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by Ben Travers
November 11, 2013 10:23 AM
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AFI Fest 2013: Steve McQueen Talks '12 Years a Slave,' Why He Wants to Discuss Slavery Now, & His #1 Goal for Solomon Northrup's Story

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen on the set of "12 Years a Slave" Fox Searchlight

"Why do I know about Anne Frank and not Solomon Northup?"

So queried Steve McQueen during AFI Fest's "On Directing: A Conversation with Steve McQueen," Sunday night's 45-minute Q&A between the director behind "12 Years a Slave" and moderator Brickson Diamond, Board Chair of the Blackhouse Foundation. Held in the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, McQueen spoke primarily about his latest film while touching on a few of his own personal goals and beginnings. McQueen was welcomed by a patient (the program began 30 minutes behind schedule with many fans standing for more than an hour in line) and enthusiastic crowd who gave him a standing ovation upon his introduction. The following are the evening's highlights:

"It always starts with a crayon and a piece of paper, doesn't it?"

After McQueen graciously thanked the audience for their warm reception ("My heart is big and swollen. Thank you very much."), moderator Brickson Diamond wasted no time digging into the director's roots. McQueen said he began his artistic career by drawing. "For me, I was very lucky I could draw. From a very young age, I could draw and through that sort of evolution from painting to cinema...it was just that kind of procession." He said he discovered film around the age of 17 and spent much of his free time in theaters watching the classics. "It gave me the opportunity to view the world," McQueen said.

"I wanted to make a film about slavery."

"I had this idea of a free man from the North who was dragged into slavery, and we the audience follow him as he tries to regain his freedom," McQueen said when discussing the film's origins. That script "wasn't going so well" and McQueen's wife suggested he look into true accounts of slavery for help. He found "12 Years a Slave" and became obsessed. "When I read it, it was, of course, a revelation for me because I didn't know Solomon Northup. I was asking myself, 'Why?' I was quite embarrassed and thought I was quite stupid. Then I realized no one I knew was aware of this book." McQueen began the adaptation process, and the rest is history--both America's and cinema's.

"This is the Anne Frank diary of America."

McQueen became convinced of the story's historical significance quickly. "The whole idea of Anne Frank and Anne Frank's diary was so huge. It was required reading while I was in England. It upset me in the way, 'How did I know Anne Frank but I didn't know Solomon Northup?' I read '12 Years a Slave' and thought, 'This is the Anne Frank diary of America.'" At the end of the evening, McQueen said his main goal for the film was to get the novel into the national curriculum. "This has to be in the national curriculum. It's a non-brainer. That will be the legacy of Solomon Northup."

"There's no black and white, just America."

Diamond asked McQueen about the conversation he wanted to start when he chose to make "12 Years a Slave" as well as whether or not what he's actually been speaking about varies from the original goal at all. "This is not a passive movie," McQueen said. "It is a kind of call to arms, if only to call a friend to say that you are okay." Diamond mentioned how some white audiences might be too uncomfortable to watch the film, whether it be out of embarrassment or a conscious choice to avoid the subject. "It's part of history, and it's their history, too," McQueen said. "It's not exclusively black. The most interesting aspect is if you look at Solomon Northup's current family. There were two daughters and one son, Alonzo. Alonzo's strain went white and the other strain, of course, remained black. So when you see the family photograph of Solomon's current family, it is America. Black, white, tall, short, fat. That's America. There is no black and white, just America."

"I just do it."

When asked about how he makes the movies he wants to make the way he wants to make them, McQueen had a simple answer. "I don't talk. I don't think. I just do it." Diamond pressed him to give some advice to other filmmakers on how to "just do it," and McQueen remained firm with his advice. "You're over thinking. Do it. It's hard work. Of course there will be obstacles in your way, but don't talk about it. Just get on with it."

"That's the power of cinema."

