From executive producers John Ridley (the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave) and Michael McDonald, the ABC drama series American Crime is a raw and real portrait of what happens when a tragic event ripples out to affect the families of the victims and perpetrators. It’s told from the points of view of all involved, and examines the preconceptions of faith, family, gender, race and class while showing that there are never any easy answers when it comes to finding justice. The show is often unsettling to watch in its realism, and it will certainly spark conversation among viewers.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, John Ridley talked about how he got involved with American Crime, creating storytelling that you can be empathetic to, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything its saying, using a very specific language of cinema, figuring out how far they could push things with the show, weaving religion and faith into the story, putting together such a talented cast, the model for how they would handle possible future seasons, realizing just how relevant this story is during the process of filming, and giving the audience a resolution that feels emotionally right. He also talked about how he got involved as a writer on Ben-Hur, and how this take on the material is different.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on a masterful and compelling bit of storytelling. This show is certainly going to get people talking.
JOHN RIDLEY: Thank you, but I have to give so much praise to ABC and ABC Studios for allowing us to do this, to Michael McDonald for bringing me in, to our phenomenal group of writers, and to amazing crew and cast. For a guy who’s been very fortunate, over the last year or so, it really was about being in the right time and right place, with the right group of people. It’s very difficult subject matter and is tough to tackle. A lot of folks come into it, expecting the show to be proselytizing about socio-political issues. One of the things we really wanted to do was present it in a way that was about cinema and storytelling and creating a space where, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything it’s saying, you can be empathetic with the circumstances. I think and believe that we accomplished that.
When this idea came up and it was brought to you, was it something that you were immediately interested in, or did you need to figure out if you had something to say, in this regard?
RIDLEY: At first, I was a little surprised and a little hesitant. To have a network come to me with an area and a space like this, in August of 2013, I had finished working on 12 Years a Slave, but it hadn’t been out, and I had finished working on my film, All is By My Side, about Jimi Hendrix, so the concept of going to network television and tackling some very potent subject matter, there was an initial thought on my part that it sounded good but would they really have the capacity to deliver on the things that they were offering up to me. So, there was a bit of hesitancy. But I talked to the other producer on the show, Michael McDonald, who was the one that brought me in, and there seemed to be a real capacity to try to deliver on all of those aspects and areas. When I came back to them and said, “Look, the other thing that’s really interesting to me and what I would like to try to bring to the table is to look into these areas, but not from the perspective of the police or the prosecutors. I want to really make it about family and about these individuals and the people who are going to have to deal with these things, for the long haul.” And they were very keen to explore the story from that aspect.
So, it wasn’t an immediate yes. Walking out of the meeting with Michael, I was absolutely intrigued by the space, but I wasn’t sure that ABC rally meant what they said, and I wasn’t sure that I had a way to offer it up that would make it interesting, above and beyond just being provocative for the sake of being provocative. But in those conversations, we both felt each other out, and it certainly helped to screen All is By My Side for them because they were enthralled by the language of cinema that we were using. It was a process, but it was a process that, once we got through it, we were more sure of each other than just be doing speed dating and saying, “Yeah, okay, let’s do this.”
Focusing on the family aspect will really help viewers connect with this story, in a much more personal way than following the police or legal aspect might have.
RIDLEY: We all hope that the police and prosecutors are objective. That’s their job, but sometimes it’s not true. Depending on which side you’re on, maybe the police are too objective and need to be a bit more subjective. But, the families in it have the right to be subjective and to feel hyper-emotional about something that’s going on. We see that constantly. And at the same time, they still have to deal with ordinary, everyday life. We wanted to find that balance between people who are trying to advocate one side or the other, for their loved ones who are the victims or for their loved ones who are the accused. And then, after you advocate, and have gone out and dealt with the police and prosecutors, you’ve gotta go home and deal with the people who are around you, and not just once or twice, but daily. We believed, going into it, that that would allow for a very emotional space and a relatable space.
