Dan Epstein meets John Ridley, screenwriter and hard-boiled crime novelist
John Ridley is a man of many talents and prolific with them too – stand-up comedian, screenwriter for Three Kings, Undercover Brother, Oliver Stone’s U Turn and author of Everybody Smokes In Hell, Stray Dogs, Love Is a Racket and, most recently, A Conversation With The Mann
Dan Epstein: You’ve said that you’ve been working on the new book, A Conversation With The Mann, for ten years. You’ve done many other things during that time. Why did it take so long to get written? Was it too personal?
John Ridley: It was more that it took a lot of research. It was set in the Fifties and Sixties, which is well before I was born. It was a lot of research, doing a lot of things in the meantime so it was something I would work on then come back to. I think also about growing up to a point where I could work on something like this. Its bigger and deeper than anything I’d attempted before and I think it took a new level of maturity. It certainly wasn’t writing every day for ten years.
DE: You started out as a stand up comedian, which is the profession that the main character, Jackie Mann, is. How much of Jackie Mann’s life has been similar to yours?
JR: I think the element that I started out in stand-up comedy is very similar. But most of it is probably very dissimilar to my life based on the fact that he was in an earlier time of America. In terms of trying to make it in show business I certainly took elements of that and took elements of my own life and put it in. But the research was what really built this character.
DE: What made you want to do this book in the first place?
JR: As a stand-up comedian I had a love of the history of stand-up comedy and entertainment. Also I had an interest in the early days of New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas entertainment. It was fun to both create a world that was both fictional and real at the same time, Jackie Mann meets real luminaries like Frank Sinatra which is fun for me to go back and write real life characters that I have a fascination for and make them a part of the story.
DE: One of Jackie Mann’s great ambitions was to get one The Ed Sullivan Show.
JR: Well, at the time The Ed Sullivan Show was the show to be on. If you could do a great set on a Sunday night showing of Ed Sullivan by Monday morning you were a star. Jackie wanted to be a star and Ed Sullivan was the way to do that.
DE: What talk show were you always dying to get on as a stand-up comedian? I know it wasn’t Terry Gross [producer and host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air].
JR: [laughs] It wasn’t Terry Gross but being an author on her show is the big thing. When I was doing stand up comedy, The Late Show with David Letterman was the big thing. He had just moved from NBC to CBS. Fortunately I did end up doing that show as a stand-up comedian. It was very tense and exciting. After the taping, I flew back from New York to my home is Los Angeles and got home in time to see myself on national television. It was an incredible moment.
DE: Did you mean for this book to end up having such sociological and political meaning or were they just characters and situations to get to the end of the story?
JR: Well when I started out I definitely wanted it to have a social overtone. That’s why I set it in the past rather than the present. I was fortunate in the ten year time period it took me to write the book, that I was able to make it a deeper story than I would have written the book when I was a younger man. The book for me is a testament to a time, a place and social events that happened in that time period.
DE: You’re a screenwriter/producer [the recent Undercover Brother and a television producer [NBC’s Third Watch]. How do you balance all of that?
JR: It’s hard sometimes. Mostly it’s really a matter of, if a project has a deadline, that takes priority and there are other things I do that are projects of passion like the novels. I make the time for the novels because I love writing them. It’s also a love of writing and storytelling.
DE: There aren’t many stand-up comedians that have gone on to the kinds of things that you do. Did you see yourself doing these kinds of work?
JR: No I didn’t. I hoped at one point I could write a book or two much later in life. I didn’t think I would be fortunate enough to write novels and have them published this early on. But I did arrive at a point in my life where I realized I would not be a huge stand-up comic. I would do well but would have limited growth and by that time I was already writing for shows like Martin [with Martin Lawrence] and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air [with Will Smith], so I think I just decided to be a novelist.
DE: How did the work you did on sitcoms influence your work now?
JR: It doesn’t influence my novels. But it does help me develop my idea of screen humor.
DE: Were you happy with the movie Undercover Brother?
JR: Oh yes, I thought the director, Malcolm Lee [Spike Lee’s cousin] and the cast did a really great job. I’m also really happy with how funny it is and the positive critical and box office success as well.
With critics, sometimes you love them and sometimes you hate them but certainly when they get what you are doing you feel gratified for it.
DE: Malcolm Lee is black and you are black. What would have happened if white people had made this movie?
JR: I don’t know if white people would have made this movie. I don’t know if white people would have had the same kind of love of the blaxploitation movies that we sent up. But also we weren’t trying to put down anybody. We were trying to make fun of the stereotypes that everyone has. By nature, coming from two black guys, it has a different feel. The white version is the Austin Powers movies, which are about having fun, and being funny, those are really funny movies but we wanted to add a different layer to it.
DE: What was it like working with Michael McCullers [a writer on all three Austin Powers films]? Were you looking for an Austin Powers feel?
JR: That was interesting. He had a different sensibility and he came in just to do a joke patrol and made sure we had enough really funny stuff in there. At that point it was Malcolm and my jobs to make sure we kept that political bent in there. Its not unusual for movies to have a lot of writers involved and everybody brings their own perspective. We certainly wanted it to be as funny as possible.
DE: Were the Undercover Brother cartoons that were on the Internet always meant to go to another medium?
JR: When we started the cartoon we always thought they would just be some web cartoon, I never thought it would be a movie at all.
DE: What are your favorite blaxploitation movies?
JR: Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way are my favourites. Love them.
DE: Are there any blaxploitation movies you never liked?
JR: I’ve never met the blaxploitation movie I didn’t like. Either they’re good movies like Lady Sings the Blues or they’re so bad you have to laugh at them like Friday Foster, Superfly
DE: I fell asleep during the original Shaft.
