John Ridley walks into a cottage of small offices on the back lot of Universal Studios. A cappuccino-colored Weimaraner noses through a doorway, while young screenwriters tap anxiously on computer keyboards, doing “punch-up work” on bad movie scripts.
Waiting for Ridley is his production partner, Kevin Misher. Once the president of Universal, Misher is now an independent producer – The Scorpion King was his latest movie – and he has teamed up with Ridley to push two TV pilot ideas to ABC.
“How’re you doing, Kevin?” smiles Ridley.
Mequon raised and Hollywood hardened, Ridley is right at home here. He’s the scriptwriter and executive producer of Universal’s Undercover Brother (released in June). And, as a writer, he has pretty much owned this town since his first novel, Stray Dogs, was made into the Oliver Stone movie U Turn. And since he was hired to write scripts for the NBC series “Third Watch.” And since his screenplay was turned into Three Kings starring George Clooney.
Misher leads Ridley to a conference room. The walls are bare, the furniture is showroom-floor unremarkable. But this is where power meetings are held. This is where clout begets deal begets profit or loss. This is where movies and TV shows are born. And killed.
Two executives from ABC have driven over from nearby Burbank to meet with Ridley and Misher. They’ve come to firm up a deal on the production of one of the pilots, a show about two teenagers who discover that their parents are ancient warriors. (Think Spy Kids meets “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Ridley says.) Of the five men in the conference room (myself included), Ridley is the only person of color, which is typically the case, he says later.
Everything is casual at today’s meeting: the pace, the conversation, the attire. It’s Friday, after all, casual Friday, L.A. style. The two guys from ABC are both wearing beige chinos and white sneakers. One wears a pink button-down Oxford (open collar, no tie), the other a blue button-down Oxford (open collar, no tie).
Ah, but Ridley and his pal Misher, in blue jeans and running shoes, have out-casualed the ABC shirts. They clearly have the home-court advantage. Yet there’s little need for gamesmanship today. Pink Shirt and Blue Shirt are gaga over Ridley.
“There’s something very smart about this script, if you don’t mind me saying so,” says Blue Shirt. “We get scripts all the time that have 30 interiors and 20 exteriors, and the poor production company’s gotta move twice a day to get all this stuff. The straightforwardness, the simplicity of this is wonderful. It’s gonna make the project more successful. At first read, it reads like a huge project. But essentially it’s not, aside from the fight sequences. And because they’re staged in warehouses, smartly staged in warehouses, it opens it wide up to where you can do it.…”
And yada yada yada. The discussion centers on the availability of directors, on stunt coordinators, on locations of sound stages, on filming in Canada vs. Los Angeles. There’s no talk about the content of the show itself, the plotlines or the characters. It’s all about production. Which is fine with Ridley. As co-producer of the pilot, he would have greater control of his ideas, of his script, at least as much as he can on a Hollywood project.
In less time than it takes to motor back to Burbank, the ABC Shirts and the Universal Blue Jeans agree to move ahead.
“By the way,” Pink Shirt says to Ridley, as they all shake hands, “when I told my wife I was meeting with you, she told me to tell you – and this is true, this is not the Hollywood bullshit – you’re one of her favorite writers.”
Ridley flashes an “aw-shucks” grin. “Your wife said that? My wife doesn’t even say that about me.”
Pink Shirt: “My wife is an unbelievable movie fan.”
Ridley: “Tell her I said thank you very much. I hope I don’t disappoint her.”
John Ridley is not one to disappoint. In his 12 long years in Hollywood (a town that can make or break a career in the flash of a marquee), Ridley has pushed and pulled himself up the hill to where, today, at age 36 (a ripe old age by Tinseltown rules), he is absolutely golden. In June, he made Entertainment Weekly’s “It” list of the 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment.
Novelist, scriptwriter, radio commentator, creator of a Web-based animated series, he is impossible to pigeonhole. His job titles go on and on, like a Monty Python spoof of a movie’s rolling credits:
Story by John Ridley.
Screenplay by John Ridley.
Created by John Ridley.
Supervised by John Ridley.
Produced by John Ridley.
Directed by John Ridley.
Soundtrack by John Ridley.
All right, I take it back. John Ridley has never written a film score. I don’t even know if he can sing, but I wouldn’t put it past him to pen a lyric or compose a tune. He’s talented and he’s disciplined – key ingredients to Hollywood success.
