With the recent announcement of O.J. Simpson’s parole being granted and his release from jail being dated for October 1st, there is yet another wave of fascination and curiosity surrounding the fallen NFL star, bringing ESPN’s Academy Award winning documentary O.J.: Made in America to the top of streaming providers most viewed lists again. Over a year after it was initially released the documentary continues to garner numerous accolades and nominations including 6 Emmy nominations, one being for Gary Lionelli’s original score. We decided to speak with Lionelli about scoring O.J.: Made in America and the recent O.J. developments.
You are currently Emmy nominated for your score to O.J.: Made in America, congrats! What was your first thought when you heard about the nomination?
Thank you so much. I was pretty stunned when I found out about the nomination. I definitely felt very honored, and I’m thrilled so many others associated with the film have gotten nominations, too. I also thought that because we got as many nominations as we did, that the subject matter and broad scope of the film, in terms of race relations in America, seemed to have resonated with a lot of people.
What instruments did you use most on the O.J. score?
The director, Ezra Edelman, specifically wanted solo trumpet and oboe in the score. I had Bunnell on trumpet, and he usually played on cues that consisted of strings and piano, set in a lyrical, introspective, and detached style. I think this had the effect of a forewarning about O.J.’s ultimate fall from his once great heights. I also have a big collection of acoustic instruments in my studio, and I integrated them into the score instead of using samples. Anything from a bass marimba, vibraphone, to bass steel drum, and on and on. Another element of the score was sound manipulation of acoustic instruments using effects and plug-ins. It can sometimes be a time-consuming way to conjure up cues because of all the trial and error involved with creating new sounds, but the results can give a film an identity that sometimes goes beyond what you can do with an orchestra. That said, I did have a 40-piece string section plus various solo instruments too. So it was really a blend of the introspective jazz, electronics, and orchestral, and many times all in the same cue. We were lucky to record the score at Warner Bros. Eastwood Scoring Stage, with musicians here in town.
What do you think about the latest developments of O.J.’s release?
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, seeing the film’s opening with O.J.’s denial of parole to the ultimate recent granting of it. I have my own opinions regarding the outcome of the 1995 trial, but I’m more focused on the how and why that verdict was reached, and what was going on in America at the time with race relations, and that it surprisingly doesn’t seem to have progressed at all in these last twenty years, and may in fact be regressing.
O.J.: Made in America not only focuses on the crime that was committed, but also greatly explores the issue of race in the U.S. With these 2 very different subject matters was it hard to find the right tone for the project? How did you find the tone?
So the challenge was how to score such an epic real-life saga that everyone is so familiar with and not over sensationalize it or trivialize it in any way. I decided to focus on the overall tragedy of the circumstances and let that direct the course of the music. The feelings from that time are something no one who remembers the events will forget, and I know my own feelings from that time came through when I was writing.
Did the director and producers have a pretty clear idea of what they wanted the score to sound like?
More often than not, Ezra wanted the score to reflect the big picture, which usually meant scoring the subtext of the character or scene rather than commenting musically on what is literally happening in the scene — that is, scoring what is going on in the mind of the character rather than what he or she is doing, or scoring the impact or consequence of an event rather simply the action of the event, literally. So many times the music has to comment in a much broader sense than simply echoing what’s going on in the scene at any one given moment. This helps the viewer’s understanding of what the director is trying to say with the film.
After you were finished with the project, was it easier or more difficult to score than you thought it would be. If so, why?
I didn’t find it difficult to score in that when I’m presented with a work that is so well conceived and executed, it makes my job that much easier. What was difficult was the schedule. We had an almost impossible deadline. The film is 7 1/2 hours long, and that meant there would be at least six hours of music to write. Yikes! I originally was given a little over three months, but I managed to get the deadline extended to within ten days of the theatrical debut, which gave me a tad over five months. And I had to set aside time for the orchestra, too, so it was an extremely tight schedule. O.J.: Made in America was conceived and executed as simply one long film, so I just kept working on the whole thing for five months straight, seven days a week, fifteen hours a day.
If you could play only 2 instruments the rest of your career what would they be?
Guitar, which I already play, and cello, which I can play a little of (but hopefully getting better all the time).
Do you have any upcoming projects you can talk about?
PBS/American Experience is doing a 6-part miniseries on the space race called Chasing the Moon, which will be directed by Robert Stone. I’ll be scoring that, and we’ll have fairly large orchestra for the score. It premieres early 2019.
Lionelli’s O.J.: Made in America score is available on iTunes here.