Backstage Interview | 86th Academy Awards

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)


BACKSTAGE INTERVIEW
CATEGORY: Adapted Screenplay
INTERVIEW WITH: John Ridley
FILM: "12 Years a Slave"

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Q.    I talked to you on the red carpet. 
A.    Yes.

Q.    I told you you were going to win. 
A.    You did.

Q.    I absolutely did.  Congratulations. 
A.    Thank you.

Q.    Now, we had talked on the red carpet about the fact that this book is now, you know, on the New York Times bestsellers list, it's going to be in schools.  But more ‑‑ well, let me just mention this.  When this book was written in 1853, two people reviewed it.  Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass reviewed this in 1853.  What would you say about that now as you stand here with an Oscar for writing a screenplay about this?
A.    The only thing I would say is what I hope I've said before is that the praise goes to Solomon because it's his words and his life and I've had a very nice career, but I look at the before and after and the thing that made the difference was him and his memoir.  So I don't know what the reviews were before, but he is an extraordinary individual, as are most people who have survived something like that.  So I just give him all the praise, I really do.

Q.    I wanted to get your thoughts on the fact that you are the only ‑‑ only the second black person to win this particular ‑‑ the Screenplay Academy Award and Steve McQueen winning for a Best Picture makes him the first black person to ever win that particular Academy Award.  What does that mean to you?
A.    I'll tell what you it means to me, and I think of ‑‑ you know, I think of my parents who simply wouldn't let me settle for second best and made me take typing lessons.  My mother is a teacher and was very big into education, and I think of Solomon and his time when to write his memoir in parts of the country, that was a death sentence.  So to be able to stand here and adapt that work, I know that ‑‑ I know there are a lot of people who made this opportunity.  I'm very proud, I'm very humbled, and I'm very hopeful for the future.  I may only be the second, but I know there are so many people out there of so many different kinds and stripes, faiths and orientations that have stories to tell and I'm so thankful to The Academy and to so many people in it who rewarded this story, not so much for me, but for people like Solomon.

Q.    Tanya touched on this a little bit, but this book is on bestseller lists; it's back in curriculum in schools in some areas.  How does that feel to bring a book that was kind of was dropped off, you know, of circulation, and now that this important story is now being shared with, you know, students around the world?
A.    I want to be very clear about something.  Before I started this project, I didn't know Solomon's name, I didn't know his story, I didn't know his life, I didn't know anything about him.  And the fact that you have a memoir that is in public domain that people could download for free and they choose to pay their money and to buy it and to read it, that means the world to me.  And I can say for everybody who is involved in this film, our hope and our desire was certainly to entertain people, but if you can inspire people in what you do, I think of the movies and the stories that inspired me, that is so special and I'm so thankful for it.  It makes a difference when people choose with their pocketbooks, when the people want to put our their hard‑earned money for Solomon's story, that means the world. 

Q.    You took a story from the past and you had to tackle the ‑‑ the language as well.  For you, how did you go in that process of kind of adapting that and deciding to do it that way and linking someone's story from before to the future?
A.    Well, in terms of the language, if you're talking about the English that was used, I mean, that was the most difficult thing because Solomon, I mean, he was an exquisite writer and he wrote with eloquence and he wrote in an elevated nature.  And I would say a big part of the process for me was just trying to learn an English that was not my English.  It was a task and it was a chore but it was an education as was about the circumstances, the time, the politics and all those things.  I think the fact that this story is relevant now is because stories about human nature are always relevant.  Stories about individuals, no matter their difficult circumstances, see the beauty in the world, that's always relevant.  And, unfortunately, it's relevant because there are more people in slavery right now in the world than at any other time.  And as beautiful as this film is, my fear is that people would walk away from it and say that's the past, that's the distance.  Thank God that's not us anymore.  I hope that people, if they feel anything at all, will think about the world we live in at this moment right now. 

