The current narrative when it comes to television is that prestige drama belongs to the cable world, not broadcast. But the series “American Crime,” created by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) looks to change that perception; with the full support of ABC, Ridley has crafted a narrative that begins with a murder and spirals into a portrait of modern-day America, with all its flaws and complications.
At this year’s ATVfest, Indiewire sat down with Ridley to learn what went into choosing the show’s location of central California, how they managed to come in under budget and what it means to put the word “America” in the name of your show.
I’ve seen the pilot, which I was really impressed by. It’s so different from anything you might expect ABC to put out. It sounds like that came from the fact that ABC didn’t touch it, they kind of just gave you the reins to the show.
I would say they were amazingly communicative and I hope on both sides that we — myself and the producer Michael McDonald — just communicated a lot, so it never got to the point where they felt like they had to either abdicate control to us and we were just running wild with it or, on our side, that we had to someone dig a moat and maintain control. To their credit, early on, they said they really wanted to create an environment where storytellers would feel empowered to tell the kinds of stories we wanted to tell, and the way that we wanted to tell them.
There are two parts of it. It’s one thing to write a script that hopefully has some kind of impact, it’s another thing then to create a show that has levels of cinema where hopefully it stands apart from some other work, and at least stands on its own. So in that regard, between ourselves and ABC, it was constant communication — talking about what kind of show we wanted to do, doing a lot of proof of concepts, so that we never got to a point where either of us felt like either they were insisting on something, or that we were being intractable on certain points either.
So when you say “proofs of concept,” talk a little bit about that process. Are you talking about scripts, full sizzle reels?
Close. We were doing mood pieces, where we would take footage that was generally found footage with things like that coming together, put some music with it, and really show the executives — in terms of style, in terms of tone, in terms of music, in terms of look, in terms of cinematography — what we were trying to accomplish. And then it really was about taking stills, taking wardrobe, hair sheets… Putting all these things together so that everyone would understand in as much detail as possible what we were trying to achieve.
As far as scripts went, we certainly had the pilot script, but then moving forward in a series, we tried to get our scripts done as early as possible so that any kind of notes, any kinds of thoughts anyone would have, wouldn’t be relegated until the last few minutes we went into production. Rather, everybody would have a full opportunity to voice their opinions on it. And when you give people the opportunity to talk about it, I find you avoid the last minute aggravating kinds of notes, where no one really has a chance to be thoughtful and take their time to really make decisions.
So, again, as much communication as we possibly could have. It wasn’t as if they were saying, “You know, do whatever you want to do.” But I do feel like they put us in a position where if we were going to be responsible with the stories, with the scripts, with our production, with how we handled ourselves, then, yes, I think we got a lot more latitude than one might get in a similar circumstance.
How long would you say that the initial development of what the show would become took?
Maybe August of 2013 is when we first started talking about the series. And then we had a script done and ready to go about October. We were in the pilot development phase, so that happens very, very quickly. So it was only a matter of months before the outline was approved, the script was written. The script was essentially approved and turned in.
And then when you do, there are a myriad of different scripts that are waiting to get picked up and so you just basically just wait and see if it’s going to happen for you. It got picked up, started casting in January or so of 2014, then we were shooting in March. So it’s a fairly short period for us because we weren’t a fall show. We did have some extra time in terms of putting the cut together and doing all of the finishing color timing, scoring and all that, which is very, very nice on the back end. But we were basically on everyone else’s schedule.
So once they said go with the pilot, we were gone. We were out and rolling. But that’s exciting. That’s one of the exciting aspects of television, is that it’s not an overly long gestation period. You can get it together, you just get it and move on.
Were you able to shoot relatively sequentially? Or was it all over the place?
Yeah, we didn’t do a lot of cross-boarding, where you try to get as many episodes in a week as possible and maximize your locations. I understand that from a financial point of view, but I really don’t like it. I think that it’s difficult enough with performers to try to get them in a headspace with what they’re doing and in a normal episodic week, you still have to shoot out of order, just because of the way the schedule lays and locations and things like that. So I think the more you separate the continuity and try to do things just to save money… I know shows that do and do it well, I just don’t think that’s… I think it’s a hindrance.
