Interview: John Ridley Talks 'All Is By My Side,' 'American Crime' and Career Longevity
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Interview: John Ridley Talks 'All Is By My Side,' 'American Crime' and Career Longevity

John Ridley

After making its festival premiere last year at

Toronto, John Ridley’s "All Is By My Side" comes to select theaters

today, telling the story of a year in the life of legendary musician Jimi

Hendrix.

Writer-director John Ridley, who’s had a busy

year starting with an Oscar win for writing "12 Years A Slave," and

also developing the upcoming crime drama "American Crime" at ABC,

recently spoke with Shadow And Act about his first feature directorial effort

in over a decade and how it’s shaped his career.

And in case you missed it, also find our

interview with "All Is By My Side" star Andre Benjamin here.

JAI TIGGETT: Can talk about the inspiration for "All Is By My

Side"?

JOHN RIDLEY: Going back several years,

there was a moment where I was surfing the net late at night and heard a song

called "Sending My Love To Linda," and to me it was a rarity and just

amazingly powerful. And even for an artist like Jimi Hendrix it was a song that

I felt was reaching for something that I hadn’t really heard before. In my curiosity

I started going back, doing some research and figuring out who Linda was, and

learning about the time that Jimi spent in London. The more I learned, the more

I just felt like here’s where the story is.

It’s an aspect of his life that most people

even like myself, who consider themselves to be Hendrix fans, weren’t familiar

with. It had its own arc, it had its own central narrative; it was about

connections and chemistry and people who really were instrumental in shaping his

career.

 JT: What about the decision

to focus on a single year of his life?

JR: People have approached me about doing

Hendrix films in the past and it was back in the era where, for all kinds of biopics,

there was a desire to take the totality of their life and cram it into two

hours. And I think that back in the day it worked and people enjoyed that, but

audiences now are a lot savvier; they want to dig more deeply and they have

higher expectations of storytelling. In the last bunch of years they’ve seen

stories like "42" that just focused on Jackie Robinson’s rookie year

or "Lincoln" that looked at the man just through the passage of the

Emancipation Proclamation. And that is a different level and a different depth

of storytelling.

JT: You make some interesting stylistic choices in the film. Tell me

about cutting in some of the still photos and archival footage in certain

sections.

JR: I think it was an evolution of process. Even

though this is a small independent film, it was a large endeavor for me. So when

I was originally putting together the film I would go out and collect archival

material to discuss with the production designer, and he certainly exchanged an

immense amount of material with me. We’d go out and shoot scenes with actors, not

necessarily actors that would be in the film, but just shoot things and work

things.

And I started to realize – particularly after

working with our editor Hank Corwin, who is just quite simply a genius – we’re

talking about a time period that was 46, 47 years ago. So there’s a lot of

things that people take for granted about London [at that time], and there’s a

whole other audience for whom it really was another time and place. And in

creating this environment we wanted to do something that was a little more

experiential and not just rely purely on production design and wardrobe. How

could it be more of a collage and really be creative and make it feel like a

whole piece? It was really a way of making the past present in this film, of making

it alive and vibrant.

JT: The story is

about Hendrix’s relationships with these three women, but they’re kind of

appendages of him in a way. Even with character introductions in the film, the

lower thirds that are used, only the male characters are introduced in that

way. Tell me about that.  

JR: I think a lot of times in rock ‘n roll stories, women are

groupies and they tend to be kind of shallow. What really impressed me in this

era is that these women were all very formidable in their own regard but at the

same time, they fulfilled aspects that Jimi was looking for in his life. And so

for Jimi there was an intellectual side, an emotional side, and also there was

a very ethnocentric side. And particularly with Ida in the film who was based

on Devon Wilson, I think most people don’t even know about that relationship or

what she brought to the table.

So for me, I never really thought about it in regard to

introducing these individuals because I was very familiar with the characters. And

as powerful as they were, as the saying goes, there are some individuals that

need no introduction. But it was never my intent or desire that they would come

off as just girlfriends as opposed to being very key relationships that really

guided him.

All is by my sideJT: How did you handle the criticism from the Hendrix estate and not

wanting to be involved in the film?

