Interview: John Ridley on Oscars and Jimi Hendrix pic ‘All Is By My Side’

In the same week — really, the same 24 hours — he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” John Ridley flew to Austin to launch into work on the pilot for ABC's “American Crime.” That meant, too, he could promote “Jimi: All Is Lost,” to which he referred as his “child,” his baby, a film fit for the South By Southwest film conference and is creeping toward theatrical release on May.

“All Is By My Side” and “12 Years a Slave” both made their debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last year; but it's the former that he wrote, directed and executive produced. Touching on one year of rocker Jimi Hendrix's early career, Ridley also had to work-around the notoriously difficult Hendrix estate, which denied the film any usage of Hendrix's recorded work, and long timeline conversations with people producing the film.

I thought that “All Is By My Side” toyed with what really makes up “the cast of characters” in Hendrix's life, namely the women that surrounded him. He abused some, like he ultimately did his drugs, which Ridley's script also alludes to. His passions for guitar and art and music felt so light-hearted compared to his inner-struggles for acceptance, and the film knowingly complicates the story of Jimi Hendrix before he became famous to thousands — and, ultimately, millions — of fans at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.

I caught up with Ridley at SXSW at the time of “All Is By My Side's” U.S. debut at the fest, to ask about women's roles in the film, Hendrix and race, films with messaging, Andre Benjamin (Outkast rapper Andre 3000) as Jimi, and how that whole winning-Academy-Awards-thing is going.

HitFix: You haven”t been able to really enjoy your Oscar win, have you?

John Ridley: I have not had time to literally sit at home with the wonderful statue, I had to jump on a plane to Austin and work on this pilot. I didn”t get to just revel in it.

I have to say there”s something nice about leaving that behind, leaving truly with my family and knowing what”s next, and knowing there were people truly supportive of me before it happened. That”s a good feeling. In some ways it was like a dream, like it didn”t happen. The reality is it all happened so fast. It takes years to get there, it takes months to get to that moment, once they start with which film is going to be [selected], who”s in, who”s in play, who”s not… it”s always gonna be over too quickly.

Do you feel like this has a long goodbye? Do you need to have some kind of closure with your films?

It”s odd because for me, the reality of “12 Years a Slave” started in 2008 so in some ways I feel like I”m being rewarded for something I did in high school. It feels great, but people ask you questions about it, want to recollect about it, and I'm like, “I think I did this?”. It was a beautiful end for everybody involved, but there is a level of “It”s done now.” I”m ready for what”s next in my life.

“All Is By My Side” also took a long time, and it just keeps going.

Like with “12 Years a Slave,” sometimes you”re just a writer —  and that”s just the way it is, you”re kinda removed, you hand it off to this amazing team.

In all actuality, we were filming “All Is By My Side” at the same time they were filming “12 Years a Slave.” You”re handing over your child to other people and they”re raising amazingly well, but there”s a cool remove. With “All Is By My Side,” that”s the kid you”re with every single day, from the moment you sit down to write it, to the moment early on when you pitch it to other people, then you meet these producers who believe in it, you meet actors like Andre and Imogen and Hayley, then you shoot it, you”re working with an editor, every step of the way.

Toronto [Film Festival] was amazing in that both of my kids were there – “12 Years” on that Friday, “All Is By My Side” was Saturday. People are talking about the film, it”s being reviewed in the right ways, but you”re not done with it yet. It hasn”t gotten its release, it does go on and on and on. It”s this dance.

I don”t want to beat the metaphor to death, but I feel like now I”m the dad and I”m having this last dance with my daughter. It grabs me different, this one. Every step of the way, every moment, every cut, I had a hand in and worked with the people who helped execute it. This is a special feeling. The ways people are responding to this film are phenomenal. The way people respond to Andre and his performance… That makes me proud.

After TIFF, what was reflected back at you? What did you take from the TIFF experience, and what are you hoping more people would “get?”

I was very happy with people how they responded in Toronto. You can”t come into things and manage how people feel. Any time you put something out into the public, you always take that risk of people loving or hating it. You can”t live or die by reviews. I want people to appreciate what we were trying to do with it, that it”s not a conventional narrative, that it is just one year out of someone”s life, that we”re not trying to be dependent on certain artifacts but get a certain emotional velocity throughout this film.

I always talk about a film that inspires me, “Sid & Nancy,” [even though] I don”t really dig punk rock music. There were bits and pieces of the Sex Pistols within it, but that”s not what the film was about. It was about these two individuals who were no good for anyone else but each other. That”s what we wanted to do; it”s about relationships and about connectivity.

