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How to Make an Oscar-Winning Documentary

Director Ezra Edelman just won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 'O.J. Simpson: Made in America'. By deconstructing one scene, he gives insight into how truth and art must co-exist in documentary filmmaking.

Ezra Edelman: Sometimes there are stories that you are told that you think are interesting, revelatory, maybe even helpful to the narrative. There’s nothing that you have to further illustrate what someone’s talking about. And if you’re doing a movie and it’s full of visuals and you’re trying to construct this consistent visual palette even if it’s on three different sort of wavelengths as far as photos, footage, stuff that you shot, what have you. If you can’t find something that is consistent in a way that you can tell that story then you have nothing. Sometimes you just can’t use it. And that’s really frustrating and sad, especially when again we’re talking about truth and documenting events and you’re like well no, that’s just inconvenient.

Frankly if something is so important you figure out a way and sometimes it’s like we can’t all shoot interviews with six different cameras. And so you don’t necessarily have the luxury. I’ll just cut all different ways to make sure it’s fine. And so you get creative.

There’s a scene in the movie that is probably five and a half hours into the movie in part four of the documentary where you’ve gone through most of the trial, it’s become the media circus that it is. And all of a sudden we get to this, the deputy DA, Bill Hodgeman, clinically taking you through his version and his belief of what happened the night of the murders on June 12, 1994. So he had given me a presentation in his office, in the DA’s office in Los Angeles a couple of weeks before I sat down with the new head and did an interview. And he went through this slide show presentation that he gives to people in law enforcement when he talks about that case. And included is, you know, he gives pictures included these pictures of the murder scene.

Now when we did the interview I said hey Bill, do you mind just sort of running through that. Giving me your version of events. So for six and a half minutes he sat there and clinically went beat by beat of what happened that night. And even listening to him it was chilling. And there was an argument by some who I was working with that said just do that. Just have him talk. Again this notion of what is truth. It’s his version of what he believes. There’s no videotape. No one knows exactly what happened. But he’s telling us and so there’s first of all an instinct to say oh, I don’t want to edit this at all. It’s so graphic. It’s so personal to sort of what he – the 20 years he spent thinking about this. It’s so specific I want to include everything. And then you go well you know what? I can’t just have six minutes of a guy on screen. This is the sort of practical as a filmmaker well I can’t just have six minutes of them on screen saying this. And also what’s the best version of this? Is that bad? Him surely recollecting about what he thinks happened.

Or can we add visuals. Can we turn this in to a more emotionally wrenching anecdote then him just sitting in a chair. And then when you know that actually there are these murder photos, these photos of the crime scene that exist. And they aren’t photos by the way that I might feel compelled to otherwise use except for the fact that here’s a guy in his position clinically dispassionately going through what he believes happened. That is almost the only way I would have ever thought of using such graphic photos because there is a real purpose to it. There’s a real purpose to understanding the brutality of the crime. And there’s a real purpose for you to sit there and realize like you need to deal with what is happening here. What happened. You need to deal with the way that this guy is talking about it so soberly versus the spectacle that this trial has become. You need to as if you were stop and whatever you think of O.J. Simpson, why don’t you look at this and why don’t you see if you can look at him the same way after that. Now the point being is that that scene ends up being this horrific thing now there’s no music. There is sound design. But there are so many choices that go into how am I going to portray this, especially portray something that is so sensitive and that could be absorbed in so many different ways by so many people. And so those are the things that are sort of you have to really make sure that you are making the correct choices.

 

Every great documentary is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of difficult decisions. Director Ezra Edelman, who just won the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award for O.J. Simpson: Made in America delves into one of the creative challenges he faced during this project, a scene where truth and art had to work together. Telling the truth well is an art. When are violent, graphic images appropriate? How does a director avoid sensationalism without being avoidant of an issue? Here is a small window into the responsibilities and creative process of an Oscar-winning film director. O.J. Simpson: Made in America is available to stream on


Hulu, ESPN, or for purchase at Amazon.

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