The Jimi Hendrix estate has been holding up a proper biopic for decades. But one night screenwriter John Ridley (who won the Oscar for his screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave”), trolled the internet and found some splendid Hendrix covers from early in his career in London. Suddenly he saw a way to take a slice of life of the famed guitarist. And following years of directing in television for John Wells and others, Ridley got the project financed as his second feature directing gig. “Jimi: All Is By My Side” has played well on the festival circuit–I interviewed Ridley a year ago in Toronto– and finally opened Friday to strong reviews. (The full interview, which includes more background behind “12 Years a Slave,” is here.)
Anne Thompson: I always knew you were a good writer with range. I didn’t know you were a good director.
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 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 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. We wanted to make it our own. To try and chase Jimi Hendrix, 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, he had just gotten himself down to where Jimi was at that time period because they weren’t eating. 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.”
Talk about the nature of his relationship with Linda Keith, played by Imogen Poots. 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?”
Why Imogen Poots?
Imogen gave me a month of time in Dublin to come in and work with Andre. And that was great for him to get a 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… 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 is not a sing-along movie but it’s about the music, and you get that emotion. One of my favorite films of Coppola’s is “Rain People”; 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 who cut the first film I was ever involved in, Oliver Stone’s “U Turn.” 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 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?” 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 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 he’s in that club and he’s playing the music, that’s 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.
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 them.