Q.    So I'm curious now.  We know we don't know what happened to Solomon Northup and I'm just curious, through all the research that you did to make this movie, to adapt this screenplay, rather, did you come across any clues or any hints to what could have happened to him?
A.    No, I have no idea.  And I was able to speak with Professor Skip [Henry Louis] Gates, who probably knows more about this subject matter and this area of history than anyone and it's just one of those aberrations of history that someone who led a wonderfully ordinary life and then had 12 years taken away from him, he came back and became a pillar of the abolitionist movement and a speaker and a motivator, just for some reason slipped through the cracks of history.  We know the circumstances of his wife's death.  We know that passing.  I hope that there are people who are more accomplished than I that because of all of this may go back and find what happened to this individual, just where he is and where his final resting place is.  He deserves that, he really, really does. 

Q.    With the use of the English language in your screenplay, are there any particular words that you had never used before that you learned about?  I would like to especially ask about luxuriate.  Where did that come from?
A.    Luxuriate, I mean, that is a word that I know and I think just the use of it in that particular circumstance I tried to layer in, in a way that was commiserate with the way Solomon spoke.  There were other little things like, off the top of my head, a little draub [phonetic], things that I didn't know.  Or there was a line that Paul Giamatti's character spoke, not so much a word specifically, but he talks about my sympathies stretched the length of ‑‑ originally it was stretched the length of a bill and just in my research I found out that paper currency wasn't in circulation at the time.  A little thing, a lot of historians might have been angry if I'd gotten that wrong.  Again, it was just an education about a language that I speak but is not mine.  And that was one of the pleasures, to put myself in a space that was so very different than my own. 

Q.    So much has been said about Brad Pitt pushing this film forward.  I haven't really heard that from you.  I've heard it from director Steve McQueen.  How important was Brad Pitt to the process of making sure your script and film was heard and seen around the world?
A.    Well, I hope that I've praised openly Mr. Pitt and, most particularly, his company, Plan B, and two of the producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.  You know, Jeremy sat me down very early and believed that there was some story to be told here, we didn't have Solomon's memoir from the jump, but he believed there was a story here.  Without any money for development, no money to pay for a script, this gentleman, Jeremy Kleiner, he kept this movie together.  He kept the development process together.  And Mr. Pitt, this is a celebrity who could do any project that he wants.  The fact that he set up a company where he could do projects that he feels are worthwhile, regardless of box office, regardless of the potential for a public consciousness of what's going on, that's their mandate, is make movies that matter, and I am so deeply, deeply appreciative of everyone at Plan B, Fox Searchlight, New Regency, River Road for making this film happen.

Q.    When you're writing something like this where it's ‑‑ the language is completely different from what we're speaking today, what is your writing process?  Do you close yourself off until it's done or do you come back and nibble at it a little at a time?
A.    Well, you know, unfortunately, you're a husband and you're a father over four years, you know, you can't completely shut yourself off.  More than anything, the thing that I discovered in the process that was really helpful was newspapers from that era and from different regions and particularly, as odd as it may seem, shipping news, just because how product was sold to different regions, sometimes the language addressing shipments that came in was very, very flowery and very colorful and other places it was very straightforward.  But the media in speaking to regions and speaking to the readers and speaking about the history and the era was amazingly helpful.  It was, in some ways, maybe accidental in coming on newspapers but just going on ‑‑ thank God for the Internet to be able to find articles that were archived and to be able to read and read and read.  That was probably several years of the process before I even began to start trying to interpret Solomon's words and his work and his life.  Thank you.

Q.    Where do you like to write in your home?
A.    I'm sorry.  Where do I like to write in my home? 

Q.    Uh‑huh. 
A.    Well, I will tell you something.  Being a father, I found that the most of the writing that I've done, honestly, over the last couple of years has been in my car, waiting for my kids, waiting at basketball practice, waiting at choir practice, what have you.  Honestly, I would love to write on a beach in Hawaii.  Most of the time it's in my car in the parking lot of my kids' school.

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