O.J. Simpson during his years playing football at USC.

O.J. Simpson during his years playing football at USC.

Forty-six minutes into Episode 4 of Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary “O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” the director squares off with Barry Scheck, the defense attorney who discredited–or, at the very least, undermined–the State of California’s DNA evidence tying Simpson to the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

At the trial, Scheck was eloquent and convincing. “Missing blood. Coincidence? Corroboration,” he tells the jury. “Something is terribly wrong.” Now, more than 20 years later, Edelman wants him to reckon with his accomplishment.

Edelman: Do you believe that that blood was planted by the LAPD?

Scheck: Eh, you know, it’s not my job to believe or not believe…. Could the police officers in Los Angeles have, uh, planted evidence against Mr. Simpson in this case to improve their chances of winning? You know, there was certainly good evidence to support that hypothesis. …

Edelman: Just so I’m clear, you believe that all the blood evidence in the case–

Scheck: You know, you’re asking me this question, Do I believe, think… You know, it is not, not, the…because you’re, you’re…the… as you know from meticulously researching this case—and this has been written about—we presented, you know, sound arguments and evidence to explain each piece of evidence and how it got there. Uh, you know, I’m not omniscient.

Edelman asks Scheck a yes-or-no question and gets a long, rambling answer. It’s one of the great scenes in a nearly eight-hour documentary that’s been called a “masterpiece,” “a feat of tireless research, dogged interviewing and skillful editing” and one of the 50 greatest films by black directors. But it’s also a display of astonishing journalism and storytelling; Edelman so methodically makes the case for Simpson’s guilt that this scene, which is rather quiet, feels charged and climactic.

Not long ago, I talked to Edelman about the film, which gets its TV premiere Saturday night on ABC, with subsequent episodes following next week on ESPN.

(Note from Storyboard editor Kari Howard: Although a Russian correspondent at the L.A. Times once memorably compared me to “a doctor in the third year of the Great War,” able to lop off limbs with ease, I decided to let this go much longer than the standard 5 Questions format. Why? Because the Q&A illuminates not only an Olympian interviewing feat but also the issue of race in America, so vital to the national conversation today.)

 

You managed to make Barry Scheck, one of the most accomplished, respected defense attorneys in the world, look out of sorts. How and when did this happen? My understanding is you interviewed people for sometimes eight hours at a time.

His interview lasted only a couple hours, and the exchange was in the second hour. I don’t really have such a structured style. I know generally what to do or not do, in terms of when I lead up to things, but the whole point is just to get people comfortable enough to talk. I go where the conversation takes me.

When you prepared for the interview with Scheck, you did prodigious amounts of research. Did you also game out possible responses to your questions?

I don’t generally game out interviews. What I understood about Barry is he’s someone who had been reluctant to talk about O.J. and his own involvement with the case. He doesn’t do interviews about this—never has—and he was reluctant to do this one. I understood he was not going to be, let’s say, 100% forthcoming on some of the questions I was going to ask him.

Do you have a philosophy of interviewing?

The job of an interviewer is to prompt people to go to a place they didn’t even realize they were prepared to go to. I’m going to ask those things in your brain that aren’t actually in the forefront of your brain right now. If I don’t do that, then I’m just going to fail to get what I need. That’s essentially my philosophy. I want to make sure it’s conversational, that I’m not sitting there with a bunch of notes or questions in front of me. That just stunts the conversation.

You don’t have any questions in front of you?

I will write down pages and pages of questions—my crib sheet—and I will literally be working on them for the couple days before. That’s my way of working out my thoughts. I almost memorize them. My brain can go to places on a page and know the things that I wrote down. I have them up until the interview, and then I put them under the chair and I don’t look at them.

Was there ever a moment that truly surprised you?

I’ll give you an example. One case is [former police officer] Ron Shipp, whom I interviewed for obvious reasons. I didn’t know before I interviewed him was that he was a teenage football player who went to see the UCLA-USC game when he was 15 years old and then, a year later, ended up at a banquet where O.J. name-checked him! That just makes his character arc that much fuller. That was a revelation to me.

