Screenwriter John Ridley Talks 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave — the title of Steve McQueen’s latest, taken from its source material, the Solomon Northup memoir — is one of the most direct and descriptive of recent cinema history. But consider further the subtitle of Northup’s 1853 book: “Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.” It’s one of the film’s extraordinary achievements that, as it lands in theaters nationwide with the headwinds of an Oscar frontrunner, it tells, on its most basic level, that story. That is, in addition to being an unflinching account of a shameful period in American history, it is a tale of duration and the mental subjugation of one man, joining McQueen’s earlier Hunger in its examination of a disciplinary regime on the body and spirit.
Adapting Northup’s memoir for the screen is writer, director and producer John Ridley. A prolific screenwriter, Ridley’s credits are varied, crossing from studio films to independents, from television to web series. His feature screenplay credits include U-Turn, for Oliver Stone and, more recently, Anthony Hemingway’s Red Tails. He’s written for series ranging from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Barbershop, and was the head writer of The Wanda Sykes Show. His web series Undercover Brother was a viral hit, while, just this year at Toronto, he premiered his second film as a director, the Jimi Hendrix story All is By My Side. I spoke to Ridley before Toronto, and our conversation about his own film can be read here. Below, we talk about the challenges of making 12 Years a Slave a drama faithful to the world of the mid-19th century, collaborating with McQueen and African-American representation on screen in today’s Hollywood.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with 12 Years a Slave?
Ridley: It was four or five years ago — right as Hunger was finishing up. Steve and I share the the same agency, and I was invited to a screening of Hunger there. Simultaneously, Steve read a manuscript I had written and really liked it, and I was blown away by Hunger. We had breakfast the next morning and talked about film and just things in general. One of the things Steve said was that he wanted to do a story [set during] that time and space in American history, but one that had a large geographical and emotional vista — one where the protagonist was someone of station, someone who was artistic in ability but, in some ways, takes his rights and freedoms for granted. And so we went back and forth on different ideas, and it was Steve’s wife who actually found this book, Solomon Northup’s memoir, and gave it to Steve. Steve read it, loved it, and gave it to me. I read it and loved it and at that point we decided that this was the story we wanted to do. He lives in Amsterdam, I live in Los Angeles, so it took some time for us to go through the book itself. We were very meticulous, discussing film, the language of cinema and things that Steve wanted to accomplish. And then I went off and started working on the screenplay.
Filmmaker: So Steve was that specific thematically before even landing on the Solomon Northup story? What you just told me about what he said before discovering the book actually articulates quite a bit about Northup’s character.
Ridley: Yeah, absolutely. There were any number of things that were reflected in Solomon’s memoir that he wanted to accomplish. The amazing thing was that he had [previously] gone back and forth on pulling bits and pieces from other histories, or creating certain things, and he could not land on any specific story. And then there was this story that was already out there that neither one of us knew about. Particularly for me as an American, to be largely unfamiliar with this particular narrative was kind of shocking because it is such a powerful document and so evocative of so much of our history. We found out later that there had been an attempt by American Playhouse to mount [a production], but largely this is a story that has gone unknown.
Filmmaker: Is the time period of the memoir the same as the film, or does it span his whole life?
Ridley: Yes, we kept the same time period [as the book], which was the late 1840s, early 1850s. Obviously, when you are adapting material, you’ve got to condense, but one of the interesting things about Steve’s [approach] was that it wasn’t about racing though these 12 years but finding the strongest moments — the strongest emotionally, the strongest that had to do with family, love and faith, as well as the most painful moments and giving them their due as opposed to just going from bit to bit to bit. And that’s one of the things I think make his films so interesting. [He is] very contemplative about these moments — the good, the bad, the difficult — and allows each one to breathe and have its own space.
Filmmaker: Just thinking about 12 Years a Slave as a piece of a dramatic writing, the challenge is that some of the largest moments of Northup’s life, such as his work with the Underground Railroad, told in title cards at film’s end, are not part of the memoir. Instead, it focuses on these 12 years and his internal struggles. How did you initially perceive the challenges of conveying those struggles on film?
