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Interview: John Ridley Talks ‘All Is By My Side,’ ‘American Crime’ and Career Longevity

Interview: John Ridley Talks 'All Is By My Side,' 'American Crime' and Career Longevity

After making its festival premiere last year at
Toronto, John Ridley’s “All Is By My Side” comes to select theaters
today, telling the story of a year in the life of legendary musician Jimi
Hendrix.

Writer-director John Ridley, who’s had a busy
year starting with an Oscar win for writing “12 Years A Slave,” and
also developing the upcoming crime drama “American Crime” at ABC,
recently spoke with Shadow And Act about his first feature directorial effort
in over a decade and how it’s shaped his career.

And in case you missed it, also find our
interview with “All Is By My Side” star Andre Benjamin here.

JAI TIGGETT: Can talk about the inspiration for “All Is By My
Side”?

JOHN RIDLEY: Going back several years,
there was a moment where I was surfing the net late at night and heard a song
called “Sending My Love To Linda,” and to me it was a rarity and just
amazingly powerful. And even for an artist like Jimi Hendrix it was a song that
I felt was reaching for something that I hadn’t really heard before. In my curiosity
I started going back, doing some research and figuring out who Linda was, and
learning about the time that Jimi spent in London. The more I learned, the more
I just felt like here’s where the story is.

It’s an aspect of his life that most people
even like myself, who consider themselves to be Hendrix fans, weren’t familiar
with. It had its own arc, it had its own central narrative; it was about
connections and chemistry and people who really were instrumental in shaping his
career.

 JT: What about the decision
to focus on a single year of his life?

JR: People have approached me about doing
Hendrix films in the past and it was back in the era where, for all kinds of biopics,
there was a desire to take the totality of their life and cram it into two
hours. And I think that back in the day it worked and people enjoyed that, but
audiences now are a lot savvier; they want to dig more deeply and they have
higher expectations of storytelling. In the last bunch of years they’ve seen
stories like “42” that just focused on Jackie Robinson’s rookie year
or “Lincoln” that looked at the man just through the passage of the
Emancipation Proclamation. And that is a different level and a different depth
of storytelling.

JT: You make some interesting stylistic choices in the film. Tell me
about cutting in some of the still photos and archival footage in certain
sections.

JR: I think it was an evolution of process. Even
though this is a small independent film, it was a large endeavor for me. So when
I was originally putting together the film I would go out and collect archival
material to discuss with the production designer, and he certainly exchanged an
immense amount of material with me. We’d go out and shoot scenes with actors, not
necessarily actors that would be in the film, but just shoot things and work
things.

And I started to realize – particularly after
working with our editor Hank Corwin, who is just quite simply a genius – we’re
talking about a time period that was 46, 47 years ago. So there’s a lot of
things that people take for granted about London [at that time], and there’s a
whole other audience for whom it really was another time and place. And in
creating this environment we wanted to do something that was a little more
experiential and not just rely purely on production design and wardrobe. How
could it be more of a collage and really be creative and make it feel like a
whole piece? It was really a way of making the past present in this film, of making
it alive and vibrant.

JT: The story is
about Hendrix’s relationships with these three women, but they’re kind of
appendages of him in a way. Even with character introductions in the film, the
lower thirds that are used, only the male characters are introduced in that
way. Tell me about that.  

JR: I think a lot of times in rock ‘n roll stories, women are
groupies and they tend to be kind of shallow. What really impressed me in this
era is that these women were all very formidable in their own regard but at the
same time, they fulfilled aspects that Jimi was looking for in his life. And so
for Jimi there was an intellectual side, an emotional side, and also there was
a very ethnocentric side. And particularly with Ida in the film who was based
on Devon Wilson, I think most people don’t even know about that relationship or
what she brought to the table.

So for me, I never really thought about it in regard to
introducing these individuals because I was very familiar with the characters. And
as powerful as they were, as the saying goes, there are some individuals that
need no introduction. But it was never my intent or desire that they would come
off as just girlfriends as opposed to being very key relationships that really
guided him.

JT: How did you handle the criticism from the Hendrix estate and not
wanting to be involved in the film?

