John Ridley on 12 Years a Slave and the Power of Cinema
by Carlos Aguilar
With a career that covers almost every written creative medium, John Ridley’s latest screenplay is perhaps the most important project of his career. Being an African American man himself the process of translating Solomon Northup’s account of his experience as a slave proved to be a particularly emotionally powerful experience. As a novelist Ridley has published seven novels and three graphic novels, which add to his extensive trajectory writing for the screen. Not only has John Ridley penned close to a dozen feature screenplays but he has also directed several of them himself, testifying of his outstanding creative sensibilities. In 12 Years a Slave the writer took a story that is more than a century old, and turned it into what is perhaps the most honest portrayal of slavery in America ever to be put on screen. Unflinching in its depiction of cruelty and the use of derogatory language, the story can be hard to assimilate; however, Ridley sees these horrifying truths as the most important aspects of creating an honest retelling of what Solomon, and millions of others went through while depraved of their freedom. In a sense, he thinks, shying away from the truth is perhaps more disrespectful and immoral than facing it without euphemisms.
John Ridley talked to Creative Screenwriting about the incredible experience it was to work with Steve McQueen and an entire production of dedicated collaborators, his road to translating the text into a powerful screenplay without infusing it with modern notions of political correctness, and the emotional reaction he expects from all those who give themselves the opportunity to experience this story of suffering, redemption, and the triumph of the human spirit.
CARLOS AGUILAR: How does your decision-making process work when adapting material like this? How do you choose what needs to stay and what can be left out in such an important story?
JOHN RIDLEY: That’s difficult, because you are talking about trying to take 12 years and put them into two hours. Most of it, honestly for me, was just trying to get around the central message of the Solomon story. In that regard you couldn’t talk about everyone that he met or all the things that he went through, but what were those things that really drove the narrative forward. Essentially, it also focuses on his desire to reunite with his family, and his discovery in terms of the elements of freedom that he would take for granted. So, if in that story you couldn’t tell every single thing, what were the things that really shaped his emotional journey as he went from a man who took his freedom for granted to someone who would do almost anything he possibly could to maintain that freedom.
AGUILAR: There is an unflinching sense of honesty throughout the story, how difficult was it to be so truthful especially about the depiction of violence in the text?
RIDLEY: For me, on my level, I can only speak about the words on the page. It wasn’t difficult because that’s what was in the memoir that was in the story. So it was a matter of not trying to remove it because maybe I was uncomfortable, or I thought there would be audience members who would be uncomfortable. It’s a reality, this is what people went through, not just Solomon, but tens of thousands of people, millions even, who were part of the slave system. So, if we are going to tell the story, again I can only speak for the words on the page, I was not going to look at Solomon’s story, his memoir, and say “Gosh that’s too tough, I shouldn’t put that in there.” If this person could survive it, the very least that I could do is be honest with its portrayal in the script
AGUILAR: Besides the physical violence, did you have any reservations in terms of the dialogue, since that was perhaps closer to you on the page rather than the visuals?
RIDLEY: No, again if it was real, if its true, if it happened I don’t think that any of us should ever turn away from an aspect of history that may be uncomfortable. If it was the language, the words that were used, they were there for a reason at the time, and if put into a context, and it is meant to show people an aspect of history that perhaps they are not familiar with, then I think you should use it. If you are using it just to be exploitative, and to try to get a rise out of people then I think you got to stop and think about it. But again this was the reality, and there is absolutely no need to turn away, or shy away from things that happened because in that viewing you have an understanding of why it happened.
AGUILAR: Did you have any actors in mind or suggested to you while you were writing the screenplay? Or were you completely oblivious to who was going to play each character?
RIDLEY: I didn’t write for any one person in particular, part of that was certainly going to be Steve’s decision when he went to casting, but I think that it doesn’t do service to the character if you sometimes think that there is just one actor who can play this or just one person who would be absolutely perfect for it and no one else, because you’ve got to be open to all possibilities that arise. You certainly want an actor who is going to bring their own abilities and their own talents to it, as opposed to presupposing that well “This is the only person who could possibly play this role and no one else could match it”. In that search, from my perspective, for what they brought to the film I certainly couldn’t think of any better actors for these parts.
AGUILAR: Given that you have directed yourself, and also worked in other written media, how much of your personal vision did you infuse into the screenplay? Or did you leave that entirely up to Steve?