It’s already difficult enough with performers when they’re already working in a very emotional space. I think it’s more difficult when you say, “Okay, we’re gonna do a little bit of Episode 2, now we’re gonna get 6, then we have a couple scenes from 5 that we’re gonna do, and then we’re gonna jump over to 3, and then next week we’re gonna be in 8 and 9.” I think it’s confusing. So, it’s better for us to just really plan well.
We ended up being substantially under budget. I think it really speaks to Michael McDonald, Lori-Etta [Taub] who was our line producer, just how they put together a schedule so that we could be as efficient as possible.
Coming in under budget is, of course, a great achievement. How do you feel like you pulled that off?
It was planning. I mean, first of all, we have an amazing crew. We just had one of the best crew that I’ve ever worked with, and when you have people that have a capacity to execute at a very efficient level as well as a highly creative level, I mean right there it makes your day that much easier to manage.
I would say the same thing about our performers. They came in every day absolutely prepared. And that makes a huge difference, when they know what it is that they want to accomplish as performers and we’ve already built the space with our crew, where they can have the opportunity to really get into the character and take a few runs at what’s going on.
Also, when you have your scripts in on time so you can plan your shooting, you know what locations you’re going to work toward… I’ve worked on shows where sometimes you start prep, you literally don’t have a script, you have an outline, and that puts everybody back. When you have your scripts ready, when everybody knows what’s going to happen, when they can plan ahead, that just allows for another level of efficiency.
To a degree, yeah, it’s really nice when you can show your bosses that you saved money and they’re very proud of that, but I also think that the other thing is that when you come in and you’re efficient, it really means that you’re allowing more space and more time for the performances and you can put that up on the screen. And that’s what the audiences care about.
So, you’re making two groups happy. You’re making the corporate bosses happy, which is good, but I really hope and believe when the audiences feel something, when they feel the emotion, when they feel like they’re being carried somewhere else, they know that part of that reason is because we had the space to really allow for the best performances that we could get from a group of performers that were already top notch.
In terms of the structure of the show, having only seen the pilot, I can presume that it’s a fairly overarching narrative. But are there episodic elements to it?
There are not really episodic elements in the traditional sense. Again, every single episode, the audiences that are there will feel satisfaction. They won’t feel like, “Well, I just sat there for 42 minutes and absolutely nothing happened.” So there absolutely will be the same style progression of the story that we leave it in a space where the audience member hopefully will have a reason to come back to the next story, not just because they’re carried along emotionally.
Central California is not an area of the country that you see on film a lot. What initially drew you there?
Honestly, just largely because as you mentioned: It’s not a part of the country that we see a lot, and I think that if you’re dealing with a show that delves into areas of race or class or gender politics or politics of sexual orientation, across the country you could look at different cities just geographically.
And a lot of times people will bring their own pre-suppositions if it happens in the South, if it happens in New England, or the East Coast, and even in California itself, a lot people think of it as just a blue state and that’s all there is to it. But, as you know, this is a vast state. There are lots of different thoughts out there.
I wanted a city where if something like this were to occur, different from Los Angeles, different from New York or Chicago, it doesn’t get lost in a den of outside events, but at the same time it’s not so small that it has that creek of being a small town and people may have an assumption of how small town people would address something like this. It’s big enough that people are exposed to different thoughts and different feelings, but it’s not San Francisco, it’s not LA, it doesn’t have those same political thoughts.
And also the concept that there are so many people within this story that come into this city. In some ways, their energy and their expectations are going to be large enough that they’re going to actually challenge the status quo in this place. So I thought Modesto, it’s a city that I’ve heard about, I’ve been by, I’ve been through, but it had the opportunity to be its own canvas. And in some ways be representative, as with the title, of America. It could be any city in America and isn’t, you know, when you hear Chicago you have certain thoughts about Chicago, or Boston or NY or some small town in Mississippi, Modesto could be its own city and at the same time represent all of America, our strengths and our weaknesses.
This is a kind of goofy question–
[laughs] I’m okay with goofy questions.
Well, when I was researching this, of course, other things came up on Google. And so, I was wondering, how mad are you at Ryan Murphy? [Murphy is currently working on “American Crime Story,” a series about the O.J. Simpson murder trial.]
I have to tell, in all honesty, if there’s one person who will probably benefit from that gentleman’s success from that confusion… I can’t get mad. I mean first of all, honestly, “American Sniper,” “American Gangster,” “American Crime”… It is, you know, a word that is potent. And I think we use it because it really sets the mark of who we are and what we’re examining, pieces of ourselves.
