Getting credit for things in Hollywood is always an issue. Especially where Oscar-winners are concerned. Everyone wants a piece. During the fall festivals, when I talked to the eventual Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley and producer/director Steve McQueen about “12 Years a Slave,” I picked up on a chill between the two men. I perceived more praise from Ridley toward McQueen than the other way around. But neither man actually said anything critical during the long road to Oscar.
I spoke to Ridley on the phone from Austin, Texas where he is shooting a pilot (ABC’s “American Crime) and will visit SXSW to plug his sophomore directing effort “Jimi: All is By My Side,” which debuted in Toronto. (More of our interview on that film is below.)
So what is the rift between Ridley and McQueen about? Yes, as reported by The Wrap, McQueen did discuss sharing the screenplay credit with Ridley, who told me that he would have shared the story by credit if he could with McQueen, with Ridley taking sole screenplay credit. He had settled for a story by credit once before, when writer-director David O. Russell took the screenplay credit on “Three Kings.” No rancor there anymore, as Ridley gave Russell, and not McQueen, a hug on the way to the Oscar podium. (Ridley also hugged “12 Years” producer Dede Gardner, who developed the script with him.)
Ridley explains that when a screenwriter adapts a memoir, the Writers Guild of America won’t permit a story by credit–in this case, Solomon Northup wrote the true story that the movie is based on. As Ridley wrote the first draft for Plan B (on spec), it would be difficult for a director like McQueen to get a shared Screenplay By credit, which would require a WGA arbitration. “For both of us, I would have been happy to have Story By credit,” says Ridley. “Steve never tried to get an arbitration. A lot of people assume we wrote the script together every day for four years. The reality is that Steve lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles. We met a dozen times at most. I can’t say in all honesty that Steve and I had an opportunity to become super tight. It starts to bother me when the story becomes that we didn’t give each other foot massages. Steve was never not deferential to me and I hope I always expressed admiration for him, the cast and crew. Steve did a lot for me. I don’t know if Steve is upset. We got to have our moment. It was a beautiful moment for us.”
Ridley points out that he thanked McQueen many times over the season, including the Independent Spirits the day before the Oscars, and that on the Academy Awards show, many folks omitted any mention of who wrote their movies. “We should have equal concern for people who did not get their due,” he says. “People included me in this. I never got the sense that I should go stand in the corner.” Ridley kept his 30-second speech short on Oscar night, thanking Solomon Northup. (Truth be told he was relieved that he didn’t cry, something he tends to do.)
Another reason for the reported “rift” between the two men is something McQueen said at the BAFTA after party when he went over to Ridley’s table to pick up some souvenirs and was ignored by the folks sitting there. McQueen (who was not available for comment) said something about no one talking to him, according to sources who were there. And there was no crying involved.
Directors want to share screenplay credit with writers all the time, which is why the Writers Guild of America exacts such a high standard. The director is the ultimate arbiter/creator/visionary on any movie. But they aren’t all writers. So what ordinarily happens in this situation is a WGA arbitration–the contributions of the anonymous writers are objectively assessed–after which everyone abides by the decision. (It can have an impact on what the writer gets paid, as well.) So why not let the WGA decide? Ridley was fine with that, he says. But McQueen listened to his advisors and wisely opted not to pursue credit for a film with a good chance of an impending Oscar campaign. He was nominated as director and won as producer.
Notably, the reason that Ridley’s script was not eligible for a WGA adapted screenplay nomination even though Plan B and “12 Years a Slave” were Guild signatories was that although Ridley is a “politically agnostic” member of the WGA and pays his dues, because he opted to go financial core during the Writers Guild strike in 2008, he was no longer eligible for the WGA Awards.
Anne Thompson: “12 Years a Slave” blew me away, and I’m not the only one. What brought you to the film?
John Ridley: Five years ago now, “Hunger” was screening at CAA and I was invited to the screening. I’d also given Steve McQueen a manuscript I’d written. I thought “Hunger” was truly a phenomenal film and as a kid I had been interested in Bobby Sands as well. When you’re a kid and you grow up in the Midwest and you hear about a hunger strike in Ireland, you can’t really comprehend what that’s about. I was very curious about Steve because on the surface he didn’t seem like the kind of person who would be attracted to that story but I guess I didn’t either.
