Crime and Consequences

American Crime creator John Ridley talks about shooting in Austin, faith, race, and Felicity Huffman

Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton in <i>American Crime</i>
Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton in American Crime

The morning after he received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 12 Years a Slave last March, John Ridley was on a flight to Austin to finish prep for shooting the American Crime pilot for ABC. The series remained to shoot in Austin for its entire limited run. The drama examines the aftermath of a brutal murder in Modesto, Calif., from all angles – the victims, the suspects, the families of both. In 1997, Ridley's first novel Stray Dogs was picked up by Oliver Stone and made into the movie U Turn, and he has also written the screenplays for Three Kings and Red Tails, in addition to lots of television scripts. He had just directed his own screenplay of the Jimi Hendrix story Jimi: All Is by My Side when ABC approached him to create a series dealing with race in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. American Crime premieres Thursday, March 5, 9pm, on ABC, with an episode Ridley both wrote and directed.

Austin Chronicle: The seeds of American Crime came before you won the Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave?

John Ridley: Michael MacDonald, the other executive producer for the show, told me ABC was very interested. This was very close after the Trayvon Martin trial. They wanted to do a show about where we are as a society, how we look at ourselves, how we look at each other. I realized what I really wanted to explore was not just those elements, not just the law enforcement or the judiciary, but the perspective of the families, the families of the victims, the families of the accused. The concept that these stories are not wrapped up neatly. It takes months and months and months to even get to the point of real examination. For the most part, these events never go to trial. In the meantime, people have to try to go on with a normal life. ABC sparked to all of that. We've had these events over the past few years that are very, very complicated. Who did what and what was the level of involvement? And what about the people around them? Sometimes people are forced into being standard-bearers. They aren't people who want that. Sometimes they're the least appropriate people to do that. That's an aspect I wanted to explore. These are complicated people.

AC: Felicity Huffman really tears it up in her role.

JR: Felicity is phenomenal in the body of work she has done. It was a very difficult role. She was going to say things that were wrong, that a certain segment of the audience are going to find very polarizing, and there are segments of the audience who will hear what she says and say, "Right on." She's coming from a place where it's not just anger but based on her experiences, based on things she's been through. With all these characters, it's one thing to put it down on the page and another thing to have people be able to deliver them – this dialogue, these parts, these emotions. There's a humanity at the core that's not easily dismissed. I didn't want to create a lot of straw people so that other people could knock them down. To have these as characters not caricatures, again, it's complicated in its writing, but you have to have actors who can bring that to life.

AC: Why did you choose Modesto as the setting?

John Ridley
John Ridley

JR: In big cities like Los Angeles or Chicago, these events don't even make the front page. Geographically, to set it in a small town in the South, in Mississippi, immediately people have predispositions. I wanted a place that was not a small town, not a bigger city, but living in the shadow of other cities, where a story like this could happen and it does take on a large significance. But also so that you have characters like Felicity's or Regina King's character, who arrives in our third episode, who are really products of their environment and have the energy to effect change. It was very important to me to have a city that could be almost anywhere in America. A lot of us had never heard of Ferguson before it came to represent something very, very specific. I wanted to put it in a space where it could be anywhere.

AC: Why did you shoot in Austin?

JR: The decision was originally based on finances. At the time, California did not have a very competitive rebate program. Other places we looked at: Georgia – Atlanta specifically – had strong rebates; Louisiana and New Mexico have gotten into the game. Ultimately, Austin represented Modesto quite nicely. I did not realize how strong the film community was – the crews we attracted, but also to have other people down there, other artists like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Terrence Malick. You have a show that can be very polarizing, but to have people come in who are artistic and open-minded, and who are very interested in doing something that is challenging on the page, challenging in the language of cinema. It was very, very lucky to end up in Austin. There were other places where we could have done a good job, but Austin ended up being the right place. Beyond our headline cast there was a really, really deep group of actors that delivered. But there were the very interesting temperature swings in Texas. I don't know what we're going to do if we get to come back for a second season. Everything else is wonderful, it's a terrific environment, but the weather ....

AC: Faith is a big issue in the show.

JR: We wanted to explore different aspects of faith. In television now, faith is dealt with in one of two ways. It's either completely ignored – nobody wants to touch that bucket – or, we're getting to a space where things are in tune for a faith-based audience, which is terrific. That's a very underserved element of the community. But faith is a part of people's lives. It doesn't have to be completely ignored or a single element of people's lives. I wanted a broad exploration. We have a family that's Christian, characters who are Muslim, some that are completely secular or somewhere in between. We wanted to show people dealing with particularly difficult times in their lives and how they lean on their faith, how they call on their faith, how they call on other people within their faith. Whether having faith makes them stronger people or has limitations to being in a more secular agnostic stage. To be on a broadcast network where they encourage, not shy away from, looking at all aspects of people's lives, that's very big.

AC: The show has a very cinematic look.

JR: I had just finished filming All Is by My Side about Jimi Hendrix. It still hadn't come out yet. Michael MacDonald, the other producer on the show, screened it for executives at ABC. It has a particular look and feel. It's not a style normally seen on television. The editing style, the particular color palette. They really encouraged art. As we've gone around and screened the show, a lot of people are aware that it deals with the times we live in. People expect a dry dissertation, or that it will proselytize about race/gender political issues. They're surprised that we're not just trying to preach but to create a space where emotions are delivered.

AC: Where are we as a nation regarding race?

JR: It's very complicated. Coming off of 12 Years a Slave, you can't help but see how far we've come. But we've still got a long way to go. We continually embrace the things that make America such a unique place. The concept that people come here from other countries, people succeed. We have no problem with the most popular people in America being a black woman or a Hispanic individual or whatever. Icons and idols, that generally is not the problem. But it tends to be a problem when the people next door to us have different aspirations, ideals, or different lifestyles. That's what we have to get over – how we look at other people. Hopefully, the show presents that we're not all that radically different from one another. It comes down to being able to adapt. For a family to want the best, and defining what the best is, that's where things get complicated. Race is complicated. Gender politics is complicated. Sexual orientation is complicated. It's not complicated for the individuals who are living with it – they're just people. As a parent, I can't be anything but hopeful that we as a nation are going to continue to evolve in the most positive way.

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American Crime, John Ridley, ABC, 12 Years a Slave, Felicity Huffman, filmmaking in Austin, Regina King

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