John Ridley on ’12 Years A Slave,’ Jimi Hendrix Biopic, Steve McQueen 'Feud,' and Diversity Onscreen
John Ridley, balancing a colorful assemblage of libations—coffee, orange juice and water, is seated across from me in an expansive, sunlit lobby at a hotel in downtown Austin. He’s buzzing from a cocktail of caffeine and creativity, the bedfellows of the restless artist. The Lone Star State beckons for two reasons: first, that he’s begun production on a hotly anticipated ABC pilot dubbed American Crime, and second, to promote his low-key, sensational biopic of Jimi Hendrix, Jimi: All Is by My Side, which is screening as part of SXSW.
He has been so busy that the Oscar statuette, which he took home just over a week ago for penning the screenplay to the gripping drama 12 Years A Slave, is still sitting on his kitchen table. It was a history-making accolade for Ridley, who became only the second black person to win the Best Screenplay Oscar.
But immediately following his one shining moment, reports surfaced that Ridley and 12 Years director Steve McQueen were embroiled in a bitter feud that had persisted through awards season. The “evidence” was that neither had thanked the other in their acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards, McQueen’s seemingly feigned applause when Ridley’s name was announced, and a rumored dispute over screenwriting credit on the slavery saga, which wound up taking home the night’s biggest prize: Best Picture.
It’s all been blown out of proportion, says Ridley.
“I haven’t seen [McQueen clapping] because I split and I don’t go back and look at things,” says Ridley. “What I’ll say about Steve is that he changed my life. The reality is that we didn’t work with each other every day. He lives in Amsterdam, I live in L.A., and we’ve met with each other maybe 12 times. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Spike Lee, David O. Russell, and working with Steve was fun.”
He adds, “And in that last moment, with that thirty seconds to talk after my name was called, it was just going to be my wife, and Solomon… and it was a little nuts! David [O. Russell] was hugging me, Meryl Streep was giving me a pat on the arm, and Robert De Niro was about to hand me something. But I do want people to know that, if anything, I’m sorry if I wasn’t effusive enough, because Steve’s done whatever he needed to do for me.”
More interesting than this Nikki Finke-induced insidiousness is Ridley’s latest effort, Jimi: All Is by My Side. It’s a film chronicling a year in the life of Jimi Hendrix, 1966, when the virtuoso guitarist was a struggling hired gun. Then one day, Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith, happened upon Hendrix performing at a nightclub, and the two became friends. She introduced him to manager Chas Chandler, who’d just left The Animals, and together, the two began assembling what would eventually become the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The film stars André Benjamin (André 3000 of Outkast) as Hendrix, Imogen Poots as Keith, and Hayley Atwell as the musician’s fiery girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham.
Ever since he came out to Hollywood about twenty years ago, Ridley had heard stories about director after director trying—and failing—to bring Hendrix’s story to the screen, from Paul Greengrass to the Hughes Brothers. But seven years ago, Ridley discovered a different way in to the story. He was surfing the web late one night and listening to some Hendrix rarities on YouTube when he came upon the tune “Sending My Love to Linda.” It was pure raw emotion, and led Ridley to ponder, “Who’s Linda?”
“I found out about Linda Keith and really dug into the London year and how, at 24, Jimi was kind of washed up and playing with Ike and Tina and the Isley Brothers and didn’t quite fit in,” he says. “He left for London as Jimmy James and came back as Jimi Hendrix, and I felt like there was a story here about this transformative year.”
The first hurdle was finding his Hendrix.
“At some point, I just thought of André Benjamin because he looks like Jimi,” says Ridley. “But, as I started to research André, I realized everybody had come after him—Greengrass, the Hughes Brothers, Brian Grazer at Imagine. He looks like Jimi, he’s got the musical background, he’s got the charisma—he’s got all those things.”
A mutual friend put the two in touch and they sat down and just talked. Benjamin opened up to Ridley, telling him about his desire to move overseas and learn how to weave rugs, and how he loves the creation process. Five minutes into the conversation Ridley said, “You’re my guy.” And Benjamin replied, “Great.”
The next hurdle was licensing the music from the Hendrix estate. Greengrass, the Hughes Brothers, and others had failed to, and it ultimately helped sink their respective projects. The Hendrix estate refused to grant the rights to the late musician’s music to Ridley as well, but he felt he could find a way in without hits like “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe.”
“Sure, I want to hear those songs too,” says Ridley. “But if there’s a historical story that can excavate some pieces that people were maybe not familiar with, and at the same time, that story has an emotional velocity that’s true, well I think, we can do that.” He adds, “In the years since I’ve been in Hollywood, the concept of the biopic had changed. It no longer had to be cradle to the grave, but focused on a particular space.”
So, Benjamin moved from his home in Atlanta to L.A. in Jan. 2012, and for the next three months, learned how to play guitar with a coach with his left hand, worked with a vocal coach, embraced a strict diet regimen, and obsessively listened to videos and clips of Hendrix. “He was in that space every step of the way,” says Ridley. In May, just two weeks after production had commenced on 12 Years A Slave, the cameras started rolling on All Is by My Side.
Following his historic Oscar win, Ridley, who got his start writing on sitcoms like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air before segueing to film with screenwriting work on U-Turn and Three Kings, has become a very hot commodity. He’s currently in the midst of shooting his ABC pilot American Crime, starring Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton, in the Austin area.
“The two of them play a couple who had separated years ago and their son is found murdered, and it’s about their reconciliation, about their discoveries of certain things about their sons, and it’s told from multiple perspectives,” he says, nervously excited. “It’s not a courtroom drama or a cop show. It’s about the lives of the families of the victims and the families of the accused, and all these people don’t really know each other, but they’re linked by this very terrible tragedy.”
If ABC picks up the show, Ridley will make history once more as one of only a handful of black showrunners on a major network.
Still, the fact that he’s only the second black person to have won a Best Screenplay Oscar doesn’t sit so well with the 48-year-old.
“It is a little nuts when you think it’s 2014, and there have been a lot of terrific films about people of color,” he says. “It’s interesting because for a long time there was not a lot of change, and come 2013, a lot changed. We were at the Image Awards and the films that were nominated—Fruitvale Station, The Butler, 12 Years A Slave, Mandela—those are all Oscar-worthy films. You even look at Fast & Furious. Best Man Holiday. Kevin Hart. If you do $30 million in 2014 dollars, you’re still kind of a niche film. But when you’re cracking $100 million like The Butler, Think Like A Man, etc., that’s not just people of color going, that’s all kinds of different people going. And studios are starting to realize that there’s good money, not just crass money, to be made by acknowledging all of these audiences.”