Ezra Edelman shares tales of producing “O.J.: Made in America”

When Ezra Edelman ’96, the Academy Award-winning director and producer, was approached by his bosses at ESPN to create a five-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson, he was floored, as he had never made anything that long. But when he was done with “O.J.: Made in America,” it would be nearly eight-hours long.

During a campus talk on Sept. 27, Edelman told the dozens of people gathered at Whitney Humanities Center for the screening of the third part of the film that he thought the documentary depicted “the fundamental American story.” It was a story of “race, class, sex, celebrity, violence, criminal justice, media — it’s everything.” His talk was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

Wednesday’s post-film Q&A—led by Matthew Jacobson, the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History and professor of African American studies, and Charles Musser, professor of American studies, film and media studies, and theater studies —capped off three days of screening the successive parts of the film. For over an hour, Edelman spoke with students and community members about the grueling process of creating such a behemoth of a film, particularly one so fraught with racial politics.

Edelman reflected on his experience trying to create a film that addressed Simpson’s historic 1995 trial but was not “solely grounded in the story of O.J. Simpson.” He wanted it to be “bigger than just this thing,” and he admitted that the challenge was daunting. “If the balance was off in some way” — if the material was not presented in a way that allowed viewers to understand the broader racial context of the trial — “it wouldn’t work,” Edelman said.

In the film, created as part of ESPN’s acclaimed “30-for-30” documentary series, Edelman tells the story of Simpson’s life, beginning long before the infamous allegation that he killed his wife and her friend in 1994. But the film also tells the story of race in America, particularly in Los Angeles, including Rodney King’s beating by police and the subsequent riots. Edelman told the audience that he wanted to reframe Simpson for “people younger than 30 who had no idea that O.J. was something but an alleged murderer.” He added that he felt a duty to educate the public and engage people with these difficult themes.

When Jacobson asked Edelman to explain his process of conducting interviews and doing research, the Yale alumnus gave insight into the dedication that it takes to create an eight-hour film. “I do not do things on the fly at all,” Edelman answered. He said he couldn’t afford to be unprepared for his interviews (78 in all), which ranged from two to six-and-a-half hours.

Edelman discussed the challenge of working with people with no knowledge of the effort involved in the creation of a documentary. For example, he and his team showed up at the home of one of the jurors from the 1995 trial for a planned interview only to find her in the middle of painting her house. She had totally forgotten about the interview. Yet they waited, because her story was worth sharing, he said

Many potential interviewees told Edelman that they “don’t ever want to talk about it again,” he said. So he and his team tried hard not to waste people’s time — they showed up prepared, with a pitch for why sources should tell their story to “this stranger” making a film for a national platform. Edelman didn’t approach Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the case, until over a year into the process. “Anyone you’re approaching [must] understand that you’ve done your homework,” Edelman explained.

Edelman expressed gratitude about the success of the film. “It’s brought me into a life space that I never could’ve imagined,” he said, adding that it’s been “transformative.”

When asked about future opportunities, Edelman said he wouldn’t discuss what he’s working on because he’s “superstitious.” But he acknowledged that he is working on something. 

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