Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley talks Modesto, ‘American Crime’

Creator and Executive Producer John Ridley, left and Felicity Huffman speak on stage during the “American Crime” panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Pasadena.
Creator and Executive Producer John Ridley, left and Felicity Huffman speak on stage during the “American Crime” panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Pasadena. Invision

“Only in Modesto” is a sentiment expressed in partial jest by many area residents.

But it’s precisely our mix of characteristics that made the city the ideal setting for the new high-profile series “American Crime,” according to its creator. Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley chose Modesto as the backdrop for the new drama, which premieres Thursday on ABC.

Ridley has followed up his Academy Award for writing “12 Years a Slave” with the new anthology series about the aftermath of a violent crime and the subsequent investigation and trial. The series stars Emmy winner Felicity Huffman and Oscar winner Timothy Hutton, leading a multiethnic cast of veterans and newcomers.

The 11-episode series explores complex and timely issues including race, class, faith, addiction and sex following the violent attack on a young white couple in their home. The suspects, at least initially, are Latino and black.

“I really wanted to look at where we are now, who we are and how we galvanize around certain events like this,” Ridley said in a phone interview with The Modesto Bee recently. “Not from the eyes of the police or the prosecutors, but really make it about the families, the families of the victims and the families of the accused. And I wanted to look at the fact that this process is not one that wraps itself up conveniently in 45 minutes. It takes months and months and months for people to get to a place where there is some kind of a resolution. And it may not be the resolution they were looking for.”

While Modesto has had several notable mentions in pop culture in film, TV and music, few have opted to overtly name the city as its sole setting. Film crews came to Modesto to shoot a handful of locations to add authenticity to the series, but all acting and other major production were filmed in Austin, Texas.

The Bee spoke with Ridley about his decision to use Modesto for the series, and what he felt the show says about the Central Valley community.

Q: Our interest, of course, is in its setting of Modesto. We’re not used to being more than an offhand mention – if that – in most TV and film productions. How did you choose Modesto?

A: It’s about Modesto itself. It’s about all the things it doesn’t bring to certain storytelling and all the things it does. If the story had been set in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, unfortunately these events happen and a lot of times – because so much happens in those cities – people don’t take notice of them. If we had set this in a small town in Mississippi, many viewers would come to the program with a predisposition about those people and how they think based on the geography. Same could be true if it was a small town in New England.

Most people think that California is a blue state and that’s all there is to our worldview. But as you know, this is a big state, a very diverse state in terms of not just ethnicity but in terms of thought. I wanted to set it in a place that was not a small town that had “small town values,” but at the same time was not a big city where things unfortunately sometimes go unnoticed.

Modesto, for a show called “American Crime,” was a place to me – to us – that could represent almost anywhere in America. It’s not a completely unknown place. As a city, it could take on – in all the good ways and all the complicated ways – how people in America think and feel now.

Q: Had you ever been to Modesto prior to the series? What kind of research did you do on the region or demographics of this area?

A: Yes, I’d been to Modesto previously, and we certainly went up prior to launching the show and writing the pilot script. And then we made some trips back. We also maintained a technical adviser in Modesto. Ernie Spokes (a retired deputy district attorney and current criminal defense attorney in Modesto) was a technical adviser in terms of the law in California in general and in terms of Modesto and how things work there.

Even though we’re dealing with a narrative, even though we’re dealing with creative stories – whether it was Modesto or Milwaukee – you want to do everything you can to make sure there is a verisimilitude to how things are playing in terms of being respectful to that area itself. One of the things about being a writer is the truth is always stranger than fiction. Things that come to you, sometimes in small ways and big ways, will impact the story.

One of the things for us that became one of the trademarks of our storytelling was just the amount of rail that is in Modesto and trains passing through. Getting a sense for some of these characters that it’s very transitory. That connected the characters – whether it was literally a train passing through, that sound of the rail, or people crossing the tracks that was very unique to that space, and we wanted to carry that through in our storytelling.

Q: Obviously, the most famous crime from our region, at least in recent memory, is the Scott Peterson case. Is there ever any reference to that in the show?

A: No. One, it didn’t necessarily play in our space. And we did not want to name-drop or name-check certain things. Like, “Oh hey, we’re in Modesto, this or that.” We wanted to give the sense that this is something that could happen in any space, but not put it in a made-up city somewhere. (Modesto) is not that far from Oakland, and Los Angeles is down the way. But at the same time, it’s its own space and it’s dealing with its own issues. People have their own lives there.

Q: You’ve assembled a stellar cast of very talented actors. When you started the process, what did you think was essential for their portrayals to make these characters individuals instead of stereotypes of a lot of these very big issues that you are tackling with this show?

A: The most important thing is to have a sense of humanity, to have a sense of internal dynamics that are real and true. All these characters are complicated characters and that’s the way we wanted to serve them up. They’re not stereotypes and not straw people where we just have them espouse certain values so another character can come and throw an elbow and knock them down.