Steve said, “I really wanted to tell a story about that time and place and the slave era in America but I wanted to have a character that was not obvious in terms of their trade in slavery, someone who had artistic abilities and who had station but found themselves in a different geographical location. Something that has scope and scale emotionally.” We went back and forth on the idea and his wife found the [Solomon Northup] manuscript, which was really good source material. She gave it to him, he loved it, he gave it to me and said “this is fantastic and if this is what you want to do, let’s attempt it.”
Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B knew me and he knew Steve and he said, “look, we don’t really have any development money, we can’t really help you.” This was not a standard development situation. It became a spec script. But he said, “if you guys can work out what you want to do and if you’re willing to go write a script and do it on spec and turn it into something that works and Steve is happy with it, we’ll find a way to put it together.”
At that point, Jeremy was one of those producers where if he says that we’ll put it together, you believe that he means it. Working with Steve was difficult only with the geography. He lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles and in that time period “Shame” came together for him and “All Is By My Side” came together for me but we both thought that this was something worth doing. When the script got to the point where I thought it was terrific. I gave it to Steve, he had some notes and some thoughts but we got it to the point where he thought it was great. We took it to Jeremy. He said, “let’s do it,” and it was for me a very heady time because when that kicked off “All Is By My Side” came into production.
By that time I had seen “Shame” and had always known what Steve was capable of. At that point everybody knew. But at the same time, to go off and write and direct my own thing, these last two years have been really interesting, fun exciting time to be able to do two things that are very high level.
Anne Thompson: Why John Ridley?
Steve McQueen: I needed to work with a writer who I thought could understand the material. I thought he would be a good collaborator in finding out what we could leave in and what we could take out, and in what was needed in the script because the book was so good that it needed help, but it didn’t need that much help. But it did need this idea of editing, in a way. After that, we moved on.
And here’s what Plan B producer Dede Gardner had to say about the writing and development process:
Anne Thompson: “12 Years a Slave” is powerful and immersive and puts you through the pain. It doesn’t spare you. How did you get involved?
Dede Gardner: We saw “Hunger” and I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was one of the most amazing films I’d seen in a long time. We reached out to Steve McQueen and said, “you don’t know us and you’re new to the system but we want to work with you, and to trust us.” You start talking and feeling out one another’s overlap, where your interests are as human beings and artists and as people who love film. He said, “why don’t you think there’s ever been a movie about the institution of slavery per se? There have been movies about singular events but never one that really presents a survey.” We said we didn’t know. I was troubled by the question and said, “why don’t we try?” So that was the beginning.
We talked about a lot of ideas, fictional ideas. Steve was always interested in the notion of a free man who becomes a slave. He was always convinced that a story will be more resonant with an audience if you start with someone who is free and has his freedom taken away from him. His wife Bianca found the book [Solomon Northup’s memoir] and I’m mortified to say I hadn’t heard of it. The book is a beautiful piece of writing and also eerily cinematic both visually and structurally, and that was the starting point. We were already speaking with [John Ridley] and he agreed to write the script [on spec]. Our idea was to get this film as far as we could to the point where it was undeniable. Once we had worked with the script for several years, we got Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. We thought we had a shot.
AT: Talk about Ridley’s screenplay. How did it change? How did you adapt the Solomon Northup memoir?
Dede Gardner: The 12 years and the progression of plantations is what it is. We had to truncate some stuff. There are whole episodes – the boat stops in Virginia, there’s a huge smallpox incident, he goes into a hospital and nearly dies of smallpox before he continues on his journey – and also, Mistress Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard, has one line in the book. It’s a great scene, and Steve said to John, “I actually think this is important.” He was committed to showing slave masters married to former or current slaves. That interracial dynamic existed back then but wasn’t commented on, it just was, and in order to do that it required a full scene and I think John did a beautiful job.
