With “Hunger,”his feature debut in 2008, Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-director Steve McQueen made a bold statement right out of the gate: he was a filmmaker to watch. Three years later, “Shame” solidified his reputation as an audacious director with an unflinching eye. And now, with “12 Years a Slave,” which screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival after premiering at Telluride, McQueen has made what is destined to become the definitive film about slavery in the American South (you can read our review of the film here).
The film, based on a true story, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a genteel New Yorker born into freedom who was kidnapped in 1841, trafficked to Louisiana, and sold to a series of slave owners (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender) who are increasingly cruel and unusual. It’s a horrendous story, layered with levels of degradation and brutality designed to irrevocably damage both the spirit and the body, and yet McQueen finds humanity and grace in Northup’s (ultimately triumphant) story.
We caught up with McQueen once the rave (that’s an understatement) reviews began rolling in at Toronto. He’s a smart and thoughtful man, and we discussed how he was inspired by Anne Frank, why there is room in the world for both Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, and his undying admiration for Michael Fassbender, his constant leading man.
How did you first learn about Solomon Northup?
I wanted to tell a story about slavery. I thought, “How do I get an ‘in’ on this story? Okay, a free man who gets kidnapped into slavery…” What was interesting to me about that was to have the audience go with him and they become that person.
I was working with John Ridley on the script, and it was going well, but it was taking time. My wife said to me, “Why don’t you look into true accounts of slavery,” her being a historian, of course. So we both researched it, and she came up with this book called “12 Years a Slave.” She said to me, “I think I’ve got it.” If anything was an understatement, it was that. Because when you have an idea, and then you see it in script form in your hands? I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.
I live in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank is a world treasure. [When I found this book,] I thought, “My God, this is Anne Frank, but 100 years earlier. Why did I not know this book?” But then I found out that hardly anyone knew this book; in fact, all the people I spoke to had no idea of the existence of this book. No one. And that’s when I made it my passion to make this book into a film.
There have certainly been American depictions of slavery before—most notably, “Roots”—but nothing has ever been this unflinching. Do you think it took a Brit – an outside perspective — to make this movie?
I think it’s more complex than that. My parents are from Grenada, my mother and father; you know, this is the place where Malcolm X’s mother was born. My mother was born in Trinidad; the phrase “Black Power” was born in Trinidad. Harry Belafonte is from Jamaica. Marcus Garvey is from the West Indies. And there’s this huge majority of my family living in the United States, so it’s a little bit more complex than that. It’s not about me being a Brit; it’s about me being a part of that sort of diaspora.
There’s some tough scenes. It felt like you were saying, “You need to see this, you need to look at this.” Was that always the idea? Making the camera linger on difficult moments?
Absolutely. I’m a filmmaker, so I always think: When is the breaking point? Sometimes you’ve got to go beyond the breaking point, and then you catch it. When is long enough? It’s one of those things you have to look at, walk away, and go home and find out what it is. It’s sometimes beyond the breaking point, because you go through that barrier of the pain of this person. In the book, Solomon is hanging all day… So I wanted somehow for the audience to sort of experience that, for a fraction, as much as I could.
Did you ever dial it back?
I think if I was to film the book the way it was, it would have been too much. So I knew I had to be very selective about what I could do, and [I had to] take things out because that was the story. If it wasn’t best for the film, or wasn’t good for the narrative, it got edited out. So to answer your question: I had to be careful, but it is what it is. Because when you get to the crescendo at the end of the movie, when Patsey’s whipped, we have to slowly build to that.
Right. But there’s also more you could have shown, but didn’t.
I was happy with what I shot. I didn’t edit myself at all.
What was it like for the cast, and for you, living with this for so long? I would imagine it was a lot to deal with.
I’m the kind of person who likes to create the environment and mindset—not because I do it deliberately, but because that’s how I like to live—where, from catering to makeup to hair to wardrobe, electricians, camera department lighting, sound, you know, it’s our movie; we’re together, and we have that camaraderie and that closeness. To have that environment where people feel safe, the actors feel safe to experiment, to fail, to fail better is what I want. It’s always what I wanted.
I can’t work in an environment where it’s a stiff hierarchy; that’s not my kind of way. We have to create an environment of love. It sounds corny, me saying it, but I don’t really care—“love” is way underused anyway. We have an environment where people have a stake in the film, it’s our movie, so they want to go that extra mile. That’s the kind of environment we had for people to work together in difficult situations and difficult scenes, and at the end of the day, come together and have a hug, and go for a drink and be together. It was about being together.
I was struck by how many times you showed the slaves holding deadly weapons—hammers and scythes and things—but it showed how broken their will was that they didn’t ever rise up.
