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An Interview with Jeff Toobin

Late in the spring, I had the pleasure of talking to Jeff Toobin, author of The Run of His Life, the source material for the Emmys® Award winning TV series, The People v. O.J. Simpson. We talked about his collaboration with filmmakers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, as well as how a law degree has helped him as a writer. We touched on what it's like to consult on a piece of film that is dramatized non-fiction. There was even a mention of coming into one's genetic destiny!

So, did you happen to catch last weekend's 2016 Primetime Emmys® Awards? The People v. O.J. Simpson dominated, pocketing 9 awards, including Outstanding Limited Series. This show had an incredible blueprint with Toobin's book, though. It's hard not to marvel about the fact that Toobin had the wherewithal to observe and document the trial in a different way than anyone else. His book stands apart from the series, of course, but it's impossible to imagine the series without it. With its rampant success, one thing The People v. O.J. Simpson shows is how collaboration with great minds, great material and a pressing theme will go far in the minds and hearts of a TV viewer.

As for Toobin, he is very smart and considered when he talks. He laughs a lot, and he's thoughtful about what he wants to say. His warmth comes across even over the phone. He's an extremely prolific writer, by any standards. His take on things is captivating and wise. He really strikes me being uniquely talented in this world. Above all else, he is kind. I was a bit nervous, this being my first interview, and he immediately put me at ease.

Congratulations on the show, it’s just spectacular.

Thanks, it sure was a great event in my life. I don’t want to take undue credit, I’m very proud of my book, but this was the filmmakers’ film and the actors’ film, they deserve the bulk of the credit.

Your book is really the topographical map for the show and I don’t know if people realize how much the source material was a part of its success.

My book was a work of journalism and I believed every word in that book was true. I don’t pretend it was flawless, I didn’t invent conversations. I used the official court transcripts.

The film was different. They did change the court transcript in certain ways, so this was a work of dramatic imagination. I think it was excellent. I think it was very true to the characters and events, but there’s a difference between journalism and dramatization.

How did you guys make decisions about what would stay in the series and what would get cut [from the book]?

Well, that was really up to the producers and screenwriters. The thing I am proudest of, that the filmmakers kept, was the use of race as the spine of the story. That was very much my intention in writing the book, and it was very much the core of the series. I don’t think there was any formal discussion about it, as soon as I started talking to the team they had already decided to do that. And I was very pleased about that because I think that’s what really elevated the story from a tawdry celebrity murder to something significant in American history – what it told us about race in the United States.

Going back 20 years, at what point did you know you were stitching yourself into the O.J. tapestry?

Certainly the race card story, the one that was dramatized in episode 3, that was a very big deal in the public at that moment. That story made a huge splash and it was after that story I got a book contract to write what turned out to be The Run of His Life. I certainly had no idea, 20 years later, it would be dramatized with John Travolta! But it was certainly the turning point of my career. And I did include a chapter in The Run of His Life about how I got the story.

One thing that was left out of the series was that Mark Fuhrman sued me and Robert Shapiro for libel in connection to that story, in the middle of the trial. Then, the Fuhrman tapes came out which established Fuhrman, clearly, as someone with racist inclinations and Shapiro’s lawyers and my lawyers went to Fuhrman’s lawyers and said,  "Look, if you don’t withdraw this lawsuit, we’re going to file for sanction." This story so clearly established the truth of what we were writing. He withdrew the lawsuit at that point.

That story had a considerable life in my career. I put it in my book. Ordinarily I don’t care to put myself in my work unless there’s real need for it. But I did think that story got so much attention and the defense team – well, it became, so much, the center of the case. I did write about it in my book and then the filmmakers decided to dramatize it.

Chris Connor, playing Toobin, in the third
episode called 'The Dream Team'
I’ve noticed you work with an intuition and you seem to know when there’s something more there, to uncover or unpack. Is that something you’d characterize about yourself as a writer?

That sounds a little highfalutin! That one thing I’d say is that because I was a prosecutor and actually practiced law, I think I have a sense of what’s important and what’s not important. You know, often when I see my colleagues who are every bit as smart as I am but not legally trained, they get legal documents in front of them and just sort of throw their hands up and say, "This is incomprehensible and I can’t deal with this!" In fact, it doesn’t take any great intelligence to be a lawyer, it’s just a set of skills that you have that allows you to separate the wheat from the chaff.

