Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.

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."

All Is by My Side
All Is by My Side

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.

John Ridley
John Ridley
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.