Exclusive Interview: John Ridley on 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave Chiwetel Ejiofor

John Ridley had two films at the Toronto International Film Festival. He wrote the screenplay adaptation for 12 Years a Slave and wrote and directed All Is By My Side, the Jimi Hendrix movie starring Andre Benjamin. 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man from the north kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. All is By My Side focuses on the year Jimi Hendrix spent in London before his breakout success.

12 Years opens this weekend, and All Is By My Side was picked up for distribution by Open Road Films. We spoke with Ridley about both adaptations, and his screenplay for the upcoming L.A. Riots to be directed by Justin Lin.

Crave Online: Has it been a particularly good time for stories about slavery and the civil rights movement?

John Ridley: I think honestly, in a larger sense it’s just been a really good time for films involving people of color. If you go back over the last 16, 18 months, you look at films like Red Tails, you look at films like Flight, if you look at The Call, Halle Berry’s film that did very well, you look at Think Like a Man, you look at 42, you look at After Earth or Fast and Furious, Fruitvale Station, Beasts of the Southern Wild and moving into this space now with The Butler, with [Mandela:]Long Walk to Freedom, with 12 Years a Slave, with All is By My Side. I think that there is a sustainability now with pictures involving or starring or about people of color or an experience that is particular to us, but is not singular with us, where audiences are there and supporting on a weekly basis.

When The Call opened, or when Red Tails opened, even with The Butler and they do very well, there’s a line in the trades generally. “Oh, this film overperformed.” It isn’t that it overperformed. There’s an audience there that is excited to see this material, that wants to see it and is willing to spend their money to see it and I think that in Hollywood, they’ve got to get out of that mindset still. I think we’re moving towards that space where [instead of] “that film overperformed,” no, that audience is there and they want to see these stories whether they’re very important stories, whether they’re just enjoyable films, whether they’re narratives, whether they’re like Kevin Hart’s concert film. These films are performing and they’re doing it for a reason.

Was Red Tails successful?

Red Tails was very successful. We opened extremely well and the prognosticators did not think that it was going to open well. I remember when that opened, there was that line, “Red Tails overperforms on the opening weekend.” No, that audience was there, it’s a terrific film and people showed up. But again, you look at the last 18 months, across the board, all different kinds of films. I don’t think it’s just the 42s or the Fruitvale Stations. People want to see these films or at the very least, even films that maybe don’t perform so well, like After Earth. To see Will Smith and his kid in outer space having an adventure, there’s just a space for all of this right now.

Or to see his kid be The Karate Kid a few years ago.

Yeah, people responded to that. Again, I think that appetite is out there. I think it’s out there with the audience and I think studios, even the indie financiers or the indie distributors, they’re responding to it as well.

Did the 19th century grammar come from Solomon’s Northup’s book?

Solomon’s book, the writing in that, in some places it’s very elevated, in some places it’s arcane, in some places there’s no dialogue, in some places it’s very descriptive but it’s not conversational. In some ways, I call it sort of a restoration project where there are parts of the canvas that are completely there and there are other parts where I had to create this dialogue but it had to be seamless and it had to match.

My hand had to be invisible. For a lot of it, it was certainly going from the words on the page but reading and immersing myself in that environment because it was English, but a very, very different kind of English than we speak now but I didn’t want it to be overly theatrical or obvious and everybody certainly couldn’t speak at the exact same level and the same way. So for some folks it was a much more base orientation and others it was much more elevated. Who those individuals are, it wasn’t just a type of person. It had to match that individual and where they’re coming from.

Solomon and Eliza, their background, the way they spoke is much different and much more elevated than the other individuals, for those individuals coming from the north. For those from the south it was different. So it was a lot of reading and a lot of reconstruction for me because it was not a type of language I was familiar with, but it couldn’t feel like something that was just created or of theater, as opposed to this is the way that people actually spoke and communicated in that era.

When you wrote scenes like the hanging or the whipping, could you have known that Steve McQueen was going to shoot them in long single takes?

I certainly suspected that. When I first met Steve, all I had to go off of was our conversations and he as a person and Hunger. He’s certainly evolved as a filmmaker and was able to put another film out where people started to go, “Oh, that’s his style” but I don’t think Steve is someone who comes at it with “my style is then going to be self-parody.” It’s how does this scene really work? How does this moment work?

If it in and of itself benefits from cuts then I’ll go there. If it’s about hanging on this and hanging with this character, then he will do that as well, but in writing it, I never presupposed that okay, I’m going to tell you this is going to be a long scene or this one needs to be cut up. My job was to make the narrative work, make the dialogue work, in the action try to be as descriptive as possible and certainly give as much information because I didn’t know, for those coming in, if they would understand or have the opportunity or time to find out all of these little details.

I just wanted to make it as much as a bible as possible in every way, shape and form and then give it to the artist who is certainly going to be artistic. With his crew, I had the opportunity to get to know [cinematographer] Sean Bobbitt and [editor] Joe Walker. They as well are incredibly talented individuals. So at some point you just give as much information and give as much detail and do the best with the dialogue that I believe that I possibly could and then know that there are going to be other artists who are going to elevate beyond that. The actors, everybody.

Did the book give you a structure?

The book’s structure was very interesting. It was very different than a structure that we are probably used to know or a more honed structure that a reader would be used to in 2013. So all of these moments that were in there, some of them he would jump ahead or reference things that were yet to come. There were some places where it was a bit repetitive but the emotional content and the honesty was all there. The immediacy was all there. It was published about two or three years after his liberation. So for me it was just navigating that emotional throughline, that personal velocity and finding that story within itself. Certainly in the over arching, just in the title 12 Years a Slave, within those moments, what advances the story? What are those things that are very heightened, not just in the brutality but in the humanity as well? Trying to navigate that and lay that out in the script.

It seems like more than trying to get free, the conflict is every time Solomon makes a play for some dignity is a real threat in this world. Was that an interesting way to deal with a narrative conflict?

For me, when I read it, one of the things that I got out of it was that you had an individual who was put in a circumstance where he had to use all of himself to survive. His wits, his guile, his physicality and understanding which of those things would get him through a particular circumstance. Sometimes it was being more clever than others. Sometimes it was simply standing up for himself as anyone would. Other times, stepping in front of a beating for someone else, that to me was the amazing thing about Solomon. For 12 years he had to find a way to survive. In some circumstances, if he revealed himself, that was pure death. In some circumstances if he didn’t use all of his cleverness, then that was death. That to me was what made it interesting because he as a person was not monotonous in this 12-year span of time. He had to be sharper and more shrewd and more advanced in his circumstances, and then he was able to survive it. It’s an amazing tale of an amazing individual.