“I wanted to put the debate on the map,” says director Steve McQueen, who is throwing “12 Years a Slave” into the national conversation in a big way. He was aided by producers Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner, screenwriter John Ridley, frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender, fellow Brits Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch, and distributor Fox Searchlight. After he was seeking a story about a free man who becomes a slave, to fill a hole in the canon of cinema, his wife found the Solomon Northup memoir, published in 1853–when it was eclipsed by the previous year’s bestseller “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” McQueen was shocked that not only had he never heard of it–nobody else had either. Doing that as a film was “a no-brainer,” he tells Tavis Smiley, below. “It had to be done…I wanted to hold the camera up and say, ‘look at this..cause a debate.'”
As for the issue of why it took a Brit to confront this ugly piece of American history, McQueen considers slavery to be not just American history but world history. His family emigrated to the U.K from the West Indies. His mother was born in Trinidad, the birthplace of Stokely Carmichael. And Martin Luther King, he points out, was born in Grenada.
Anne Thompson: Your trajectory from “Hunger” to “Shame” to this movie, feels like a leap, it’s very different, bigger and on a more ambitious scale.
SM: Those two other movies were focused on one person. It was Bobby Sands and Brandon Sullivan, both played by Michael Fassbender. Of course the canvas of “12 Years a Slave” is huge. We’re talking about the North, the South, we’re talking about slavery. It was a time in history where things were very different from how they are now. Also with the number of characters, it’s a large vista.
Why Plan B?
SM: Jeremy Kleiner was the first one I had contact with. He contacted me after seeing “Hunger” and pursued me from there. Then I was really working with him, Dede Gardner, and Brad Pitt.
Were you a little resistant, thinking this is a studio production company?
SM: Coming from England, I was flattered. Other people were interested but what I liked about Plan B is that they showed their commitment and their desire to work with me. They were very focused on what I wanted to do, so it was very straightforward.
You knew that you wanted this material to be from the POV of a man who had freedom and had it taken away. Why?
SM: That was my in. Once I knew I wanted to make a film about slavery, I needed an in. What I liked about that idea was that that character would be me, it would be you, it would be the audience in the cinema so that we can relate to him and to him being in situations that are not just unfamiliar to him, but unfamiliar to us. I love that everything he sees, we see for the first time. I was working with John Ridley on the script and at some point it wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to. And then my wife said, “why don’t you look at firsthand accounts of slavery, as every historian would do?” We both did our research, and she found this book “12 Years a Slave.” She gave it to me and said, “Steve, I’ve got it.” If ever there was an understatement, it was that. As soon as I opened the book, it was a revelation at every turn.
Why John Ridley?
SM: I needed to work with a writer who I thought could understand the material. I thought he would be a good collaborator in finding out what we could leave in and what we could take out, and in what was needed in the script because the book was so good that it needed help, but it didn’t need that much help. But it did need this idea of editing, in a way. After that, we moved on.
Why Chiwetel Ejiofor?
SM: Chiwetel has some kind of elegance, some kind of stature and some kind of class. He’s almost like a Harry Belafonte or a Sidney Poitier, there is a kind of stature with him which I needed because he had to carry that humanity through the most inhumane situations throughout the film.
You are known for long takes, which you use to immerse us in this world, that’s what the long, uninterrupted take does. You can’t escape.
SM: You’re in real time. The audience loses the sense that they’re watching a film but has a sense that they’re involved in a moment, and that’s the difference. What one has to do is use the right way of shooting for what the scene demands. It’s not about forcing. It’s about allowing the audience to observe. What they’re looking at is violence, as far as Patsy getting beaten. It’s a case of making a picture about slavery. Either you make a picture about slavery, or you don’t. It’s one of the two. I am here, in evidence of those unfortunate events. My family survived those unfortunate events so I can’t make a picture which would not tell the truth otherwise there’d be no point.
Where did your family survive?
SM: In the West Indies, which was another kind of slavery. Very hard.
There are many kinds of slavery all over the Americas, which makes it a global story.
SM: Absolutely and I’ve always said that. The question has always been asked, “Why did it take a British director to make this film?” I’m part of that story here in America. Some of my families, one boat took a left and one took a right. On one boat was my mother and sister and on the other was my father. It was the slave trade. One moved to West America, one moved to West Indies, another to the South. They all come from the same place. We ended up in Britain as immigrants in the early 60s.
Now that you’re in the thick of the Oscar season, stories that have emerged such as the challenging of the accuracy of Northup’s own account. Where is that coming from?
SM: I welcome those kind of debates because we were very careful, of course. We had an advisor, an historian. All of them vouched for the facts that these events actually occurred, with documents to back it up. So of course I welcome that kind of attention because I want to be right as well. Every picture that’s “based on a true story” will have that kind of scrutiny, so I welcome this.
What is your sense of how accurate you were?
SM: Quite. Of course you would get something wrong. There’s no two ways about it. We were very meticulous. Our fantastic production designer Adam Stockhausen and an amazing costume designer Patricia Norris who researched the look and the authenticity of what was happening. A lot of the costumes were actually slave clothes worn by slaves. You do your best. We hope we’re good at it.
One thing I believe you added was the scene with Patsy (Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o) and wealthy neighbor Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard).
SM: She had one line in the book, a description of her. I spoke to John and said this character needs a voice in this film because it’s such an extraordinary character, and one I’ve never seen on film before. For me, that scene was John’s best work.
Michael Fassbender doesn’t want to participate in campaigning the movie for the Oscars. How do you feel about that?
SM: I understand. It can be a bit much. [On “Shame”] it was very tiring, and it was unhealthy. You get exhausted and try to do your best at every moment. Forgive me for saying this, I felt like a prostitute, every 15 minutes another john would come through the room and it’d be taking, taking, taking. It was a bit much. This time, it’s much more enjoyable. I don’t know why. I think that it’s worth it. I’m not saying that “Shame” wasn’t.
The conversation has shifted to a cultural conversation that could have an enormous impact on the world.
SM: Yes, I think that’s it. I do think it’s worth it because the conversation has been on such a high level and it’s fascinating. Someone asked me the other day, “When was the first time you were conscious of slavery?” It was just amazing. Or, “what was the first time you understood your name?” I was thinking, “my goodness, the only thing I can remember is that I grew up with such a feeling of shame and embarrassment.” To start life like that as a young person, it’s either a huge disadvantage or it’s a situation where you become much more aware of your surroundings in society.
The assumption made by many people in America is that folks from Africa who grew up in Britain are not the products of slavery; they came from Africa without having been part of the American horror, without that sense of shame. It’s inaccurate?
SM: My family came from the West Indies…It’s debatable. What is correct is that we all come from this diaspora. We’re all from a situation where we were displaced or dispersed, or parts of your family are missing. If you’re from Africa, where some of your relatives would have been taken.
So talking about these issues is satisfying for you.
SM: For me, the movie stands up by itself because the story is so extraordinary. I’m happy we’re having a debate about slavery but at the same time, for me, I’m excited about the picture because the picture is the picture.
When you were editing, were you challenged or did it fall into place in an organic way?
SM: It was very organic. With reshoots, different ways of looking at time, it was exciting. Also because of the set, because of the crew, the makeup, the wardrobe, the electricians, the camera and sound departments, we were all a team. When you have that sort of safety net, that friendship, that camaraderie, any and everything was possible. I knew from the first few days we might have something.