John Ridley is a successful novelist, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for 12 Years a Slave) and now the creator of the ABC television series American Crime, in which the murder of a white married couple ignites a series of events that affect an ensemble cast of characters, forcing them to confront their emotions, their secrets and the brutal realities of both the criminal justice system and the ongoing racial issues in America.
It’s a bold series that earned Ridley an invite to speak at a SXSW 2015 panel entitled, “Creating the Shows We Like,” along with Last Man on Earth creators Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Will Forte. We sat down with John Ridley by the swimming pool at the Marriott Hotel in Austin, TX, a city which also doubles as Modesto, CA during the production of American Crime. What follows is our complete discussion, in which Ridley describes the (thus far) non-existent career impact of his Oscar win, the issues raised by his new series, and the types of crimes that future seasons of American Crime might tackle.
American Crime airs Thursdays at 10pm PST/EST on ABC.
CraveOnline: So did you just get out?
John Ridley: Yeah, we just did a panel. That was a lot of fun, with all the guys who are doing Last Man on Earth.
That’s an interesting combination of shows.
It is, and it was very interesting because on the surface, obviously they seem completely different. But in talking about the the process and talking about, particularly, the new space of TV where people are very open to ideas that aren’t necessary “broad” in the sense of “broadcasting,” but… are you going to have a very loyal fanbase? Is it a show that people are going to be talking about? That we had in common. And they were just fun and great guys! [Laughs.] So I enjoyed just sitting there, like, “Ask that question to these cats. See how they answer.” But it was good. It was good, it was fun.
What sort of response did you get from the audience when you opened it up to questions? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
A lot of it was really about, the questions, people wanting to know about breaking into the business and how you get started and things like that. It was just also interesting because they talked about, and I talked about, there have been a lot of years where people aren’t really responding to things you do, or you’re not getting the box office you hoped, or the ratings. You really have to stick with it, and ultimately if you’re lucky enough to have any kind of longevity, it will circle back to “Why did you start, and what do you really want to do, and what are the most personal projects?”
For me, over the last couple of years I’ve been very fortunate that the things that I really wanted to do, things like Always By My Side or 12 Years a Slave and now American Crime, I’ve been around long enough that those things I care about the most, I’ve had the opportunity to try to do them.
It’s interesting to look at the beginning of your career. You’ve had a very varied career.
I remember the first time I encountered your work was through films like U-Turn and then also Undercover Brother. And aside from starting with the letter “u” they don’t seem to have a lot in common.
[Laughs.] I hadn’t even noticed that before, so you’re a better student of my work than me. They don’t and they do. I mean, I always loved noir and noir films and books of that nature – Chester Himes or Raymond Chandler – and grew up on blaxploitation films and loved that kind of deep sense of cool that those kinds of things had.
For me, personally, I never… some people are really good about, they know the type of storytelling or style that they do and maintain it. I always want to do something different. I always want to assume I’m lucky if I ever get one thing done [laughs], so I’ll do this that is different from that, that is different from the next thing. Certainly over the last couple of years, I think a lot of it is me and my maturation process. Red Tails is certainly more in a vein with 12 Years, and somewhat in a vein of All is By My Side…
Just the historical element alone…
The historical element. They definitely focused on people of color in the fore, all the way up through American Crime. But I would hope in the next few things that I do, even though some of them are probably going to be very close to that, I never want to lose that desire to keep trying things and experimenting. Maybe they’re outside my wheelhouse or my comfort zone, but that’s what I enjoy is, okay, I’m not quite sure how this is going to turn out, but that’s what makes it exciting.