q&a WITH director jOHN rIDLEY
Q: Why did you want to make this film?
A: I had been trying to make a fiction version of the story of the LA Uprising for more than a decade. I was very fortunate that ten years ago Spike Lee was interested in doing a narrative film about it and he invited me to work on it as a writer. It wasn’t a story about just one person, one night. It didn’t affect just one community. It was a story that absolutely lent itself to narrative film, but it was difficult to get a studio behind it.
When Jeanmarie Condon, a news producer at Lincoln Square Productions, approached me with the idea of doing a documentary version, it was very serendipitous. She had no idea I had been working on a narrative version for so long. Documentary is not a space in which I normally work, but it lent itself very well to the type of layered storytelling I thought was necessary to really convey the depth and breadth of this seminal event in the history of Los Angeles.
Q: You chose to identify some of the speakers in your documentary with brief, even vague, associations like “South Central L.A. Resident” or “Amateur Cameraperson.” Then later in the film you fill viewers in on the specific roles each person played in the events of late April, 1992. Why did you take this approach?
A: I wanted to get the audience to invest in every one of these individuals as people. I wanted the audience to care about their stories, and maybe not to see where it’s going. I wanted people not to know, then to feel conflicted.
Q: Your approach had such humanity. You walk in everyone’s shoes. How did you resist focusing on heroism?
A: Oftentimes, when individuals try to shape these stories, they want to identify a hero’s arc. In this circumstance, I thought those were disingenuous demarcations. I didn’t feel like it was a story where ‘We need to make sure the police officers look really horrible’ or ‘We need to make sure we root for folks from particular demographics.’ They are all complicated people and they deserve to be treated as complicated individuals.
Q: What stands out is how you allow people to take the time to recount their stories, the way you let the camera linger on their faces and how you give them time to reflect, and draw on their full recollections and emotions.
A: In my narrative style of telling stories I feel as though every time you cut it really dissipates the storytelling. Obviously, editing in and of itself is its own craft and we wanted craft in the melding of stories. But we did not want to try to clean up the way that people told their stories. If they stumbled, that’s the way people talk. Not everyone has words at the ready, but their emotions are the key. And it should be received the way they’re telling it. We tried to keep those rhythms, and not just cut and paste.
Certainly how we allow those stories to unfold, how we identify people, there’s a choice there, but that was secondary to allowing people to explain what happened, how it happened, how they felt, what they feel now years later and how they’ve carried it with them.
Q: Your editing choices are fascinating. One person might be talking and then you cut to the face of another, for instance. What was the thinking behind these edits?
A: Because there was so much focus on people telling their stories, and telling them very directly, there were places where we could have some cinema and deconstruct a little bit. And there are moments where we have two people telling almost the same exact story and you hear the audio overlap a little bit. You see the image overlap a little bit. We wanted to juxtapose. We wanted it not to be just a pure straight-ahead documentary, but a total experience. We needed a balance. We didn’t want the style to overwhelm the substance. But at the same time, we did not want it to be a dry recounting of the news.
Q: Your storytelling style in this documentary feels novelistic. You structure the film in an almost literary way.
A: That was very much the intent with the approach: not to get to the end before the beginning, not to identify Reginald Denny’s rescuer, or the officer in charge of the station in South Central, or the instigator of the uprising. I wanted it to feel like a novel. I wanted it to feel like a story where you’re caught up in these folks’ lives and you don’t know that you should be caught up for any other reason but that they are people.
Q: How did you gain the trust of all the people interviewed?
A: It was really about being able to say to people ‘We’re not trying to strip-mine your personal history.’ It was about spending time with people and saying ‘Here’s who we are, here’s what we’re about. This story is very, very important to us and we want you to know that your story will be treated with respect.’ People understood this wasn’t something we were doing just because this was the anniversary. Certainly that was the driver, certainly that got people to pay attention in terms of allowing us to do this, but people trusted what we were going to do with their stories.
One of the things that I hope I learned early on is that a big part of writing is being a good listener. People were amazingly generous with their stories. For so many of these individuals the time has not passed. The circumstances still felt fresh.
Q: How does your particular style of narrative filmmaking inform this documentary?
