Interview: Joe Robert Cole On The Craziness Of 'American Crime Story' And Real-Life Inspirations For 'Black Panther'

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.

Black Panther Plot Details

Was the crime scene visit episode a lot more linear because there's a chronology of that event?

Yeah, we also, with regards to the juror episode, we wanted to show how they began. We wanted to show the scope of how long they were in sequestration, so we wanted to go back. But for episode five, it's much easier, we start at this point in the trial. We end at this point in the trial in terms of the timeline of the episode, so it was an easier episode to do. It's interesting because I wrote episode five first. I had to then do some retrofitting in terms of doing episode eight later because I've already introduced some of those characters. It was an interesting interplay with trying to make everything work and match. Who are the jurors that we focus on when we shoot episode five? Are they sill around in episode eight? How are we dealing with them during the events of that episode so there were some logistics that were fun to figure out and a little bit tricky at time.

How did you go from The People vs. O.J. Simpson to Marvel?

Before I came to O.J. I was in the Marvel writing program. It's for emerging writers. I essentially had worked with Marvel in their program for two years prior. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, came out of that program. Nicole Perlman was a colleague of mine there. So when I got out, within four or five months, I ended up starting to work on O.J., I knew that at some point they wanted to do Black Panther and some other projects. I had a great time working at Marvel and I think they enjoyed my writing also and liked my writing. So we had a good relationship. When Black Panther came up, they approached me and I competed for the job and I got it.

So is Ryan Coogler using your script?

We're writing together. We're co-writing. We're in the middle of writing right now so it's pretty fantastic.

Will the tone be different than his appearance in Captain America: Civil War?

First, I think Chadwick [Boseman] did a phenomenal job in Civil War in setting the tone for him being a king, for the nobility. At the end, I thought his turn was fantastic and how he rose above his own vengeance. I think that was a great introduction to him. Our standalone movie will begin shortly after Civil War ends. So we'll be able to see him mourning and him starting to take command as king of his own nation. Lots of things are going to occur within regards to that. The country will be under threat from inside and out so we'll learn what Wakanda is, that nation, as the most technologically advanced nation on the pilot. Also, a Wakanda's rise to prominence happens, it will affect the MCU moving forward which is really exciting.

Even though Wakanda is fictional, are you able to bring anything from the real Africa to the film?

Yes, absolutely. I think what we tried to do, Africa is such a huge nation. There are so many countries, each of them with different histories, mythologies, and cultures but what we tried to do was hone in on some of the history, some of the cultural influences and then extrapolate out in our technology, extrapolate out in how we see Wakanda and the different parts of the country and the culture of the country as well. So we wanted to root it in reality first and then build out from there, so we'd feel pretty authentic and grounded.

Are you still attached to write Inhumans after Black Panther?

I don't know if Inhumans is on the slate. For some reason everyone thinks that I'm writing or have written Inhumans. There is not an Inhumans script yet so I'm not sure how that will be moving forward.

Did Black Panther keep you from working on American Crime Story: Katrina?

Yes, it did. I tried actually to make it work. I tried to get the timing together but I had already booked Panther and they were going to be shooting at the same time. I was really remiss. I was pretty sad. I wanted to do both, I really did.

Was O.J. your first professional job?

No, I have a movie that I wrote for Lionsgate called Revok which is an alien invasion sci-fi movie that they're actually out to directors on. Out of the program, that was the first movie that was just mine. My first job, my first rewrite was I did the shooting draft of ATL. That was the first thing I ever did.

Did the producers of O.J. see your work on Revok and ATL?

Brad Simpson had read a spec of mine before I even went into the Marvel writing program, so we had met previous to the Marvel writer program and we liked each other. So when I got out of the program, we were just having coffee and he pitched the O.J. show to me. A couple months after that, they sent me Jeffrey Toobin's book and I went in and met with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and they explained their vision. That's how it moved forward.