Eight years ago, writer-director-graphic novelist John Ridley was surfing the Web when he stumbled across a Jimi Hendrix song entitled "Sending My Love to Linda." A single question — "Who is Linda?" — set Ridley loose on a project that had vexed numerous screenwriters and filmmakers before him: crafting a biopic on the legendary guitarist. The result, Jimi: All Is By My Side, covers a brief period in Hendrix's life — 1966-1967, right before he plays the Monterey Pop Festival — and stars OutKast's André 3000 as the late musician.
Having debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Jimi: All Is By My Side made its U.S. premiere last night at SXSW — a little over a week after Ridley won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his work on 12 Years a Slave. The writer-director took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the challenge of taking on such a daunting subject, his award-season victory and what he's working on next.
Many biopics tend to try capturing an entire person’s life in two hours; you limited the story to roughly two years. Why focus on a fairly specific point in Jimi Hendrix’s career?
A part of it was in finding the story. When you're covering a period that is just one or two years, you know that the focus tends to lean more towards relationships than a traditional biopic would.
It's more intimate.
It's more of a slice of life, right. Even then, there were elements I knew in the storytelling that were different. I don’t think they’re that crazed or outsized, but they were different than something like, say, Lincoln, or 42 where it’s just Jackie Robinson’s rookie season. So you’d pitch it to people that way and they just literally didn’t get it. It’s one thing to say you don’t like it; that’s someone’s opinion and they’re entitled to it regardless. But when people say "I just don’t get it," it was like: There’s nothing to get. This is how it happened. This is how it played out. The storytelling may not be quite conventional, but that’s life. Life is not necessarily conventional. It has its own rhythms.
But why make this story specifically about a pre-fame Hendrix?
We wanted to be objective in our storytelling, but there’s such connectivity and there’s a lot of emotion going on there. For me, it’s kind of like how I love Sid & Nancy, even though I don’t love punk music. That story wasn’t about the artifacts. It wasn’t just about the music, or the jackets and the pins. It's about the connectivity between Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, and that’s the thing with this. Jimi is a legend and an icon; there will always be those touchstones. But beyond that, if an audience cannot connect with him as a person and a character in terms of humanity, then we might as well go to a museum and just walk part his guitar and his suit, because that’s kind of what you’re doing. It's just a pass-by.
Was this what was going through your mind as you approached the task of making any movie about a rock and roll icon?
Yeah, I wanted to try and demystify him. I tell people it’s kind of like Che Guevara; you have kids that walk around with Che T-shirts, but they don’t know anything about his politics or his circumstances. They don't know about him. I think that happens a lot with Jimi. Obviously, he’s a rock icon for a reason. The hair and the bandana and smashing the guitar or riding in on “Fire” — that's part of his story. But the reality is that’s not nearly all of who he was.
When Jimi did an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett played a clip of Jimi playing at Monterey. For a lot of people — obviously, before Twitter and YouTube and all that kind of stuff — they were discovering Jimi Hendrix two-and-a-half years on from Monterey. Their first image they’re being shown is him smashing the guitar and burning it. Even now in 2014, there are a lot of folks that, as would be expected, have that snapshot of Jimi first and foremost. So for us, it was about showing that there was a reason for how he got to that point: Why did he choose to dress like that? Who are his inspirations? Why does a guy with an afro want to perm his hair and blow it out a bit? (That’s because he loved Dylan, by the way.) What inspired to not just play, but sing as well? What are all of these things around him that made him a person? And then as well, to really try and humanize the guy, to not just watch him from a distance.
The Coen Brothers recently said that when they were making Inside Llewyn Davis, they had to decide whether to cast a musician who can act or an actor who could play. What prompted you to choose André?
I'll say this: I was blessed, because I got a musician who can act and an actor who could play. André is just a unique talent, and part of that talent that you see also came from a lot of hard work. The first time I met him, he had a curiosity about the world that was equal to what I believe Jimi’s curiosity about music and the world was at that time in his life. He’s got the physicality, he’s got the emotional curiosity, he’s got the charisma — so to a degree, he’s already there.
Beyond that, André came out to L.A. in January of 2012 and worked with me through April on all aspects of Jimi, from watching video of him to working with a vocal coach to getting as slim and slender as Jimi was at that time period. He didn't just work on playing the guitar, but playing the guitar left-handed. So that’s four months of Oscar-level work as an actor, then another month of working with the actors in Dublin, and then another month and a half of shooting. That’s about seven-and-a-half months of work. He gave that performance because he wanted it. It was never going to be a Vegas lounge act. It was always going to be about getting to an emotional honesty with this character, and I cannot say enough about what André did.
What made you decide to direct this project yourself?
I don’t want to say nobody got it, but you hear that enough times from traditional sources, and you realize that you’ve gotta go elsewhere. That’s the great thing about indie filmmaking. You can find these people who are like, “Great, go do it!” You can find somebody like André [Benjamin], you can find somebody like Imogen [Poots], people who are just down for it. Glenn Freemantle, who did our sound design, he was down for this; he just won the Oscar for Gravity. These are the kind of people you’re attracting. So there was a level for me where it was me sort of checking myself, “You think you can do this? Can you go do it?,” and then finding these people who had my back, had my front, had my side — had everything and made it possible for it to happen.
Speaking of the Oscars: it’s been a little over a week. Has the win really hit you yet?
No, it hasn’t. The morning after the ceremony, I hopped on a plane and flew down here to Austin, so there’s an element of having not even sat with this trophy. I think there’s something good about that, as opposed to just sitting there and being focused on this thing that I did. You sound like a cliché — you’re thankful, you’re humbled, the moment feels way too short. You wish you could luxuriate in it, but there is that element of, “Great, now what’s next?” To be down here with a crew down here shooting, and with a cast that are ready to go and do something special…that feels good too. But no, I have not had any chance to process this at all, in any circumstance. I don’t know if anybody can. Maybe Meryl Streep or Martin Scorsese, they can do it. Denzel can do it. But not me. [Laughs]
Wait, what are you shooting here?
It's a pilot for ABC called American Crime. It's about a crime told from the point of view of the families of the victims and the accused, and how all these different, disparate people are forced together by this tragic event. Sometimes these crimes take on a larger outside significance in the culture — Matthew Shepard or Trayvon Martin, things like that — and how people might root for an outcome rather than hoping that justice is done. It's interesting. We have an amazing ensemble cast that we're working with. A big reason ABC is letting me direct it is because of All is By My Side, actually, so I'm very thankful.