Beyond that, [Murphy] has obviously been tremendously successful. If someone is gonna confuse the shows, I think I would certainly, and could use more confusion, in an association with him than with me. So I’m not mad at anybody, and I think that if you’re three episodes into “American Crime” and you haven’t seen OJ yet, then you probably know that you were meant to wait for the other series and vice versa. So it’s all good.
On that score, though, if putting “America” in the title brings a certain level of expectation to it, is that a pressure you feel in coming at the story? Do you feel the pressure to be representative of a much larger concept?
Not so much the pressure, because coming into it, when ABC first sat down, they pitched me this umbrella of the idea. I went back and thought about the specifics, but it was their desire to create a show in some regard that was really reflective of what’s going on in America, not just in terms of socio-political aspects, but a show that looked like America, that represented America.
So for me, I don’t feel that pressure because I always believed that coming into it, this was an opportunity for me to put something on the air that really was representative, and not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera. It’s very sad… We talk often, and because it’s something we see about actors and this time of year, who got nominated and who didn’t, and I get that conversation. But behind the scenes, when you look at how many or how few women are directing or editing, people of color in the writers rooms and things like that, that’s where we actually need to have more of that thought of America, than just in the title or the actors we see.
So one of the things I was very happy with this show was that we really had an opportunity to allow all kinds of people into this environment and they’ve excelled. I mean, honestly, if you look at the pilot, the large reasons it’s working is not because of me. It’s because of the crew that we had, and certainly our post production and our editors, the mix, the sound design, all of those elements. And when you look at the demographics that we have there, we really did, I think, an amazing job of being representative.
I mean, a lot of people use the word “diverse.” It’s not really diverse, but it’s representative of who we are. So, in that regard, I think we got America covered.
I’m gonna ask you a question that I’m sure you’ve been asked before, which is that you’ve had some really great success recently in film — so why go back to television? First, though, I do want to know how many people have asked you that.
You know, people, they do ask that question and, you know, it’s a fair question to ask. I think part of it is certainly the perception right now, I’m doing well in film. I’m making the films that I’m fortunate to be able to make, and film seems like the glamour medium. And it is, quite frankly, to be able to hang out with people like Brad Pitt or Chiwetel or whomever. It’s glamorous. What am I going to say? I mean, André Benjamin is a friend of mine now, it’s pretty glamorous.
But I started in television, going way back — half hours, the “Martin” show, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — and there’s no better time, I think, to work in any medium than in what is covered as television right now, whether it’s broadcast, cable, streaming, what have you. To me, it would’ve been really wonderful to do “American Crime” for two hours and explore these characters, but it’s even more wonderful to be able to explore them over 11 hours, and really take the time to step these characters out, as opposed to having characters who come in and seem like types.
It’s also great to be in the middle of the show and have really specific ideas about where you want to go and what you want to do, and something else comes along. And as these characters develop, or as actors come in, or as moments arise, to be able to say, “I really enjoyed this aspect we were going, but this seems interesting. Why don’t we explore this? Why don’t we go down this road?” In the movies, you can’t really do that. You get locked into the production, and it has to happen the way it has to happen.
I mean, look, I’m blessed at this point to be working in any regard anywhere. You know, if it was on an Etch-a-Sketch, I would consider that a good way to still be employed. But to be able to return to television, return to a space where there are people who had given me opportunities going way, way back — people at the network now who had given me the opportunity with “Three Kings” in cinema.
It’s just interesting that so many people who have been involved in so many aspects of my professional career behind the scenes are now saying, “Hey, we want to take all those interesting things that you’ve done.” I mean, they’re certainly not doing it based on my commercial success, because it’s not there. What is there is a desire to tell stories and to tell them in an interesting way, and to have those individuals who’ve been there and told some of those stories with me and say, “Yeah, we like that. That’s what’s interesting to us. Go tell those kinds of stories.”
That’s made me feel very good, and that in and of itself was a reason to do television, and certainly with ABC. Because that’s what I’ve always been attracted to, I’m not worrying necessarily what kind of cultural density you’re gonna take on and hope that it does, but worry about that story and the storytelling first and foremost.
“American Crime” airs Thursdays at 10pm on ABC.