Cinematographer Nick Higgins may have paused for just a moment when he was first asked to shoot “O.J.: Made in America.” The 7.5 hour documentary series (produced for ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” and broken into five parts), directed by Ezra Edelman, examines the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, whose adult life has been lived out on the public stage, first as an electrifying football player, through his years as an actor and alleged murderer, and finally as one of America’s most infamous inmates.
But Edelman makes sure that this is not just another titillating look at an American tragedy; he sets “O.J.: Made in America” against 50 years of racial politics in Southern California and beyond so his audience can gain a better understanding of how the original ‘not guilty’ verdict from Simpson’s first trial and the aftermath fits into our cultural perspective. And given the events of the past few years when it comes to the light being shined on how young black males are treated at the hands of police and society at large, it seems that the same issues that led to the riots in Watts in 1965 and other American cities later in the decade are still very much with us.
For the Scottish-born and very well-traveled Higgins (he is now based out of L.A.), most of the documentaries he works on have to have a social conscience. As he says, “Basically my whole career has been built around projects that have some degree of saving the world.” And he may have been thinking along the same lines as many people when they hear about a new O.J. project: Do we really need another one? But it became apparent to Higgins that “O.J.: Made in America” was much more than that. Higgins said, “It very quickly became something different. And it became an education and one that you’re sort of horrified about and is very relevant for today.”
Higgins took a somewhat circuitous route to become a cinematographer. After spending his formative years in Scotland (where his interest in cinematography and photography was piqued by his father’s own business travels with a camera), Higgins decided first on a career in business because a career in the arts looked fairly bleak. As he says looking back on his school days in the Scottish highlands, “The only person with an art career is the art teacher, and he’s as jaded as they come, you know?”
But he never lost his passion for filmmaking, and an article he read about specializing stuck with him, which led to a career in documentary filmmaking. He received his Masters in Cinematography from AFI and after paying his dues (“When you leave graduate school, nobody wants to pay you, regardless of what you shoot,” he said) success started to come his way. His resume includes “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers,” “First Position,” and the fantastic “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.”
“O.J.: Made in America” had its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, a situation that Higgins has become very familiar with. As a matter of fact, the Canon C300 that he used to shoot the project with has three Sundance premieres to its credit, leading Higgins to joke that, “It should be gilded and put in the Canon museum.”
In addition to its perspective when it comes to Simpson, racial politics, and the smoldering cauldron of L.A. in the mid-1960s (where Simpson emerged as a local football standout who then went on to USC before being drafted in the NFL), another thing that separates “O.J.: Made in America” from other projects is Edelman’s use of basically uninterrupted interviews with the principals, sometimes running several hours. It was something that Higgins had to adjust to, not only in his mental preparation, but also in the way that he had to light and shoot his subjects.
“I’ve done 15 years of shooting and you’re thinking an interview is a portion of every project,” he said. “You’re thinking it’s [the number of interviews that Higgins has done] is in the high hundreds if not a thousand. And I feel like I’ve been around the block. I’ve never been around the block to this extent. This one was extraordinary. In the beginning we would only be booked to shoot the person for two hours, but then it would become three or four or five. And we would set up like a normal interview, which implies some daylight in the background, but after three and four and five hours you’re like, ‘That’s not the same and you need to stop.’ But he [Edelman] didn’t want to be interrupted because he’s really into this intense conversation. So as we went along it became apparent that we weren’t getting out of there in less than three hours minimum. And now we need to light with that in mind.”
It wasn’t just the length of the interviews, or even the need to basically block out all light because of the duration of the interviews that Higgins took note of. It was also in the way that Edelman connected with his interview subjects, many of whom have tried to move on after years of very public intrusion. And just when they thought they moved on from the original trial verdict from more than 20 years ago, there’s also Simpson’s more recent conviction and imprisonment for his role in an armed robbery meant to reacquire stolen memorabilia.
