Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

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

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
October 16, 2013 6:30 PM
5 Comments
  • |
Chiwetel Ejiofor, far right, and Quvenzhane Wallis, center left, on set in "Twelve Years a Slave"
Chiwetel Ejiofor, far right, and Quvenzhane Wallis, center left, on set in "Twelve Years a Slave"


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?

5 Comments

  • JEFF JONES | January 16, 2014 9:47 PMReply

    I haven't seen either movie,12 Years A Slave or the soon released, All is By My Side.I will see both and do not anticipate any disappointment with either feature.I expect the excellence of purpose demonstrated in this insightful interview.

  • Joseph Angier | October 17, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    Great interview with a real talented guy. The only omission is that there's no mention of the work he did with us at KCET on "California Connected," some of which I produced and co-wrote!

  • Kasden | September 19, 2013 1:12 PMReply

    Biopics about well known and much-loved artists are a dicey prospect. It better be damn good or I probably wont see it. He brings up Sid And Nancy as an example of a story that could be told that was beyond just star-worship. Let's hope this is the case. Certainly looking forward to 12 Years A Slave.

  • Mohammed | September 19, 2013 10:58 AMReply

    Great interview. I'm glad he's finally getting his due. And I can't be more happy for Plan B, and that they took a chance on a project like this when no one else would.

  • cass | September 19, 2013 7:33 AMReply

    fantastic interview... smart smart answers

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

Email Updates

Most "Liked"

  • Why Weinstein Is Re-Releasing Summer ...
  • First Gurus 'O Gold Pre-Festival Top ...
  • Emmy Watch: As TV Enters the Future, ...
  • Emmy Awards: Lena Dunham Wins the Red ...
  • The Radical World of Avant-Garde Master ...
  • Participant Joins DreamWorks' Spielberg ...
  • How David Byrne Collaborated with Jonathan ...
  • WATCH: Live Stream Emmys Red Carpet ...
  • Participant Media, Changing Its Stripes, ...
  • Remembering Actor-Director Richard Attenborough ...