The Frame

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Why a manipulated magazine photo plays a pivotal role in 'The People v. OJ Simpson'

by Michelle Lanz and John Horn | The Frame

Side-by-side comparison of Newsweek and Time covers, which were on newsstands the same day. Time/Newsweek

The new FX series, "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," is one of the most anticipated shows to debut this year. Based on Jeffrey Toobin's book, "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson," the series follows both the behind-the-scenes and televised drama from what has become known as the trial of the 20th Century. 

Writing team Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander are no strangers to fictionalizing true stories. Their past work includes the films "The People vs. Larry Flint," "Ed Wood" and "Man in the Moon," but their latest project took on a scope they had never previously tackled.

"Basically every script had to be vetted whenever Fox had a problem [with] where we got that specific line, where we got that specific thought ...We know the lawyers at studios more than we know the development people, because we always have to deal with them," Karaszewski says. 

Karaszewski and Alexander join The Frame's John Horn to talk about how gender played into the trial, the strange timeliness of the series, and how they got to know Fox's lawyers very well. 

Interview Highlights:

Over the course of your research, what changed about how you viewed the events of the trial?

Scott Alexander: Marcia Clark and Bob Shapiro and Johnny Cochran and Chris Darden and Robert Kardashian — they became living people who are having a lot of their own personal difficulties during the trial. And so as opposed to being, Oh, another good day for the defense! on Court TV. And, Oh, another bad day for Marcia Clark! Oh my god, this poor woman filed for divorce three days before the murders. And then suddenly the biggest case on the planet gets dropped in her lap. And she's juggling divorce court with the criminal court. What does that do, when you're a single working mom and you've got this spotlight on you, and you've got so many balls in the air? These are the sort of things I don't think we were talking about at all back in 1994-'95. 

Larry Karszewski: Yeah, it is funny. In the O.J. Simpson case, people always bring up race issues, class issues. But very few people look at the gender issues. Where Marcia Clark was put under such a different kind of scrutiny than everybody else. F. Lee Bailey was not getting stories written about his hairstyles. Or, My goodness, F. Lee Bailey looks like a frump today! He should lighten up! That kind of stuff never happened...But Marcia did. And this created a bit of a crisis for her. 

So as you are watching what's happening in the world, in Ferguson and New York, you've got to be both a little bit appalled, and I've got to say, a little bit emboldened by the premise that what you're writing about, even though it's a period story from 20 years ago, is suddenly more relevant than you could have imagined.

Alexander: We did take advantage of hindsight, in terms of what the trial became. It started as a trial about two innocent victims on Bundy [Street] and it turned into a referendum on the LAPD's terrible history with the African-Americans of Los Angeles. And so, Larry and I decided — I mean this was three years ago — we decided to plant the flag right off the bat. When we sold our pitch to Fox, we said, "We're opening with the Rodney King beating."  

Karszewski: We didn't realize how torn from today's headlines the actual series would be. Because three years ago, we didn't know. Are we too late? Did people even care about the O.J. Simpson case? Are we too early? Are people still sick of hearing so much about it? But we happened to hit this zeitgeist at the right moment. Certainly, what has happened with the police and the African-American community is at the top of the list.

Jeffrey Toobin's book is 466 pages, so you have a lot of material. But I want to talk about a small scene in the third episode. And it involves an illustrator named Matt Mahurin. He doctored the mug shot of O.J. Simpson for the cover of Time magazine to make him look dark and a little bit more ominous. It's fewer than five full paragraphs in the book. But it's a pivotal scene in the miniseries. How did you seize upon that section and decide to make it almost the centerpiece of the third episode?

Karszewski: It's a fantastic question. Because we saw that as the first turning point where America started discussing O.J. Simpson in terms of racial politics. O.J. is kind of famous for saying, "I'm not black, I'm O.J." So people, that first week, looked at O.J. as a  celebrity. It was more of a celebrity murder. Time magazine wanted to run O.J.'s mugshot on their cover. They were worried that by the time their weekly came out, everyone will have seen this mugshot. Let's do something artistic with it. So they gave it to this illustrator.

