Craft Talking ’12 Years a Slave’: The Contrast of Horror and Beauty

Craft Talking '12 Years a Slave': The Contrast of Horror and Beauty

The visual power of “12 Years a Slave” derives from a juxtaposition of horror and beauty that director Steve McQueen calls “Goya-esque.” It immerses us in the totality of Solomon Northup’s experience, a brutal inhumanity that nonetheless took place on gorgeous plantations. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, costume designer Patricia Norris, and editor Joe Walker collaborated on this rich tapestry, which has helped make “12 Years a Slave” the best picture Oscar frontrunner.

“The landscape in Louisiana is overwhelming,” says Stockhausen. “It’s all around you and it’s beautiful and depressing at the same time. As Solomon goes into the swamp, you realize by the size of the dogs and everyone that would be after him, how separated he really is, and the completely dangerous landscape out there.”

Standing in miles and miles of sugar cane amid the Spanish moss falling from the trees has a postcard quality, the production designer admits. “Solomon’s story allows for the epic with the majesty of this cane or cotton field,” Stockhausen adds. “It was there and so we focused on the intimate part, making the small details of his life feel real and authentic and actual as opposed to scenery. In prep, with Sean and Steve, we were figuring out how to make these plantations not seem like museums. They were functional farms but the mechanics are no longer there. We tried to work backwards and reconstruct how this would’ve been in terms of functional farm life.”

What Stockhausen found most fascinating was building the lives of these people from an architectural point of view. How they maintained homes and were allowed to grow vegetables. So he researched what these gardens were like and what they would’ve grown. And the wood they would’ve used to make these shacks their homes were not fresh: it was recycled and recycled and probably started its life on ships or on river boats and made its way into a fence or a piece of the house. It gave a texture and life to the buildings they made.

The contrast between the lush plantation owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the harsh one owned by Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the difference between benevolence and cruelty. The former contains a rose arbor and the latter a whipping post as the centerpieces.

“By making it beautiful, it makes it palatable for the audience,” Bobbitt adds. “If we had made it ugly and gritty and desaturated, I don’t think the audience would stay with it. There would be no hope and the look comes from the story. These plantations have an inherent natural beauty and to defy that would be a lie.”

But the one scene in John Ridley’s script that visually stimulated the cinematographer’s imagination was the hanging because it was so emotive and embodied the essence of slavery. “Northrup’s hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement.”

The key to the hanging was finding the right composition. Again, it was a matter of classical simplicity. “Because your first thought is that no one can stand hanging for the whole day. The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture. But at the same time to be oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn’t an image that you could just throw away.”

The veteran Norris, meanwhile, relied heavily on books that described where slaves got their clothes and it became the good will of the owners, who provided castoffs. She had most of the clothes made on location in New Orleans. “By back dating what people gave away by 10 or 20 years, that’s how we came up with what slave clothes looked like,” she explains. “Then I got the owners to look more in the correct period. And it was easier to make the owners and other white people more colorful and slaves to stay in beige and a greenish tone. Steve and I wanted Epps to look slightly romantic where the sleeves are puffier.”

“We decided that when Solomon was sold to Epps he would remain tacky looking and when he was given over to someone else, he was given new clothes,” Norris says. “I think 12 years of work would not behoove you to have the same clothes all the time. I always had it in my mind that Patsey [Lupita Nyong’o] was given Mrs. Epps’ giveaways, which I thought was rather sick, but I don’t think I ever mentioned it to anybody. That’s why her clothes are that empire look with the higher bust.”

Walker (who also edited McQueen’s “Hunger” and Shame”) paid particular attention to the length of time and its impact on Northup’s inner life. “One of the things we did with ‘Shame’ and to a certain extent with ‘Hunger’ was creating disruptions to the timeline,” the editor recalls. “We know that there’s an endurance aspect to it and it felt right to break that up. It led to some beautiful, impactful cuts from my point of view. 

This included the opening, which was altered from the script’s linear approach (beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Northup living with his family in New York before the abduction into slavery). “There’s a really odd thing, which was the first shot of Michael Fassbender reading the Bible as Epps, and so there’s a sense of continuity with Michael because I cut all three of Steve’s films. It was a sort of Talisman and this strange reincarnation ritual.”

Walker also rejected a linear approach to the poignant story of Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who’s parted from her children. “Originally it was in story order and she was brought into the slave pen in Washington and she had a very sweet scene with Solomon where she explained how she’d been tricked and dragged away,” he continues. “And we saved that and held it back until after she’d left. It just felt like a much better thing to go from her, having lost her children and being dragged away and a woman who can’t stop crying — rightly so — to this shot where she’s smiling and talking about how she lived a life of luxury when she had the master’s favor. That was a more heartbreaking way of telling her backstory than telling it up front.” 

The journey becomes such an internal one for Northup and yet there’s ambiguous surrender when he joins in the singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral service. “There’s a deliberate choice to show that he’s become part of that community. And there’s some element of resignation on his face.

“The Epps plantation is the juiciest part of the film. It’s where the conflict is utmost and there’s this wild derangement. There’s violence every minute. And that was the big thing we wanted to see on his face at the end — that toll of physical labor. It’s hell on Earth.” 

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