Ridley has been honing his craft for years, apprenticing with John Wells on “Third Watch,” through multiple movie scripts (“U-Turn,” “Red Tails”) and television series (“Barbershop,” “Platinum”) to his first feature “Cold Around the Heart.” He wrote the script for sophomore directing effort, Jimi Hendrix slice-of-life “All Is by My Side,” which was picked up by Open Road after a successful debut at the Toronto Film Festival. It plays SXSW Wednesday March 12. My interview with Ridley on the film is below.
AT: I always knew you were a really good writer with remarkable range. I didn’t know you were a really good director.
I didn’t know I was a good director and I mean that sincerely. I had done a film a long time ago called “Cold Around the Heart.” Nobody saw it and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted to. Directing under the best of circumstances is never easy but it was a learning experience for me. But because I wrote in television, you’re in production every single week. You get to learn about working with actors and budgets and as we sat down, working with John Wells, he was a guy where when you’re doing an episode with him, and I worked on the show “Third Watch” he was producing for a long time, you’re in charge of that week’s production, with what you wrote. You ran the show.
Directing television is different than a feature because they come in on a weekly basis. You would work very intimately with them and have conversations about how you saw the script and what they plan to do with it. You would be involved with the casting of the weekly cast, and the post-production and editing. You have the network standing with you, but you’re in charge.
That was a real education so in that space I learned a lot on the technical side. Then going off writing and producing shows, I did a show the Coppolas were producing that actually shot and went into production here in Toronto and that show I ended up directing some episodes, and you are working with a unit that is essentially yours and they are there for you and that experience is an exceptionally positive one.
You come out of that believing “I can do this, I know I can do it,” but I know the circumstances where I can execute at my highest level. With “All Is By My Side,” it was about setting it up start to finish.
It did and I was very happy to be part of it. I don’t know if I subscribe to the notion that somehow where our passports are issued constricts our ability to process this information. It’s a completely global story. Solomon Northup was American. This is Solomon’s work, his words, this is an American artifact that for years, we as Americans didn’t pay attention to. It was out there. It was not in schools. It was not talked about. I as an American put myself at the head of the list. I wasn’t aware of it. I don’t think it’s proper to get upset because other people go through the dustbin of our history and say, “why are you guys not paying attention to it?”
With “All Is by My Side,” it turns out that being separate from the Jimi Hendrix estate was a blessing.
Going into it, people said, “you can’t do the movie.”
It’s been on the rocks for decades.
People like Paul Greengrass, the Hughes brothers, these guys have track records and they couldn’t convince the estate that they had a story or a way in or a way to do it that was worthy of their time and intention.
Where did this one come from?
This came from about seven years ago, and I consider myself a Hendrix fan. I was up late one night writing and I was going through the internet and I was looking up old rarities of Jimi’s. Music. People would post music tracks, and this was still before people, when you post things, they take them down right away. I was just typing in “Hendrix rarities,” and a track in particular came up and I wasn’t really paying attention to it. It was these four busted studio tapes where he would stop and start, and they were okay. But he went in that fifth take and he pushed through that same spot, and it was almost the same spot where he broke down every time. He got to a point — and Jimi Hendrix is one of the most interpretive, emotive artists that ever played the guitar — where he started playing this track that is more emotional and has more depth, with more reach and more range, than anything I’d heard from him in the past.
And when I heard that I looked at the tile and the title was “Sending My Love to Linda” and I said, who’s Linda? This guy was clearly working something out and writing for someone, and I just decided I needed to find out as much as I could. I started reading and doing research. In some places she was mentioned very little, in other places a bit more, in some places they had a little bit about his London years. In other places they would talk more about jazz or what he did with Eric Clapton onstage, but it was all kind of bits and pieces.
I really believed there was a story here that has its own time and space that is finite. Rather than trying to fit 27 years into two hours, it’s taking two hours and looking at one year. I got to the end of it and said “this is a story and if I can tell it with music that is new, historically accurate and true and for people like me who consider themselves Hendrix fans, that sense for me when I discovered this story, that sense of excitement and curiosity…”
Whose music is it?
