Every year, Milwaukee Film Festival has featured a keynote address under the broad heading of “The State of Cinema Address,” and while previously this has always been an address delivered by film critics (J. Hoberman, the writing staff of the now-defunct The Dissolve, Pulitzer Prize-winner Wesley Morris and Michael Phillips to name that illustrious lineup), the 2016 iteration featured a pivot, having Festival Director Jonathan Jackson engaged in a conversation with writer/director/producer/insert hyphenate here John Ridley. This pivot from critic-to-creator isn’t particularly surprising – in addition to having previously brought his feature Jimi: All Is by My Side to the festival in 2014, Ridley was recently announced as having joined Milwaukee Film’s Board of Directors, making this appearance a pleasantly synergistic experience.
Taking time out of his busy schedule (currently running two television shows: the third season of the ABC drama American Crime, and the as-yet unreleased mini-series Guerilla starring Idris Elba and Freida Pinto amongst others) to engage in a discussion far more factored in on the financial aspects of the creative arts versus previous years where the topics focused more on modes of filmmaking, digital vs. celluloid and the means by which audiences ingest their media. This shift was far from unwelcome, as Ridley was very forthcoming in describing the general arc of his career as well as the particulars of choosing locations when in production on a project. The conversation started with a brief look back on where he came from: Milwaukee and Shorewood, specifically, more generally he got his start in the creative arts working on the TV show Martin (ruefully noting that he’s one of the only people involved in that show still working today and lamenting the fact that it didn’t serve as a better jumping pad for young black talent). He described the arc of his career as a series of fortuitous events: being lucky enough to have his novel Stray Dogs turned into the film U-Turn by Oliver Stone at a time when Stone was looking to craft something on a smaller scale, and having the producers on The John Larroquette Show (a show he was writing for) inform him they had a film deal with Warner Brothers if he had any scripts, an opening that allowed for him to turn in the story that became one of my favorite films, David O. Russell’s Three Kings. Strangely enough, his Oscar-winning work on 12 Years a Slave never came up, although given the somewhat tumultuous history behind that collaboration; perhaps it shouldn’t come a surprise.
The discussion shifted from personal history to the nuts and bolts of choosing a shooting location as a producer/director. According to Ridley, financials are always the main determinant in choosing such things, with a secondary focus on the available crew in that area and how closely the look can mirror what one has in mind. He noted the first two season of American Crime were set in Modesto, CA and Indianapolis, IN respectively, but both were shot in Austin, TX. A set of tiered financial incentives made the decision a no-brainer, with Ridley noting that they were able to receive a near-25 percent return on their production costs by shooting there, a move that put them massively under budget. In discussing Austin’s role as a central hub of movie and TV, he noted its status as a community that is welcoming and open to working together with creatives as a big draw (making mention of everyone involved from DPs to caterers and production drivers as integral to that feeling of community), while never discounting the importance of those tax incentives.
Although Ridley was careful not to denigrate cinema, you couldn’t have come away from this discussion feeling particularly confident of its current state. When the topic of television versus film came up (describing them as “separate entities”, with film being a “communal experience” while TV is “more solitary”), Ridley made his preference known stating bluntly that “TV has surpassed film.” When Jackson delved deeper into which format he preferred to work with if he only could choose one, Ridley didn’t hesitate in choosing TV, where the focus is not on an opening weekend and a quicker turnaround yields more immediate results (film being a medium where one “works for three years on something that lasts two hours”). While he was very complimentary towards our city and has a clear desire to build a local filmmaking foundation, he made it known that large-scale productions wouldn’t consider Milwaukee for such things unless the state and city had incentive programs in place to bring them here, as an entity interested primarily in turning a profit it only makes sense that they would seek out situations that benefit that goal most directly.
Ridley was quick to state that there wasn’t any reason that Wisconsin couldn’t get into the production game, as tax incentives are vital to bringing in talent, talent that then hires local employees to work beneath and alongside them in the business while generating a bounty of creative, educational and financial benefits. But when Ridley noted that this commitment would have to be made irrespective of politics, we were once again reminded that as our local community of filmmakers, for the time being, we’ll have to keep doing it for themselves.