The look and feel of this show, and the quality level of it, are what we’ve come to expect from cable television because it is so cinematic. Were there conversations about how far you could push things with this show, or did you feel the freedom to take the show in whatever direction it naturally went?
RIDLEY: I cannot say there weren’t conversations, but there were true conversations. ABC Studios and ABC, the network, continued during the writing process to push, or to at least say, “Don’t be concerned with what one may expect in network television space.” No disrespect to cable or streaming, but the fact that we deal with so many types of individuals, this show is so reflective. I try not to use the word diversity because I think it’s more reflective, including the fact that we deal with faith so openly in these episodes. Where else do you have this many types of people and viewpoints represented in a single show, whether it’s in broadcast, cable or streaming. And then, we added on the cinematic qualities that ABC was amazingly supportive of.
All is By My Side used a lot of very similar language of cinema. When I screened it for them, there were a couple ways they could have gone. For me, as a director, they could have said, “No thank you. We love you, as a writer, but we’ll find somebody else.” They also could have said, “You’re a good director. We like what you’re doing. Just calm it down a little bit and let’s put it in a TV space.” But very fortunately for me, they said, “Great, we loved that!,” and not just in terms of direction, but the editing, the sound design, the color timing, and all of those aspects. Once they signed on, they never wavered, and that I really, really appreciate. To be able to go to our editors and say, “Things that you want to try, things that you want to do, do that.” It’s the same thing with sound design and with color timing. That’s when you really get people excited about the work. I can say, “Come with ideas. Let’s try things.”
Had you always wanted to weave religion and faith into the story? It’s such a hot-button topic for people. Was that part of why you wanted to include it, or was there no way to tell this story without addressing that, in some way?
RIDLEY: Well, I absolutely wanted to include it. Unfortunately, in entertainment, even now, in 2015, when you start dealing with religion, it tends to be one or the other. It’s either not dealt with, at all, and everyone is completely agnostic and you don’t know what they believe in, or we’re in a space now, in a good way, where you do have entertainment that is positive towards the faith-based community. They’ve got money and they want to be entertained, so why should they be ignored? You can treat faith as part of people’s it’s lives. For some of our characters, it’s a very fundamental, everyday aspect of their lives. For other characters, it is a driving principle in their lives. And for other characters, it is something that they’ll have to learn to deal with in their lives, whether it’s faith in religion or faith in a secular system. We have different kinds of faith. Hopefully, it’s not haphazard in our approach to it, or in regards to how it affects or influences the lives of these characters. I did not want to ignore it. I did not know whether I’d ever have another opportunity to engage it as we have an opportunity to on American Crime, and I don’t know, so I didn’t want to leave it off to the side, any more than politics, race or gender politics. It absolutely is a part of people’s lives, and I think it would be disingenuous to pretend that these folks are going through it and they don’t turn to faith, in some way.
This show has a very raw and real feel to it, and you don’t strike me as someone who shies away from anything, if it’s necessary to the story that you’re telling. Was it intentional to approach the show, in that way, especially to provoke deeper emotion?
RIDLEY: I wanted to be as observant as possible. So, there are places where clearly we do have an editorial style that is thought out and planned, but there are other places where I just wanted to sit with these characters, as much as possible, and not cut away from them or move away from them. Sometimes that gets incredibly uncomfortable. If you’re out in public and you see two people who are getting into a spat and an argument, you like to avert your eyes or tell your kids you’re going to go get some ice cream. But in a TV space, the point is not to move away. You’re creating the space to be with these folks for a reason, so why cut from person to person and line to line, as opposed to staying with the moment and these folks, as long as that moment sustains itself. And then, you have to backwards engineer and make sure that you’re writing a moment that creates a space for the performers.
