W. Kamau Bell's Producers Talk Booking the KKK, 'O.J. Is Innocent' and E's Scientology-Tinted Drama
"Like any other group, the Klan really likes publicity."
CNN debuted their latest original series on Sunday night. And the nearly 900,000 viewers that tuned into the first episode of United Shades of America might have been surprised to see host W. Kamau Bell sitting down with various members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The intentionally uncomfortable exploration of race in America is just the tip of the awkward iceberg for producers at Objective Media Group. The stateside arm of the U.K. production house also has a docuseries supporting O.J. Simpson's innocence in the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman — an unpopular opinion, to be sure — and a scripted drama at E! that echoes one of Scientology's most famous pairings on deck in 2016.
Objective Media Group America executive vp Jimmy Fox and global CEO Layla Smith recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the ambitious and divisive U.S. slate and how it fits into the strategy to grow their American business.
How did the collaboration with Bell come about?
Fox: When I joined Objective in February of 2014, one of the first meetings I had was a lunch with the team at CNN. I really wanted to tackle race relations in our country ... similar to what they did with Anthony Bourdain, Morgan Spurlock and Lisa Ling and really have our host be a fish out of water. By coincidence, they were already having conversations with Kamau. It was kind of an arranged marriage, but it seemed like we both had the same idea of what kind of tone we wanted to hit — something that would be more comedic than what CNN had done before and make sure that the audience saw a new side of Kamau. One of the first things we asked was, "Can we can have him go down and interact with the Klan?" So that was our pilot.
How do you book a sit-down between the Klan and black talent?
Fox: You would be surprised. Like any other group, the Klan really likes publicity. I think the most shocking thing we learned once we got down there is that they all have websites that they wanted to promote. The Klan feels right now that they’re going under a rebranding. When we first called them, we didn't tell them that our host was African-American. Once we had them interested in the show and the network, we told them, look, what better way for you to promote that you are rebranding than to sit down and have a conversation with Kamau? We didn't lead off with it, I'll tell you that much.
And Bell was game for this?
Fox: Kamau was more than game for it. He knew that the best episodes were going to be those where he feels uncomfortable. It's amazing to watch in the field how he conducted himself. When we showed up to the compound, we were greeted by masked individuals with semi-automatic machine guns. We were there to shoot our cross-lighting scene — they call it a cross lighting, not a cross burning — and Kamau just has this ability to disarm anybody. There are moments in the episode where you forget, for just the briefest of moments, that this is an African-American gentleman talking to a Klansman. They get on these subjects where they actually find some common ground. That's where the comedy lies.
Speaking of uncomfortable, you guys are producing Hard Evidence: O.J. Is Innocent for Investigation Discovery. How much skepticism has there been about the project?
Fox: I think we were all skeptical when the project came our way. I sat down with my agents and told them I wanted to do a serialized true-crime show. I recently came across a book by this author who, for the last 20 years, has investigated the O.J. Simpson case and feels that it was not O.J. and actually somebody else who committed the murder. The evidence he has is telling, no matter what you believe. The author of the book, Bill Dear, was just in their offices with Martin Sheen wanting to turn it into a TV show. Everybody we talked to had some skepticism — that's what makes Bill's evidence all the more compelling after you hear the full pitch.
Has he made any believers out of you guys or your colleagues?
Fox: Every time that we sat at a pitch meeting or saw one of his presentations, he'd ask for a show of hands of people who think O.J. Simpson is guilty. Everybody in the meetings will raise their hands. As he gives this presentation, he provides the hard evidence that he's collected over 20 years. Then he asks to see a show of hands of people that believe that O.J. may not have actually been behind it, and there will be a staggering number of hands that are raised. People buy into this theory. People weren't as sure as they were coming into the room once they heard the evidence. It's completely compelling.
What other kind of programming do you want to see Objective doing in the U.S.?
Smith: I think what's been really interesting is that Jimmy got The Arrangement. It's a massive deal, a scripted project from scratch.There was no mission statement or specific priority when Jimmy came on board, but we want to be doing all these things really well and then hiring the best talent.
Fox: I was groomed by Ben Silverman. I was on his desk at NBC his entire time as the chairman. The reason I wanted to work for him in the first place was because I knew I always wanted to work on both sides, scripted and reality. That's what we did at Electus. And moving forward, I can develop whatever I want in both unscripted and scripted. The Arrangement was one of the first things I developed when I got here, something that I had pitched directly to the network. Together we found Jonathan Abrahams, the writer to bring it to life.
A lot of people are referring to it as the "non-Scientology Scientology show." How are you distancing it from the church?
Fox: What we knew is that E! wanted to start developing dramas that were a little bit darker than The Royals. They wanted stuff that still had a little bit of soapiness, they wanted serialized and they wanted stuff with Hollywood backdrops. The thought of Hollywood and studios in organizations owning and controlling and arranging relationships among the actors is as old as the story of Hollywood itself. I can tell you that we drew on a lot of stories when were developing the pitch. Obviously, one specific relationship people will probably identify with the most, but I think when you see the pilot and eventually the series, we try to write away from those obvious comparisons as much as possible.
Smith: The headlines are probably there — but when you watch the pilot, it just does not feel like something that's trying to represent a specific story.
You also have a reality show with Jodie Sweetin, Christine Lakin and Beverley Mitchell. How much of an appetite is there for nostalgia right now in unscripted?
Fox: Now that people in their mid-30s are at high-ranking positions at networks, they are in the position to buy shows featuring people that they grew up on. That's part of it, and I feel like there's just more platforms than ever to give people opportunities in different styles of stories they're telling. For me, as a 34-year-old guy who grew up having crushes on all of these girls, it was a dream project to put together. We did a pilot at one cable network, it got passed on, but then we shopped it around and Pop stepped up and gave us eight episodes.