Watch any segment of ESPN’s brilliant O.J. Simpson documentary, O.J.: Made in America, and it’s immediately clear why it’s already being called “a master opus.” Or a “masterpiece.” Or even a “masterwork of scholarship, journalism, and cinematic art.”
Clear to everyone, that is, other than the film’s director and writer Ezra Edelman. “It’s been a weird five months,” the filmmaker recently told the Observer, referring to the potent buzz building since Made in America‘s Sundance debut. “Actually, the word I’ve been repeatedly using has been ‘strange.’ And that’s the only thing I can say, is that this is all strange.”
The film–meticulously dripped out over five parts and seven-and-a-half hours–is the anti-American Crime Story, focusing not just on the “trial of the century” but on, seemingly, every single other aspect surrounding it. It’s as exhaustive as it is emotionally exhausting, an accidental classic from an immensely talented storyteller originally more interested in the challenge of a seven hour film than in the subject O.J. Simpson himself.
As we talked with Edelman on a wooden bench outside Greene Grape Annex in Brooklyn, the city of New York passed us by–joggers beat the pavement, cars idled at the curb, a woman tied the leash of her small dog to the bench’s leg–all unaware of their proximity to the man behind the most compelling documentary film in years. Exactly the way he prefers it.
Observer: Can you describe your reaction to the critical reception? You’ve said in the past originally you didn’t have much of an interest in O.J. Simpson.
Ezra Edelman: There’s a lot of stuff in the film, and it’s a big film about a lot of things, but it wasn’t something that was a driving passion for me going back years where I was trying to get this thing made. Or a situation where I had this vision on my own and this is the culmination of that vision after years and years of work.
It doesn’t make me any less proud of the film and all the work that we did. But you realize that, in some ways, it was work. And so you want people to be into your work, and in that way the response has been incredible. But I don’t have a message I’m trying to impart. I want as many people to see the film as possible, that’s my goal, but in so far as something beyond that where I think the world needs to hear from me personally? The world doesn’t need to hear from me. I believe that.
Were there moments where that was unavoidable? Interjecting a bit of yourself into the film?
Look, just as it’s impossible to divorce your worldview from anything you do, and the fact that this story as opposed to pretty much any other story you could take on is about one’s worldview, in that way I was no different from anybody else. I had my opinions, but I also realized because of how divisive the topic is, how people responded to it at the time and even henceforth, the thing that I really focused on was not bringing an agenda to the process. It’s less the sort of specific opinions I might have had and more that who I am fundamentally speaks to why the film is the way it is, and why we explored the themes we chose to explore.
Can you think of a moment where someone you interviewed took you down a completely unexpected path?
I think so much of this story is on the record, almost like overly so, so you know there is not going to be a lot of deviation. I would say the surprises were when people went to places they haven’t before.
So like with Ron Shipp, you know he’s a cop and he’s friends with O.J. and he testified against him. But I didn’t know the extent of his story as a 15-year-old that went to see O.J. at a USC game. I didn’t know he went to a banquet a year later and O.J. name-checked him. It’s those little things where you perk up, that is as important in terms of the character development that I’m trying to do. O.J. ends up being a more resonant character because of that.
I think that’s part of what people are responding to, that portion of time spent painting OJ as more than just a villain.
He’s not just a villain. Let’s just take the presumptive narrative–“Oh, he’s a villain. Oh, he’s a monster”–why? Because you think he is? He’s a lot of things, and he was a lot of things before you knew him to be a villain. Frankly, I think you miss the entire story if that’s how you choose to portray him.
“If someone doesn’t want to engage with how great O.J. once was, how charismatic he once was, how culturally impactful he once was, that’s not my problem.”
I wasn’t wholly interested in coming up with some defining truth about O.J.. I don’t believe I can do that, or anybody can do that. I don’t even know if he can do that himself. I think with O.J. you have to understand that everything is much more complicated. Those who want to merely portray him as merely a villain–and I keep saying villain, or monster–is something where they’re uncomfortable trying to engage with the fact people once loved him, once cheered for him. As much as it’s a product of his talent and ambition–which, it’s a lot of that too–if someone doesn’t want to engage with how great O.J. once was, how charismatic he once was, how culturally impactful he once was, that’s not my problem. But you’re not telling the story. And so then we’ll remain in this place where people just go “It’s just this. This is why this happened.”