Each of the other credits, though, is legit. An abbreviated bio: Graduated from Homestead High School in 1982. Enrolled in Indiana University, transferred to New York University. Knocked around New York after college doing stand-up comedy and landing spots on “Letterman” and “The Tonight Show.” Moved to L.A. in 1990. Broke into TV, writing for “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The John Laroquette Show.” Wrote his first novel, Stray Dogs, the story of a small-time gambler who finds himself helplessly stranded in a tiny Arizona town, which was made into Stone’s U Turn. Wrote his second novel, Love Is a Racket, story of a small-time con artist trying to wrangle his way out of debt. Wrote third novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell, story of a small-time loser who finds himself in possession of the last recording of a dead rock star. Made his debut as film director on his first screenplay, Cold Around the Heart. Wrote Spoils of War, which was adapted into Three Kings. Returned to television as writer and supervising producer on “Third Watch.”
And now… pause, take a breath… now Ridley is busier than ever. He has a two-year deal at Touchstone Television (which is part of ABC Entertainment, which is a division of Disney, which owns just about half of everything in American media). His latest film, Undercover Brother (“a blaxploitation-comedy-Austin-Powers-type thing,” he calls it), opened in May. He has a contract with two book publishers for four more novels. The first, A Conversation With the Mann was released in June, and the second, The Drift, comes out in October.
“John’s life,” says his father, John Ridley Sr., “is pleasantly hectic right now.”
Ridley and his family moved to a Mequon subdivision when he was 7. The middle sibling of two sisters, John Jr. played Little League baseball, rode his bike along the country roads, ran with his friends in the open fields.
“He was outgoing, well-liked, thoughtful,” says his father, a retired ophthalmologist.
His mother, Terri, a teacher who still works in Milwaukee Public Schools, read to John and his sisters when they were babies, and as a child, John developed a fascination with comic books (Batman, to be precise). But he didn’t do much writing until high school.
Throughout his life, his father adds, Ridley has had an innate power of observation. This tendency landed him a gig two years ago as a commentator for National Public Radio. His essays and reports – on Ground Zero, on the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas, on Bill Clinton’s presidency – are wry, pointed and amusingly topical.
His talent as an observer is also evident in his novels and screenplays. Take this description from Everybody Smokes in Hell of a short-order cook at a Las Vegas diner called The Trading Post:
Taking up most of the space behind the grill was Vic, a bull of a guy. Crew-cut hair, biceps big enough to have “Semper Fi” tattooed across them in 48-point type, no matter that he was pushing 60. He chomped at a cigar while he cooked with no regard to health codes. His white T-shirt – his T-shirt that was once white – looked to have been some kind of souvenir item: stains of the foods of The Trading Post past to present. Vic had the tracheotomy voice to go with his size and look and cigar habit. He sent it growling… “Order up!”
Ridley’s books are page-turners, not literature. And his fictional characters ain’t pretty. They’re rough-cut and repugnant, unhappy, unlikable people – the type you try not to bump into as you pass on the sidewalk. Like the guy played by Sean Penn in U Turn who had two fingers cut off by some punk with a pruning sheers to force him to pay his gambling debt.
“It’s not as if I go to downtown L.A. every day and sit on the street corner to find these people,” says Ridley. But he does study people and frequently hangs out in Las Vegas, home to every subspecies imaginable.
“It’s depicting human nature and putting it in a different suit,” he says. “That’s part of being a writer or any creative person in Hollywood – taking your imagination and a little bit of reality and coming up with something different.
“You don’t have to marry these people, you don’t have to invite them to the house. If you don’t like the book, you can put it down. To me, it’s too easy to write a character that’s likable.”
Ridley himself bears no resemblance at all to his characters. True to his father’s words, he’s thoughtful, likable, modest. A shy smile forms often behind his goatee as he downplays his accomplishments.
We drive from Universal Studios to his home in his Honda Hybrid. Ridley can afford fancy: Behind the electronic gate in his driveway sits a 1966 Mustang and in the garage is parked a Ferrari. But the Honda Hybrid is his everyday run-around-town car.
Ridley lives with his wife, Gayle, a TV producer herself, and their 2-year-old son in Sherman Oaks, just down the 101 from Universal, ABC, NBC and Warner Brothers. Though hardly ostentatious by L.A. standards, their home is the biggest on the block, a modern $2 million house on a double lot, lap pool, landscaped patio and guest house in the palm-shaded backyard. Inside, the living room sofa and chairs are upholstered in primary colors. The kitchen sparkles in glass and chrome. Family snapshots cover the refrigerator and toys are dropped here and there.
