In Conversation: John Ridley, Screen Writer

Having worked with Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave, Ridley discusses his writing process and the new Jimi Hendrix biopic


Text and Photography Victor Moreno

Hollywood is an industry where unmistakably famous faces mingle with highly talented yet anonymous individuals, the ones whose name you might not know but whose work you, in all likelihood, are a fan of. American writer John Ridley arguably belongs to the latter category – at least for now. Poised between novelist and screen writer roles, Ridley is the screen author of Stray Dogs and Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. And you’re likely to have heard of his latest projects: 12 Years A Slave, directed by filmmaker Steve McQueen, and All Is By My Side, the biopic about rock icon Jimi Hendrix. Ridley is also involved in a new film with Spike Lee about the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. “This is a project I wrote a few years ago and I am currently adapting it with Justin Lin who will produce”, Ridley says when talking to Port at the Stockholm Film Festival. “I love the subject matter, it is a very seminal moment in the history of LA and no one really told that story.”

McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a hotly tipped Oscars candidate this year. It’s the true story, based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical novel, about a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in America’s pre-Civil War era. “The adaptation process from the novel was very difficult. It is English but not the English I am used to speaking so it was difficult to overcome – it took a lot of research to understand the language. Also, trying to fit 12 years into little more than two hours was trying as there are so many amazing stories in the book, and all of them are true and based on real people. I realised that there were parts I wasn’t going to be able to fit in, but my hope is that after seeing the film people will want to go out and read the book,” Ridley says. “When you work with other people’s material you tend to be more precious about the original, you don’t want to change it. With 12 Years A Slave I felt more respectful and realised the magnitude of what we were hoping to accomplish. This is a detail-oriented work where you have to pay attention to every aspect of the story. It was a bit of a restoration project, but the story dictated how the writing went.”

This was the first time John Ridley and Steve McQueen worked together. “We have the same agent in Los Angeles and had breakfast together a while back. Steve was very interested in pursuing this particular subject matter in the American history. That conversation led to 3-4 years of writing, time with the book and researching – and I think that shows in the final process. Working with Steve, I would say, is a very communicative process.” Also the cast of the film delivers. Arguably it’s pivotal roles for both the leading actors: Michael Fassbender (who already worked together with McQueen on Hunger and Shame) and Chiwetel Ejiofor.



As a matter of fact, all of them feature heavily in the Oscar buzz this year. To round off the whole project, Brad Pitt and his production company got involved early on – Brad himself plays a part at the end of the film. “When Brad Pitt is behind something it makes all the difference in the world! Everyone at his production company were very supportive from the very beginning. The films they put together are not typical films and I think it’s accurate to say this project would not have happened without Brad Pitt and his producers, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner. From my point of view it was great working with him. He is fantastic.”

Ridley’s upcoming release, All Is by My Side, is about how a legend is created. The film looks closer at Hendrix’s early life, before the fame. In a genius stroke of casting, Outkast’s André Benjamin plays the young Hendrix. “He was the first person I thought of when it came to who was going to play the part, and after having worked with him I couldn’t think of anyone else more suitable. There are plenty of talented actors out there who would put in a very unique performance, but what André did, the work he put in, the level of detail he added, his appreciation for Jimi Hendrix as a musician… it was just a fantastic experience. I can’t say enough about it or about him as a person. He was very self-motivated and, as a musician, his charisma and ease on the stage added a lot of value. He made everything much more believable. It tool months to nail all of that. Everything, his voice, the look, the walk – André wanted it as perfect as possible and it really shows.”

Benjamin himself recorded the vocals and all the guitar parts. His natural performance conveys both the man and the artist, and made the whole film genuinely believable. This is not a movie about the timeless allure of rock ‘n’ roll but about a person and his life. Ridley didn’t expect any help from those who hold Hendrix’s copyrights: “We knew the story we wanted to tell. In many ways, actually, it helped us – it made the film even more focused on the individual rather than trying to be a collection of greatest hits.”

What was the reasoning behind making a movie about Hendrix in the first place? “He is such a talented artist. To me, he’s like Chuck Berry: kids walk around with Chuck’s t-shirts but they don’t know anything about him, anything about his politics, about where he is from or things he believed. And that is why I wanted to talk about Jimi Hendrix; people don’t know much about him as a human being. I wanted to tell a story that is going to be relevant, informative – that is what attracted me to the story. This sense of discovering a man full of surprises, that is what I wanted the audience to feel.”

12 Years A Slave hits cinemas UK wide from 24 January 2014

“When you work with other people’s material
you tend to be more precious about the original,
you don’t want to change it…”