John Ridley may call Los Angeles home now, but he hasn’t forgotten his hometown of Milwaukee. In almost all of his films – from "Red Tails" to "U-Turn" and his directorial debut "Jimi: All Is By My Side" – he often sneaks in little references to the city, a small present to the place and the people that helped raised him.
His latest gift to Milwaukee, however, isn’t so little.
Tuesday afternoon, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, director and producer officially announced the creation of No Studios, an artistic hub opening this September at 1037 W. McKinley Ave. in the Pabst Brewery Complex. It’s a project born almost exactly four years ago at the Oscars after his greatest professional achievement: winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and, at the end of the night, Best Picture for "12 Years a Slave."
"People were calling and congratulating, and my sister called me and said, ‘John, this is not going to last,’" Ridley told the media at The Brewhouse Inn during Tuesday’s announcement. "‘This is an ephemeral moment; it’s going to pass very quickly.’ She really brought me back down to Earth, but really impressed that moments like this, as wonderful as they are, what can you do with a moment like that? How can you convert it?"
So, with the help of his business partner, County Executive Chris Abele, his sister Lisa Caesar and many others, Ridley converted his triumphant moment into a triumphant movement for Milwaukee’s art and film scene, a hub where creatives and patrons can join together and create together. It’s obviously an exciting time for Ridley – but also an interesting time for the world of film, between the Oscars this Sunday and the booming success of "Black Panther" and other movies once considered "niche."
So we had plenty to talk about, sitting down after his media gathering for a one-on-one interview about the hub’s goals, as well as the changing landscapes of the Hollywood blockbuster, the Academy and of all film.
OnMilwaukee: You talked a little bit about this during the introduction to No Studios, about how you want to reach out, but you don’t want to bring Hollywood to the lakefront.
John Ridley: Let me say that if I could bring Hollywood to the lakefront, I would love to bring Hollywood to the lakefront. But the reality is, whether it’s Milwaukee or Austin or Atlanta – these incentives work on a statewide level – it really is about having people who are invested in wanting to tell stories partnering with the folks in Madison and saying: "Here are the advantages to having incentives or tax breaks." And that’s a long-term process – and then also sustaining them over time, because administrations change, priorities change and where does the citizenry go, "Hey this is what we want," and where do the politicians go, "This is what we want to support." So if I could do that, I absolutely would do that.
What I want to do is manage expectations. It’s not as though, when this hub opens, "Star Wars" is going to come film here and "Black Panther 2" and all of that. But we do believe that we can really be a conduit. If there are individuals working on a professional level in other cities who can come and do talkbacks or screenings or engage, or filmmakers, artisans, graphic artists, music, what have you, that want to develop relationships with people who are outside the Milwaukee area, can we foster those relationships?
Can we have a conduit? Can it be open at all times, so it’s not just people coming in and leaving, but over time people having the trust that these emerging filmmakers or storytellers or artists have the capacity to actually do their work outside of Milwaukee – and people outside of Milwaukee going, "Hey, if we want to look for emerging storytellers, this is as good a place as any to find those individuals."
So kind of popping that Milwaukee bubble?
Yeah, it’s amazing to me still how many times I tell people I’m from Milwaukee and they have absolutely no idea. They don’t know much about the city. Maybe they remember "Laverne and Shirley;" but that’s my generation.
They think we’re all "Making a Murderer."
That’s probably about it or, "How close are you to the Packers?" Which is great. "Making a Murderer," maybe not that great, but there’s a story that’s relevant that comes from here, that’s terrific. But yes, I would love to be a brand ambassador for the city of Milwaukee, for people outside to know there’s value in coming to the film festival. That it really is a big film festival, that it’s a vibrant community, that it’s a hip community, that it’s an aware community.
You mentioned "Black Panther" briefly there, and I have to ask about that. Did you see the film – and if so, what did you think?
I did. I thought it was terrific on all the levels where it needed to be terrific. It was terrific for my kids, who were just coming in looking to have a really good superhero experience. It was terrific for my wife and myself to go and see something that, in our lifetime, I don’t know that we thought that we would really see, that we wanted to see: a film that was race-aware, but colorblind, but race-aware.
It certainly knew that it was "Black Panther," but at the same time, anybody and everybody could come and see it and really enjoy it and speak to bigger things. But in enjoying those bigger things, it knew that it was "Black Panther" and knew what it was about. Same thing with "Wonder Woman," same thing with "Get Out," same thing with "Call Me By Your Name." We’re seeing these films that work on all the levels they need to work on, that they are just great experiences but they understand that they speak to a larger experience. But they also understand an audience that is enjoying that larger experience also wants to be entertained and wants to be engaged.
If it were just playing to an audience of color, it would play very, very well. But the fact that it’s playing as hugely as it’s playing – same with "Wonder Woman," same with "Lady Bird" – we’re seeing people vote with their dollars. And that’s when you really start to see change. And hopefully we’ll see that sustained change.
Do you think Hollywood will learn the right lessons from "Black Panther"?
I’m hopeful. I’ve been in Hollywood long enough where you’ve seen these cycles and you really believe, "Well, that was the lesson," or the film or the story where people would go, "You need to do more of these."