“It’s a nice lifestyle,” he says. “The weather is generally nice. When you’re doing well, people treat you well.… But it has its good and its bad, probably like most businesses do. It’s surprisingly a lot more work than people would think.”
For Ridley, good things come not to those who wait but to those who multi-task. Even with a new book, a new movie and TV pilots in the works, he continues to take on more projects.
I’m tempted to use the H word, to label him the quintessential Hollywood Hack. But he is not. He’s an imaginative, prolific writer, putting out stuff that can be trenchant, even illuminating sometimes. An NPR piece he did on Mike Tyson was biting social commentary. His latest novel – the story of Jackie Mann, a Harlem-born comedian in the ’50s who tries to ignore the influence of the civil rights movement as he pursues his goal of becoming the first black stand-up comic on “The Ed Sullivan Show” – has a historical breadth that’s unlike any of his previous books.
Throughout his 12 years in Los Angeles, Ridley has somehow managed to stay levelheaded about the whole putrefied entertainment business – and his place in it. He maintains a healthy disrespect for Hollywood. In the forward of Everybody Smokes, he quotes L.A. detective novelist Raymond Chandler: “The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-persuasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world.”
Ridley is a bit more diplomatic. But not much. He doesn’t hold back at biting the hand that feeds him. (And feeds him well. He reportedly was paid a cool million dollars for adapting his Web-based comedy series “Undercover Brother” into the movie.)
“Movies are very obvious these days,” he says. “They’re not very complex. They’re meant to have a likable hero doing some likable thing and is heroic in the end. Which to me is not interesting because I know how the movie’s gonna end. I know what’s gonna happen. For my nine bucks, I’d like to be surprised or challenged.
“Every once in awhile, somebody will make a studio film that’s a little different. And then people will just want to copy that, as opposed to doing some more innovative thing. So it’s a little discouraging. Because, you know, we’re not selling Ford Tauruses. You buy a Ford Taurus, you want it to be pretty much the same. But I think with movies, we have an opportunity to be doing things that are a little more different, a little more fun. You never know what an audience is going to like, so why assume that they want just this, or they want to see The Matrix again for the eighth time or some variation of it. But that seems to be what they get.”
He has had his run-ins with the system. He was banned from the set of U Turn when Oliver Stone learned that Ridley’s novel would be released before the film. (Stone was concerned that moviegoers would be upset because the film was so different than the book.) Ridley also divorced himself from Three Kings when the lead character was changed from a black man to a white man.
“That was very annoying to me,” says
Ridley. “Nothing against George Clooney – he’s a great actor and good guy – but I would have preferred Sam Jackson.… There just aren’t a lot of people writing roles for black men.”
Yet he’s not crying racism. The studios and networks are no more racist or bigoted than anybody else, he says. Rather, “they’re myopic,” unable to see outside the box, unwilling to take chances.
I’m tempted to call Ridley one of the more important and influential black writers in Hollywood. But he cringes at the labels.
“Influential? Compared to somebody writing some very serious work, Cornell West or somebody like that? No. I do film scripts, I do TV shows. How influential is that?
“Important? More important than the head of the UN? No. I’m important to my wife and my baby, and I’m going to be important to them for the rest of my life. The people in Hollywood… these two guys today from ABC, they’re really, really nice guys. But they’ve got a lot of shows. If this show doesn’t go, I’m no longer important to them. If it goes, I’ll be extremely important to them. It’s very easy to get caught up in that, and sometimes it’s nice to have people like you. But you can’t make that your stock and trade.”
Each Hollywood studio might have 100 to 150 films in development at one time, says Ridley. Yet maybe a dozen are produced each year. So to have as many successes as he has had is gratifying.
In Hollywood, however, nothing is permanent.
“You got to feel good about what you do, even if other people don’t,” he says. “And you’ve got to be critical of what you do when people love you. It works both ways.”
Because he works mostly at home and sets his own schedule, Ridley spends a good amount of time with his family. He and his wife recently bought an apartment in New York. (His father says they’ve been looking at property in Wisconsin as well.) He contemplates his son’s upbringing and says he’d prefer to send him to a public instead of a private school. But he worries about the quality of public schools in the big cities.
No longer, though, does he get hung up on his professional future.
“I just want to write, and whatever happens happens,” he says. “I’ve made enough money where I don’t have to worry about making money. So I can just enjoy it, work on projects that I like doing. If good things happen, great, but… I’m doing everything I want to do.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.