"We couldn't avoid the ridiculous irony that Robert Kardashian's introduction to the American public was when he read a suicide note on television"
If the first episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story: felt like a police procedural, the second episode is set around an epic chase. This week’s installment in the 10-part mini-series bringing the O.J. saga to life: the infamous Bronco chase.
Ninety million people watched as one of the most famous athlete in the world evaded police in a white Bronco on the 405 after he was supposed to turn himself in to police for a double homicide. Writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (who was actually driving on the 405 at the time of the interview) spoke with TIME about the infamous Bronco chase, that scene where the Kardashian children cheer on their father as he reads O.J.’s apparent suicide note and how they expect the audience’s sympathies to change over the course of the show.
TIME: You used Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson as source material for the show, in addition to other accounts. But for something like O.J.’s decision to try to escape in the Bronco, where everyone has an incentive to tell their own skewed version of the story, how do you find the truth?
Scott Alexander: Nobody was there 90% of the time, except for the people who were there. In the case of all the events in Kardashian’s house before O.J. jumped into the Bronco, it’s sourced in a few books and we have basic geography of O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) [being] woken up by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta); O.J. was in the living room when this doctor arrived; and this doctor and his nurse arrived; and this other doctor and this other nurse arrived. Then O.J. had a gun and then O.J. was writing a suicide note.
We know how the morning played out. Then it’s our job, as dramatists, to think about what everybody’s perspective was. We know Shapiro kept pushing off the cops. Everyone was getting more and more heated as the pressure was ramping up. That’s a solid foundation for Larry and I to try to write this crackling 10 minute sequence as things are just building and building and getting more and more emotional inside that house until O.J. finally flees.
In this episode, we get our first real moments with the Kardashian children. Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer) reads O.J.’s apparent suicide note on national television. When reporters ask how Kardashian’s name is pronounced the children chant at the TV: “Kar-dash-i-an.” How did you decide how much they would figure into the story?
Larry Karaszewski: The girls themselves are really only in, say, five minutes of the 10 hour miniseries. Robert Kardashian, their father, is a major, major character. He was O.J.’s best friend. He’s really at the heart of it. He’s one of the few people involved in the case who is involved for all the right reasons, in a sense. He’s a loyal friend. He’s a very religious man and O.J.’s his best pal, and O.J. looks at him and says he didn’t do it. He chooses to believe his friend and remain loyal to him. Part of the show is how he winds up being very conflicted over that.
In terms of the Kardashian empire, we also see one of the themes being the birth of 24 hour media and reality television. Certainly someone like Kato Kaelin or Faye Resnick—these are sort of the seeds of what reality television contains. People who became famous for no particular reason. Kato becoming that celebrity house guest and showing up on sitcoms and hosting Talk Soup.
We didn’t want to dwell on the Kardashian children but to leave them out of it, I think, would have been wrong as well. They were around for this case. To be a young child in the middle of this media circus, of turning on the TV and having your father’s initial appearance to the American public be during the Bronco chase where 90 million people were watching. Seeing the effect that had on their lives and their household, you can’t help but feel that maybe the germ of the Kardashian empire was planted at that moment. That growing up in this circus allowed them to navigate the circus that is currently happening in their TV show now.
Scott Alexander: We couldn’t avoid the ridiculous irony that Robert Kardashian’s introduction to the American public was when he read a suicide note on television, which is, really, not the flashiest way to become a celebrity. They’re so famous now, but we have to make sure to show [the] Kardashian family was not famous, that no one knew who this guy was. The whole time during the trial it was the Dream Team and they would list all these famous lawyers. The Dream Team was almost like a Marvel Comics of lawyers. Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)—oh, and Robert Kardashian. He was sort of like a B figure.
Toobin’s book takes the stance that O.J. is undeniably guilty. But the show remains ambiguous about who committed the crime. Why?
Larry Karaszewski: We came up with a phrase that we used in the writer’s room called the unraveling of certainty. That’s what Jeff Toobin’s book is: at the very beginning all this evidence points to one man. It points to O.J. Simpson, and it seems like an open and shut case. When all of America watched O.J. Simpson in that Bronco being chased on the 405, we never imagined a year later that he would be acquitted.
For us, it was about presenting all the evidence the police actually collected in a very matter-of-fact kind of way. Almost a Dragnet kind of way, that first episode. It opens with kind of a police procedural. Then over the next 10 hours you see that confidence of [prosecutor] Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and the DA’s office kind of erode. Basically, Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro and the entire defense team manages to pick apart the evidence piece by piece and you just see it kind of slipping away.
I think everybody already has their opinions about whether he did or not. I don’t think we’re going to change any of those opinions. For us it was more about examining how the verdict happened. And make people understand how the verdict happened, even if you didn’t agree with it.
Scott Alexander: Jeff wrote a very persuasive book. Jeff’s agenda was, “He did it—why did he get off?” I think we shifted that to, “The evidence was overwhelming—why did he get off?” We illustrate that by very fairly laying out a lot of really solid evidence in episode one, through the eyes of the cops and the prosecutors, which is, “Oh my God, this is more evidence than we’ve ever seen in a double murder.” Then, as Larry said, the defense chips away at it for the next nine episodes, undermining the jury’s confidence in it and possibly the audience’s confidence in it.
Did you think about where you wanted the audience’s sympathies to lie?
Larry Karaszewski: We felt it was our duty that if you come into the show thinking one thing about Marcia Clark you’re going to come out feeling differently about it. You’re going to understand what she had to go through. Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and Johnnie Cochran are very polarizing figures. Our job is to show the humanity in the decisions they made and why they did what they did.
Your audience is broad—from people who followed the whole trial to teenagers who weren’t even born at the time. How did you navigate making it both truthful and compelling for everyone watching?
Larry Karaszewski: When a lot of people approach true life material they treat it as manifest destiny. This is the way things happened so it had to happen that way. I think what Scott and I try to do is look at the minutia—at all the process that goes into people making a choice. There’s 1,000 different ways this trial could have spun off in different directions.
Scott Alexander: We take delight in finding the bizarre facts that we’re assuming nobody knows. Like the fact that Alan Dershowitz is actually faxing real-time trial suggestions from the middle of his legal class back at Harvard. His students had actually watched him make a note and then see it show up on Court TV, literally, three minutes later across the country.
Another example: Chris Darden mentions in his biography that his father advised him not to get involved with the O.J. trial, which we used in a scene in episode two. This is early days. This was when Chris has nothing to do with the trial, but his dad could see the big picture. It works as a great brushstroke: he has this warm relationship with a father whose advice he does not take, and he suffers the consequences.