It wouldn’t be surprising if the man who wrote Three Kings had hatched the tale while barreling in a tank across the sands of Iraq. How else to explain the film’s authenticity, its dune’s-eye view of the fuzzy politics and blurry morality swirling in the desert during the Gulf War?
It wouldn’t be surprising, but it wouldn’t be true. Turns out the original story was penned by a former stand-up comic who wouldn’t know a Scud missile if he sat on one. ”I wanted to see how fast I could write and sell a screenplay,” explains John Ridley, unwinding in his Hollywood Hills home. ”So I came up with the most commercial and visually interesting story I could think of. It worked. I wrote it in 7 days and sold it in 18.”
So much for suffering for art’s sake — or even breaking a sweat. Still, even if this 34-year-old Milwaukee-born scribe hasn’t seen any military action, he has collected battle scars of another sort, having tangled with forces far scarier than Saddam’s Republican Guards. But we’ll get to his feuds with Oliver Stone and David O. Russell in a minute.
Right now Ridley is on a multimedia roll. He’s just published his third novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell, a neo-noirish murder mystery set in the grungy L.A. music scene. He’s also a writer and producer on NBC’s new police-paramedic-firefighter drama, Third Watch, which premiered Sept. 23 and promptly received a full-season, 22-episode order from NBC. And there are more movie scripts in the works as well, including Beverly Hills Cop IV, in which Eddie Murphy will bring Axel Foley out of retirement to bust bad guys in Monte Carlo.
It’s a workload that would have even David E. Kelley popping fistfuls of No-Doz, although Ridley is hardly complaining. ”The only problem I have is stopping writing,” he says. ”Last night I was getting ready to go to bed at 4 a.m., but then I was like, you know, I should really write a couple more lines…”
Of course, every success story opens with a wobbly first act; Ridley’s low point came in the late 1980s, shortly after he arrived in New York City to take a stab at stand-up. After nine years of living on yogurt, he gave up, landing a lucrative gig in L.A. as a sitcom writer, first for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and later for Martin. That’s where he met his wife, Gayle, 32, then a script supervisor, now a professional gambler. ”I think of it as more of a hobby,” she insists. ”We do go to Las Vegas a lot, but I play video poker. I don’t even play the tables.”
In any case, Gayle’s savvy helped Ridley research his first novel, Stray Dogs, the 1997 book that gave him his first big break. Although publishers were unimpressed with the slim, grim volume about a gambler who makes a wrong turn on his way to Vegas, the manuscript, which had been floating around Hollywood, wowed Oliver Stone. The director bought the film rights, retitled the script U-Turn, and began shooting with Sean Penn and Billy Bob Thornton. Naturally, Stone’s plans had those publishers doing U-turns of their own: Ballantine snatched up the book with the intention of releasing it before the movie hit theaters. Stone, not surprisingly, flipped out.
“He didn’t want the book to give anything away before his movie came out,” Ridley recalls. “It got pretty nasty. He told me I couldn’t visit the set anymore. I was upset, but not devastated. I mean, they were shooting in Arizona in July.”
The feud with Stone cooled down, but hostilities with Three Kings director Russell are still simmering. “This is a guy who every step of the way has tried to grab credit,” Ridley says, firing off a round. “I never heard a word while he was shooting the movie. Never saw any of the script changes. And then finally, a year later, I get a copy of the script, and my name isn’t even on it. It’s ‘by David O. Russell.’ My name is nowhere.”
To be fair, Russell did do major doctoring on the screenplay—tossing out its original title, Spoils of War, for starters—but Ridley believes the essence of the tale remains his own. “Russell may have rewritten it word for word,” he argues, “but it’s still my story.” Eventually, Ridley, Russell, and Warner Bros. hammered out a ceasefire, giving Ridley a “story by” credit. But it’s an uneasy peace, with Ridley blocking Russell’s plans to publish his Three Kings screenplay in book form. “I get calls all the time from the producers and the studio asking me to please let him publish this thing. But I’ve been completely disrespected through this whole process and now they’re asking for a favor? The answer is no.”
“I’m shocked that he’s blocking the book,” sniffs Russell. “I think he’s doing it because he’s embarrassed by how little of his screenplay ended up in my movie.”
Not surprisingly, the experience has left Ridley feeling a bit ruffled. “The difference between writing books and movies is like the difference between flying and crawling over broken glass,” he says. “Screenplays are just really, truly hard.”
But then who ever created anything worthwhile in just seven days?