RIDLEY: I tried to leave myself out of it as much as I possibly could. When we started this project it was 2008, and I have my own thoughts and feelings, and perspective as a person of color in the 21st century, and I don’t think it would have been proper to try to have an overlay of my views and my opinions and try to editorialize on the story. Solomon’s memoir is one of the most powerful documents I’ve ever had the opportunity to read, and I think the greatest disservice that I could do was try to insert myself into his story in an overabundance. I think when you become a writer a lot of what you do is about self expression and that’s great under normal circumstances, but I think under this circumstances it was much better if I could set myself aside and let the words on the page, on Solomon’s page, in his memoir, speak more strongly that perhaps I would normally speak myself.
AGUILAR: This is a story bout the triumph of the human spirit, but it’s also about a very troubling period in American history, how did you balance these two ides in your screenplay?
RIDLEY: I think that’s what makes it such a beautiful story too, because it is about the triumph of the human spirit. If you look at stories in history, you look at the way that they’ve been done in cinema, whether it is Schindler’s List, whether it is The Killing Fields, the canvas that they’re set upon is very stark and very harsh, but when you see the level of character of Solomon, of other individuals that he meets in his travels, their faith, their faith in each other, their faith in the system, even though the system to a large degree has let them down, their faith in something larger than themselves, faith in their families, to me that is a very powerful story, and it resonates.
It’s quite easy for all of us to get angry and accusatory in modern life, and forget the struggles of our parents, or our ancestors to give us the life that we have. Sometimes when we see how difficult in every aspect life used to be, and we see that the best of us would not give in to those difficult circumstances, that’s a great learning tool. For me it wasn’t a matter of balance in a sense of adding more weight to one or the other, I don’t think that pain and suffering, and human dignity and beauty are mutually exclusive, but sometimes when you have a great deal of one, [the screenplay] necessitates more of the other.
AGUILAR: Could you talk about your relationship with director Steve McQueen throughout the entire process of making the film given that you were also a producer?
RIDLEY: I was a producer because of some of the things that I brought to the film, but they were others who did much more of the heavy physical lifting in the traditional sense of producing the film. In terms of my relationship with Steve, it was incredibly communicative, as well as with some other members of the crew. I was very fortunate to get to know, to a degree, Sean Bobbitt and Joe Walker, the editor, that’s not normally something that the writer necessarily gets to do on a film. I would never presuppose that in a few conversations I had great insight into exactly how this film would get made, but I do think it was very helpful for me to just get to know all these individuals in some regard, and to try to take some of their views and some of their creative aspects and infuse them in some ways into the script. This is very, very helpful for me in terms of trying to bring life to Solomon’s memoir beyond just the words on the page.
AGUILAR: After watching the film, what was reaction as to how Solomon’s text translated into your screenplay and eventually to the screen?
RIDLEY: I thought it was phenomenal. I don’t know when I’ve been part of a process where in every aspect, in every regard, the artisans, the crew, the cast; they all elevated the material to such a high degree. I think a really good script is very necessary for a really good film, but sometimes that’s all it can be, a good script. That’s all it may ever be if you don’t have other individuals who can take that and build on it, and go beyond it, and want to dig more and want to give more, that’s the reality. I’m really happy in the sense that I provided, to the best of my ability, but when I see what other people provided and how they took it, and how they gave all of themselves, it was very gratifying, and it was very beautiful.
AGUILAR: Did you feel any sense of heavy responsibility while writing the script? And do you see films as a tool for change? Especially in a film like this, which although not political, it does contain elements of social commentary.
RIDLEY: I think films can be very effective tools for change. I think that often times the written word alone can have a cool remove but when those words are truly personified and when context is given to them and imagery is added, and emotion is infused, it all becomes exponentially more powerful. For me, when I saw the film completed for the first time, I knew the story, I knew where it was going, but the power was undeniable. For people who may not get an opportunity, certainly we cannot travel in time, but even in this modern world we don’t often get to travel to other places and really see other circumstances and live them. When you see films that deal with subjects that may be alien to yourself or to others, as this film may be for many people, but they come out of it in tears, they come out of it full of emotion, you realize how powerful film can be. I don’t think any of us should ever take that for granted. In that regard I’m very thankful to have at least in my lifetime one opportunity to be involved in a film that really tries to reach, to touch, and to elevate its subject matter.
AGUILAR: What do you want people to experience and to take with them after they watch this powerful film?
RIDLEY: I wouldn’t try to predict what any one person would take. I want them to be touched, and this film will touch people in different ways than others. Some people may remember stories from family members that were passed down about the specifics of it, some people may just be moved by the grace and the beauty of certain themes, and other people may be shocked at truly for the first time seeing how horrible the circumstances of slavery really were. Whatever they take away from it, I know that people will be touched, I know that they will be moved. I know they will be provoked in many ways, and for me, whatever those emotions are, to know that this film has a way to tap into emotions means a great deal.
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