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Anatomy of a Scene: Solomon Northup Chained in ’12 Years a Slave’

Anatomy of a Scene: Solomon Northup Chained in '12 Years a Slave'

One of the most important yet difficult decisions in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” was how to depict Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) waking up in bondage. Fortunately, they hit on the idea in the cutting room to tell it out of sequence, the result of which was disconcerting for Northup and viewer alike, and which laid the groundwork for a more intimate narrative approach by staying with his POV. I discussed this crucial scene with the two Oscar nominees, production designer Adam Stockhausen and editor Joe Walker.

“It’s a very small and simple scene but it symbolizes the story in the cutting room because we discombobulate the time line big time by starting the story of Solomon in slavery and then working backwards,” Walker recalls. “Even though it’s one of the last ones that we turned around, it’s a microcosm of the editorial process, which was to turn a linear narrative into one driven by memories and emotions.”

But given that the Oscar frontrunner had only a $20 million budget and a 35-day production schedule, plans to shoot in New York were scrapped and the whole movie was made in New Orleans. So finding the right location was crucial. 

“We didn’t want it to be a stage set — we wanted to find a location because we wanted a real relationship between the cell that he’s in and the yard,” Stockhausen explains. “And one thing that’s really critical is that it’s in Washington and it wasn’t hidden away — it wasn’t underground. He was in the city and yet already so far removed from his freedom that he couldn’t escape.

“I spotted a yard on my very first trip to New Orleans in the warehouse district. We put this fabric up over the yard so you wouldn’t see modern-day New Orleans. There was this old wooden door that opened up to an alley way where there was this overgrown lot with a moldy brick wall on one side. And then I started thinking about how we could build the cell structure and the corridor between the cells and add that to the space and then take what was already there. We built the cells and they were based off some photographs taken with Union soldiers during the Civil War at a slave trader’s business in Virginia. They were very detailed with windows, latches and hinges and general architecture.”

They shot the scene in a tiny cell without taking the walls off, which adds to the claustrophobia and intensity. “It was a satisfying part of the design because it was the first hurdle when breaking the script down. We were concerned about pulling off a convincing Northern street in New Orleans. We worried about having to build it. But we found a street that worked and shifted the offer of employment to the park. And it gave scope to the city by moving around and showing off different facets.”

But Walker was encouraged to help tell Northrup’s story swiftly and excitingly while trying to get him into bondage before the end of the first reel. After all, the complex dynamics of the Epps plantation household and conveying the passage of time were far more demanding and detailed. “This is one step where we were thinking: How do we render a big surprise?,” the editor continues. “So there was a huge piece of compression in that we go straight from him saying, ‘Cheers,’ and holding up the fateful glass of wine, to a big wide shot of him waking up on the floor the next morning realizing that he’s got manacles.”

And then Northup pieces together memories of how he got there in a series of flashbacks that are intercut with his mounting anger when he can’t break free. Walker also match cut sounds and music to emphasize his horrible predicament and the life he’s left behind. 

“There’s also a flashback where he’s turning in bed and rousing from sleep in the cell. The idea being that this is a guy who likes to wake up in the morning and turn towards his wife and we finish off that noise with the sound of a manacle clicking. We then used the rhythm of him struggling to pull away from the wall with the visual of him struggling to climb the stairs. So we used all kinds of mirroring and imaging, not only within the sequence but from earlier sequences, and, of course, the whole thing ends with him being put to bed and one of them blowing the candle out, and at that point, two new people come into cell and say, ‘How are you doing, boy?’ And on we go into a beating, which is pretty much conveyed in one shot.”

Thus, it was important to stay ahead of the viewer early on, compressing time and events so that it happens all too quickly like a nightmare, as Northup goes from one freedom to slavery in a matter of a minute.
“That took a lot of rough decisions about material to lose, but also was just a general dynamic that the whole show should be from the point of view of Solomon, where his emotional thoughts drive the narrative rather than following one event after another,” Walker reiterates. “We put a lot of material in the rear view mirror, if you like, but so much of the movie benefited from being thrown into this flashback structure.”
Indeed, this subjective approach elevated Northup’s horrifying plight into something more relevant and relatable — and with much greater visceral power. Which is why “12 Years a Slave” still remains the favorite to win the best picture Oscar.

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