Alexander: He was an early digital manipulator. He had a computer before anybody else. So he gave it a film noir kind of tint. Well what Time magazine didn't know was that Newsweek was going to run the identical mug shot, same size, hitting the newsstands the same day, without altering it. 

So side by side it made Time's illustration look that much more dramatic.

Alexander: If Newsweek hadn't run the mugshot unaltered, nobody would have noticed.

Karszewski: Right, but what you did was you walked up to the newsstand and you saw these two images. And there was no other takeaway except, Oh my gosh, Time magazine made O.J. blacker. And what does that mean? Black is more sinister? More guilty? And it actually started that discussion. And we use that as a way for Robert Shapiro, who after that first week after the Bronco chase — he's drowning. Him seeing that in our miniseries gives him the sort of initial idea of, Wait a second. Maybe there's daylight here. Maybe there's something that can be done with this.

I love the way you brought that up in context with Jeffrey's book. This is a great illustration of the kind of work that Scott and I do on all our projects. You might be the first person to ever go back and notice it — the idea that five paragraphs in a non-fiction book that kind of just lay something out, we can look at it and figure out how to turn that into drama.

I want to talk about the overall tone of the miniseries. Ryan Murphy, one of your collaborators, has what I will call his own sensibility. He does shows like "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck." And you have your own cinematic history. You've worked with directors like Miloš Forman and Tim Burton. How do you find a common ground in which to work?

Alexander: Larry and I were basically just going to do our "Scott and Larry tone," which we've done in our features. It's this mix of serious drama, high tragedy, social satire, weird jokes, but always sort of taking the issues seriously. And we like that mix because we don't think life is a comedy or life is a drama; life is always a mixture of these things. So we just wrote the tone we wanted. When Ryan read our first couple scripts and said, "Wow, I'd love to come aboard," he talked about what we were going for. We started referencing "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network" as sort of the ideals for the kind of tone we saw this as. I mean, it also has a lot in common with "The People vs. Larry Flynt" in terms of its tone.

But "Dog Day Afternoon" is also about the way this real-life bank hostage drama is unfolding in front of the media

Karszewski: Yes, and that's what our story is too, but Ryan totally got it. He instantly understood what we were going for and he became the biggest champion. Scott and I had never done television before, so we wrote a 10-hour movie. We weren't even thinking about budgets and things like this, and Ryan Murphy was able to ... make this done on a scale that was rarely seen on television and assembled this cast that was unbelievable. 

Alexander: Like he said, we were writing it just like a movie. If it had been anybody else but Ryan, somebody would have come to their senses and said, You guys are not going to shut down a freeway. You guys are not going to have 300 speaking parts. It's crazy how much is in episodes 1 and 2. 

Did you guys look at this as the first reality show?

Alexander: Absolutely. Kato [Kaelin] and Faye Resnick are the poster children for the beginning of reality TV in that Kato became so famous! Twenty years later you [ask], Who is Kato? And my kids say, "Who's that blond guy?" And I [say], "Well, he became really famous because he lived in O.J.'s backyard." Which is really odd, but it's sort of an emblem for reality television. 

As you're writing about real people and a real event, what characters were the hardest to find the voice for? 

Alexander: We tried our best to not make up anything, to try to adhere to who the real people are, but just to grab a character, we probably had the most fun with [Gil] Garcetti.

Like when he comes in and goes, "I was gonna run for mayor," which is kind of like the "Airplane!" line: "I picked a bad day to give up drinking." 

Alexander: Exactly, it's this District Attorney who seems to run a building that was built on haunted Indian burial grounds. And he just cannot seem to catch a break. The line you mentioned ... it's a funny line, he did have plans to run for mayor and, it's inside baseball, because his son is now the mayor of our city. 

Press the play button above to hear the entire interview.

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