A: It greatly informed what we were doing largely because I was uninformed as a documentarian. I relied on [producer] Jeanmarie Condon to make sure there was veracity to what we were doing, that this was news, more than my opinion. When you pick the subject matter, when you’re very careful about the individuals that you choose, there is some opinion that goes in there. But, I wanted to make sure that it held up to scrutiny the way a good documentary should.
I had been trying to do this as a narrative film and worked on it for 10 years. Much of the way the film lays out is the way I would see a narrative playing out. In terms of how the story unfolds, from the way the folks are not fully identified in the beginning, it’s not about good guys versus bad guys. It’s about people, and the choices that they make and the consequences of those actions.
If you’ve seen American Crime, if you’ve seen Guerrilla, you can see the similarities in the way we deal with the grey, the way we try to represent people as people. They didn’t wake up that morning and plan to be a hero. They are flawed, but not evil, oftentimes caught up in circumstances. All of those elements are things that I’m attracted to.
Q: You interviewed about 40 people and you chose 25 for the film. How did you decide on which people to include?
A: It was difficult. With some people it was very clear, but with other individuals we thought ‘Do we keep them in, or do we excise them?’
What was very important was that with almost every individual in the film there is a moment where they can say with a personal investment ‘There was a point where I had to do this.’ A moment where their actions-- or the flow of actions to them-- turned the story. Ultimately, that was the litmus test: The decision about who remained and who was excised from the final cut was based on their level of personal involvement in the story.
Q: How did you decide on the overall decade of 1982-1992 as a focus for this story?
A: There’s certainly an argument to be made that you could go back 15, 25 years, or even to the 1960s and Watts riots. This particular 10-year period was a good way to create a demarcation. There are a couple of obelisks on this timeline that allow us to present the story in a larger context that wasn’t unwieldy, that wasn’t reaching too far back.
Some people have asked ‘Why don’t you take it to Ferguson or Baltimore?’ It was very important for us not to draw a straight line and create what might have been an oversimplistic equation of all these events. What happened in Los Angeles is very particular. What happened in Baltimore, Ferguson, or Charlottesville is different. There are certainly, without a doubt, similarities. There are similar systemic issues, but they deserve their own examinations.
They’re called the Rodney King riots. I think a lot of people assume Rodney King was somehow involved in it, or that he was beaten and there was an uprising. It’s very important that people realize there was a cascade of events, that this wasn’t about one thing that happened to one person that went down in one community that affected one type of individual. It was a series of events that led to this uprising.
Q: Karen Toshima’s death happened in 1988, four years before the uprisings. This tragic slaying in Westwood woke up the entire city to the extent of gang violence. It was an interesting choice to include as a key moment leading to what happened in 1992. How did you decide on that?
A: It was one of those moments that really changed the trajectory. You can see the reaction, news reports coming out saying if it’s happening in this section of Los Angeles, now there’s a problem. Now things need to be handled in a very particular way, with a very particular show of force.
I was not living in Los Angeles then but I remember hearing about Operation Hammer and the reaction that ‘we’ll do what it takes now.’ At that point you just thought that gangs were this pervasive evil. But you didn’t hear about them in the same way when they were more particular to South Central. They were just this localized problem and not an epidemic. It was very important to include that moment in the story.
Q: It must have been hard to track down people more than two decades after these events. What were some of the challenges?
A: Not all of these individuals were still living in Southern California. We had to suss out folks who are now living in Mexico, Canada, Nevada. People had moved around. We had to find them, and even track down the four officers who were involved in the Rodney King beating. They chose not to speak with us, but we were able to engage with them at least and explain what we were trying to do. I could not have done it without Jeanmarie Condon, our producer. She and her team were able to get so many people to participate by spending time with them in their environment. Because we were a news documentary, we didn’t pay for any of these stories. This was not checkbook journalism. Jeanmarie and her team were coming at it because they do news. I was coming at it because for a decade this was a topic I wanted to tell. We came well-armed, but it was really about what we were able to walk away with.
Q: Your film examines Los Angeles at a very specific time. You captured aspects of LA that many don’t know about.
A: So many people migrate to Los Angeles, myself included. Yet it becomes our city. We become invested in our city. There is no other city of hopes and dreams and aspirations and so much culture quite like it. But we end up in our cars. We drive from one place that we’re familiar with to another place that we’re familiar with and we don’t interact. We feel free to get aggressive because we have a ton of steel around us. It’s such a unique place. It needed to be personalized.
