Steve McQueen Interview For ’12 Years A Slave’
Based on the unforgettable memoir that exposed the inner workings of slavery in the 19th Century, comes ’12 Years A Slave,’ director Steve McQueen’s (Hunger, Shame) mesmerizing and incredibly moving account of New York family man Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) unexpected kidnapping, his dizzying journey into Louisiana’s slave plantations, and his unbreakable quest to get home to those he loves.
In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life. Opening on October 18th in the US and January 24th in the UK, ’12 Years a Slave’ also stars Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ruth Negga, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson, Scoot McNairy, Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Michael Kenneth Williams.
There’s been a real absence of a serious treatment of slavery in cinema, an unflinching treatment. Was that one of the reasons it was so important for you to explore, and do you intend for the film to spark a conversation, especially with race?
Steve McQueen: Precisely because of that reason: the absence of a serious treatment of slavery in cinema. For me it was a no brainer. I just wanted to see it on film. I wanted to see that history on film. It was important. It was that obvious. And that’s it. I made this movie because I want to tell a story about slavery, a story that hasn’t been given a platform in cinema. It’s one thing to read about slavery but when you see it within a narrative, it does something different – and that’s what I wanted to do. Now, if that starts a conversation: wonderful, excellent… it will be about time. But for me this film is about how to survive. I don’t know what kind of conversation… I hope it goes beyond race, narrowing it down to race: yes, race is involved, but it’s not entirely about that.
This film for me is about love. It’s a funny word “love”, it’s hardly ever used in this kind of context. But that’s what it is about, it is about love. It’s one of those things where there’s a lot of pain in love, but you have to get through it. It’s the journey of Solomon Northup to get back to his family and that’s the journey I wanted to go on. To not show what he went through, as explicitly as we can, would I think be a disservice to him and his journey, and in a way there would be no point in telling this story if we couldn’t tell the story.
And you know what, I didn’t give a fuck. And I mean that because often it’s the case that people are too careful when there’s a lot of lies out there. We could have made Solomon a “hero”, we could have made him do certain things, but no: Solomon Northup was a human being and he survived an unfortunate situation – and unfortunately an enormous number of people didn’t survive that unfortunate situation.
And then the fact that it’s a true story. It’s a story that’s brutal, yet it’s told with poignant dignity and a sort of inspirational determination….
Steve McQueen: Thank you. For me this is a universal story yet it’s also very timely, I think. Look around and you still see the repercussions of slavery every day. It’s something that hasn’t fully gone away. But one can look at this story now, examine it and refresh our memories about how and why things that happen today reflect the past. What makes this journey so meaningful and relevant is that every one of us is Solomon Northup. As you move through the story, you see yourself in Solomon and wonder if you would have his courage and dignity.
I dunno, this film is like a science fiction movie (laughs). Some guy lands on earth, and there’s a book called The Bible, everyone interprets it in a different way and it can benefit people greatly but then also the opposite. There’s people who are slaves, there’s people who aren’t slaves… it’s so surreal and so farfetched to me. But then, it was true. That was really interesting to me… it reminded me of Pinocchio: the two guys seducing Pinocchio to the circus. This true story was like a Brothers Grimm fairytale, an incredibly dark, deep, haunting fairytale. And the Brothers Grimm books are amazing, I have to say (laughs). But I thought this story really had that quality to it, and it had a classical storytelling structure to it.
You’d been planning to make a film about a free man sold into slavery when you came across this real-life memoir, ’12 Years A Slave.’ What was it about Northup’s memoir that grabbed you and how did you come across the book?
Steve McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery and I wanted to see images from that particular past, I wanted to experience it through images. And what happened was I had this idea of a free man in the North of America at that time who would have been kidnapped into slavery, And he goes through this unfortunate assault course of the regime of slavery. I got together with John Ridley to write the script, and things were going, but they were’nt going as well as I wanted. So then I was talking to my wife, I was telling her what was going on and she said, “Why don’t you look into true account of slavery?” Which I probably should have thought about (laughs). So myself and her researched it and she came back with this book ’12 Years a Slave.’