JR: They are in control of the intellectual

property and they have an absolute right to dispense it as they see fit. People

like Paul Greengrass and the Hughes brothers have wanted to do a Hendrix biopic

and were not able to bridge the divide between what they wanted to do

creatively and what the estate wanted to achieve. And so there’s a level where,

if they weren’t able to do it, am I kidding myself that I, particularly where I

was in my career two years ago, was going to try to persuade people to see

things differently? At the same time, if we have an opportunity to tell a story

where we can use music that Jimi played, that is real, that is historically

accurate, that is available to us from "Killing Floor," to "Mannish

Boy" to pieces like "Sgt. Pepper," we’re going to avail ourselves

of that.

But I never felt like it was a limitation. We

see films all the time, whether they have access to all kinds of intellectual

property or artifacts, and the one thing that they don’t get is story. So I

think whether you’re talking about a biopic or an action film or a

science-fiction film that has all the CGI in the world, if you’re not trying to

connect with an audience, it doesn’t really matter.

JT: You’ve

worked on so many different kinds of projects as of late – film, television,

writing, directing. Has that always been the goal, or is there an area where

you feel most comfortable?

JR: I can’t say that I necessarily love one

over the other. They all have their rewards, they all have their challenges.

What I really love is telling stories. More than anything else, after all these

years I’m just very thankful that I’m in a space where I can still tell stories

the way I’d like to tell them, or the way I think it benefits the story. I

think I appreciate that more with every passing year because you realize that

it’s a gift and a singular opportunity. I don’t know how long it’s going to

last because none of us, unfortunately, have control over our careers. But I

have been very blessed over these past few years and if the last bunch of films

that I get to be known for are things like "12 Years A Slave" or "All

Is By My Side," it’s been a pretty special career.

JT: Do

you attribute that to anything besides the quality of the work?


JR: I think if there’s anything that really made

a difference over the past couple of years, there got to be a point where a lot

of things changed that were beyond my control. Around 2007 the whole world

changed – economics changed, the way that Hollywood was making films changed,

and my place in it changed. And for me it got to a point where I could try to

compete with an amazing array of writers who were going after fewer and fewer

projects or I could start taking some chances on things that I really believed

in. And it really started with "Red Tails" and continued with "12

Years A Slave," and then particularly with "All Is By My Side."

You’re never sure how things are going to work

out, but looking back over these few years I’m thankful that I ended up picking

projects that weren’t necessarily about the paycheck upfront, but you knew

going into it – you read Solomon Northup’s memoir and know you’ve been

presented with a story that’s very special. So for me that is the difference, to

try to build on things that I did well in the past, but really to say if these

are the last bunch of stories you’re going to tell, are you going to tell them

because you’re passionate about them or are you going to tell them because

someone is paying you to tell these stories?

JT: You’ve also got "American Crime" coming up at ABC. They’re

taking more risks with the kinds of stories they’re telling, and with diversity

in general. 

JR: They are taking chances across the board,

not only with me but with a lot of different story tellers. With "American

Crime," one of the things I’m really excited about is that it has a very cinematic

quality. There is growth to it, there’s depth. It’s not about solving a crime

or DNA evidence or easy answers, but it really is about perspective. Unfortunately

in America a lot of times conversations that are deep and provocative and

powerful, they only happen when they’re nexused around outside events. What we

want to get to with "American Crime" is telling stories that are in

some ways larger than life, because hopefully most of us will never be visited

on one end or the other of these. We’ll never get phone calls that one of our

loved ones has been a victim of a violent crime or accused of a violent crime,

but at the same time we can bring our own particular perspectives to how we

think justice should be dispensed. So to be able to tell a story that broad and

nuanced on network television, it’s a real opportunity.

I cannot say enough about ABC Studios and about ABC

as a network for allowing me the opportunity to do it. And one of the reasons I

was able to write and direct the pilot and the second episode is because ABC absolutely

loved "All Is By My Side." All of those elements of cinema, sound,

sight and performance, they were really excited about bringing to this

television series.

"Jimi: All Is By My Side" opens in select theaters

today. 

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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