Almost as soon as “The People v. O.J.: American Crime Story” was announced, you could hear the mutterings of people wondering why anyone would feel the need to rehash the oft-told saga from the Bronco car chase through to the controversial verdict.
“We picked up on that initial reaction of fatigue and skepticism because the subject matter was so pervasive,” says “O.J.” producer Nina Jacobson. “What more could be said that hadn’t been said? But there was so much more to say by giving people emotional access to these characters 20 years later.”
Historic dramas have always played well with audiences, but this season many of this year’s biggest TV movies and limited series, from HBO’s “Confirmation” and “All the Way” to FX’s “O.J.” and Hulu’s “11.22.63,” involve re-creations of fairly recent events.
While “O.J.” took a stale story and showed just how well-trod material can be woven into contemporary gold, “Confirmation” took the scrutiny of a now-sitting Supreme Court justice and turned it into a look at both gender and race issues in America. “All the Way” brought the accomplishments of a flawed president into focus, and “11.22.63” allowed us all a little bit of what-if speculation about a time-traveler attempting to foil John F. Kennedy’s assassination while staying true to the real-life characters.
|stranger than fiction: Clockwise from top: FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” HBO’s “All the Way” and “Confirmation.”|
“The timing of these shows is interesting. ‘The People v. O.J.’ and ‘Confirmation’ address the origin of our consciousness about the mistreatment of women culturally,” says Susannah Grant, writer-producer of “Confirmation.” “You can’t deny that the nation woke up to that idea that women were not being treated equally [with Anita Hill and Marcia Clark] and with O.J. that policing is not the same for everyone. We need to revisit these issues that seem intractable in our culture.”
Dramatizing these well-known stories brings big challenges, not the least of which is grappling with the fact that most viewers feel they know these stories inside and out. Moments like Lyndon Johnson holding his dog up by his ears or hearing the charismatic Johnnie Cochran’s “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” have been drummed into popular lexicon. And few can forget hearing the tawdry details unfurled in Hill’s testimony of soda cans and pornographic small talk during the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle.
“What people remember about these events have been spun in every direction, so what they remember isn’t really the truth either,” Grant says. “We wanted to show these were well-rounded human beings who have been kind of reduced to minimal versions of themselves in the cultural consciousness.”
Anthony Hemingway, who directed half of the 10 “O.J.” episodes, says, “I’m always looking to figure out what mechanism we can create to add to the healing and the conversations. All we can hope for is that those conversations turn into something positive.”
Creators aim to bring a new eye to the familiar, and make it relevant to audiences still living with the reverberations today. “Confirmation” examines a salacious part of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings, when former colleague Anita Hill testified that he had sexually harassed her.
While Thomas was still confirmed, the event heightened awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and increased the number of women elected to public office the following year. The media frenzy surrounding the hearings also marked a new trend of obsessive news coverage.
“What was important to me was telling this story of forgotten history,” says “Confirmation” director Rick Famuyiwa. “While we felt the impact of what happened post-Anita Hill — race, equality, sexual harassment that we talk about differently now because of what happened in those hearings — we are telling the story as objectively as possible to restart the discussion of issues still relevant today.”
|“What people remember about these events have been spun in every direction, so what they remember isn’t really the truth either.”|
The nation was pinned to their television sets when former NFL star O.J. Simpson became the prime suspect in the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ron Goldman on June 12, 1994. It became the most publicized trial in American history.
“I shared some of those reservations about, ‘Why do we want to unearth this material again?’ and ‘How do we do it with sensitivity to the families that lost lives?’” Hemingway says. “It needed to serve as a lens to then and now, and about the lack of progress we have made in this country and the systemic issues we face in our cultural climate.”
In an age of Google knowledge, inquiring viewers can also do instant fact checks and find a historically accurate answer to any question they have in a matter of minutes.
“We are living not just in the golden age of anthology, but the golden age of the recap,” says Brad Simpson, producer of “O.J.” “Millions of blogs are out there fact checking, so it’s important to stay factually true. When Marcia talks, there’s the essential truth of what happens. We had to compress time and invent some dialogue, but I felt we always maintained the essential truth.”
“All the Way” is based on Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play about Johnson’s political maneuvering to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed through Congress. Schenkkan adapted the play, which was optioned by Steven Spielberg.
“Steven Spielberg is a political animal who takes his politics seriously and knows contemporary American politics, so for him this story is catnip,” Schenkkan says. “I saw this story as particularly timely. It’s not just entertaining, but something for us now and it’s important to say it now.”
All the writers had to carefully navigate the right balance between authenticity and dramatic license.
“I’m quick to point out that I am not a historian and this is not a documentary, but basing the work on history comes with some responsibility,” Schenkkan says. “What I can’t do is have a historic figure say something that is antithetical to who they were.”
Although there was a wealth of archival footage, Schenkkan says they decided to be extremely selective about what they used in making the film. In the stage version, George Wallace is played by an actor. In the film, archival footage was used instead.
“It not only saved time, but it was a more effective way of bringing in the way George Wallace charmed. That’s where it is most satisfying and elegant,” Schenkkan says. “The danger would be to overuse the device and then have your film feel like a documentary.”
|Period Thrills: Hulu’s “11.22.63,” starring James Franco, is based on a novel by Stephen King.|
Stephen King’s “11.22.63” is a tale of time travel and what ifs, but even in that fantasy world the hook is in stopping the Kennedy assassination. “Because we are dealing with a sensitive topic, a real person who was murdered, even though this is a fictional story, you don’t want to play fast and loose with the facts,” says showrunner Bridget Carpenter, who adapted the novel.
Archival footage can also help when filmmakers are working to keep the piece as authentic as possible, right down to fabricating Lee Harvey Oswald’s brown plaid jacket.
Although the studio behind “11.22.63” held the rights to the Zapruder film, producers instead went with their own re-creation. “We were incredibly accurate about everything we knew to be true,” Carpenter says. “We filmed in Dallas, even in Oswald’s former backyard. We were happy with what we were able to do on film.”
One of her favorite conversations during production was with star Chris Cooper, who told her where he was and what he remembered on that day in 1963. “The weight of that, to feel respectful, I never wanted to take this glibly,” Carpenter says. “When a young charismatic character is cut down in his prime, especially in this era of such optimism, it’s something no one ever forgets.”
As for viewers who want to pick a few nits, “All the Way” director Jay Roach couldn’t be happier if they did. Roach was surprised in his own research to find that Johnson risked his own re-election to pass the most important civil rights legislation since the Civil War.
“I only hope the film sparks curiosity and when the credits [end], I hope they look at every biography and every documentary they can find,” Roach says. “That’s the true measure of success: How many are inspired by your work that they want to dig up some actual history?”