Ridley: The challenges are: you have 12 years, and what are the moments in those 12 years that stand in the starkest relief? You don’t want a film that is all pain and suffering, but at the same time, you don’t want a film that turns its head away from those difficult aspects of the storytelling. It took a moment to get out of a 2013 head, where you’d look at certain moments and say, “Oh gee, I wish Solomon had done this in this moment or that in that moment.” And, “For a modern audience, should we push things this way or that way, or just be true and faithful to that time period.” That was a very big deal for me — just making sure that I didn’t try to be overly subjective about the material, but be objective while, at the same time, allowing those true emotions to really rise to the fore. I love history, and I’ve been involved in historical projects — Red Tails and I’m doing the L.A. riots film now — but there are elements of those moments [from] the past 30 or 40 years [still existing] because there are people [still alive] who lived through them, or because there were documented on film or on video. For me, a lot of [12 Years a Slave] was going back and truly learning the language. It’s English, but it’s not my English. You have to learn how people spoke so that you can write these moments without them sounding overly theatrical. It was about taking a true journey through time and space by reading newspapers — articles that had absolutely nothing to do with the story but how people spoke, what they talked about and the ways they articulated themselves. Those were the elements of adapting the story that were very, very difficult because the language that Solomon used was so elevated, so precise and so beautiful. There were moments in the story where you could lift things wholesale [from the book] and drop them in, but there were moments where you could not do that. Bridging that divide and making it seamless — that was one of the most difficult things for me, probably more difficult than any other type of writing that I’ve ever done. It really was a very specific language.
Filmmaker: Was there ever the temptation at some point in the development process to reach outside of those 12 years? To do more of his life after his release?
Ridley: No. We really wanted to hew very closely to the book. As much of a stir as this book caused, as much of the way that it struck like lightning when it was originally released, Solomon sadly receded into history. Even the circumstances of his death remain arcane, and this book truly vanished from bookshelves. For a while it was not in print at all. Not only not in print but not even known. Not even in the sense of folklore did people know about it. So, going into it just because the story was so compelling and so immediate, we wanted to create a film that was immediate. But what became of Solomon and a lot of his work and his story in vanished in many ways. What happened to this individual who, in my opinion, his story is very central to American history?
Filmmaker: Was it challenging to write a film with that level of restraint to it, one that is less about individual moments of conflict and more about prolonged subjugation?
Ridley: Honestly, you have to acknowledge the source material in this instance. One of the things that I found very profound about Solomon Northup was that he never gave into anger, bitterness or hatred. He never became consumed by the very system that subjugated him, and he had faith in a system that would ultimately free him. He had faith that his family, that his friends would at some point be able to vouch for him, be able to reach out across this time and space. You know, the distance between Saratoga, New York and the bayous in Louisiana was not just one of miles. There was no communication, no guarantees that even if you got a letter out that under the best circumstances it would be able to reach its destination. The ability to find someone in those days, a lost soul, was so much more difficult. But, as Solomon Northup says in the film, “I will not give into despair, and I will keep myself hearty until freedom is opportune.” Those are the elements that I wanted to bring out because those are the elements that struck me in the book. But, at the same time, Solomon was an individual who, even though it could cost him his life, would stand up for those who were weaker than him. And there were moments when he would stand up for himself, whether it was physically standing up for himself or using his wits and his guiles to try to get ahead. A person of color in that day and age, if they could read or write, that was something punishable by death and certainly without trial. It was a summary execution. Those are the things that really struck me. And so, writing a film that is restrained, it was not even a choice. It was an obligation because that’s who Solomon was. He had his own strengths, and he was a man of great dignity — dignified not because he could carry himself but because he understood the quality of human life. In the moments where he says to Patsy, “I can’t take your life because even in this horrible circumstance, your life has value” — that’s very, very powerful. And equally in those moments where he will bring the fury of Edwin Epps on himself, knowing what that could mean. He would rather take it himself than have it delivered to Patsy. That’s a very strong individual to be able to hew both sides of violence. So for me to try to honor that, as I said, it’s an obligation.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the specific job of writing for Steve McQueen. I’ve interviewed him before so I have a tiny insight into his working methods and themes. He’s always been particularly interested in the effect of a disciplinary system on the body, on the person, on the soul. What was it specifically about Steve — his interests and working methods — that affected the way you worked on this film?
Ridley: First of all, I can’t say enough about him as an artist and as an individual and his approach. I’ve been very, very fortunate to work with some outstanding directors, and each one of them approaches film and creativity very differently. I would say two things about Steve. I would say in the early going, what I appreciated was his meticulous nature. You know, there was no rush [to make] this film. We truly went through Solomon’s memoir page by page by page. And that took a great deal of time because Steve lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles and we wanted to do it in person. It was not something we did over the phone or by Skype or by email. We wanted to be able to sit and talk. We also talked cinema in general. We sat and watched some films and really dissected them, what we found interesting about those films, what we found provocative.
Filmmaker: What kind of films?
