American Crime’s John Ridley on His Directing Philosophy and Entertainment As an ‘Empathy Machine’

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Writer and director John Ridley, perhaps best known for his Academy Award–winning 12 Years a Slave screenplay, hit a new stride with the ABC drama American Crime, which begins its second season tonight. Less a classic procedural than a study in modern American society, the anthology series begins each season with a new crime, setting, and characters (though the cast of talented actors remains the same). At the 92Y in New York Tuesday night, moderated by New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz, Ridley illuminated us on his directing and writing philosophy.

On entertainment as an “empathy machine”:
“There are moments where we all need to be a little observant, where we need to see ourselves in other people. Roger Ebert said that ‘the best entertainment is an empathy machine,’ and what we try to do hopefully week in and week out, on the page and through the performances and in the construction of each scene, is create a space where for a moment people can go, Oh, damn, I see something in there. Even for those of us that believe we’re well-read, well-traveled, there’s stuff around the block that we don’t normally see. And certainly in this season, when we talk about male peer-to-peer sexual assault, the stories that we heard, people that we talked to — it’s staggering.”

On letting the actors direct the scene themselves:
“There’s a scene I particularly like this season with Lili [Taylor] and her son, where he comes in and, like a lot of teenagers, blows right past the mother into this room. I remember watching the two of them as they were going through the rehearsals, and it was just real — the way he tried to close the door, and Lili said, “No we’re talking about this,” and they did that very sincerely. We certainly talked about them going all the way through the room, but not Okay, you slam the door now, you bolt in, keep this conversation going. And my feeling was the moment you try to cut into that, you dissipate what’s going on … If somebody’s on a roll, it’s like in basketball: You call a time-out to freeze the other team … you don’t call a time-out when people are in a groove. You let it happen.

On only shooting a scene two or three times:
“My thing with television or film, if you do a lot of setups, if you do a lot of takes … at a certain point, for everybody, the cast, the crew, they intuitively go, Okay, they’re going to figure it out in editing. Nobody is going to give a half-effort, but you can’t ask them to do it five days a week for 12 episodes, six or seven or eight or nine times every step. You just can’t. So to me, if you’re saying to everybody, ‘One of these three matters,’ everybody starts to realize, hey, when we go on set today, this one matters, this one matters, or that one matters, and that’s it. And that to me is a joy when you see the performers — they got it. 

John Ridley on His Directing Philosophy