Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary O.J.: Made in America rolls into Oscar weekend as the unexpected favorite to win the Best Documentary Feature category. It’s nearly unprecedented for a movie of its longform size (the running time in over seven hours) to, first of all, be seen by enough Academy voters, much less nominated. (Read my defense of the film’s eligibility here.)
But the film tapped into — indeed, fueled — the zeitgeist issues of true crime, race, celebrity, and justice. It premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and never dropped from the cultural conversation, as audiences caught up with the multi-part film via streaming services such as iTunes or in all-day theatrical binge screenings.
Producer and first-time Oscar nominee Caroline Waterlow (she and Edelman were co-producers on 2013 nominee Cutie and the Boxer) chatted with EW before the Oscars to talk about the class of 2016, digging through the past, and, in regards to recent news surrounding the potential of Simpson’s parole, not predicting the future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There have been reports this week about the possibility of O.J. Simpson’s parole from prison this summer. What kind of world do you expect he’s going to reenter if he does actually get out?
CAROLINE WATERLOW: Well, in terms of a larger cultural commentary, that’s not my place to say. My role was to figure out how to go about tackling something like this story, which is so comprehensive and had so many moving parts. Obviously, the issues come up in terms of the culture today: How would that trial play now? How would the media coverage be different? Attitudes have not changed that much in terms of, say, race or domestic violence. We talk about them differently and maybe a little more, but we haven’t solved these problems. Though I can’t speculate on the parole thing. I know nothing more than he’s up for it.
What do you think caused this cultural vogue in the last year around O.J.? There was your documentary and the FX show, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
I think the 20th anniversary had something to do with it. We all look to anniversaries to reflect, and the 20th anniversary [in 2014] of the murders and of the trial verdict [in 2015] were in the ether. And certainly in terms of celebrity culture and reality shows, that trial is often referenced as the birth of some of that. And it felt right to have some hindsight and look back. That was the motivating energy for us.
The last hour or 90 minutes of your film, which follow O.J. after the acquittal and his move to Florida and then the Las Vegas robbery, is to me the most eye-opening. What was your most surprising discovery while doing all of the research?
For me, I agree, everything that happened post-trial is strange and sad and kind of amazing to see. It’s also the part of the film that was the least known because people felt drained after the criminal and civil trial and had lost track of him. And we’re watching O.J. negotiate through the world in this whole new way he’s being received. Especially in what he thought was his community in Brentwood.
There are interesting echoes in the end, back to the beginning of the film.
Exactly. So probably the most surprising discovery for me was in the early, civil rights era section of the film. I never really knew what O.J. was doing at that time. People certainly knew of the civil rights history of Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the activist-athletes. When our film came out, it was literally a week after Muhammad Ali had died. That was an interesting reference point. O.J. had been approached to be an activist but had chosen a different path — which, at the time, made him a pioneer in his own way, representing these large, mainstream white corporations.
And for audiences who only know him from the trial, it’s incredible to watch and enjoy his charm and screen presence in that earlier era.
Oh yeah, definitely. And especially what a beautiful athlete he was. That was important from the beginning. We had to spend time with him in those early days so you understand the power he had. He was so beloved. If you picture yourself watching TV in 1975, there were only a handful of channels, and O.J. might have been on all of them. He might have been commentating and playing football and acting in a TV movie and appearing in a Hertz commercial. That doesn’t exist today with anyone.
What does it mean to have gotten the Oscar nomination?
When you’re nominated, it’s by your peers in the documentary branch, so obviously that’s a huge honor. And I love the camaraderie about the whole thing. We feel like we’re part of the class of 2016, along with remarkable films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures and so many other films that are showing a different history and diversity of experience in America.
Plus, there’s the fact that your film is an unorthodox nominee, given its length.
You know, when you make historical docs, people are always saying, “Cut it down, no one wants to watch something so long.” So I think it’s encouraging that in our tweeting, emailing, quick post-reading era, people actually want the sustenance of something that’s deeper and lengthier. And anyway, two-screen activity is the norm now, isn’t it? A phone and a TV screen, always! [Laughs.]
Have you given any thought to what you might say if you win?
Hmm, well I think Ezra will be the one to speak on behalf of the film, but I know we both feel nervous about thinking about something that hasn’t happened. But he always handles these moments well, so I’ll trust him to say the right thing, if the moment arrives. And if you’re given the moment and you have that stage and you’ve made a film that deals with important American cultural issues, then you should say something that reflects the film.
Are you joining Edelman for his next project, reported to be the Richard Jewel biopic starring Jonah Hill?
I’m not, no. We certainly hope to work together again, but I have three or four things I’m trying to develop, documentaries and also something scripted. So I figure: Now’s the time. Let’s do it.