JR: The original Shaft is really boring. It’s slow, plodding and it’s not a good movie but yet it is an icon.
DE: Are you talking about an Undercover Brother sequel?
JR: Yeah, but we’ll see how it plays out in the long run.
DE: What was it like executive producing Undercover Brother because I know you had some trouble with another film you executive produced, U-Turn [directed by Oliver Stone]?
JR: With movies there is always some kind of trouble somewhere. There are so many people involved. I worked with the amazing, talented Oliver Stone on that. There are things he wanted to change and things I wanted to keep. At the end of the day I don’t ever have any problem with conflict because not sure what word should be there but take out usually out of conflict comes some really good stuff. I’ve found that when a movie has no problems it ends up being bland anyway.
DE: You were a big comic book fan, what comics do you read now?
JR: I read The Authority, Planetary. I read Justice Society, the new Justice League and you can never go wrong with Batman.
DE: The main characters in nearly all your books are black. Is that a conscious decision or are you just writing what you know?
JR: When I wrote Stray Dogs [the book that U-Turn was based on] I never identified the lead character as black or white. After that I really did make a conscious effort to make the main characters black because in hard-boiled fiction there aren’t a lot of black characters. Certainly in the Terry McMillan type books though they are aimed at women they are all black characters. Guys like Jerome Dickey write black themed books but in crime novels almost never.
Walter Mosely is one of the few other black hard-boiled writers making an impact. I don’t know why there aren’t more black writers writing this sort of thing. I love writing crime novels and there’s no reason the main characters can’t be black. If I ever write a story where the main character really needs to be a white guy, then I will make him white.
DE: What made you become a writer?
JR: When I first came out to Hollywood in the early 90s I had a lot of time on my hands and I liked to read so I thought I wanted to try my hand at doing something else besides just writing jokes. The first thing I wrote was the manuscript for Stray Dogs.
DE: Did you ever used to pull short cons as your characters did in books like Love is a Racket?
JR: Well there was a time in my life when I used to try to walk out of the grocery store with a Time magazine under my coat but no I was never much of a conman. I certainly don’t mind trying to take the establishment for something now and again.
DE: You had problems with the way that writer/director David O. Russell took your script for Three Kings and changed it when he made that motive. What happened there?
JR: Again with so many creative people involved and some assert themselves. Some people want to work collaboratively and some don’t. It’s disappointing when you’re a writer and people re-work your work and take credit for things you did. But that’s the nature of Hollywood. But that’s also the reason I write novels so I can have complete control over what I write.
DE: It seemed that David O. Russell added a political bent that wasn’t there.
JR: Well I was more upset that he changed the lead character [played by George Clooney] from a black guy to a white guy. That was my big thing. Whatever levels of politics he wanted to add or whatever. As a writer I always like to work in a more collaborative fashion but as a black man trying to put more black characters into Hollywood that was my biggest disappointment. I was also disappointed that he thought that by changing the lead from a black guy to a white guy added a level of political awareness while I think it detracts from it.
DE: I heard you were writing Beverly Hills Cop IV for Eddie Murphy to star in again. What happened to that?
JR: I left that a while ago. They’ve got new writers now. I should have never gotten involved with that in the first place. Well you’re writing the fourth installment of a franchise that reached its peak at number two. It was very much a money thing and it was just a mistake.
DE: I’ve also heard that you’re interested in writing and directing a Johnny Dynamite movie [based on the 1994 mini-series by Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty].
JR: Yes I’ve read the Johnny Dynamite comics books and I think it would be cool. It would be a hard movie to do in Hollywood because it would be a period film that deals with the occult. But to me hard-boiled detective story that deals with the supernatural in Las Vegas makes me want to do it so bad. Plus I haven’t directed in a while.
DE: Right, the last film you directed was Cold Around the Heart in 1997 [starring David Caruso and Kelly Lynch]. Was that a good experience?
JR: No not at all. I didn’t enjoy it and that’s why I took some time off from it. I also wanted to establish myself as a writer. Directing is not fun, its not easy and if I do it again, I want to do it with something that I feel passionate about and not just take any old thing and direct it. There were actors who were not entirely pleasant. Why do it when I could do something else?
DE: What’s your next novel going to be?
JR: It’s going to be called The Drift, its another hard-boiled fiction. It will be out in the fall.
DE: So you’re going to back to crime. A Conversation With The Mann is kind of unclassifiable as a genre, so is hard-boiled fiction you’re favorite genre to work in?
JR: I enjoy it and I know I can do it well. But I do like mixing it up and in the future I will do novels that aren’t hard-boiled fiction.
DE: How did you first realize that you had broken away from being a stand-up and become a real novelist?
JR: Well a few years ago the comedian Jamie Foxx did a movie called Bait [directed by Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua]. Someone at the Los Angeles Times wrote a bad review of that movie and I never met the reviewer but he said something to the effect of, maybe next time Jamie Foxx will be in something written by John Ridley whose titles of his books, like Everybody Smokes In Hell, are better than anything in this movie. I thought, wow I’ve become a cultural touchstone. That’s when I knew I had some level of notoriety.
DE: Are people looking at your work in Hollywood since Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards this year?
JR: Fortunately I’ve been able to make a name for myself behind the scenes regardless of my race. There are a lot of people in Hollywood and they’re not bigots but they may be myopic in a sense. But they care about the commerce and they’ve come to know that I’m a solid writer regardless of my color. I hope that what happened with Halle and Denzel is that it will help get more black people in front of the camera. Those are two actors who were getting plenty of work even before they won those awards.