When you have performers as strong as we were fortunate enough to attract to this show, why cut away from them? Why cut away from Tim [Hutton] and Felicity [Huffman]? When Regina [King] is giving all that she has in that personal sermon in her temple, why cut away from that moment? But then, there are also moments where, cinematically, the moment feels a little bit fractured, so we fracture the editing a little bit. Coming into it, we didn’t feel like we had to be all of one or all of the other. We wanted to create something that was engaging in the most appropriate way possible, for that moment. I certainly wanted to get to a space where the viewer goes, “Wait a minute, how long have we been in this scene? Did nobody cut?” I also wanted to have moments where people realize they can’t pick up an iPad and read an article [while the show is on]. I hope it’s engaging, but I certainly did not want to be the stereotypically cool medium of television, and instead be something that is far more engaging for the audience, in every aspect that we could.
There’s such a great group of actors on this show, from very recognizable faces to some really unknown ones. Did you have any specific people in mind while you were writing, or were you just open to the right person for each role?
RIDLEY: I did not have anybody, at all, in mind, for any of these roles. We have a phenomenal casting director, named Kim Coleman, who I’ve had the chance to work with previously. Beyond going after the right talent and finding very talented people, she is really good about trying to put the right person in front of me for the right role. People who are known and people who are unknown bring a very authentic quality to these parts, and it was a real pleasure working with them. They were all very, very talented. When people come in the door and they have something, discovering and exploring the character is a real joy. And then, we could go on an exploration together. In my younger days, as a writer, I’d get very locked in to the word on the page. There’s something very special about knowing what you want to do and knowing the story you want to tell, but finding it together. Some of these scenes are very potent and very raw because the actors were very much a part of that exploration. I never wanted to show up and just say, “Okay, what are we doing today? Let’s wing it!” This group of writers that we had provided these scripts, but within that, we were never precious about it. We would ask the actors about the language, the words and the space that felt the most comfortable. In that regard, they were very much partners in creating scenes that just had a real raw potency to them.
If you do get further seasons of this show, have you thought about what that would look like? Would it be a very different show, from season to season, or would you retain some of the same cast? Do you have a possible model for how that would be handled?
RIDLEY: Yeah, I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about it because we haven’t even aired yet and I don’t know what my life is going to be like in the next couple of months. Particularly when you consider that all these folks through down with me before a lot of the very special things that have happened to me over the last year, I would love to retain as many of them as possible. They have a lot of faith, and they’re wonderful actors. In all regards, in terms of the story, the setting, the language of cinema and the characters that they’ve played, both with this show and characters that they’ve played in the past, really find new places to explore, keep ourselves energized and have something that is, around the edges, familiar for the audience, so they don’t have to recreate the space, every single year, but for us to deliver something that is different, from season to season. I want to explore different topics and present them in slightly different ways. I would love to reinvent the show, as much as possible, and that’s ABC’s intent, as well. From the jump, it was always going to be an anthology series, if we were fortunate enough to come back.
When you started working on American Crime, you could have questioned whether society might have moved back some of the thoughts and feelings that you highlight on the show, and then you were faced with just how cyclical racial issues are. Did it personally disappoint you to see just how present it still is, in our lives?
RIDLEY: It goes beyond disappointing. Whatever you do, whether you’re doing a television drama or a romantic comedy, you want to be relevant, to some degree. There was a moment, when we started down the road with this show, in the space after the Trayvon Martin trial, where we did think, “Okay, maybe we, as a people, have just expended so much energy and emotion on this that we are moving to a different space.” As a person and as a father, you go, “Maybe that’s a good thing.” As a guy who’s doing a TV show, you go, “This is going to be tough. We’re going to have to find a way to make this show relevant.” And then, in the middle of production, something like Ferguson happens and you realize that you’re not just doing a TV show. Comparisons are going to happen. They are inevitable. Whether they’re correct or incorrect, we’ve got a responsibility to be as emotionally honest to the subject matter as we can.