McQueen was asked to provide an example of a reaction to the movie he cherished, and his choice could not have been more poignant. "We went to Orlando to the National Black Media Conference. The film wasn't even shown. What happened was we showed a couple of clips as a junket. There were maybe 200 people in the room, and this lady stood up and said she's never said this before in public, but her grandfather was poisoned for teaching kids how to read in the [slave quarters]. She had just come to terms with it. She only found out about 10 years ago, and the fact that she could vocalize that pain in front of everyone was because of the movie. It gave her a platform. She was allowed to have a voice. That's the power of cinema." 

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9 Comments

  • Gemma | November 12, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    I attended this event and was very disappointed. Not by Steve McQueen but by the whole experience. Mr. McQueen was amazing and his comments about the need for the book "12 Years a Slave" to be required reading in schools just like the "Diary of Anne Frank" was spot on. Both stories are historic, riveting and should be known by all children. My disappoint was the experience itself. AFI is wonderful and does great things but this event really left something to be desired. People waited in line for over 2 hours to hear an interview that was barely 40 minutes. And the moderator Brickson seems like a very nice man but he was not the person to conduct this interview. His questions were ridiculous, redundant and he was very misinformed. It almost seemed like he did not do his homework to talk to this great man. To tell you the truth I felt like he did not see the movie at all from the weird questions he was asking Mr. McQueen. A couple of times he even said I'm confused by your question because they were ignorant and not making sense. Mr. McQueen even asked if there was going to be Q&A from the audience because he wanted some good questions. The audience was so disappointed that they couldn't chime in. When it was over people were pissed off and some were even cursing. People were standing around afterward stunned at was they had just witnessed. Saying things like "why didn't he ask this or that" they even showed two amazing clips from the movie before it began and the "moderator" didn't even ask about making these heart wrenching scenes. Really? AFI please choose people in the future who know how to conduct a proper interview, not someone who "on paper" looks qualified.

  • James | November 12, 2013 7:09 AMReply

    I must say that it was the first thing on my mind when I awoke this morning.
    I think that every young person should see this film and know that is how things
    were a short time ago.

  • Claitun Bigzbee | November 12, 2013 3:30 AMReply

    I have to admit, the evening was a HUGE disappointment. So much so, as people exited the theater, the vast majority had a look of either confusion or disappointment on their faces. Numerous discussions were sparked, just outside of the theater, where people voiced their disappointment. While I appreciate the event being produced, it was presented as "A Conversation On Directing" and it was far from that.

  • Max | November 11, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    Yeah, the moderator was awful. Hated the questions.

  • dr_alarcon | November 11, 2013 3:03 PMReply

    Brickson Diamond Is the worst interviewer that I have ever seen. He asked the same question 3 times and even dare to ask if "12 Years a slave" is a book that one can buy! He Stuttered, he was redundant and lacks knowledge in cinema or arts. Everybody left disappointed.

  • CBLACK | November 11, 2013 9:18 PM

    LOL! That was hilarious. I forgot he asked Mr. McQueen if it was a book someone could purchase. Brilliant. HOW did he get this opportunity to interview the hottest director right now?! Mr. Diamond was completely not suited for this task. He might be a nice gentleman and I truly don't mean to be rude. However, last night was just uncomfortable for everyone to watch. Dang! that I won't get to hear in person about directing this important film. I came home and started viewing all his interviews on YouTube. I'd still like to know how they shot the scene when the main character is beaten into submission after being captured. I hope AFI Fest will see these comments.

  • Bob Cobb | November 11, 2013 3:05 PM

    LIKE this:

    "(Brickson Diamond) even dare to ask if "12 Years a slave" is a book that one can buy."

    Complete incompetence.

  • CBlack | November 11, 2013 2:38 PMReply

    I agree! Last night was a waste of everyone's time including Mr. McQueen's. Don't understand why this person was asked to moderate. He didn't seem familiar with the director's worked and asked such convoluted non-questions that everyone got lost. Several time Mr. McQueen had to figure out what the guy was really asking. A disappointing CONVERSATIONS but still a brilliant movie that every American should see.

  • Bob Cobb | November 11, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    This event was a disaster. The moderator was rambling, incompetent, and incoherent. Steve McQueen was great, but he didn't get to talk about directing... at all. The talk was called "On Directing" not "On Struggling to answer ridiculous, nonsensical questions."

    Thanks though!