As soon as she put it in my hand I wouldn’t let it go. It was just remarkable. Each turn of the page was a revelation. I couldn’t believe…. when you have an idea and you see it in your hand as a book, it was just amazing. I was upset with myself that I didn’t know about this book and then I realized no one I knew knew about it. No one. Then that’s when I realized, “Yes, I want to make this book into a film.” And that’s when Plan B came on-board and things got rolling, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, all those guys.
What was it about the angle of telling it through a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery?
Steve McQueen: I wanted to tell a story about slavery, and I wanted to find an interesting angle into the narrative. I thought about a free man, a man who has a family and is kidnapped into slavery. The reason why I chose that angle was because I wanted that person to be everyone in the audience. You see things through his eyes, you experience the environment and the cruelty and the brutality and the dehumanization. There’s a modesty and certain kind of formality to him in the story which is beautiful and heartbreaking. The book is a testament to Solomon Northup, but also it’s a testament of the history of what was going on with slavery in that time.
My ancestors were slaves, they’re from the Caribbean and slavery is one of those things in film which has never been given a platform that it deserves as an important historical event – especially in the United States. I just wanted to make a movie about it. For me it was nonsensical, it was obvious, it was logical.
After everything you had read about slavery during your research, what was it about that time that really grabbed you?
Steve McQueen: Survival. Survival was the main thing I took away from it. That’s the biggest thing, and you do what you do to survive, you may have to block out things to survive. I’m here because members of my ancestors survived slavery, in whatever way they could – and they weren’t Bruce Willis with an AK47 and a grenade; they had to deal with it how they had to deal with it – by surviving. 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 and conditioned not to think of themselves as more than what their “master” thinks of them… which is nothing. The psychological damage of that, that you are born into an environment where you are nothing.
I think when you fast forward to today, you still see the evidence of it. You can just walk down the street and see the evidence of it everywhere in America, in the West Indies, in London, in Europe… you see the evidence of it. And this stuff has not been dealt with. But then when you think of the horrors of the holocaust, in Germany people really do study that and are dealing with that and continuously dealing with it. With slavery, that insight hasn’t even started, it’s a deep psychological wound.
Why do you think it has taken cinema so long to explore some of the brutal realities of slavery?
Steve McQueen: It’s a very difficult, historic moment which happened in America. A hugely shameful and a hugely painful time that is very difficult to deal with. I think it’s one of those things where right now there’s a thirst to reconnect with that past in order to see where ones going and where ones at. With the situation with Trayvon Martin, with having the first black president, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, the voting rights issues coming up again. It’s created this perfect storm, unfortunately and fortunately, where people are now looking at that past and trying to find out where we are at and where we have been and where we are going to. Previously, I think because it is such a difficult topic and such a painful topic, it was stuck somehow – and not to say that people had not attempted to make films about slavery, people had. But for some reason this one got through
This story has far more reach than anything else I’ve seen or read lately. I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t known about this book. How was it possible? Most Americans I mentioned the book to hadn’t heard of it either. For me it is as important to American history as The Diary of Anne Frank is to European history– a remarkable account of man’s journey into astonishing inhumanity. Everyone thinks they know about this period in American history. But I think a lot of things in this film will surprise people the way they surprised me. I felt it would be an honor and a privilege to turn the book into a film and bring this story to audiences. I think the film helps in that people are actually talking about it, talking about slavery. People are starting to talk about it, really study it. I think we really need to keep it in focus and in the fore, to have that conversation – which is a difficult one, but a necessary one. We’re all living together, if we’re all living together one should help each other.
One of the most gripping sequences for me is when Solomon is left to hang from a lynching noose with his feet barely touching the ground. For hours he struggles just to keep from choking, while children frolic nearby in the sun….
