Interview: Joe Robert Cole on the Craziness of ‘American Crime Story’ and Real-Life Inspirations for ‘Black Panther’
Posted on Monday, August 15th, 2016 by Fred Topel
In light of its 14 Emmy nominations, FX had a second Television Critics Association panel for The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story after introducing the show in January. Among the panelists were Joe Robert Cole, a screenwriter who wrote pivotal episodes five and eight, chronicling the jurors’ visit to the crime scene and their epic sequestration.
After the panel, FX had a cocktail reception with its talent and we got to speak with Cole one-on-one. Cole is currently at work on the Black Panther film screenplay with co-writer/director Ryan Coogler. Cole shared in-depth details about his O.J. Simpson juror research and was open to discussing his approach to Black Panther.
Where did you begin with the wealth of stories about the jury sequestering?
Well, it’s interesting because everybody surrounding the case was the star of their own movie in a lot of ways, including several of the jurors. The forewoman wrote a book with two other jurors and then there were two or three other jurors on the jury who had gotten booted off who also wrote this. I found the jury fascinating because, having done a lot of research, I felt like they were vilified in a way because of the verdict without people realizing the circumstance that they had gone through. It was the longest sequestration in American history. From the selection to the verdict was a year. So these people were stuck on one floor of a hotel for a year with people they didn’t know. Everyone’s talking about the case. They were not allowed to talk about the case. They were not allowed to see their family except for conjugal visits and they were not able to watch cable news which told many of us what really was going on. They only got the evidence that was there in the courtroom. They also had to weigh Mark Fuhrman pleading the fifth and weigh all these things that create reasonable doubt. So the thing that drew me to them was this idea of trying to understand, look through the lens of where they were coming from and understand who they were. So it just drew me to it, so I started reading their books. Since everyone wrote a book, I read probably 10 books for research so I ended up reading all the jury books because I was fascinated by their plight. It was absurd. There was so much craziness.
You must be a fast reader if you read Jeffrey Toobin’s book and 10 juror books.
I like reading. I do. I enjoy reading.
Did you write that episode like a prison movie?
I did. There were a couple versions. There was a version that we were going to do initially that was all jury. So the jurors at the beginning of the episode would walk into the jury room and we’d never go back to our principals. We saw the episode through the jury’s eyes the entire time. But then you cast all these fantastic stars and there’s no way you’re going to not see [John] Travolta or Sarah [Paulson] or Courtney [B. Vance] or Cuba [Gooding Jr.] for the whole episode. So we started to reformulate how we wanted to do it to split it up and break it up. The thing that was important is to show the cabin fever, to show some of the division, to show the stress that they were under so we can try to understand the plight, the humanity of them and what they were going for.
What were some crazy shenanigans you couldn’t even fit into the script?
One of the jurors was dismissed because he would walk around with a Walkman pretending like he was listening to music, but it didn’t have a cassette in it. He would stand next to people and get their conversations, and then make notes because he was going to try to write a book, and he got caught. That kind of stuff was going on. There was the big episode in the shopping mall of people wanting to have more time in Target versus Ross and it became a racially polarized thing, like “only white people shop at Target” or “only black people shop at Ross” or vice versa. It was just absurd. It’s what happens when you’re cooped up with a group of people. Petty things start to become very important.
A little of the Ross/Target thing made it in.
Yeah, I got a little bit in there but it was a fiasco. It was much more of a fiasco than we were able to include.