Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"12 Years a Slave" Screenwriter John Ridley Talks About
Faith, Hope, and Clarity

Writer John Ridley didn’t come up with the idea for “12 Years a Slave.” That came from the wife of director Steve McQueen. She brought Solomon Northrup’s memoir to their attention. But it was Ridley, 48, who toiled four years on the screenplay, even though he wasn’t being paid and the production company, Brad Pitt's Plan B, had no funding to make the film. “I had immense faith in the material and the director,” said Ridley. He also had enormous confidence in his own abilities, a wager that paid off handsomely with universal critical praise, nine Oscar nominations (including screenplay), and $49 million so far in domestic box-office plus another $79 million internationally.

Ridley spoke thoughtfully and graciously with Hollywood Is A Place Where from Texas where he is scouting locations for an ABC pilot called “American Crime.” He was exhausted, having just returned from a grueling two-day trip to London to attend the BAFTA awards. (While “12 Years” was named Best Film, he lost to “Philomena’s” Steve Coogan.)

John Ridley on the set of his next film, "All Is By My Side"

Q: How do you prepare yourself to write such hateful dialogue for such abhorrent characters?

A: In the memoir [by Solomon Northup] there were a lot of things that were put in perspective. I’ve never been visited by that kind of hatred, nothing like what these individuals went through, but there was a level in Solomon’s writing, like with Mistress Epps or Master Ford, where he would try to explain some of the complexities of humanity. That was interesting to me that it was not – no pun intended – black and white, that these folks were purely evil. I think that’s really important for the story.

Q: Did you struggle with having to write these characters?

A: It never bothered me because it was true; these things happened. It was huge education for me. You think you know about slavery, you think you know about that era. I found out that I was ignorant about a lot of things. If there were things I was learning chances are there were things for others to learn. I never felt bad about what I was writing, that it was difficult, that I shouldn’t go down this road, or that it was too toxic for me as a writer to tolerate. I was fascinated by the depth of a lot of the things that I learned.

Q: You strike me as being an incredibly well adjusted person, without too many demons.

A: (He laughs.) I think I’ve got most of my life under control. When I was a younger man and writing my novels (Love is a Racket, Everybody Smokes in Hell), I was working through a lot of bad things. You’re a kid from Wisconsin and you’re curious [about the world]. When I arrived in New York in the 1980s there were things that were interesting to me, that I was never around: alcoholism, drug abuse, addictions. I was curious as a writer to know what this was like. As an older person, I have responsibilities now. I got a job, I got kids… In general, I hope that I’m a well-adjusted person, and I think the things that interest me are about people and the qualities of life. I was attracted to Solomon’s nature. [Terence Mallck’s] “The Tree of Life” was a film that profoundly affected me. When I was 20 years old, I would have said this is nonsense. Now I was ready to contemplate those kinds of things. I hope with “12 Years a Slave” there‘s a level of maturity that I certainly didn’t have 20 years ago.

Q: You worked on the script two years on spec?

A: In total, four years! I don’t want to pretend that I was writing while living on the edge, but we started the project in 2008, the film got made in 2012. It’s different from a studio film [where] you get a check up front, you go off and write, you hope it turns out well. It was four years before I got paid. I did have other work during this time. I wasn’t calling my parents [for money].

Lupita Nyong'o,Michael Fassbender, Chewitel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"

Q: Still it was an act of faith, in Steve McQueen, Plan B, the material, and in yourself.

A: I can’t say enough about Plan B, about Jeremy Kleiner (the producer) about the way that they nurtured this project. As a young person, I took some bets on myself, and they paid off nicely. I moved from Wisconsin to New York to Hollywood. I’m a kid from Wisconsin. I had no hope of achieving anything. That’s the stuff they used to make movies about in the 1930s. [Finally] I got into a groove of going into studios and getting a nice payday. There’s nothing wrong with that. After a while, for me, there was a sense that if I’m really going to make a move career-wise and move to the next level, and f I’m going to put a script in front of everyone and say, this is what I believe in, this is how it should be done, then, yes, maybe I have to forgo that check up front and show people what I can do.

Q: You sound like a role model for everyone in the film business.

A: Writers are in a unique position. If you’re an actor or director, you gotta wait for a really good script. You gotta hope that that really solid vehicle that fits you and your sensibility comes in. If you’re a writer you don’t have to wait for permission to. I cannot tell you how much I love to write. I really enjoy it. There’s so many things sitting around the house that may never see the light of day, but I’m glad I went out and exercised that muscle. A personal example is my Jimi Hendricks script, “All Is By My Side.” (Ridley wrote and directed the movie, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival.) There were a lot of accomplished people who couldn’t find a way to do it within the studio system. For me, personally, if I really want to tell this story, if I really feel I’ve got an angle on it, I’m just going to go out and write it… I’m an advocate for doing, not waiting for people.

Q: If you build it, they will come?

A: Honestly, yes.

Q: You’ve all being doing a lot of Academy Awards campaigning? Did you sign on for that when you made the movie?

A: You know the seven stages of death? There are three stages of the reality of the Oscar. The first stage, we’re all just trying to make great films. The others are doing the same. Why do I have to get up in the morning and root for our team? [But] you do it, and its nice, and you meet other people in the business, people you never dreamed you’d be in a room with. And then there’s that part of this, as my wife constantly reminds me, [that] it’s not all about you. When you make a film there are maybe 200 that work hard every day, that put everything into it…Honestly, I feel a little weird walking the red carpet. I’m the writer. People want to see Chewitel, Lupita. Why am I here? I’m here in service of all those other individuals. It’s part of the job. There are worse things in the world than your wife putting on a beautiful dress and talking to people from around the world who want to know about you. I may never go through it again.

I’m at the Academy [nominees] luncheon. [Even though] I’m 48 years old, I’m always going to be a kid from Wisconsin. They bring the nominees up for the photograph. I’m already spaced out. I can’t believe that I’m here. I’m sitting at my table with Cate Blanchett… They call my name. I’m on the riser with 200 other nominees. There’s someone behind me who’s telling jokes. I’m all stiff as if I’m getting ready for my high school picture, checking the hair that I don’t have anymore. I’m thinking, “Who’s telling jokes?” I turn around, It’s Meryl Streep! When you are a kid, your dreams don’t reach that far. To be here, to be part of all of this, I’m just trying to enjoy it.

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