It is Buddy Walker, Buddy Guy, T Bone Walker, it is the Beatles, all this music that Jimi played and that inspired him but that a lot of people don’t know he was involved in. If you go online and look at the top downloads on iTunes, it’d be like “All Along the Watchtower” and “The National Anthem.” They were covers but in that interview that was in the film where Jimi says, “you should be able to take a song like “Auld Lang Syne” that people have heard a million times and play it in a new way.” If you listen to the Live at the Fillmore East album, he kicks off playing “Auld Lang Syne” and it’s New Year’s Eve and it’s a song you hear every New Year’s Eve, and Jimi plays it in a way that is so stunning. There was no easy way to slip that in but it’s such an amazing interpretive piece.
We got this guy Waddy Wachtel, who’s played with everybody. The thing was we wanted to make it our own. To try and chase Jimi Hendrix, the fact is you’re never going to get there. But if we can create our own sound and take historically accurate songs and marry them with an artist like Andre Benjamin, what we can do is show people something that is new and our own rather than trying to chase performances. Andre works so hard. There’s a reason Andre is a star. He’s got the charisma to begin with but he worked so hard to create a musically and emotionally honest version of Jimi rather than a Vegas lounge act, and that was very important to us.
He flew out to Los Angeles, spent six months with me, a guitar coach and a vocal coach. Andre is in great shape but lost about 20 pounds because Jimi at that time period was just emaciated. Andre looks great, but the fact of the matter is he had just gotten himself down to where Jimi was at that time period because he they weren’t eating. That’s how hard Andre works to put himself in place… you talk about Meryl Streep, that’s the kind of dedication you get from that level of acting. Andre wasn’t going to do it if he couldn’t make the effort. I said, “if you’re coming out for six months, you’ve got me for six months, I’m not working on anything else, I’m with you.”
Why Imogen Poots?
Imogen, Hayley, they gave me a month of their time in Dublin to come in and work with Andre. And that was great for him to work with these young, incredibly talented actors and get a chemistry. They had the chemistry. They created it on their own, hanging out and spending time together for a month. When I first knew we were going to do this movie, I said to the producers, “I need an education on young actresses that have that look, that ability and are English.” I wanted an English actress. The very first footage I looked at was Imogen’s. It was a scene from the film where someone was telling her something horrible happened to her mother, no dialogue from her and you just see her going from being hopeful to shattered in a few moments and she does it all with her face. As a writer, I love my words, I love my writing but when you have an actress who can deliver that. You know she can get the words.
Sitting down with Imogen, she is young and so well-read, so mature, has such a curiosity about things that are larger than just the script in front of her. There were days when she wasn’t shooting and I’d be in the middle of my day and she’d come by just to check it out and see what’s going on. I think that is really huge. A lot of times because of their schedules, actors can’t do that but when they’re curious about the rest of the film and scenes they’re not in, that is huge. Sometimes you see a movie and you think, “they’re not really working in the same movie.” Why is that? It’s not really everybody’s fault. To have someone like Imogen who wanted to see what was going on, that was huge for me.
I liked the way you cut it. You did some really cool, disjunctive jump cuts.
Part of it came from going in and really setting up the language that I wanted to use. What are the films that worked for me? Why did they work visually and emotionally? And why did they work with sound?
Bob Fosse’s “Lenny,” which I thought was a phenomenal biopic; “Sid and Nancy” which was very important because it’s not a sing-along movie but it’s about the music, and you get that emotion. I’ve been really fortunate to work with Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola on a couple of occasions. One of my favorite films of his is “Rain People” and honestly that film to me completely used visuals, the editing style and sound. That was a film that I wanted to go into saying, this is a template, this is what we want to get it.
I was very fortunate to work with a guy named Hank Corwin, and Hank cut the first film I was ever involved in, “U Turn.” I didn’t really get to work with him on it, it was an Oliver Stone film. It was absolutely nuts. I love Oliver and he’s a great guy. What he did with me in that space was, just because he worked with Hank at all, I always look at that movie and say, “it was trippy, it was exciting and visually, Oliver was going for something.” I shot a pilot two years ago for HBO that didn’t get picked up. Hank was cutting it and Spike Lee was directing it. I got to work with Hank, because it was television, very intimately with him on that.