JR: They are in control of the intellectual
property and they have an absolute right to dispense it as they see fit. People
like Paul Greengrass and the Hughes brothers have wanted to do a Hendrix biopic
and were not able to bridge the divide between what they wanted to do
creatively and what the estate wanted to achieve. And so there’s a level where,
if they weren’t able to do it, am I kidding myself that I, particularly where I
was in my career two years ago, was going to try to persuade people to see
things differently? At the same time, if we have an opportunity to tell a story
where we can use music that Jimi played, that is real, that is historically
accurate, that is available to us from “Killing Floor,” to “Mannish
Boy” to pieces like “Sgt. Pepper,” we’re going to avail ourselves
of that.

But I never felt like it was a limitation. We
see films all the time, whether they have access to all kinds of intellectual
property or artifacts, and the one thing that they don’t get is story. So I
think whether you’re talking about a biopic or an action film or a
science-fiction film that has all the CGI in the world, if you’re not trying to
connect with an audience, it doesn’t really matter.

JT: You’ve
worked on so many different kinds of projects as of late – film, television,
writing, directing. Has that always been the goal, or is there an area where
you feel most comfortable?

JR: I can’t say that I necessarily love one
over the other. They all have their rewards, they all have their challenges.
What I really love is telling stories. More than anything else, after all these
years I’m just very thankful that I’m in a space where I can still tell stories
the way I’d like to tell them, or the way I think it benefits the story. I
think I appreciate that more with every passing year because you realize that
it’s a gift and a singular opportunity. I don’t know how long it’s going to
last because none of us, unfortunately, have control over our careers. But I
have been very blessed over these past few years and if the last bunch of films
that I get to be known for are things like “12 Years A Slave” or “All
Is By My Side,” it’s been a pretty special career.

JT: Do
you attribute that to anything besides the quality of the work?

JR: I think if there’s anything that really made
a difference over the past couple of years, there got to be a point where a lot
of things changed that were beyond my control. Around 2007 the whole world
changed – economics changed, the way that Hollywood was making films changed,
and my place in it changed. And for me it got to a point where I could try to
compete with an amazing array of writers who were going after fewer and fewer
projects or I could start taking some chances on things that I really believed
in. And it really started with “Red Tails” and continued with “12
Years A Slave,” and then particularly with “All Is By My Side.”

You’re never sure how things are going to work
out, but looking back over these few years I’m thankful that I ended up picking
projects that weren’t necessarily about the paycheck upfront, but you knew
going into it – you read Solomon Northup’s memoir and know you’ve been
presented with a story that’s very special. So for me that is the difference, to
try to build on things that I did well in the past, but really to say if these
are the last bunch of stories you’re going to tell, are you going to tell them
because you’re passionate about them or are you going to tell them because
someone is paying you to tell these stories?

JT: You’ve also got “American Crime” coming up at ABC. They’re
taking more risks with the kinds of stories they’re telling, and with diversity
in general. 

JR: They are taking chances across the board,
not only with me but with a lot of different story tellers. With “American
Crime,” one of the things I’m really excited about is that it has a very cinematic
quality. There is growth to it, there’s depth. It’s not about solving a crime
or DNA evidence or easy answers, but it really is about perspective. Unfortunately
in America a lot of times conversations that are deep and provocative and
powerful, they only happen when they’re nexused around outside events. What we
want to get to with “American Crime” is telling stories that are in
some ways larger than life, because hopefully most of us will never be visited
on one end or the other of these. We’ll never get phone calls that one of our
loved ones has been a victim of a violent crime or accused of a violent crime,
but at the same time we can bring our own particular perspectives to how we
think justice should be dispensed. So to be able to tell a story that broad and
nuanced on network television, it’s a real opportunity.

I cannot say enough about ABC Studios and about ABC
as a network for allowing me the opportunity to do it. And one of the reasons I
was able to write and direct the pilot and the second episode is because ABC absolutely
loved “All Is By My Side.” All of those elements of cinema, sound,
sight and performance, they were really excited about bringing to this
television series.

Jimi: All Is By My Side” opens in select theaters
today. 

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