Was screenwriter John Ridley a bit nervous the night before this year's Academy Award nominations were announced? Absolutely.
How could he not be, when everywhere he went people approached him to say that he deserved an Oscar nod for his work on the film 12 Years a Slave. But those nerves were not evident when he sat down before a live audience at NPR Headquarters just hours before he did indeed get that Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
NPR Presents invited Ridley to join me on stage for a special conversation to talk about what it took to make a film that forces audiences to look deep inside the diabolically cruel institution of slavery in America. Ridley talked about the psychological rigors that actors faced in playing roles where they were beaten bloody by whips and beaten down by a system that offered no relief. He explained that the cotton fields that seemed to go on forever on screen were not the work of technological editing wizards, but rather the ground crew that had to painstakingly insert cotton puffs into fake crops so actors could look realistic when they plucked it out during filming.
And in the face of criticism from some who said they wished the film had a stronger narrative of resistance, Ridley explained that one of the most rebellious characters from Solomon Northup's book — a runaway slave woman named Celeste — was included in his original screenplay. Despite the fact that they spent several days filming scenes with the actress Ruth Negga portraying Celeste, her character wound up on the cutting room floor. Perhaps that footage may reappear in a Director's Cut DVD release.
It was a wide ranging conversation that included laughter, tears and candor. Ridley's body of work as a director includes the films Three Kings, U-Turn, Red Tails, Undercover Brother and the upcoming Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is By My Side. He said 12 Years A Slave was by far his most challenging project. It took four years to finish the script. And it should be noted, that he wrote the script "on spec" — meaning Ridley took on the project with no guarantee that a studio would buy the script or finance the filming.
In the end Ridley said he had to resist the idea of making a film that was supposed to serve as the history lesson Americans should have had about slavery. He wanted to avoid finger-wagging and yet make people think about slavery in a different way when they left the theater.
In telling the story of an enslaved black man, Ridley thought always of his two sons. He wanted to tell them a story of grit and grace and above all, a story of survival against all odds.
"I have two boys. I just said, 'If I were trying to show these two boys, my two sons, what I thought the character of a man was — of an American man, of a man of color — that's what Solomon was when I read this book. And my message was just about character.'"
When someone in the audience asked Ridley about his Oscar expectations, he was nonchalant.
"Whatever happens, happens," he said.
"I'm just so thankful for the recognition ... and I'm truly so thankful that people are just talking about Solomon."
That aw-shucks attitude might sound a bit artificial. We assume everyone in Hollywood pines for that Golden Statue and somewhere deep inside, Ridley probably does. But when you spend a couple of hours with an artist you get a glimpse of their character. At the end of a long conversation at NPR Headquarters on a weeknight, when many in Ridley's position might have rushed to the exit, the screenwriter lingered behind to stand in front of the stage and spent time with every single person who came forward to greet him. He answered questions. Signed scripts. Offered advice. And only when the last person left the theater, did he pick up his coat and hat to head to his hotel room — and wait for that call.