Where Rodney King was pulled over in Lakeview Terrace is so far away from the epicenter of this film. Simi Valley is so far away. People unfamiliar with the massiveness of Los Angeles had no idea how spread out this is. Yet, we were all connected. What was going on in the LAPD’s Foothill Division affected what was going on in Westwood. What was going on in Westwood affected what was going on in South Central. It was very important to show that although these seem like very disparate, disconnected communities, the connections are wound much more heavily than sometimes we even like to acknowledge or understand.
Q: You must have had massive amounts of footage. Making editing choices on what to include and what to cut must have been very difficult. What was your guiding principle?
A: We interviewed 35, 40 people. Each of those interviews was several hours per person and then we had the archival footage. We had everything that ABC News and KABC did. There were years worth of footage. I have to give so much credit to Colin Rich, the lead editor. There was so much that he was able to sift through to get to the heart of the matter. His work was just stellar.
I worked with Colin on American Crime and he’d also worked with me when I was trying to make this a narrative. So it was very fortuitous because he understood the style of editing and storytelling that I like and just had an energy and attention to detail that made it possible to cull it down to resonant moments.
Q: I’m intrigued by your use of the term uprising vs. riot. Why are word choices particularly important in this discussion?
A: I don’t want to turn it into a battle of semantics. I use the word riot and I think there are circumstances where it’s perhaps more appropriate. But around these set of circumstances, riot is the word that is most used, as in The Rodney King Riots, and I do think that is incorrectly applied.
We wanted to try to make sure that it didn’t seem like it was about one person and one place being affected in one way. It was something that people arrived to over time. And it was an uprising that affected many communities. This wasn’t spontaneous violence. It wasn’t even, at least initially, a direct reaction to the verdict in Simi Valley.
So, I think at the very least by saying “uprising” people have to engage with the story in a different way than if you say the LA Riots or Rodney King Riots. Words have power and how they’re used and applied can change people’s perspectives.
Q: Your ending was so powerful: the last few lines, the starkness of the statistics: $1 billion in damages. More than 50 deaths. The majority of those killed were black. How did you decide on that simple, compelling method of bringing the film to a close?
A: There was so much emotion and so much personal contact throughout the story. It was very important to me to make sure that people understood the size and scope and scale of what was going on. It’s a quarter of a century later and there are so many individuals who are not fully aware of all the circumstances. I don’t think people realize the impact in terms of political structure, in terms of financial damage and obviously most importantly in terms of the human toll and the fact that so many lost their lives. And the majority were people of color.
I don’t say that as though one individual based on race, gender or sexual orientation has more or less value, but we went down this road because of the way the law was dispensed: people of color were being overly targeted. Their lives were being marked. And in the end, after all of this—whether you think of it as a riot, or an uprising or a rebellion—the people who were most affected remain most affected. Ultimately, the demographic that was most victimized was most hurt by this. I think people were not aware of this. I think that’s something people really need to take into account. Were there any other ways to engage? Was any of this worth it?
Q: With the recent events in Charlottesville, your film feels more timely than ever. What can the actions and viewpoints expressed in Let it Fall teach us? What role can your film play in the ongoing battle against racism and towards the goals of humanism, understanding, compassion and equality?
A: We can’t be surprised when these things happen. They happen because so many people have allowed and encouraged them. The normalizing of bigotry really isn’t new. What I hope this film offers is a chance to be with these people for a moment, as they share their stories. Feel their stories. Then walk away and process it a little bit. Take those stories and be slower to judge. Be quicker to react to distress in our communities, but slower to judge.
There is such a rush to carve out our own personal positions and not much space to say ‘Let me hear what you are saying, let me just feel it and find the similarities between us.’ That is where we’re falling apart. I don’t know if we’re two societies more than we were in 1965, or 1865, but the ossification of our ideas, the hardening is a problem. For all the reach we have, all the social media, we don’t seem any more social. We don’t seem to have any more capacity for listening. Something like Let it Fall, if nothing else, puts people in the space where they feel empathy. We’re saying: Sit with these folks and we challenge you to not be surprised.
Let It Fall is now streaming on Netflix.