One thing that surprised me was interviewing Tom Lange, the detective who was in charge of the O.J. murder investigation. When he said, “I don’t think the cops who beat Rodney King should have been prosecuted,” that surprised me. In a way, that was like, really? Almost to the point of Are you sure this is what you mean? Is that what you want to say? Even if that’s what he feels, in his heart. I have no gotcha sensibility. I have no desire. In some ways, it was like, Are you sure that’s what you’re saying? Because I would like to think it’s probably not the best thing. It doesn’t make you look great for you to say that.

It made me realize that that’s probably representative of what other people in the LAPD felt. At the same time, I’m appreciative that someone is open and honest, and that’s what I want. The fact is, the irony obviously is that Lange, more than any other cop, is the one guy who was completely above the fray about everything when it came to the investigation itself. Tom Lange has a spotless record. He’s a good guy.

It seems like you talked to most people who you could have talked to, but obviously there are some exceptions, [including] Simpson. … Is it ever a blessing to not talk to somebody?

I think it’s a blessing not to talk to O.J. Because O.J., with everything you know about him—even having watched the film—you know that O.J. is compromised. He’s not a reliable narrator. The entire story is predicated upon a guy who has been saying one thing, and may have done another thing. His whole thing is about image. How am I going to penetrate that veneer? I don’t think I can. I’m not going to be the one who does that. This guy is 68 years old and he’s lived with himself for that long. If he did participate, then it becomes a different story, a different film. It would be you looking at this guy and trying to look at his face and understand what’s real or what’s not.

The fact is, there is tons of archival footage of him talking. It’s not like he’s not present in the movie. You get enough of who he is from all the archival footage to make a determination about him.

Did you have any kind of canned questions?

No. At the beginning, I did ask a lot of the people I interviewed, who were black, if they had ever been stopped or harassed by the cops. I didn’t know if that was something I was going to inject into the story. I think you feel your way around at the beginning, for things that might be devices, or might somehow work anecdotally. But beyond that, there weren’t, like, five questions I was asking everyone.

It’s not a Paris Review interview.

It’s not a Paris Review interview, and frankly, there is the one obvious question [Do you think O.J. did it?] you would think I would ask everybody in this story. I didn’t ask people that question. It’s almost like, what can you do to make people understand that this is not what you have done before? One way to do that is to not ask that question.

It’s strange to ask about a seven-and-a-half-hour movie, but are there any stories you wanted to tell and just couldn’t?

Yes, but not because of time. There were always rumors of drugs, cocaine use, and how much of it O.J. used during the ’70s and ’80s. I had some people talking about it, but not in a substantiated and fleshed out enough way to report in the film. It was more that that was part of his lifestyle during that time, and I was trying to present as full a portrait of him as possible. Could drugs and alcohol have contributed to incidents of abuse, for instance? Very possibly, but I don’t have any substantiation in that way. That would have been something that, if I could have just added that in a more real way, I would have.

Did your familiarity with the material enable you to notice when people were lying to you?

I don’t know if I got a sense of when people were flat-out lying. You have to be fair to people. Honestly, I don’t remember what I did yesterday. When you’re sitting with people who are recalling things, what I generally do—because people don’t remember details, or they talk very authoritatively about things—and when I know I have to report these things, I will stop them and say, “These are actually the correct details, so if you’re going to say this, be correct with your facts.”

By the way, if someone vaguely leads me down a path that I think is slightly avoidant and deviates from what I need to hear or that I’m actually trying to question them about, I will absolutely call it out. It’s about getting the things out of the people that you need. In some ways, that’s massaging versus hammering.

Why was it important for you to do all the interviews and not to delegate?

That’s what I do. It’s that simple. Everything is in my head. Look, I work with incredibly talented people, but the way I do interviews, it’s not structured. I always trust myself in terms of being able to mine the territory I need to mine to get what I know I want to get. And the things that excite me—I don’t know what excites someone else.

Frankly, as much as I trust somebody, if I fuck up somehow, that’s on me. I don’t really want to have to put that burden on someone else if something didn’t come back the way I hoped it to be. That’s not their responsibility; that’s mine.

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