By Debra Kaufman
At the 69th Creative Emmy awards, editors Bret Granato, Maya Mumma and Ben Sozanski won the award for Outstanding Picture Editing Nonfiction for ESPN Films’ “OJ: Made in America.” HPA Newsline had a chance to speak with Granato about the experience of cutting the seven hour-and-47 minute documentary series, which also won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards.
If you thought that nothing new could be wrung out of the 1994 OJ Simpson saga, the ESPN documentary proved you – and everyone else – wrong. But that was Granato’s mindset when director Ezra Edelman first contacted him. “The topic had been covered so thoroughly,” explains Granato, who had worked with Edelman on an ESPN’s “Requiem for the Big East.” “ I couldn’t imagine what he wanted to do with it.” Edelman then explained his plan: a dual narrative that would follow the history of Los Angeles and the LAPD and the history of the African-American community in Los Angeles and OJ’s own history, two threads that would weave in and out, and crash together after the murders.
From the beginning, says Granato, he knew the challenge would be to keep the audience engaged in this atypical method of storytelling. “We didn’t know if people would see the correlation of feel lost,” he says. “We didn’t know if people would go for the ride. It was a tricky proposition.”
When Granato and Mumma (initially the only two editors on the project) started working, Edelman and his team had already completed 50 to 60 percent of the interviews. Edelman’s process is also to write a lengthy document – up to 60 pages – that tells a conversational, almost novelistic story, populated with quotes and the people he hopes to interview. “It’s an aspirational document,” says Granato, who says the editors use the document as a guide.
The deadline was another challenge. The series, initially slated at six hours, had to meet the deadline for the Sundance Film Festival (where it debuted) in less than a year, a brutal pace for so much material. That’s when Sozanski came aboard, and the episodes were divvied up: Mumma would handle episodes 1 and 2, the so-called “pre-murder” sections, Granato would focus on the trial, in episodes 3 and 4, and Sozanski would edit the post-verdict episode 5. They stayed within those parameters, says Granato, although Sozanski cut the opening of episode 1 and he cut the Buffalo Bill section in the same episode. “We all touched that first episode,” says Granato, who adds the Sozanski also worked on the part of the murders.
Granato was perfectly suited to cut the OJ trial for a rather coincidental reason. He was in college during the original trial and was obsessed with it. “I listened to all of it while I was jogging,” he says. “I was gripped, like the country was, and was fascinated by the twists and turns.” Years later, he wrote off that obsession as a wasted year – which it might have been had he not found himself editing it for an award-winning documentary. “I was very familiar with the trial,” he notes wryly.
While the editors were cutting at the Post Factory in New York (all of them on Avids), producers Caroline Waterlow, Tamara Rosenberg and Nina Krstic worked out of an office in Brooklyn; Krstic handled archival footage, which was so crucial to the series. Associate producer Ryan Dilts and assistant editor John Fisher handled the immense task of inputting and key-wording about 800 hours of footage, including over 70 interviews, so the editors could easily find what they were looking for.
Another major challenge was when Edelman and the three editors got together to see the “big picture” of all the episodes together. “Ezra wanted to see the arc of the whole thing,” says Granato. “So we’d spend ten hours going through the entire film together. It would take an entire day to see what was working and what wasn’t, and it was physically punishing to do that.” Each editor left the beginnings and endings of their episodes loose, to allow more flexibility for connecting with the material on either side. “It never ends up being structured per the original idea,” says Granato. “The dynamic changes depending on the interviews, and you go back and tighten and make it more focused.”
The team did finish the series in time for its Sundance Film Festival debut. Granato looks back and says that none of them knew just how long the series would be – or how big it would hit. “We just started building and kept moving the needle forward,” he says, noting that the ESPN executives were happy with the show at its longer length. “ESPN was so supportive and interested in what we were doing, and they gave us the freedom to tell the story the way we thought it should be told.”