“His interviews are very different from other people because normally after an hour, after two hours, the subject gets really tired and you can feel them lagging in energy,” Higgins said. “But somehow he engaged all these people in a way—you know how you can sit with your friend and talk for five hours and you don’t feel tired and you don’t feel tired at the end?—these people aren’t hanging out with their friend but they’re being stimulated in a way that at the end of five hours, some of them are still talking. They’ve exhausted the subject that we’re here to talk about but they’re talking to us on the way to the car (laughs)…he’s inspired them in a way that was unusual.”
From a personal philosophy, Higgins likes to travel light. As someone who is continually on the go to make a living, the stripped down aesthetic appeals to him from a practical and a filmmaking standpoint. This approach also meshed well with Edelman’s desire to shoot his interviews from a very naturalistic and bare bones approach.
“I do most of my projects outside of L.A. so I have to fly with the gear,” Higgins said. “So basically I tell people I’m allowed to take whatever I want to light anything I want as long as I can carry it. I have pared my equipment down to what can be flown with and I like to be able to move through the airport myself. Sometimes I may need some help, but if worse comes to worse, I can move that whole kit. I may have to use a two wheeled dolly cart, but I can basically move everything. That is my starting point. For this project, I didn’t really add any more lights, but I did add a ton more Duvetyn to block out windows. So it really was a small lighting package. It didn’t really grow, but we did have a bigger job of blocking out more and more windows as time went on.”
Even with a pared down filming aesthetic, there is nothing exactly simple about the life and times of O.J. Simpson. While he may have had a carefully crafted image as a football player, actor, and TV pitchman, there are many things that have happened in the past two decades that would change many people’s opinions about Simpson. Of course, it all depends on who you ask.
“One of the things that we did quite early on was we went to Las Vegas and we shot all the incidents in that armed robbery,” he said. “So basically we did these interviews about this one particular event which took five minutes to happen. We interviewed six or seven people. It was amazing to get this sort of 360 degrees of this crazy four minutes. Not all of which tied up with each other. So you think, ‘Okay, some of these people are not telling the truth, and some of them are telling the truth.’ So at that point, it became fascinating. Here are half a dozen witnesses to the same event telling you their perspective. At that point I was thinking, ‘This is really good.’”
One of the interesting aspects of “O.J.: Made in America” is how it ties America’s racial past in with its present through Simpson’s story. From the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to the riots in Watts (and again nearly 30 years later in South Central L.A.), to what’s going on today, it’s hard not to discuss race and privilege and what it all means.
“And the racial stuff on top of that was like, Oh my God, this is not only fascinating on sort of a macro level, once you step back and think about how bad the situation was back then, and at the same time as we’re making this, all these things were going on with the Black Lives Matter movement,” Higgins said. “And you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s what happened in Watts, that’s what happened in South Central…’ So basically I spent the rest of the year, every time I was having dinner on a different job, talking about this project, and educating people about this… and talking about these other injustices. It became a big topic of conversation.”
Higgins hopes that other people begin to make the leap as well; as technology has given almost everybody the ability to become a citizen journalist or a filmmaker in some capacity, he notes that while the differences in racial attitudes still exist, it’s much harder to hide from now.
“There was a different narrative going on in the white world and the black world as well,” he said. “The white world wasn’t talking about these injustices. Things have changed in the last few years because it’s all on camera. It’s on camera; you’re seeing these atrocities happening. And you can’t avoid it. And you start hearing about previous atrocities and you’re going, ‘Oh my God, that’s the same thing.’ In the 1970s and 1980s, there’s no YouTube and no Facebook to spoon feed you this stuff. So we could all pretend this stuff wasn’t happening in the white community, but in the black community they knew what was happening.”
There are many things about Simpson’s story, or the story of how his life fits into the puzzle that is America’s racial make-up and identity that makes for interesting viewing. But the thing that Higgins sees with “O.J.: Made in America” is how much it makes you think.
“This film is not a cinematographer’s film; it’s really an editor’s film; but it’s really an intellectual film. It mentally grabs you,” he said. “I was hooked from the start, when they started sending me rough cuts, with just interview beds, with some archival stuff. It would have these gaps in it where they would insert B-roll of O.J.’s POV in Brentwood…and we were completely hooked on this show’s content, even when it was in this rough stage. You were intellectually hooked into this thing. That’s the surprise of this project.”