But I think the fact that we’re seeing them in such big budget films and we’re seeing the response – and also measured against other big budget films that didn’t quite get over. And seeing Wonder Woman suddenly becoming the most exciting thing about the DC universe. I’m not saying that to slight the rest of the DC universe, but it’s like, oh, Wonder Woman needs to be front and center with everything we’re doing.
Similar with "Black Panther." Certainly Thor did well and the most rebooty reboot of Spider-Man did pretty well – but "Black Panther" did exceptional. And I’m sure there are people having discussions right now going, "We have to orient more in that way."
The Oscars are coming up this weekend. Obviously "Moonlight" winning last year felt like a big paradigm-changer, but do you think the Academy has changed as much as it seems?
Well, I’ve only been an Academy member for three years, so I can only talk about the three years that I’ve been there. The Academy I know is doing everything that it can to be reflective of the world that it lives in – and I really mean the world, because the Academy is not just meant to be a representative of Hollywood but a representative of filmmakers from around the world. There’s been a big push and I’m very appreciative of the #OscarsSoWhite, what they’re representing.
But it can’t just end with the actors. It can’t just end with we have a couple of actors in these best male and female lead and supporting, and that’s all there is to it. A majority of the categories are below-the-line categories, and making sure that people are advocating for representation across the board is really important.
Frankly, if the advocacy is waiting for this weekend in February or March, it’s too late. The advocacy has to make it into the equation very, very early on – in what films are being greenlighted, who’s being invited to the table, who are these storytellers. So I certainly understand the urge when the nominations are coming out to say, "Hey, I’m not seeing this or that." And certainly that’s brought attention and awareness. But it really is too late in the process, because even making a film inviting people, there’s no guarantee that film is going to achieve cultural density, that it’s going to turn out with the quality that we all hope and believe is going to be there when we start projects.
So it’s casting a wider net early on. It’s inviting individuals early on. It’s making sure that, by the time you get this funneling effect, there’s going to be enough movies out there – race, gender, orientation, perspectives, faith – already baked in.
"Moonlight" was terrific, but in additional to that, how many films are out there that deal with the Hispanic experience or the Asian experience? Certainly "Moonlight" did deal with orientation, and this year with "Call Me By Your Name," but there should not be just the one. And frankly, how many films do you go, "I can’t believe that didn’t get nominated"? Or that one came out and, eh, it wasn’t as good as I thought it was, but well, that was the gay film we did this year, and that one didn’t turn out so well, so too bad; you’re going to have to wait until next year to get another film that deals with orientation or faith or other perspectives.
That kind of tokening?
Yeah! Let’s make sure that they’re not the exception to the rule, but the rule is to have films that play in a lot of different spaces.
Ridley at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival (PHOTO: Milwaukee Film)
You work in both television and film, and there’s been a lot of talk about filmmakers moving toward TV as the new place for freedom, for creatives. Do you see TV as the new film?
I don’t necessarily see it as the new film. I think there’s quality to be had – exceptional quality, particularly with ongoing series. People go to a movie and they’re like, "Two hours and they couldn’t get it right," but you look at these series going on year after year and year, and they tend to be of really high quality.
But to me, they’re different spaces with their own charms, their own attractions. I love working in the film space. I love working in the television space. I like working in digital spaces. I’m not snobbish about them. I’m very fortunate and thankful that I can move around from space to space to space to this point.
With Netflix and streaming and that line drawn between movies and television getting blurred, do you think we’ll ever reach a point of just celebrating them all at, say, the Oscars?
I hope not in the sense that I’m a part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I like TV; I like what TV represents. There’s a shift in weekly viewing with binge-viewing – I don’t say binge is awful, because there’s shows I like to binge, but I also like that idea of dispensing a show and letting people digest it and take a moment and think about it and anticipate things.
I like the idea of people going to a theater and sitting down and having a communal experience. With film, you can shoot widescreen. You can’t watch widescreen on most televisions; it’s still 16-by-9 and there are moments where you’re like, "Who wants to watch 16-by-9?" that’s lost on a lot of people, but for filmmakers, that does make a difference. I can get an iPad with whatever high-def thing Apple’s trying to tell me is the future, but it’s still those little crappy speakers. And sound makes a difference and mix makes a difference. So I want spaces where people can go out and hear that mix and experience things that they’ll only experience in a theater.
AM radio still exists, and for certain things, AM radio is there. Broadcast television is not going away tomorrow. You look at something like "This Is Us," and it gave people a reason to have a conversation. It gave people a reason to watch television on a weekly basis. And there will be, for the foreseeable future, people who come up with ways to get people to ingest their entertainment in particular spaces.
Netflix’s success only helps myself and other people – Amazon, Apple, whatever – but "Black Panther," people voting with their dollars, getting back to that or "Wonder Woman" or "Get Out"? That matters. In some ways, that matters more than people parking their $9 there and maybe it was for this film or maybe it was for that documentary – it’s just there. I want that to be there, but I don’t want that to remove from the experience of going out to the theater and seeing a big film, with a big mix, in a big feeling. That’s very special.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.