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.