‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Director John Singleton Reveals Scene That Made Him Cry

The People v O.J. American Crime Story Episodic and John Singleton Inset -Getty - H 2016
Ray Mickshaw/FX; Leon Bennett/WireImage/Getty Images

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fifth episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson, "The Race Card."]

When FX announced The People v. O.J. Simpson, director John Singleton knew he wanted in. As a self-professed “quintessential L.A. filmmaker,” who uses the city as his muse and remembers living through the original trial, he immediately reached out to executive producer Ryan Murphy and co., who welcomed him aboard.

Tuesday's episode is the end result of that journey. (Singleton was originally supposed to direct two episodes, but the timing conflicted with his other FX project, Snowfall.) In it, prosecutor Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) square off over the “n word,” while Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) makes a passionate speech about giving up his “blackness.” Meanwhile the entire jury has a chance to visit Simpson’s house, deftly redecorated to look “blacker” at the 11th hour.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Singleton about his original meeting with Simpson, the real "tension" between Darden and Cochran, and which scene brought him to tears.

Ryan Murphy and the other producers made a note of how much research you brought to the project. How deep did you dive in?

All I did was start reading and talking to the writers about that particular point in time for the episode. So I went back and read the Los Angeles Times article about when Johnnie Cochran and Chris Darden were squaring off. There were some things that weren’t in the script that were in that article. Like Darden standing up and sitting down, people getting really passionate. They can’t say anything because you can’t interrupt in front of the judge, and I wanted to find a way to make the whole courtroom interactive. Sometimes you have a lawyer speak and you stay with him and the interaction with the judge, but we had to see how everyone in the courtroom was reacting to what was being said in the small, specific ways. I didn’t want to make it seem like a legal thing, more like dueling teams of cowboys.

How did the cast react?

This cast was phenomenal. When I came to it, they were already entrenched in their roles and so I could just have fun with them. They could even improv in character. John Travolta doing small improvs as [Robert] Shapiro and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark  the first day we had to shoot there were hardly any lines as they were visiting O.J.’s house. I hardly knew the cast, there was hardly any rehearsal, and they just went. That scene in the backyard when they visit O.J.’s house  a lot of that is improv and a lot of that is the cast going on the fly in character. I felt like Tom Brady going up the field. It was only the second time I’d shot television, after shooting Empire last year.

What did you want to bring to the courtroom scene between Darden and Cochran?

I wanted the scene to have an ebb and flow where you didn’t know what was going to happen, you just knew there was a tension that you couldn’t cut in the room. That scene takes off really before they even get in the courtroom because Johnnie and Darden have an interaction outside the courtroom where Darden is coming to it from the standpoint of, “Hey, we’re peers and I hope we can have a mutual respect while we’re engaging with each other in battle.” But Johnnie was like, “Hey, I’m not your friend. I’m going to beat you and I’m here to win.” I wanted to do that in a way in which you saw that one guy is losing before he even comes up to the plate. Darden is looking at Johnnie as a peer and Johnnie is looking at him like, “I’m going to destroy you.” Did Johnnie Cochran really say that to Chris Darden right after he shot him down in court? Yes, he did. They’re not making it up, this is all heavily researched, this is all there.

Were there actual tears when you and Cuba Gooding Jr. reunited?

Cuba and I hadn’t worked together since Boyz n the Hood. The second scene we did together was when he was in jail and he had this emotional scene where O.J. explains why he decided to cross over in the way he did, in his attempt to transcend where he was from. Explaining why he considered himself not black and he’s O.J.  Cuba’s doing this scene and he’s holding back the tears in character, and I’m right there behind the camera and I started crying. He comes off the set and then he starts crying and we just went into the corner and it was like, “Man, we started this journey together.” Literally. We are the same age. We started on Boyz n the Hood 25 years ago. His birthday is only a few days before mine. It was very much an emotional journey for me because it was a fun, seat-of-your-pants kind of thing. I got the chance to really get down and work with some really cool people.

Were there any particular scenes you felt pressure to get right?

I don’t know if I felt pressure as much as I felt like I wanted to elevate what they had already done in a very stellar way. I look at television as the closest thing you can do as a director to the old studio system where there is an established look and feel for whatever show. When you come onto a show, the look is already established. So I had to look and see what Ryan had done in the first two episodes and what [director] Anthony Hemingway had carried on, and asked, “How can I, within this framework, bring some type of my own thing to it?” That’s what was fun for me. I was able to do something that was in line with what they established look-wise but I was able to tweak it a little bit. They had no problem with that. Ryan just said to make sure it was interesting and to stick with the story. He was teaching me television, I was learning television from Ryan Murphy. He’s my television mentor now.

What was O.J. Simpson like years ago when you met him?

He was on this HBO show called 1st and 10, which was one of my first jobs when I was in college. He was in Santa Monica leaving the set and I got a chance to meet and talk with him. He was really a larger-than-life figure. He seemed more of a politician than he did a football player or even a person. You meet a politician and they have these glazed eyes… they’re engaging but they’re so used to engaging people all the time. He lived a life that few people could live. He was Mr. Santa Monica; he really was the Mayor of Brentwood.

What are your personal memories of the time of the trial?

I remember being intrigued by how black O.J. became after he was accused of murdering his wife. Black people had written him off. They knew O.J. Simpson wasn’t thinking about them and they weren’t thinking about O.J. Simpson. But then this thing came about and all of a sudden he became someone that I guess the community felt they needed to defend, even though he had kind of left the community a long time ago. He became somebody that was a brother regardless of where the journey had taken him. It was interesting how he transitioned into blackness within the trial.

The People v. O.J. Simpson airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling