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Composer Gary Lionelli Takes a Second Look at O.J. Simpson 20 Years Later

Gary Lionelli talks with Awards Daily TV on why the Oscar-winning doc O.J.: Made In America resonates so strongly 20 years after the initial trial.

Composer Gary Lionelli initially felt apprehensive about scoring a documentary about the O.J. Simpson trial. However, after speaking with director Ezra Edelman, he knew that OJ: Made in America would be different, and more importantly, a story that needed to be told. The go-to composer for documentaries (Last Days in Vietnam, Stonewall Uprising) spoke with Awards Daily TV about what it was like going back 20 years and discovering America hasn’t really changed since the trial first captivated audiences.

What initially inspired you to want to work on O .J.: Made in America?

 At first, I didn’t think I wanted to take the job because it was such a gruesome and tragic true story. So, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fill my life with those dark images for the next sixth months. I also wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in OJ anymore. However in the first conversation with director Ezra Edelman, he told me he initially had the same feelings about taking on the film, and that he wanted to approach the story in a broader historical sense. That’s when I became very excited about working on the project.

It was still a daunting task to realize that something I had watched on TV 20 years earlier I was now going to be scoring. I had to find a way to make it dramatic without either going too much over the top, and being too conspicuous, or the opposite, going too light on everything, too under the radar. I had to find the right balance. It was going to be a challenge as well as the sheer amount of work, but after he described his vision, I knew it would be a great film. I know Ezra very well, and everything he does always ends up being a smart undertaking.

Why do you think the OJ Simpson story is resonating so strongly across America today and did you have a feeling while working on it that it would become a phenomenon?

I don’t think anybody had any idea that it would become as huge as it did. I think that the timing was right. Everything that is going on in America right now in terms of race relations this story set the stage for. Compare what happened 20 years ago to what is happening right now and you feel like nothing has really changed. That is why the story resonated so strongly with people because everybody thinks we’ve made so much progress, but it shows that we didn’t. That’s what made it so gripping.

Did you learn anything while making the documentary that you didn’t pick up on when the events were taking place 20 years ago? 

I had no idea about the behind the scenes interactions between Marcia Clark and the other lawyers. The conflict around Christopher Darden wanting to have OJ try on the glove, and Marcia Clark and the rest of the team being dead-set against it . As it turns out Chris was wrong, but nobody reported on the conflict at the time.

In a broader sense, it was impossible to see through the haze of the discrimination that was happening at the time. To understand why the verdict was what it was and take into account the Rodney King beating and everything else the film mentions. With the clarity of looking back 20 years, you can see how that all came into formation, but at the time, we couldn’t look out from it clearly. That is what the film accomplished so eloquently. It gave people a roadmap of why these things happened and why they continue to happen.

In terms of creating your score did you draw from anything specific as inspiration?

Ezra had a few specific instruments he wanted me to use from a trumpet and an oboe in the score. When you’re using a trumpet, it suggests certain types of tonalities in the music, and we were going to be using the instruments in a jazzy sense without creating specifically a jazz score. There were some lonely and sad trumpet cues that mimicked the overall tragedy of everything.

Beyond that it was a very eclectic score. We mixed together synthesizer-based electronic cues and a 40-piece string orchestra that we recorded at Warner Brothers. The score reached far in both directions in terms of traditional screenwriting and edgy weird electronics with everything between. Some moments, like the segments in Las Vegas, called for  bizarre, wacky, off kilter music. That was done electronically.

What was your personal approach to scoring such a massive project like O.J.: Made in America which at 7 ½ hours is much longer than the average documentary?

I had never scored anything that long before. I had worked on some television series before but that format allows you some time off which this did not. Most documentaries including this one require 80 percent of the film to have music. I had to fight for more time, and we ended up finishing the score 10 days before the theatrical debut.

The way I had to do it was sort of like someone fighting addiction. Just like how they say with addiction “take it one day at a time,” I had to take it one cue at a time and not look at the fact that I still had 145 cues to write. I really just had to focus on the moment and not worry about what came after that. In the end, I had to create around 173 cues which is a lot of music.

(Photo: Lakeshore Records)
What was your decision process like when deciding how to score some of the intense and hard to watch footage from the Rodney King beating to the LA riots in terms of letting them speak for themselves or to dramatize them with your work?

Our goal was to not score those scenes literally but to instead play the subtext of the scene, to make a comment on the broader sense of why it is all happening. One example is the Bronco chase seen from the helicopter. I tried to tap into the tragedy of everything we were looking at which was being brought to a climax. The fact that a national hero was throwing his life away in the most tragic of ways by taking the lives of two people.

I may have been taking a risk by playing the subtext, but in the end, I think it was the right call. It gave the film an emotional center. It wouldn’t have given anyone a real sense of tragedy if I had scored it with tense music of this helicopter chasing a car. The same thing with the Rodney King beating. We wanted to make a detached tragic comment with the music rather than scoring it literally.

There has been a lot of debate over whether or not O.J.: Made in America should be labeled a film or a television series. Throughout the scoring process did you make any creative decisions with either of those mediums in mind?

When Ezra first gave me a call he told me that he knew it would be on television, and it would have to be cut up. But he reaffirmed that we were making a film, and it should be approached as such. When I was working on it, I didn’t have a cut that had breaks for commercial. It was one very long film, and that’s how it played in theatres but with an intermission. To me conceptually, it was just one film, and that is how it was envisioned. So my creative process never wavered or changed.

Overall what your score for OJ: Made in America apart from the rest of your work?

Every score I create has its own personality that is hard to recognize at the beginning that emerges throughout the process. This score has a certain tragic heaviness to it that other films I have scored did not have to that level. It was such a far-reaching national event dealing with some of the biggest issues of our time like race relations, so it was a heavy film. I think the score ended up being a tragic commentary.

As a composer do you see any differences in terms of scoring a documentary versus scoring a more traditional narrative feature?

For me, I approach them the same musically, even more now than ever. It used to be that older documentaries simply highlighted overall themes while narrative films had moments crafted to illicit a certain response or emotion, and the score would need to amplify that. Now, modern documentary filmmakers are taking more radical approaches and using modern narrative film techniques which really bring documentary film scoring into the same realm.

Why do you personally continue to work in documentaries?

The more you do something, the more calls you get and especially since OJ my phone has been ringing. I love working on projects where I feel the music has more of a weight and is making a difference. There is nothing wrong with pure entertainment, but I love that I get to write for real life events where I can possibly make a difference with the music. It’s like water running down a hill. You can direct it to a certain extent, but overall you follow where it goes. I have been lucky enough to get the calls and am up to working on anything.

Where can our readers catch your work next?

Right now I am working on an HBO documentary about Ben Bradlee and Watergate. I wonder why they’re doing that, right? It’s as timely as OJ was if not more and that is why they are doing it. It’s going to be a really great film. I’m finishing up my work for the film in July and am not sure when it will air. It’s unusual for them to work on a historical documentary. So this breaks new ground for them. OJ made people want to create multi-part series, so now I am working on a 6-part series about the race to the moon coming out in 2018. I’m also working on a Netflix project, a very dark story about a bank robbery.