Hank has a very unique way of taking visuals and working with them, but not losing the story and the narrative. That’s hard sometimes. You get caught up in being so cool you forget, “well what are we really talking about?” Hank has an amazing ability. Look at all the films and go, you’re shooting this and this but the head of this and the tail of that, that’s where it was really going on. That was not directed, it was not necessarily lit or set correctly but to me he’s like a French chef. You take all of the animal and put it on your plate and it is edible, every aspect of it, so there are moments in that film where he would present parts of where that’s not what I was thinking of, but he can lay it out in a way where it really works. For me there were places where, to begin with in laying out a style where intuitively he can take it and work with it where it wasn’t just about the cool but how does it work in terms of the story?
The scene where Imogen’s character gives the guitar back to Andre after they fight. Going into that originally, he gets the guitar back, it was a piece of music we worked on that Andre was going to play. When he played it onset it was beautiful and it was very straightforward it some ways. When we cut it originally I thought, “It doesn’t work. It’s just too precious.” I went home over the weekend and was thinking about it and I really thought, “someone’s giving you back this precious thing and it’s about holding it and touching it and it’s about finding that music, not that it’s fully formed when you have it, but when you get an artifact back that means so much to you, what are the stages you go through?”
I emailed Hank saying “this is what I’m thinking, there should be the sounds of the wood and all this.” Monday came around and I said “I know that was a crazy email and I probably didn’t make sense.” And he said “I want to show you something I started.” And he had started that cut that was in the film. I don’t think he changed it at all, he got exactly what I was going for and it was beautiful. Completely different from what I thought I wanted, but for me it’s working with those kinds of artists and honestly that whole section, from the time Andre (Jimi) is in London to the time where Hayley is in that club and he’s playing the music, that is the film that I really wanted in terms of the written word on the page, the visuals, the sound, where there’s no sound, where there’s a seven-and-a-half minute scene with four cuts. To me, that encapsulates everything I was trying to do but worked for me as a whole rather than just trying to be cool.
I wanted a little more specificity about the nature of his relationship with Linda. Were they in love? Were they in a sexual relationship?
It was not a sexual relationship at all and that’s what was interesting about it. Linda Keith was 19 years old and realized that this man, Jimi Hendrix at 24, was kind of washed-up. He played with Tina Turner, the Isley Brothers, he played with Little Richard and nobody wanted him because he was different. He was playing in the background with a mediocre band in a club and Linda Keith saw him and said, “this guy is one of the most amazing guitarists I have ever seen.”
She was in a relationship. She was not interested in one-night stands. She was interested in this guy. If you are anybody, and to me it’s not about the sex, it’s about when Jimi says “oh that’s just a friend,” that’s the tipping point of, there’s a way to do this and to be respectful and as she says in the restaurant, “I went through a lot of effort to get you here. Do you know what you’re doing and are you mindful? Are you just going to do these crazy things and not be responsible for your own actions?”
Who financed the film?
Darko, the film board of Ireland, Subotica, Matador, a lot of British people, a lot of folks putting in a lot of money in a lot of places.
How much did it cost?
We had more than enough money to get done what we needed to get done. We had a nice shoot. 30 days. To me it was more than enough time. It was not $20 million, not $10, this was not $6 this was not $5. I mean this sincerely, my fantasy was, “could I ever get it shot, could I ever get it done?” And I did that. For me over the last couple of years the films that have really blown me away were like “Hunger,” “Miss Bala” and “No.”
The good thing, when you finish a film and really think you did something special and then you see somebody else’s film and say, “OK, I still have some work to do,” that’s how I felt about that.
For anybody who put money in this movie, I hope [a major specialty distributor] picks this up because they deserve to get their work back and have the work seen. But I think we’re living in an era where good work will find the necessary audience and the people that need to see it for me, professionally… you know, coming out of Toronto, my trajectory is now set.