So it was very, very important that this is about wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters who are not just dealing with a crime, but are dealing with each other. When you are dealing with raw emotions, it could be very, very easy for these individuals – no matter how talented the actors are – to devolve into being caricatures. So I have to give a lot of credit to our writing staff and much credit to our performers for keeping them in a space where they are true characters.

Q: Why did you think a crime – and the subsequent investigation, arrest and court proceedings – was the best venue to tackle issues about race, socio-economic status, religion and things like that?

A: Well, unfortunately, in recent history, and our total history, that tends to be the time when have these conversations about race or class or gender issues or issues of sexual orientation. We wait and we wait and we wait until it’s almost too late to have these conversations. Our opinions and feelings tend to get very calcified. So this is a show where there is an engine that drives things forward. But at the same time, it is much more about these families and it is much more about the human condition than it is about solving a crime.

Q: One of, maybe, the unique things about Modesto is – because, as you said, we’re not a small town or a big city – there’s an attitude that when we do get media coverage or there’s a large news event, a lot of times it’s negative. So when news of this show initially came out, there was some wariness that Modesto was in the news again in a negative way. How do you think ultimately the town and community come off in the series?

A: Obviously I don’t live there and the folks who live there are going to have their own opinions, and they’re entitled to their opinions. They probably mean a little bit more than someone who is writing outside of that space. I have to own up to that. But I think there is a reality in television that most cities, unless they’re portrayed in a sitcom, deal with law and order and the legal system. By the nature of the show being a drama, dramatic things happen. You could say: Why do all murders happen in New York, in L.A.? “Miami Vice” made Miami look sexy, but it was nothing but a bunch of drug dealers.

Absolutely for the people who are there, they have more cause to be protective of their image and how they are portrayed than someone like me. There’s no two ways about it in that regard, I’m a carpetbagger. But I’ve written shows that have been set in New York and I’ve written shows that have been set in other places. The only story I’ve ever written that was set in Louisiana was about slavery (2014’s “12 Years a Slave”), so people in Louisiana could look at me and say: “Why are you just doing that? Why are you just making us look like slave traders? We’re more than that.”

That is the nature of storytelling – that for a story to be impactful, it is going to play more largely than folks’ everyday lives play. It’s not an attempt to be disrespectful to the people in Modesto. It was really an attempt to say: What city out there could represent all the complexities of America maybe better than places that are more known – like Chicago, like Seattle, like New York, like San Francisco?

Q: I know the series wasn’t actually shot in Modesto. It was filmed in Austin, Texas. Was there any consideration to have it film here?

A: Unfortunately, no, there could not be a conversation at that time. California was no longer in the business of supporting film work. Since then, subsequently, our Legislature has, very fortunately, corrected that. (Gov. Jerry Brown signed a $330 million film and television tax incentive bill into law in September.) I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but I think that’s a really, really good example of runaway production and why we had to do something about it. We have a show that is set in Modesto, had the majority of the people working on the show from California, but from a financial standpoint were not be able to shoot in California. I am very, very happy and very pleased the Legislature corrected something. The industry is here. There is no reason that California should allow one of the industries that it is most well-known for to continue to shoot elsewhere. When one, financially, cannot under any circumstances, or circumstances that are truly feasible, shoot where a show is set, that’s really problematic. I hope and believe that problem has been addressed.

Q: So if they had passed this legislation earlier, Modesto could have been considered for the actual location?

A: Yes, absolutely.

Q: This is a limited-release series, but are there talks about coming back for another season?

A: Absolutely. We’re having conversations about it right now. We’d love to come back, explore other aspects of American life. Right now, part of that is up to the American public, part of that is about how people speak about the show in terms of the chattering class. We’ll see. But absolutely I love the exploration, love working with these performers. I absolutely love our crew and the people working in post-production. So to have the opportunity to do this again would be phenomenal.

Q: Though would it probably be in another story, or would it continue to follow these characters?

A: No, it would be an anthology series. I’d absolutely love to work with as many of the same performers as possible, but definitely as different characters and in different settings. It would be dealing with a different set of circumstances.

Q: What ultimately do you want audiences to take away after watching this series?

A: I honestly believe that entertainment is at its best when it’s not about preaching to people, it’s not about making grand statements. I really believe that entertainment is an empathy machine. It’s about creating an apparatus by which one can really convey emotions. We are all intellectual people, but none of us are any more than our emotions. When we are moved – whether moved to tears or to laughter – we just get swept up in a moment.

I hope that no one ever finds themselves on either end of the phone call where they are told that one of their loved ones is either a perpetrator of a crime or the victim of a crime. But I would love for people to be moved by the small moments: just a father trying to be with his daughter, a father trying to reconcile with his son. Those are the things I’d love for people to take away – to be touched in unexpected ways.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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