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Oscar-Winner John Ridley Talks Writing ’12 Years a Slave’ and Directing Hendrix Biopic ‘All Is By My Side’

Oscar-Winner John Ridley Talks Writing '12 Years a Slave' and Directing Hendrix Biopic 'All Is By My Side'

John 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 Oscar frontrunner “12 Years a Slave” as well as his 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.  

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.

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.

“12 Years a Slave” could win best picture. It’s not only about that but it’s going to be in the culture, a must-see.

With Steve and with Plan B and when we were done and when I saw it, I always felt like that aspect of bringing something that’s going to be in the American conversation for a long time is a historic moment. I always felt like that was done, we did our job. And when we went to Telluride and Toronto, and when people as you say have said “it’s going to be part of the conversation,” but at the same time there’s an opportunity for these awards, all that will take care of itself. But to be part of the conversation, there’s a point where you’re young and think “yeah I’m going to muscle my way in, and be part of it,” there’s a part when you’re older and go, “a peer review would be wonderful.” But then there’s a moment where you’re part of the conversation. Your wife is reading those stories. Your kids hear about it. It’s special. I’m exceptionally proud.

What’s really disturbing is that this hasn’t been told yet. There are all these things in our culture that we take for granted as being something we already know but it doesn’t have to be this way. People might say, “oh it’s another slave movie or, how many slave movies do I have to see?” But let’s go on IMDb and count and there really haven’t been that many. It’s not “Django,” which I honestly didn’t see. It’s not that I didn’t want to. I didn’t get a screener. I have a problem with violence, I really do. At the end of the year, when all these things are happening and you’ve got two kids, a lot of what you see gets determined by what gets put in front of you. I’ve written films that are violent. I’m not big on sitting and watching violence.

Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and some other people were pretty straight about how they felt, which is that they didn’t want to go to that movie.

I’m not big on trying to spare people. At some point somebody’s going to turn around and say to me, “why are you making that movie because you were involved with it,” and I don’t want to be on that end of it. On a level, and I have not seen the movie, but if it’s Jamie Foxx taking care of racists, I don’t know that I have a problem with that. For me, the big issue is, it’s not so much a conversation about others getting to tell our story. I’m very happy that in this year you’ve got “42,” “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler,” I’m happy that over the last 16 months you’ve got “Red Tails,” “Think Like a Man,” “Flight,” “Mandela,” “The Call,” “After Earth.” I’m happy for all that. My concern going forward is if you’ve got people like Quentin Tarantino and the folks who made “The Help” telling our stories, do we get to tell “Star Trek,” “Transformers”?

If I have the opportunity to tell those kinds of stories, I’m going to be less concerned about whomever is dipping into our culture. If we don’t get that opportunity, and this is basically where our storytelling lives, then I don’t blame people for being more protective of that narrow, yet powerful scope of what we get to tell.

I spoke with Chiwetel the other day, and I picked up on a little sensitivity on his part at the idea that this movie was made by Brits. You’re an American, you wrote this. It appears to have taken your collaboration with a British director to make this happen.

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?”

I can’t get mad at them. And again, I say, it’s a fantastic thing but if it does come down on us but we as Americans are constantly looking at other people’s cultures and going, “here’s a story we want to tell you.” We don’t get mad and if other people say anything, this is what we do as storytellers. Whether the proper word is mad or concerned or upset, I don’t think in that regard that is an appropriate response on any level.

As you were writing, what were some of the difficulties you faced or blocks you had to surmount?

The language. The first time you read the story, it’s great. You go through the whole book and start to break down the plot, the narrative. The plot is fairly self-evident but the writing style is different than audiences are accustomed to in 2013. Solomon is a writer. In some places the language is so elevated, in some places it was arcane, in some places it was fully formed, there was dialogue, and in other places it was just talking about a scene. The most difficult thing was the education, just learning about the entire environment. You come into it, “I’m a black American, I know about slavery.” Nothing. I didn’t. Then it’s the language and educating myself on little things.

I had a line that Paul ended up speaking: “my loyalty stretches to the end of a dollar bill.” They didn’t have printed paper then. So there are things you have to check. That is the fundamental aspect and then you just get to how the language works and the rhythms and how it’s written and for me, ultimately as a young writer, you get to this point where you just want an invisible hand. I wanted to be as seamless as possible, I wanted to assert myself at the lowest level possible which was to execute at the greatest degree at this stage in my life.

But you had a lot of images and that’s what cinema writing is.

That, for me in that space and also in “Always By My Side,” in both those films, did I trust myself enough? Certainly I had trust in Steve as there was no doubt he could visually deliver.

Did you write it knowing there would be long scenes?

That was something we definitely talked about but Steve said ‘don’t not put words in because you think I don’t want words.’ When you feel like there are moments it can sustain itself, show me that and let me decide where it should be and that was the wonderful thing about Steve. It wasn’t like, “don’t give me anything, I want a script that is not written or I need a lot of words.” It was never one thing or the other. He said, “show me what you want to do and then I let him as a director decide where it needs to go.” There are other things you look at and think, “where did that come from?” For what would normally be the action, I tried to be as descriptive as possible. When I saw the film there were things where he had clearly taken it to a whole other space.

With “All Is by My Side,” it turns out that being separate from the Jimi Hendrix estate was a blessing.

JR: 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?

What films?

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.

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