Ridley: There were films that he loves and films that I love. Films like The Pianist. Some of them had to do directly with this movie, some of them just in general because we liked watching them. And there were films like Lenny or Sid and Nancy that I loved, and part of [discussing these movies] was because I was getting ready to go off and do a film [the Jimi Hendrix picture All is By My Side] and it was good to have an opportunity to talk to someone like Steve about the language of cinema. It is like two different people from different backgrounds trying to learn a dialect of a language and how we were going to speak it. The other thing I really appreciate about Steve is his ability to trust other people’s creative instincts. For me, once we had locked in on the story and how the book should be adapted, it was a long process to go off and to write the script, and for Steve to essentially give me the latitude to go off and write things and then present them to him, that was a big deal. To not be micro-managed, to feel like you’re in a very comfortable creative space is huge. And I do think that’s one of the reasons why the script is very good. Certainly [also] because of the source material and the time I was able to spend with Steve going through that source material, but largely because of the trust he has as a creative individual for allowing for the creativity of myself and also some of the other people that he works with, like Sean Bobbitt and Joe Walker. They are phenomenal artists as well. Steve certainly recognized that and that’s why he surrounds himself with creative individuals.
Filmmaker: Did the script go through many drafts? Did it change much in its different iterations?
Ridley: No, it did not, and, as a writer and aside from writing my own novels, it was one of the most liberating experiences. I think part of the reason it didn’t go through a lot of iterations is because we discussed it so much in the early going. I think the other reason is because this was not a commissioned script. We worked very closely with Plan B, and with Jeremy Kleiner in particular, and they supported us in every way. But it was not a strict development situation. The marching orders were, “If you all can make this thing work” — “you all” being Steve and myself — then they would go off and find the financing for it. So, it was a situation where I was given a lot of trust but at the same time because it was a spec script, I had a lot of ownership of the material, and you just don’t get that a lot. I think a lot of time it’s incumbent on us as writers. We all talk about how great it is to have our freedom as writers and do this and that but you know, I’ve been very fortunate over the last couple of years to take some bets on myself that have paid off. Twelve Years a Slave was a spec script. All Is by My Side was a spec script. Red Tails was not strictly a spec script but it was a very large-scale independent film that I worked on for a reduced fee because it was a piece of material that I thought was very, very worthwhile.
Filmmaker: Before this conversation I reread your 2006 Esquire essay, “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger.” What are you thoughts today on the ideas found in that essay, particularly having to do with African-American representation in mainstream media and Hollywood films?
Ridley: In terms of representation…. I think we’re catching up. You know, that was written before President Obama. I don’t even know if Senator Obama was on the scene at that point. But talking about our images and talking about how we in some ways frame ourselves… you know, people of color wearing suits, being middle class, being even conservative — I think Herman Cain was a surprise to a lot of people but to a lot of people of color, it’s like, “Oh that guy.” We know guys like that. He wasn’t a surprise. I think in some ways we in Hollywood are starting to catch up in terms of presenting a diversity within our diversity. I look at this last year, 16 months of film, and I have to say in terms of black people this has probably been one of the best 16 months in film that we’ve ever seen. You look at films like Flight last year, The Call with Halle Berry, Think Like a Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale, Red Tails, After Earth, Fast & Furious, and then you start to get into 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Long Walk to Freedom. You look at those kinds of films and that range of people of color that are being presented and I think it’s very terrific. It’s taken a long time, not only for Hollywood to put these images out but also for audiences across the board to be receptive to them. The caveat here is we have a long way to go in terms of representing Hispanics, Asians, Near-Eastern individuals. But to me, it’s always odd when films like The Butler open and they say in Hollywood, “Oh, this film overperformed.” Or when Red Tails came out, people weren’t really expecting it to open very big and the buzz was, “Oh, it overperformed.” It’s not that they overperformed. There’s an audience out there that people are not tracking in Hollywood. Quite frankly, it’s true also with the 2012 election. It’s not that Obama suddenly overperformed with the voters. Those votes were out there. Those folks are out there. They want to vote in the ballot box, and they want to vote with their dollars, whether it’s about Hollywood or the cars they buy, the soap they use. I think it’s long overdue that all of us are recognizing that there’s diversity within the diversity. The piece I wrote in Esquire, that’s what it was about: look, we’re not all one thing. There is a reality that we are out there across the board and so yeah, it’s great that we have powerful films like Fruitvale, but it’s equally as great that a film like After Earth came out. Maybe it didn’t do the box office people would like but to see Will Smith in outer space with his son, fantastic.