stuff.” They knew that the story could only be told in a series — a two-hour movie wouldn’t suffice. So they lent their prodigious talents to the script, and serve as executive producers — along with Ryan Murphy, Jacobson and Simpson — on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which debuts February 2nd.

Here, they tell Variety about the challenges of adapting the bestseller for television, the surprises they uncovered along the way, and the dream cast that brought it all to life.

What appealed to you about this project?

Karaszewski: We’ve been writing true-life stories for decades now, more fringe, off-the-beaten path stories. We’ve always turned down TV before. When we heard someone wanted to do a miniseries based on the O.J. Simpson trial, we instantly said yes, get us in the room. We didn’t even have to talk about it. We never would have done it as a movie. In two hours you would have had to hit all the greatest hits of the O.J. story. But in ten hours you can bring up all these issues and themes and fascinating characters and go off in all the crazy directions that made this case so vital.

Alexander: With 10 hours, we can pack in so much info and storytelling that people don’t know. We felt that we could surprise people, not show them the trial that they remember so well from 20 years ago.

Karaszewski: We joke that for a trial that happened 20 years ago, our show has a lot of spoilers.

Why is the show relevant today? Why tell this story now? 

Karaszewski: When we began the project, we wondered: Is it too late? Is it too soon? It was a famous event in so many people’s lives. But somehow, we’re hitting at the right exact time.

Alexander: We started this project three years ago. We talked about a lot of the themes the show was going to contain, but we did focus in on police violence against blacks in LA as the major theme. We weren’t trying to be prescient. But we felt ultimately this was what the case was about.

Karaszewski: That’s what Johnnie Cochran did. He changed the case from being about O.J. Simpson to putting the LAPD on trial.

Alexander: It started as two murder victims on Bundy to being a referendum on the LAPD. When we pitched the project three years ago, we said we’re going to open on Rodney King and L.A. riots. It was an oddball gutsy way to frame the show because the murders were two years later. As the last three years have gone by, and we opened the writers’ room and wrote the bible and hired staff and started developing the rest of the 10 scripts, all of the shootings started happening around the country. It became bizarre, thinking that wow, this show feels like it’s torn from the headlines — which never crossed our minds three years ago.

Karaszewski: What’s so interesting about the Rodney King beating is it’s one of the first things captured on a video camera. The reason all these other things have been so etched in everyone’s minds these last couple of years is the cell phone videos. People now have a camera with them at all times so they’re now able to capture these moments that would just otherwise be denied.

Alexander: The Rodney King tape just happened to be some guy with a home video camera shooting out of his window. It became a social touchstone. Now every single person in America has a video camera in their pocket.

What was most challenging about this process?

Karaszewski: We like to say we were writing a 1970s Robert Altman movie. We had all these characters, all these people with fascinating stories. Everybody deserved to be the lead in their story. Nobody is a supporting character. Scott and I have a very specific tone which is we mix tragedy with satire. One of the reasons we like nonfiction is it’s stranger than fiction. Capturing that and trying to be totally respectful that it is two innocent victims, you always had to be careful to the facts, checking and rechecking.

Alexander: When we turned in the scripts we were a little nervous in that we had slipped a lot of jokes in the middle of the tragedy. There was no pushback at all from the studio which was really a relief. This wasn’t going to be a legal procedural, which TV has a lot of. It was a very narrow threading of a needle which we like to do.

Given that this was your first TV show, how would you describe the experience? 

Alexander: A never-ending march across a desert with no end. (Laughs.)

Karaszewski: I remember after shooting episode two, the Bronco chase, which was a major production. We shut down freeways. We’d made basically a feature film. And then Monday started the next episode. Writing and having the opportunity to tell the story over 10 hours, that was fantastic. The overwhelming factor of having to film over 10 hours, that was another story.

Alexander: Looking back now, it’s almost three years to the week where we started this project. Why did we take so long? What were we doing for three years? But I think that’s how we were able to get so much density… It’s as simple as Chris Darden. His story takes a bunch of left and right turns through episodes 1, 2, 3 and 4 to get him to the point where he’s been given the job. We show the audience everything that’s happening in his life and everything that’s happening in the case that led to that moment.

As you did your research, what surprised you the most?

Alexander: Going to episode one, all the mishegas that happened before the Bronco chase. Who the hell remembers that O.J. was hiding in Robert Kardashian’s Encino house? And that there was this revolving circus of doctors and nurses and experts paraded through? It was so bizarre.

Karaszewski: With the Bronco chase, most people assumed O.J. was heading for the border. Some of the conversations he was having with the police [threatening to commit suicide] were eventually released years later. I didn’t know what was going on in the backseat with him and A.C. Cowlings. Because we all watched this on TV, we had set ideas about Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran. The more you did research on these people, the more you found out there was another side to be revealed as well.

Alexander: Chris Darden couldn’t seem to catch a break in the trial and seemed so ineffectual, but once you start to dig into his story, he becomes very sympathetic. Marcia Clark who was handed more solid evidence on a double homicide than she’d ever seen in her career, suddenly it turned into a losing hand. That seemed inexplicable at the beginning, but once you started to know that she’d filed for divorce three days before the trial and that she had all these personal issues she was juggling, then you started to have empathy for her in a way that you never did before. Even someone like Robert Shapiro, who is probably our major comic figure in that he lives a lot of his life in the periphery of showbiz and celebrities, we have some surprising turns in the late episodes, where you start to see the toll this had on him and his life. Hopefully that will catch people by surprise, that they actually feel bad for him by the end of the trial. Johnnie Cochran, who is always the flashy guy with the rhymes, it became a real opportunity to establish him as that guy who was fighting for justice for 30 years. We found a case that he was working on at the same time as the beginning of the O.J. trial, an unarmed single black mother who was shot on a hospital roof by a whole group of cops. Going deep into Google and the LA Times archives trying to find info on this case, an LA Times story referred to him as “an L.A. lawyer named Johnnie Cochran.” I thought that was so amazing. It seems like he had always been with us. He had always been a star black lawyer in Los Angeles. But as late as 1994, the LA Times was saying “an lawyer named.”

It was shocking for me, at least, to see the sexism that Marcia Clark had to endure. 

Karaszewski: That’s so key for us. Showing just how hard it was for Marcia Clark, being a woman in the middle of all this. She was treated to a different standard. She was turning on the TV and having people make fun of her haircut, going into focus groups and having people tell her to soften herself. No man was put under that pressure. Sarah (Paulson) just gets under her skin so much. And you feel such empathy for her. It’s an extraordinary performance.

Alexander: The fact that she was going through so much personal turmoil — the Court TV audience was totally unaware of all of this. It brings so much sadness and struggle. It’s a fabulous performance. Plus, she can deliver a zinger!

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on FX.

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