Filmmaker Ezra Edelman initially wasn’t interested in rehashing the O. J. Simpson trial; that subject was played out, picked over. But Edelman soon realized that there were as-yet unexplored angles to the story, and agreed to work on a documentary for ESPN. Edelman spent the next year and a half creating “O.J.: Made in America,” the eight-hour, five-part documentary series that just brought ESPN Films its first Oscar nomination, for documentary feature.
Rather than focusing on the trial, writer-director Edelman took the opportunity to weave a narrative that is part history lesson, stretching back to the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, part analysis of Simpson’s rise to fame and fall, viewed through the prism of L.A.’s race relations; and under it all runs the familiar thread of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
“O.J.: Made in America” premiered at Sundance almost exactly a year ago, drawing instant acclaim. It showed at the Tribeca Film Festival, and had a theatrical run that qualified it for this year’s Oscars, before airing on ABC and ESPN in June as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. That puts “O.J.” in the fairly exclusive club of documentary features that will likely score an Emmy nomination as well as getting a nod from the AMPAS — nine others have double dipped since 2010. It is also the longest “feature” ever nominated in that category, at a whopping 467 minutes (or 7.8 hours).
“We set out to make a movie we knew would be long, but then Ezra kept gathering all this incredible material,” ESPN Films senior vice president and “30 for 30” co-creator Connor Schell tells Variety. The length grew until all parties were satisfied the complete picture was being painted, which included information from some 72 interviews.
ESPN wasn’t looking to make an Oscar contender, Schell added. “We never really considered what the awards strategy would be. It was always like, ‘Can we make something meaningful and powerful and relevant that people will talk about?’ The fact that a year after we premiered it at Sundance people still want to talk about it and recognize Ezra for what he created… that’s what you dream of when you set out to tell a story.”
Given the success of “O.J.,” will ESPN be teaming up with Edelman again soon? “I hope so,” Schell says.”He’s a brilliant guy and a thoughtful storyteller, director, producer.”
“O.J.: Made in America” comes from Laylow Films and ESPN Films, produced by Edelman, Schell, Caroline Waterlow, Tamara Rosenberg, Nina Krstic, Deirdre Fenton, Libby Geist, and Erin Leyden and distributed by ESPN Films.