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NYFF ’13: Steve McQueen on ’12 Years A Slave,’ the Effects of Slavery Today and Reuniting With Michael Fassbender

NYFF '13: Steve McQueen on '12 Years A Slave,' the Effects of Slavery Today and Reuniting With Michael Fassbender

The past six weeks have been very good to “12 Years A Slave.” Coming off of his acclaimed 2011 film “Shame,” anticipation was already huge for Steve McQueen’s latest work, but once the film began screening the buzz became almost stratospheric. After its ecstatic reception at Telluride and Toronto (it garnered the Audience Award at the latter), the film soared to the front of the Oscar race, with many already positioning it as a lock for many of the main categories. 

Adapted by an 1853 autobiography of the same name, “12 Years A Slave” tells the true story of a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) living with his family in 1840’s Saratoga who is conned and winds up getting sold into slavery. Following his harrowing decade-long struggle to survive the tragic ordeal as he is bought and sold and moved to three different plantations, the film captures the true evil and inhumanity of slavery, as the masters constantly inflict torture and brutality on their “property” with a shocking casualness. Watching “12 Years A Slave” makes for a simultaneously excruciating and engrossing experience. 

Following the film’s press screening at the New York Film Festival earlier this week, McQueen was on hand for a press conference moderated by Gavin Smith, where McQueen discussed capturing 19th-century plantation life, the evidence of slavery today, and his working relationship with Michael Fassbender, with whom he’s worked with on all three of his feature films.

Below is a roundup of highlights from the talk.

On deciding to make a film on the subject of slavery:

“I didn’t really know what the traditional idea of slavery was, because I wanted to find out what it was. Somebody asked me the other day for the first time, this is a question that I should have known but nobody had asked me before, ‘What was it like when you first found out about slavery?’ And I couldn’t remember. All I could remember was a tremendous sense of shame and embarrassment. So, in some ways, why I wanted to make this film was, as I said before, somehow to embrace it and tame it and master it, but also to sort of make it mine. So I went into researching slavery and such with open eyes; I couldn’t go in with a preconceived idea, that’s just not me. Whatever happens and whatever I discover, I’ll discover. So I was just trying to find a way in, into the tale. And the way in for me was the whole idea of a free man who is put into slavery. And I liked that everyone could relate to Solomon; he was taken away from his family, so therefore you’re on that journey with him. And then my wife had this book, and I thought, ‘What’s this book?’ I had it in my hand, and I looked at it and it was strange, because you have an idea and then it becomes this screenplay, basically, in your hand, and that was it. It was incredible.”                                                                                                                           

On how Christian faith factors into the film:   

“As we know, through the centuries religion has kept a lot of people sane, especially in the United States. Or insane, for that matter. You have to hold onto something, or else all is lost. For me, I didn’t see it in the sense of Christianity in a way, at least not really. In the book he calls on God a lot, but for me that wasn’t the interesting thing. It was about his self-determination, his courage, his own gathering up of his own will, that was more my interest.”

On what he learned about the slave experience and how it affects our world today:          

Survival. I think that’s the biggest thing you learn. What would you do to survive? What do you block out to survive? I’m here because certain members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They weren’t handed an AK-45 and a grenade, they had to deal with how they had to deal with it, which was survive. It wasn’t pretty. Could you imagine being born a slave? I think that’s the worst thing that could happen to a human being. Someone who’s born a slave, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as anything other than what their master thinks, which is nothing. The psychological damage of that, of being born into an environment where you are nothing. I think that when you fast forward slavery to today, walking down the streets, you see the evidence of slavery everywhere, in America, in the West Indies, in London, Europe, you see the evidence of it. This stuff hasn’t been dealt with. When you look at the Holocaust, and Germany, and how many people have actually studied that, dealt with that and continue to deal with that. Slavery, it hasn’t even started. It’s a deep psychological wound.”

Watch the full press conference on page 2.

On the look of the film:               

I’ve been working with Sean Bobbitt, the cinematographer, for the last 13 years. He’s a Texan that’s been living in England for goodness knows how long. First, it’s about the color; we talk about the color. This is the first time I actually sort of feel like I’ve shot outdoors, in an environment which is so lush. So the palette is very important to talk about. The costume designer, Patty Norris, she took Earth samples from all three of the plantations to match the clothes, had a conversation with Sean to kind of deal with the temperature of each plantation, and the character temperature, of course. So there was a lot of that kind of minute detail.”

On the actors working with such intense material:       

I think all the hard work comes in rehearsal. As far as spontaneity and stuff is concerned, there are slight deviations for sure but not… Because when you’re working with actors like this and you’re rehearsing, they’re so good that you want to stop. ‘Oh, let’s stop that and not do anymore.’ So you get this light training and when you say ‘action’ or whatever you say… Actually I don’t say that, the other guy says that, you say ‘cut.’ I want to say action, but I can’t! What happens is that when you say action, or someone else says action and they’re doing it, it becomes like a sphere. Because we’ve trained, we’ve talked so often, we’ve talked a lot with each other, we’ve formed a trust with each other, but they become spheres so that everything they do is correct. It’s beautiful, it’s magic, you work for that, you work damn hard to get there, but you have to trust them as well. But they become spheres, so that everything they do, wherever they go, is great.”

On working with Michael Fassbender for the third consecutive time:  

It’s one of those with Michael, don’t take him for granted. He’s not gonna do things because I’m doing it, so it’s one of those things where it has to be bloody good before you present him anything. Yes, he was always my choice for that. He’s an amazing actor; me, personally, I think he’s the most influential actor of his time. He’s like Mickey Rourke when he was Mickey Rourke and Gary Oldman when he was Gary Oldman. I mean, people want to be an actor because of him, people want to be in a movie because of him, people want to make a movie because he wants to be in a movie. So he has that pull, that kind of quality where people want to jam with him. He’s like Ginger Baker.”

“12 Years A Slave” has another screening at the New York Film Festival on October 13 before it opens on October 18.

Watch the full press conference below:

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