When people appreciated this was not a traditional biopic, that”s what I want people to get out of it, that we were hopefully celebrating this gentleman”s life. We”re not about the tragic end of the story. It was important to me that we kind of end on a hopeful note. The last words are about being inspired and inspiring others.

I look back on my career and the early pictures I was a part of – they were kind of exuberiant and nutty – like “U Turn” and “Three Kings” and “Undercover Brother” — and they were all great to work on. But you do get a little bit older and you have kids and you want them to have a takeaway. Whether it”s “Red Tails,” “12 Years a Slave”  and even with “Jimi”… I don”t want my kids walking away from this thinking sex drugs and rock ‘n” roll is all there is to be.

But Jimi inspired people. I want that to be the message of it. People responded to the style, the performances. It”s not a typical cradle-to-grave downer biopic. In a place like SXSW, where it”s about celebrating music, celebrating diversity, celebrating energy and creativity, we were trying to do that in all aspects.

Three major themes this film struck on were fame – pre-fame, really – women, and people of color. To that last one, there”s the nugget in the film where there”s an “us and them” exchange, with the black activist scene. Were you torn wanting to tell more of that side of that story, on race?

I”m glad you asked me about that scene, you”re the first person to ask about Michael X. It was true, this scene really did happen. Michael X wasn”t Malcolm X – I know you”re not confusing them – but simply in terms of philosophy he held. He wasn”t a Malcolm X guy. He was a little bit of a shyster, a little bit of a race-baiter, and he had an opportunity to say “[Jimi], you owe us this, your people.”

As a person of color, you carry that with you. Sometimes there”s people who look at me and say, “Why don”t you tell them this story or tell them that story, you”re black, you need to do this.”

That”s opposed to Jimi; what I wanted to express with him is the moments where he says stuff like what he says to Michael X, “What do you mean ‘My people?” They”re all my people.” He wanted to play music for people. He wanted people to dig him.

And one of the early difficulties he had with his career was people saying “You”re black, you shouldn”t be playing rock uptown.” And people down in the village — as open minded as they might think they are – they”re like, “How is this black guy playing this bluesy folk hybrid?”

Getting to the Michael X aspect of it, one thing that was helpful for me in telling this story — because it was only one year — we had the space to spend six or seven minutes on it. The reality is, if it was a cradle-to-grave biopic, you could not spend six to seven minutes. There”s another biopic on Jimi – and this is not to pick on it – and his whole London storyline was only 10 minutes. I never felt like I couldn”t get to that part of the storytelling.

Even the Ida character –- and I will admit, Ida was based on Devon Wilson, his girlfriend, and that was a little time out of line — the fact that we could bring in his black girlfriend, and represent an ethnocentric aspect to his life, we couldn”t do that if it was just the greatest hits of his life, literally and figuratively. I was always appreciative that I could get into it and explore, that he never looked at himself as a black guy, but as an artist. That”s why we him sit down and have a conversation about it, saying something like “When the power of love takes over the love of power, that”s when things will change.”

The importance of women”s roles in the film, they were presented – I thought — as strict symbols or muses.  We”re kind of used to seeing women “representing” these distinctive things, specific roles. With Linda, Ida and Kathy, you have them as these roles. And Jimi was kind of a dick to all of them.

Look, speaking as a guy, you can go through a history of Jimi, politicians, husbands, I can look at even my own life and just tiny moments where I wish I was a lot more sensitive to people who supported me. There”s a reason people say “Behind every great man is a woman” because it”s your girlfriend, your wife, your mother…

With Jimi, he didn”t have his mother around, and he was a deep person. And part of that may be writer”s embellishment, but Linda Keith was that mental support of someone saying, “You have the bones, you gotta get yourself together and do it.”

Kathy Etchingham: there are few people who have done more to keep Jimi”s memory and legacy alive than someone who was there with him in those years, put up with him in the good times the bad times but had that energy to be with him and roll with him in every aspect.

And Ida – Devon, the Ida character – was that ethnocentric side, she had the fro, she was all about the “get” and she was cool and a little dangerous. But she was the one that could relate to him, quite frankly, in a way that these other girls could not.

In putting this story together, it was factually true, it was important to be honorific to these women who helped make this legend — at the same time, take the legend out of it. These were real relationships, they were good, they were difficult, they were tough, but these ladies were there for him every step of the way. And quite frankly — and I mean this sincerely, and not to pick on anybody — if any of these ladies were there for him in his last moment, I think he”d probably still be with us. I wanted to be honorific to those key relationships, relationships which I think a lot of people were not aware of before.