This Really Big Thing
Producer Caroline Waterlow opens up about her Oscar-winning film.
By Garry Dow | Associate Director of Communications
Caroline Waterlow '91 rose from her seat inside Dolby Theatre and stood almost motionless in the aisle. As applause rained down from the balcony, she gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, hugged the people around her, and began moving toward the movie world's biggest stage.
When O.J.: Made in America won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this year, it ended months of speculation about whether or not this atypical movie could actually garner enough votes to win. Co-produced with Ezra Edelman for ESPN's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, the film is by far the longest documentary to ever take home the award, clocking in at almost eight hours. "It started out as a five-hour thing, and then we cut an eight-hour rough cut," Waterlow said in an interview with the trade association PromaxBDA. "It was clear it was going to be hard to live without a huge chunk of it. ESPN, thank goodness, said, 'let's just go for it, and make it this really big thing.'"
Further complicating matters, the film entered the awards season with something of an identity crisis. Broadcast as both a five-part television miniseries and a two-part theatrical release, members of the media openly questioned whether it was a movie at all. And then there was the worn-out, oft-ridiculed subject. What was there left to say about O.J. Simpson? "There are benefits to revisiting stories with the passage of time," Waterlow told Women and Hollywood, "which is why retelling stories for different generations is an important thing. Now we can see the context and all the connections and repeated patterns; maybe it was all too close in 1995."
In his acceptance speech, Edelman, who also directed the film, acknowledged the controversy surrounding its length and format. "First of all, I want to thank Caroline Waterlow for going on this journey with me. I also want to thank the Academy for acknowledging this untraditional film. I want to thank ESPN for allowing us the canvas and the time to tell this story. This is the only way it could be told."
When Made in America premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, it immediately struck a nerve with critics, garnering Oscar buzz wherever it went. Writing in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott called the documentary a feat of tireless research, dogged interviewing, and skillful editing. "Some of the images have an uncanny familiarity," he wrote, "while others land with almost revelatory force."
Part character study, part social history, Made in America follows Simpson from his early days as a star running back in the NFL, into the tawdry, media-obsessed trial that captured the country's attention in the 1990s, before finally turning to the Nevada prison where he is currently serving a thirty-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping.
Spanning a half century, the film also explores the racial tension, civil unrest, fractured media landscape, and fraught celebrity culture that continues to define the American experience more than twenty years after the original verdict was handed down — one that signaled a deep and growing divide between white and black communities. "The social issues haven't changed that much," Waterlow said. "Talking about it in the context of O.J. is a way to talk about it, because these are difficult things to grapple with."
A Montreal native, Waterlow graduated from Pomfret in 1991. During her time on the Hilltop, she earned a reputation as a distinguished thespian who took home the drama award in her senior year. In 2008, she returned to Pomfret for Career Day, telling students, "Knowing what you don't want to do is as important as knowing what you do." Since graduating, Waterlow has served as a class secretary and is a current member of the Alumni Association Executive Council. In 2011, the Pomfret Alumni Association gave her the Achievement Medal, one of the highest honors the School can bestow upon a member of the alumni body.
After leaving the Hilltop, Waterlow deferred college for a year to attend the British American Drama Academy in London. She graduated from Emory University in 1996, and eventually settled in New York City. Her first big break came in 1997 when she was hired by Kunhardt Productions to work on The American President, a ten-hour series for PBS, chronicling the history of the American presidency, which premiered at the White House in 2000.
In addition to O.J.:Made in America, Waterlow's film credits include Cutie and the Boxer; Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon; and Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, which earned her an Emmy award in 2008. "I am grateful for the path I have taken and the amazing people I have worked with who have believed in me," she said in June. "You can do it. You just have to have the confidence that you will have the sense to figure things out. You can take on a lot more than you thought."