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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 16, 2013 at 6:30PM

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 both played the Toronto Film Festival.
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Andre Benjamin in "All Is By My Side"
Andre Benjamin in "All Is By My Side"

What films?

Bob Fosse's "Lenny," which I thought was a phenomenal biopic; "Sid and Nancy" which was very important because it's not a sing-along movie but it's about the music, and you get that emotion. I've been really fortunate to work with Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola on a couple of occasions. One of my favorite films of his is "Rain People" and honestly 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, and Hank cut the first film I was ever involved in, "U Turn." I didn't really get to work with him on it, it was an Oliver Stone film. It was absolutely nuts. I love Oliver and he's a great guy. What he did with me in that space was, just because he worked with Hank at all, 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 very 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?" Hank has an amazing ability. 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 there were places where, to begin with in laying out a style where intuitively he can take it and work with it where it wasn't just about the cool but how does it work in terms of the story?

The scene where Imogen's character gives the guitar back to Andre after they fight. Going into that originally, he gets the guitar back, it was a piece of music we worked on that Andre was going to play. When he played it onset it was beautiful and it was very straightforward it some ways. When we cut it originally I thought, "It doesn't work. It's just too precious." I went home over the weekend and was thinking about it and I really thought, "someone's giving you back this precious thing and it's about holding it and touching it and it's about finding that music, not that it's fully formed when you have it, but when you get an artifact back that means so much to you, what are the stages you go through?"

I emailed Hank saying "this is what I'm thinking, there should be the sounds of the wood and all this." Monday came around and I said "I know that was a crazy email and I probably didn't make sense." And he said "I want to show you something I started." And he had started that cut that was in the film. I don't think he changed it at all, he got exactly what I was going for and it was beautiful. Completely different from what I thought I wanted, but 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 Hayley is in that club and he's playing the music, that is 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.

I wanted a little more specificity about the nature of his relationship with Linda. 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?"

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 that. 

For anybody who put money in this movie, I hope [a major specialty distributor] picks this up because they deserve to get their work back and have the work seen. But I think we're living in an era where good work will find the necessary audience and the people that need to see it for me, professionally… you know, coming out of Toronto, my trajectory is now set.

This article is related to: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, All Is By My Side, Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Festivals, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews


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