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How the feud between the screenwriter and director of “12 Years a Slave” shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone

The major Studios hate public disputes. Any controversy involving a movie that isn’t part of the marketing campaign is perceived as a potential hazard that can’t be controlled. This is one of the reasons I was definitely surprised that a feud was revealed during the 86th annual Academy Awards telecast.

It happened when John Ridley stood up from his seat to accept his Oscar for Best Screenplay for writing 12 Years a Slave. As he made his way toward the main stage, Ridley walked right past Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, without so much as a glance.

And McQueen responded in kind. It was as if the screenwriter was completely invisible as he strolled past.

The situation became even more interesting as Ridley did stop to warmly embrace David O. Russell, the director of the film American Hustle. It is common knowledge (within professional screenwriting circles) that Ridley and Russell were once enemies, involved years ago in a bitter fight over the screenplay credit to the movie Three Kings, which Russell had directed.

When Ridley finally stood at the podium and gave his acceptance speech, he did not mention Steve McQueen. Later in the broadcast, after 12 Years a Slave was declared the winner for Best Picture, and Steve McQueen was making his acceptance speech (as one of the producers), the director returned the favor. He did not bother to thank or even acknowledge the only credited screenwriter for the film, John Ridley.  

After the telecast, the media turned their focus on the situation and the rest of the world caught up with what I already suspected – the cause of the feud between the screenwriter and director of 12 Years a Slave was over the final credit for the screenplay.

Apparently the whole affair had been kept on the down low during the awards’ season. The principle players in this behind-the-scenes drama (like producer, Brad Pitt; and executives at the studio, New Regency) were able to get the screenwriter and director to agree not to air their differences until the voting for the Academy Awards was complete.  And the pact obviously worked because 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture in a year when there were arguably three or more genuine contenders for the award.

When the feud was finally revealed to the public, I think it’s worth pointing out that Ridley and McQueen ended up handling their dispute at the awards show in a bloodless manner with both actually behaving like professionals. No doubt screenwriter and director had to be aware of the potential blow back that could result from any public display of bitterness.  What’s the point of winning a career changing award if one is not able to cash in afterwards because of the public (or industry) perception that you’re the bad guy in a drama that played out on television in front of millions of potential moviegoers?    

 Before I can move on from the specifics of this incident, I need to cite a few more facts concerning this feud -- The screenwriter, John Ridley, has a controversial history with the Writers Guild of America (which I am a member of). Ridley did not walk with his fellow WGA members when we went on strike in 2008.

Ridley wrote the screenplay, 12 Years a Slave, on Spec.

Steve McQueen is an extremely talented director who no doubt contributed creatively to the final screenplay that was eventually produced.

Almost without exception, every talented film director contributes creatively to the screenplay that is the basis for a film production.

Ridley wrote the screenplay, 12 Years a Slave, on Spec.

I’m sorry, I needed to repeat that one point because I believe any screenwriter who works on spec deserves some recognition in any dispute concerning screenplay credit to an award winning film.  

No doubt the “he said” – “he said” feud will have supporters on both sides arguing over the situation for months, perhaps even years.  Remember, we’re talking about a movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture!

What I think screenwriters, professional and aspiring, should take away from this situation is how often the relationship between a screenwriter and a director is fraught with challenges. 

Those who pursue and practice both trades do so hoping to express their art and craft in their work, but often times the relationship is a shotgun marriage at best. And that’s if there is indeed a relationship at all.

We must also consider that often times both the screenwriter and director will enter into any working relationship with problematic personality traits, usually a de facto part of the psychological package of any talented filmmaker, like the pork on a bill that manages to get through congress.

Also, the creative process of making a film is not an exact science. I know having filmmaking become an exact science is the wet dream of all the bean counters at the studios, but even real scientists working together in a lab often times can’t get along. Many of the talented scientists have difficult personalities and their quirky ways of thinking can be toxic to their colleagues. And we’re taking about scientists working toward achieving verifiable facts, not filmmakers attempting to produce a work of “art” that will also do at least forty million at the box office on the opening weekend. 

Despite the challenges, here’s the bottom line – it’s the production of a movie that usually suffers the most when there is a troubled or non-existent relationship between screenwriter and director. When a screenwriter is not involved in the shooting of a movie, I believe the quality of the production is usually compromised. When a director’s ideas are ignored by a screenwriter as a ploy to get credit (or for whatever reason the scribe is disregarding the director’s input), there’s a good chance an opportunity to improve the storytelling has been squandered.

What should always be made holy is the project.

Not egos, credits, or the perception within the industry about who did what.

Yes, I know there are careers and perhaps huge money at stake over the final credit to a screenplay, but it’s still the guide to how a creative artist needs to act.

What should always be made holy is the quality of the movie, and how the finished work will be received by audiences.

The ironic thing about the whole dispute between Ridley and McQueen is that at one time the two obviously did make holy the project they were working on, getting along well enough that they ended up creating a screenplay that led to a film that will outlive both of their careers and their lives.

Had they not at one time worked well together and 12 Years a Slave ended up sucking,  I bet their feud would sound totally different if both men were to sound off –

I know my name is the only name on the script,
but don’t blame me. The director totally changed
everything I wrote.  His changes to my screenplay
screwed up what could have been a great project…


I was barely there during the development of this
project. I did the best I could during the
shoot to rise above the problems that were
always inherent in Ridley’s screenplay. I had a ton
of suggestions, none of which ended up being part
of the script I was forced to shoot.  


About the Author


RICHARD FINNEY is a professional screenwriter (a member of the WGA), an award-winning indie film producer, and the author of the amazon best-selling DEMON DAYS thriller novels.

He is the author of  20 RULES OF PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITING and 19 TECHNIQUES OF PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITING, the first in a series of e-book primers focusing on the art and craft of screenwriting by working industry professionals.

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