There were also the “petty-rollers” song—the patrollers. And that song that Paul Dano sings about it: “You dare to run, you dare to go, the petty-rollers are going to get you, run, nigger, run.” So that kind of psychological [terror]… he’s berating them with a song when they’ve got axes and swords in their hands. Because what’s happening is, of course, when people did run away, they were made a huge example of, so that the sort of psychological slavery and terror [used].
“Django Unchained” is an elephant in the room. I almost feel like your movie should have been made first, but then I don’t know if ‘Django’ would have been made. Complicated to compare oranges and apples, but do you have anything to share about ‘Django’?
I met Quentin Tarantino in New Orleans, where we shot, when he was still shooting. I think he was getting to the end of shooting when I was there beginning to shoot. He said to me, “I hope there can be more than one film about slavery.” And I said, “Of course, just like there’s more than one gangster film or more than one western.” And that was it.
Can you talk about the process of your casting? Was it pretty straightforward? Did you always have Chiwetel in mind?
Chiwetel Ejiofor was always going to be Solomon Northup for me. I was looking for someone that had that genteelness, that kind of humanity. Knowing that humanity was going to be tested under certain duress and circumstances, I needed a person who could actually keep hold of that, even through periods of extraordinary trying and extraordinary situations where it would be tested to its absolute limit. He was the only person.
In finding Lupita [Nyong’o, who plays the pivotal role of Patsey], that was like searching for Scarlet O’Hara, really it was. We saw over 1,000 girls and it was Francine Maisler, the casting director, who was instrumental in hunting down people, but every week I’d be getting like fifty girls or twenty girls; it was very difficult. And then all of a sudden, seeing her, that was it; she was just amazing. I just said, “That’s her.”
Can we talk about the visuals and how stunning they were? You incorporate these long shots that felt like paintings in motion.
I’ve been working with Sean Bobbitt for 13 years now; he’s just an amazing cinematographer. But also the fact is, we know what we want; I talk to him a lot. I don’t do storyboarding ever, I’m not interested in that. It’s all about finding it, and we’ve been fine-tuning the way we work for 13 years now. That’s why I suppose we work fast… people say we work fast, but I think maybe it’s like the Olympics; you train for a certain amount of time, the gun goes, and now you have to perform. So that’s it.
Do you have the shots planned out in your script?
No, no. Because you write the script in New York, you write the script in Amsterdam, and then you get to the location, and it’s like totally different. So that’s great, because it makes you think, “How am I going to do this now?” It’s liberating, in fact. Because I’m not an illustrator; I’m a filmmaker. The script is a place for departure, for changes.
Let me tell you, I think your movie is phenomenal. I never cried more in a theater.
Paul Giamatti hadn’t seen the film, and he was crying on my shoulder. It was an amazing night.
I bet it’s really hard to see themselves doing those things. Or do you think, “They’re actors, that’s their job”?
I don’t know.If you can’t go there as an artist and act it, then we can’t tell the story. And, as you said, it’s a necessary story, so their bravery has to be commended and appreciated.
So I think Brad Pitt and Plan B came knocking early for you. What was your initial reaction?
Yeah, [they called] during “Hunger.” It’s flattering, isn’t it, if someone’s interested in working with you? Especially if you’re European—for us, Hollywood seems like Mecca, so when you get someone like that knock on your door for your first movie… There were a lot of people courting, but what was interesting about Plan B was they were interested in helping me make this film. They were always ringing me, so [I knew]: these people really are serious.
Did you know you were going to cast Brad Pitt in the beginning? He gets to be the good guy.
Yeah, he gets to be the good guy. But Brad and Michael Fassbender together on screen—that was really my interest. Having them do a meat and potatoes scene on a board, almost like a boxing ring. And having Bass [Brad Pitt’s character] asking—hopefully—the questions the vast majority of the audience is thinking. He is the only person who verbally stands up to Epps [Fassbender’s character], in the end.
So you’ve covered a hunger strike, sex addiction and an epic about slavery. Do you ever want to do something lighter, or does that not interest you at all?
I’ll do a musical next. I want to do a musical, that’s what I want to do.
I’m thinking about it, but I want to do a musical with Michael.
Can he sing?
Oh yeah, he can sing really good! Oh my God, what was that guy’s name? [He starts singing, “What a Fool Believes,” which is awesome.] Michael McDonald? Oh God, he does a fantastic Michael McDonald.
Tell me about it. He’s like Mickey Rourke, or Gary Oldman—he’s the most influential actor of his generation. People either want to be with him, want to be like him, or want to become an actor because of him, that’s Michael Fassbender.
"12 Years A Slave" hits theaters on October 18.