Now nominated for nine Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” has had a profound effect on critics and audiences alike. The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and forced into slavery. On Jan. 15, John Ridley, the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” sat down with NPR’s Michele Norris for a conversation about the film and his writing process.
Ridley, who has written everything from stage plays to graphic novels, was first drawn to this project during a meeting with Steve McQueen, the film’s director.
“About 2008, Steve had just finished ‘Hunger.’ He had read one of my manuscripts. He was very fascinated,” Ridley said. “And I thought he was very fascinating.”
Neither he nor McQueen had heard of Solomon Northup, but when they discovered his memoir by the same name of the film, Ridley felt strongly about adapting it for the screen.
“Reading his story was so powerful, and I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’” Ridley said.
When they started work on the film, they had almost no funding, but Plan B Entertainment, a production company owned by Brad Pitt, promised to find money for the project once Ridley had written a script. While the latter expressed an enormous amount of gratitude to Plan B, he made it clear that “12 Years a Slave” was not a Hollywood movie.
“Fox Searchlight stepped in much later to distribute the film,” Ridley said. “That is different from going to see ‘Man of Steel’, which is, from beginning to end, a Hollywood film.”
Throughout the night, Norris, who is a very accomplished journalist, aimed to find out how Ridley transformed Northup’s memoir into a complex, haunting film that garnered such international attention.
“One of things we wanted to do with this film is make it more experimental.” Ridley said of the goals he and McQueen shared. But while the storytelling techniques were unconventional, the story was completely authentic. Ridley did very careful research.
“Many of the things you see are sense memory for Solomon,” Ridley said.
Remaining truthful to Solomon’s memoir became essential to Ridley.
“I wanted the script to be as informative as possible and to try and think of as many details as possible,” Ridley said. At times, however, this became a demanding task. “There were moments where there were gaps in the dialogue, and it was a bit like a restoration project,” Ridley said.
One of the things Ridley found so fascinating about Northup’s story was the role of communication.
“To gain his freedom he had to communicate with his family,” Ridley said.
In the film, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tries several times to write a letter to people in New York, his home state. But getting a letter from the South to the North is nearly impossible for a slave who receives harsh punishment if it is revealed he can write. This element of Northup’s struggle hit home for Ridley who discussed how much he took communication for granted.
Also discussed was the reaction the film has received, and while nearly all feedback has been positive, many people have called the film painful or difficult to watch.
“I really think people don’t know how hard, how difficult, how brutal slavery was,” Ridley said of the responses.
“Other than ‘Roots’,” Ridley said, “we know it from “Song of the South.”” The latter, despite featuring the classic song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” is widely considered to be a glamorization of Georgia plantation life. “It’s not even slavery,” Ridley said.
But he understands the struggle people have watching the film.
“This film, you care about the individuals. They are rendered as individuals, and that makes it more difficult,” Ridley said.
Ridley had a hard time watching parts of the film himself. At the event, a scene was played showing the young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) returning to her plantation to find her vicious master (Michael Fassbender) furious at her absence. As the brief clip rolled, Ridley looked away, unable to watch the scene he had written.
Other moments of the evening were also emotional for Ridley, indicating the potent feelings that have come from exploring Northup’s life. At one point, he told the story of when he nearly enlisted in the military. In sharing this private moment and discussing people like the Tuskegee Airmen, Ridley was moved to tears. He displayed great admiration for these oppressed men who were willing to fight for their right to fight for their country.
As the discussion returned to the subject of “12 Years a Slave”, Ridley shared an idea about what might be taken away from it. He reflected on the progress the United States has made since the 1840s.
“We went from that to this. If we can do that, we can do anything,” Ridley said.
The event, which fell on the eve of the Academy Award nominations announcement, did eventually move to the topic of the Oscars. One audience member asked Ridley about his feelings on the prestigious award, with him being a frontrunner. Ridley, now nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, was still waiting in nervous anticipation on that night.
“That’s a lot of weight,” Ridley said, in reference to the many people who have called him a lock for the award. In 1999, Ridley received strong buzz for his film “Three Kings”, but on the morning of the Oscar nominations, he was overlooked. To respond to the audience member’s question, Ridley insisted that he is just happy that the film’s story is getting exposure, regardless of the film’s performance at the Oscars.
“I’m truly so thankful that people are talking about Solomon,” Ridley said.