John Ridley is the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind 12 Years a Slave. His new film, Needle in a Timestack, which he wrote and directed, premieres in theaters, on digital and on demand Oct. 15. For A.frame, he shared six films that continually inspire him.
I don’t know if [the films on this list] have a lot in common on the page. There are three that are in the biopic space, one that’s a bit of a historical drama and two that are sci-fi. I would say the thing that attracts me to them is the quality of the storytelling and the quality of the filmmaking. When I talk about quality, it’s that sense that these storytellers were making the movies they wanted to make in the way that they wanted to make them. That’s always the struggle, between art and business, that our careers are sometimes very dependent on. Did an audience come? Did people buy tickets? Are they streaming? What are the metrics? But I never felt like, in watching these films, that that was their first concern. Their first concern was trying to find interesting ways to dispense stories that had challenges.
To me, that’s what they all have in common, irrespective of their genre, irrespective of when they take place in time. All of these stories met and exceeded the challenges that were before the filmmakers. I certainly would not be here if it weren’t for all of them.
My favorite film of all time would be Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy. I love that film largely because, empirically, I shouldn’t like it at all. It’s about punk rock, it’s about a couple who are not particularly good people. They are addicted, which is certainly no fault of their own. Addiction is a disease, but witnessing people’s addiction, witnessing them suffer through it and coming to a horrible end … There’s nothing in that configuration where you go, “Oh, that’s a film I’d want to sit down and watch, not just watch once, but over and over and over again.” I think the last time I watched it was probably about a week ago.
The film is a love story. It’s about two people who are struggling in life, who are creative, who are trying to figure out how to arrive at their place in the world. The film is about somebody who was maybe a bit of an asterisk in history, part of a band that had a moment.
[I love] the creativity, the beauty, the sensitivity, the refusal to create a film that fits in any one strata or niche, the weird things like suddenly using non-diagonal sound in places, the cinematography—a young kid named Roger Deakins, perhaps you’ve heard of him—Chloe Webb and Gary Oldman, just two amazing performances. It’s a raw take on New York in the ’70s. It’s an amazing film and almost invariably, when I start a new project, I will sit down and watch that film again. It’s like going to school.
It’s, again, someone who is expressing a life, his life, one that is not very attractive in many ways: a guy basically admitting that he’s been a horrible human being, but he does have love in his heart. And creativity is what drives him. To be able to film your own passing and predict it and say, “When I go, it’s going to be like this,” was absolutely amazing. I’m envious of [Bob Fosse’s] talent, envious of his creativity, envious of his ability to take his story and make it singular in that way. Other than Sid and Nancy, that’s the film in every regard—in its rhythms, in its creativity and in its refusal to be any one thing. That, to me, is absolutely amazing filmmaking.
My third favorite would be Mishima, Paul Schrader’s biopic about the Japanese author Yukio Mishima. I think we’ve gotten to the space now where biopics are just … there’s a sameness to them, there’s a very particular staid rhythm to them. They’re almost becoming, in some ways, self-parody. There’s nothing staid about [Mishima]. It is just one of the most beautiful, the most literate … I mean, it’s literature on film, it’s creativity on film and it’s a film that really is for just a select audience. It says to a lot of people, “Don’t even bother,” but is just so beautiful and so creative every step of the way, and just a phenomenal film.
Sounder is the only film that cracks that top four that is not a biopic, or biopic-adjacent, in its nature. You want to talk about the most beautiful, underrated film, a film that, in an era when a lot of what was coming out featuring people of color was called blaxploitation, this was a film that had nothing exploitational about it. It was just beautiful, gentle filmmaking. If you look from Sounder to 12 Years a Slave, and its construction and its dispensation, they’re almost hyper-identical and that’s not accidental. How it’s lensed out in this journey that someone is taking and looking for an emotional freedom, in looking at Black people and seeing them as emotional creatures, as human.
There’s a definite line. As I was constructing 12 Years on the page, there were a lot of things where it was like, “Okay, how do I take this film that was really important to me as a young person, and how do I make this journey? How do I make it about the quiet? How do I make it about the environment? How do I pull more words out and make it about the imagery and really use cinema?”
There are two films in particular that inspired Needle in a Timestack, or that I used in some ways as a touchstone, as a template, as a learning tool, as a guide. They are both what people may call science-fiction films, but at their core are about love and exploration and human connectivity. I deeply appreciate they were not constructed for mass consumption. They clearly were by storytellers who were more interested in telling the story that they wanted to tell.
First is Steven Soderbergh’s version of Solaris. The original version is an amazing film, but it’s a mind-bender. I thought Steven Soderbergh’s version was equally a mind-bender, but in a way that offered avenues for engagement. There are places that you can go, but at the same time, it was clearly not for every audience.
I thought George Clooney’s performance in that was absolutely amazing, Viola Davis is always amazing. It’s such an exploration of self and a journey towards who we are as people, and what is our core and what are our wishes and our desires. Are we expanding as humans? Are we contracting? It exists to exist. And I appreciate storytellers who are like, “Hey, if you love this, phenomenal. If you hate it, that’s your business. But I’m making it.” That’s really where the conversation is.
The other film that I really love and admire, and wanted to use as a touchstone for Needle in a Timestack, was Spike Jonze’s Her, which actually came out the same year as 12 Years a Slave, and I will be honest, I’m very happy that we were competing in different [Oscar] categories because it was easily my favorite screenplay of that year.
I thought it was so clever and so brilliant and so predictive. At every turn, in science-fiction films like that, you’re waiting for A.I. to become nefarious and take over the world, and launch the nukes, and that’s not what it was about. It was really about relationships, and about two entities, two individuals who are very, very different, but they find each other and some people are accepting and some people don’t quite get it. It’s really about the nature of love and what love historically has been, what it is, and what it may be going forward. It just says to everybody, “If people are in love, people are in love. That’s all you need to worry about.” But also, Spike’s lensing, his craft, how he approaches the storytelling … Obviously, what he does on the page is phenomenal. What he does in terms of telling stories is brilliant. The performances that he got were singular. It was a phenomenal film. And Spike is a wonderful guy. But as a storyteller, he says, “This is what I’m doing.” I admire people who are just like, “I’m here to create. I’m here to push the narrative, push the style, push the genres, and not necessarily wait for other people to catch up.”