So, for example, I was able to know a bad cop might be involved in lawsuits – so once I saw the Fuhrman lawsuit, I could tell it was a big deal, because I understood enough about the legal system -- a result of bringing my legal training to my journalism work.

About your writing style in general, the writing is so interesting, it just flies off of the page when you’re reading it and there’s a quality to it that’s very entertaining.

Both of my parents were journalists. I grew up in a journalistic household. I was also frequently told, "Don’t be a journalist", because it was, and is, a difficult profession, and a fairly unstable one. But writing was always a big part of my life, I wrote for the school paper in high school and college, while I was in law school I freelanced. I always thought it would be a sideline for my legal career but then I went to be a prosecutor and I worked on the Oliver North case and I left that job and wrote a book about it. Then I went to be an assistant U.S. attorney, but I always thought, writing was part of my life.

I sometimes feel like after my stint as prosecutor I came into my genetic destiny as a journalist.

But I never thought of writing as a performance. The one thing I would claim for my writing is that it’s clear. And that’s something that matters a lot to me. The one thing I can’t stand, in any kind of writing, fiction or non-fiction, is not knowing what the hell is going on! And I pay special attention to make sure that what I write is clear. And also that what I write, to the extent possible, is not boring. I’m very aware that people have a lot of demands on their time, and that’s only more true now, when they’re carrying around various devices. You can't be boring. So that’s something that I try to keep at the front of my mind all of the time.

Will you speak about the collaboration process with Scott (Alexander) and Larry (Karaszewski)? Did you sit in their writers’ room?

I actually did sit in the writers’ room. There were several early conversations about the overall scope of the project. Then I would review individual scripts. Since there was dramatic license, I wasn’t reviewing them for technical accuracy, but they might be confused about what happened first or who this or that person was – and so I would answer a lot of individual questions. Many of which I would have to say (laughing), "Beats the hell out of me, I don’t remember a thing about that," and I would have to go try and put it together. They were so steeped in the project and it had been 20 years for me. So in many respects, they were more familiar with things that I was.

So, the business of reviewing it for accuracy was funny, because it didn’t have to be technically accurate, but it did have to be true. Did you ever see the movie Absence of Malice with Paul Newman and Sally Field? It’s a great movie and there’s a line in it that I always remember. Sally Field plays a reporter and someone asks her about a story that she wrote and the person says, “That’s true, isn’t it?” And she says, “No, but it’s accurate.” The series was true even though it wasn’t always accurate.

Would you engage in this process and have your book optioned and turned into a series again?

(Lots of laughter) In a heartbeat! Are you kidding? I mean, come on! I’ve had lots of stuff optioned over the years. This was the first time anyone’s ever made anything. I have a new book coming out about the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, and Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson have optioned it and Scott and Larry are writing the screenplay based on it. It’s a feature, not a series. So I’m actively working with them again, on that.

Are you serving as consultant?

Yes, it’s basically the same gig. Although I’m a little more involved this time because they optioned it before the book was written and I have been giving Scott and Larry chapter by chapter. Now they have the whole thing and we’ve been in a little more frequent contact than I was about O.J., in part because I’m writing it now, much more familiar with the story than I was when they came to me about O.J.

This has been such a happy experience for all of us. One thing everybody said to me, as this project took off was, "It's not usually like this. The reviews aren't usually like this. The ratings aren't usually like this. Don't get used to this!" I should just enjoy it while I can.

They say that getting a show on the air is like winning the lottery.

It's a miracle anything gets made at all with all the obstacles -- it's just crazy. But everything came together with this, in a wonderful way.

I'm grateful I had the chance to speak to Jeff. The process of collaboration is really quite something, isn't it? By the way, I just finished the new book, American Heiress. (It came out in August.) It’s fantastic. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

And if you haven't read The Run of His Life, what on earth are you waiting for?

1 comment:

  1. What a great read, Heather. It has to be refreshing to be happy with how a TV series interpreted your written work, Mr. Toobin, when we often hear the opposite.


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