While at SXSW 2015, we had the opportunity to interview John Ridley about the new ABC television series he created called American Crime. John won a Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay Academy Award in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave. He has also written the screenplay for the new Ben Hur film adaptation, which will be released in 2016.
American Crime is an American anthology crime drama television series that premiered on ABC on March 5, 2015, airing Thursdays at 10:00 pm (ET). The series stars Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton. The first season consists of eleven episodes.The series centers on race, class, and gender politics as it follows a racially charged murder and the subsequent trial.
You came into television as a comedian, was writing something you always wanted to do?
I don’t know if it was always something I wanted to do, it was one of the few things I could actually do. At some point you’ve got to feed yourself and put clothes on and I love telling stories so when I came out to Los Angeles in the early nineties, there was a real expansion of televison at that time,there was a real push in the half hour space. There was a lot more sitcoms going on, I was very lucky as I was in the right place at the right time.
I started working on Martin and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and I was able to take that on and use it as a learning experience. I got to learn from other writers, directors, artists, wardrobe, props and all of those things. I was fortunate enough in being able to capitalize on those experiences and move forward. My plan to to be a storyteller and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Is part of the reason television had so much appeal for you was that you knew you would be able to reach an audience because everyone has a TV in the living room but not everyone reads literary novels?
It wasn’t so much that, I was writing novels about the same time, I just thought being able to write sitcoms during the day and going home to work on a novel which provided some other aspect of storytelling. I was never, even at this point in my career, necessarily driven by having or expecting people to see the work that I do. I think a big audience, alot of box office and high ratings is wonderful but at the same time if that’s all I wanted to try and achieve then I think it really ends up dictating the types of material that you make them attempt to engage with. I’ve never really done anything that has outside cultural density but I’ve never not engaged in certain types of storytelling because there’s worry that not enough people are going to see this.
Even if twenty people read a book that I wrote, a million people saw a TV show that I wrote or half a million saw a movie In wrote, you are still reaching alot of people. I think for me it’s more important to reach the right kinds of people than to just try to feed everyone on a diet of mediocre material.
The structure of the series (American Crime) means that you can do anything you want because you get a clean slate with any potential seasons after the first, do you prefer this style of writing?
I think it’s something nice being able to reset at the end of the year. I’ve worked on televison shows where it’s twenty two episodes a year with the same characters and it’s a challenge, it’s a real skillset and those who do it do it because they have a real capacity excuvating these characters to their fullest over time. For me personally being able to go back to a show and to in some ways reinvent it totally, not just the narrative itself but the language of some others being used. It’s a very liberating type of storytelling. I think it’s very very invigorating and hopefully it would be invigorating not only for myself but for the other artists in the department heads that we are working with. Being able to take an assemble of individuals and being able to see them in different roles. It would be a real challenge and for me the opporrtunity to be challenged on a yearly basis, if we are fortunate enough to come back. It’s very exciting and I look forward to that.
Have you come up with a concept for a potential second season for American Crime?
First of all I hope and pray that we have the opportunity. I have started thinking about it, It would be a different city and a different exciting incident. Hopefull as much of the cast, I loved our cast, that we can bring back as possible. I think it’s going to be something that will be as equally as powerful and as procative. It probably won’t be centered on the exact same issues that are faced here but a different way of looking at who we are now, a different way in but with the same deep emotion, humanity, complexity of people and characters we saw in the first season.
Do you worry about the comparisons between American Crime and True Detective?
There’s some comparions being an anthology series and revolving in some way about crime, it’s natural to compare a hospital show with a hospital show or a detective show with another detective show. If people where to compare shows at all, I feel like I would be benefitting from it because it’s just such a terrific show, so I have no problem with that. We’ve done our job but putting ourselves in that conversion.
Have you ever read anything about American Crime that made you stop and think that’s not what I meant?
That’s a really good question. I will be honest with you I try not to read too much about the show, people can have whatever reaction they want to have but sometimes it is a little bit like a Rorschach. Sometimes it’s not a bad review that bothers me, it’s a positive review that missed the meaning. The only thing I can speak to in that regard is, for example someone was saying about the characters of Tom & Eve and they called them pious or holier than thou. I was really upset about that because I very specifically did not want those characters coming off like that. I really wanted characters whose faith was a part of their lives but they do not cross the ties, they do not try to convert other people, it’s their strengh. They are very separate from someone like Barb, who continues as the show goes on,as someone who doesn’t have the center or the strength. So it bothered me and I know it bothered one of the actors, again people can have an opinion about it and people can say I don’t like these characters. I’m sorry I can’t please you but don’t make assumptions about the characters that I thought was very untrue. Even though they liked the characters and they liked the portrayal but you’re not liking it for the right reasons.That was an example of an instance where somebody had a conclusion that was very different from what we intended.
The 2015 SXSW Film Festival was held from March 13 to March 21 in Austin, Texas.
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