This is a piece of fiction, but there are going to be people who look at it and take things from it, and some of those things, we want them to take from it, and some of them, they’re going to take no matter what. But it was a reminder, for everybody involved in this show, that the things that we do and whatever it is that we are trying to convey, we’ve gotta do it in the most honest way possible. To then screen it for people and hear people say that they feel it’s evocative, raw and emotional, and that it played in as real a space as you could probably get for a narrative in broadcast television, it makes me feel good, not as the person who is writing the show, but because you remember those days when you’re out there doing it, and you’ve got all different kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds, who are dedicated to just servicing the story. It feels very good to know that everybody’s work wasn’t done in vein. We hope to entertain. That’s our primary responsibility. But I think and believe that we’re all cognizant of the fact that this is one of those shows that has an opportunity to go a little bit beyond pure entertainment.
Because this is so focused on the lives of these everyday people, should we be concerned with the ultimate outcome of this investigation? Will we get answers about the crime and who’s responsible, or is that not important to the bigger picture of the show?
RIDLEY: That’s a very, very good question. I’m not trying to dodge your answer, but I do think it’s a little bit of both. As somebody who’s writing in the TV space, you owe the audience a resolution that feels emotionally right, appropriate and impactful, and that their 11 hours, or short of 11 hours with 42-minute episodes, has not been wasted with some kind of storytelling that ends up being a big shaggy dog story. At the same time, in reality, there are these events that happen. Whatever happens, Trayvon is gone and George Martin is living the life that he’s living. I have my opinions about how things should have worked out, and other people have their opinion, but something happened that night. Something happened in Ferguson. Something happened in New York. We, as people and individuals, may never know the absolute specifics of that event, but there was some kind of public resolution. And by the way, that resolution is never going to be quite right for the families of the victims or the families of the accused.
So, what we try to do in our storytelling is deliver an appropriate emotional punch for everybody who chooses to stay with us on this journey, but try to be some version of honest, in terms of how these things tend to play out in the public space, as well. There absolutely is going to be a resolution, and there absolutely is going to be a definitive end to the storytelling. In the public space, we have the opportunity to turn the page. We can go on from things, whether it’s Trayvon or whether it’s the Boston marathon bombing. I want to make sure that these characters, as representatives of people who live in a real space, no matter how that end turns out, give a sense that they have a life ahead of them. To me, that’s the most important aspect. I don’t want them to feel like they’re such TV characters that that’s it, it’s wrapped up, they’re done, they’re gone, that’s it.
You’ve tackled some intense subject matter, and you don’t shy away from anything. What intrigued you about tackling Ben-Hur, of all things?
RIDLEY: First of all, I have to give a lot of praise to the gentleman who wrote the original screenplay, Keith Clarke, who went back to the source material. I know a lot of people say, “Why would anybody try to do a remake of Ben-Hur?,” without being aware that the ‘59 version of Ben-Hur was a remake. But Keith went back to the source material and really excavated things. When you say Ben-Hur, people think of the chariot race, but they don’t think of racial slavery, back in the day, or what it would mean to be in occupied Jerusalem. All of those things were things that Keith wanted to explore. The studio came to me and said, “We want you to do a production polish that deals with just honing the story and making it filmable.”
I’ve been very fortunate to work on some really special things. This is a really big film, and it’s a film that, because Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are working on it as well, deals with faith, and deals with it in a very potent manner. Those are all things that are very attractive to me. I’m thankful for all the things I’ve done in the past, but having wrapped up Red Tails, 12 Years a Slave and All is By My Side, which are very potent historical stories, and only Red Tails had been out, when someone comes to you and says, “We want to do this other things that’s very, very big and we want you to put your eyes on it and work with the other writer on it. Would you be interested in doing it?” I was absolutely interested. That’s what was attractive to me. At the time, it was a piece of material that most people would not have thought of me to work on, and they were creating a space to do the things that hopefully I do well, and they invited me to do that. It was very attractive, and it remains very attractive. They’re shooting right now in Italy, and I hope everything is going well for them.
American Crime airs on Thursday nights on ABC.