Steve McQueen: When Solomon was hanging there on his tiptoes he was thinking all kinds of thoughts because he was there for a long time – and I wanted to bring that to the audience, to let them fully experience the lynching and the way life continued going on right in front of him. The scene is integral to his story and I didn’t want to shy away from what really happened. It’s not about shocking people; I’m not interested in that. It’s about being responsible to the story. When we shot it, there was a hush on set, a seriousness, but we all knew we needed to get it done.
How long has the idea of exploring this subject been brewing inside you?
Steve McQueen: I think it has been brewing inside me since I had consciousness, in a strange way. Someone asked me the question the other day, “When was the first time you heard about slavery?” And all I could remember was shame and embarrassment as a person, as a child, as a young person. From that moment on, when you discover certain aspects of your past, I think that’s when you really start to think of things in general. I think I became quite reflective at a very young age – and that reflects with something I did with ‘Hunger,’ with Michael. Things like that become very interesting, in general, with what’s going on politically in the world.
You’ve worked with your cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for a number of years. How did you approach this particular film, ’12 Years a Slave’?
Steve McQueen: I’ve been working with Sean Bobbitt for the last 12 years. He’s a Texan who’s been living in London for goodness knows how long. And I had worked with him on my artwork, so I have known him for a very long time. Firstly we talk about color, and this is actually the first time I’ve really shot outdoors in an environment that is so lush. The pallet is very important and also working with the costume designer, Patty Norris. She took earth samples from three of the plantations to match with the clothes and have the conversation with Sean, and deal with the temperature of each plantation – and each characters temperature. There was a lot to talk about (laughs).
We really went into minute detail. For example: there’s a rape scene, and with that we had a silhouette, it was a profile. The profile of the very European looking man in Michael Fassbender, and then the beautiful African profile of Lupita Nyong’o. And I loved the intensity of that with that silhouette. We discussed about those sorts of things a lot. We didn’t look at films but we looked at a lot of books and when I read this actual book I had images in my head immediately. You do all your hard work when you see films all the time, so when you come to make your film it’s like you’ve trained for the Olympics and when the gun goes off on the 100m line you’re ready. All of that is already in there, so we never looked at film references, it was all already in my head.
You always knew you wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor to play Solomon, right?
Steve McQueen: From the get go, I knew it was Chiwetel. There simply was no other choice. I’ve been watching him for a long time and I knew he was going to be able to reach the kind of performance we needed. He has the nobility to hold the camera and to hold the whole film together. There is so much integrity and decorum to him as a person and an actor – and that’s what he brings to Solomon. Chiwetel went in so deep it was amazing to see. It took a lot of courage and a lot of strength.
And after working together on both ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame,’ was Michael Fassbender always in mind to play Epps?
Steve McQueen: He was always my choice for Edwin, and for me personally I think he’s the most influential actor of our time right now. He’s like a Mickey Rourke or a Gary Oldman, but he’s a Michael Fassbender, he’s him. 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 could be in it (laughs). He has that kind of pull and quality, because people want to jam with him – he’s like Ginger Baker and shit, you know (laughs)?
With Michael Fassbender’s character, he doesn’t know how to deal with his condition of being basically passionately in love with Patsey. He doesn’t know how to deal with it and the only way he can deal with it or destroy that love is through violence. It goes back to so many things… violence is a very interesting thing, how it perpetuates within history and families and to even people you supposedly love – love is very close to hate. It’s a really interesting thing.
And with some of those deeply emotional scenes, was any of it spontaneous and did you ever have to take a moment with the actors….?
Steve McQueen: I think the hard work comes in rehearsal. As far as spontaneity is concerned, there are slight deviations for sure, absolutely. But when you’re working with actors like these and you are rehearsing, they’re so good that you sometimes have to stop, you want the real magic in the film, so the rehearsal is like light training. So when they’re actually doing it in the film it becomes like a sphere…. in that because we’ve trained and talked so often and there’s a slot of trust, they becomes spheres. So whatever they do it’s “correct”. It’s beautiful, it’s magic. You work for that, and you work damn hard to get there. Wherever they go it is correct, they’re so into the character and story. I love that.
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