I love how the film handles the idea of celebrity, and this very American idea of putting a face on everything. I’m curious about your thoughts on celebrity, especially now that this film has sort of inadvertently sent your name into the public eye.
I pray that I have not seen a real bit of celebrity culture [laughs]. I will say, the notion of obligation, and the notion of being on, changes a little bit. And if you’re not someone who is built for that, like O.J. was, it can be difficult. I’m talking about a very specific moment of my existence where, all of a sudden, I’m having to engage and talk. I have a lot more sympathy for those in the public eye, people who have to be charming, and witty, and not fuck up because they’re tired, or they just don’t want to be there.
Just piggybacking off what you said, why would you decide to tell a more complete story about someone most people just think of as a villain? Explain to me why people are coming up to a guy everyone thinks of as a villain and wanting to shake his hand, or get his autograph. What does that say about the culture of celebrity, where just by proximity to somebody whose been on TV you want to touch him? The fuck is that all about?
I think the O.J. trial was such a specific moment in time, where celebrity and race and crime and everything was in such a strange place. I think the film captures that.
I also think it would be a somewhat masturbatory exercise to go talk about those things for the sake of talking about them.I actually think all the stuff that’s in the film is is purposeful to the story at large, feeding into the murder and the trial, and the various people invested in the trial, as well as a study of O.J. as a person.
At what point did you realize the response was going to be something more than you imagined?
I felt very validated by it being shown at Sundance. And validated specifically because it wasn’t like they said “We get you’re doing this thing. We’ll play an episode.” No, they watched the whole thing, and that’s how they showed it. I never had a film play at Sundance, let alone a seven hour film.That was the first time I felt like maybe we’ve done something that’s working on a level we hadn’t realized.
It’s really hard for me to say this and not sound like a killjoy. A lot of people that know me, and care about me, have said “We thought you’d enjoy this.” But it’s hard for me. Because I can understand this is once in a lifetime experience for me. I’ve never made anything like this before, and I can tell you right now I’ll never make another eight hour documentary. And I imagine that this won’t ever happen again. Not even in a negative way, just that this feels unique in the way it’s being absorbed. So when people say “Enjoy it,” they’re right. I should enjoy it. But I’m just built that way.
“The fact is in the end we’re sitting here having a conversation about something that wouldn’t exist if two people hadn’t been brutally murdered.”
Can you point to any specific reason?
The weight of the material is such that it belies enjoyment. It’s a heavy topic. Yes, I love that people are engaging with the work we did, I love that people are being thoughtful about it. I’m blown away by people watching it and saying “I never though of it that way before.” That is overwhelming in a great way. But that is really different from really enjoying it. Because it is so fraught, all of this, that I take this conversation very seriously. I’d like to enjoy it, but the fact is in the end we’re sitting here having a conversation about something that wouldn’t exist if two people hadn’t been brutally murdered.
Stories like this–like Making a Murderer, or Serial–do have that strange double-edged sword of making entertainment out of tragedy. I’m wondering how cognizant you were throughout the process that, on some level, you needed to make this topic “entertaining?”
Every time I’ve made any film I’ve been very conscious of entertainment, or at least engagement. You can tell a good story and you can educate. This is no different. It is important that via footage, via characters, via music, via all these tools you have at your disposal to make this entertainment. I never lose sight of that. But that’s between me philosophically and how Bret [Granato], Ben [Sozanski] and Maya [Mumma] our editors being aware you got to keep it moving. Especially something that is this long, you can’t rest for a moment. Because as soon as you do, if someone feels like they can put it down, they’re not picking it back up again.
In doing so, was there any moments where you had to divorce your working senses from your moral ones? I keep thinking of those crime scene photos in part 4, which is engaging and gruesome at the same time.
There are a lot of moments in the film where, if I were as emotionally engaged every time I saw the footage as if I was seeing it for the first time, there is zero way I could do this. I think there’s a necessary way that I had to emotionally disconnect from a lot of things to focus on telling the story. A question that I’ve tried to work out is how all this stuff has deeply, emotionally affected me because I turned it off. And I’m sure there’s dangers in that as well because, again, as entertaining as you want a film to be you also want it to have emotional resonance. So how can you keep track of whether it’s emotionally resonant if you’ve seared the ability to feel what it is emotionally? I don’t have an answer to that.
O.J. Made in America can be streamed via the ESPN app. Part four premieres Friday, July 17, at 9 PM on ESPN.
[This interview has been edited and condensed]