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Interview: 12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen - On '12 Years A Slave,' His 'Brand,' His 'Blackness' & More

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 18, 2013 at 9:57AM

It's been about 4 weeks since I saw Steve McQueen's much-ballyhooed drama 12 Years A Slave, and also about the same amount of time since I interviewed him. It's a film that I intend to see a second time, if only to compare my reactions (to the film, as well as the reactions others have had) to the first time I saw it - reactions (certainly not all of them) that I shared during my conversation with McQueen, which led to one or two somewhat contentious exchanges, a little of which you will read in the interview below.
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Steve McQueen

It's been about 4 weeks since I saw Steve McQueen's much-ballyhooed drama 12 Years A Slave, and also about the same amount of time since I interviewed him. It's a film that I intend to see a second time, if only to compare my reactions (to the film, as well as the reactions others have had) to the first time I saw it - reactions (certainly not all of them) that I shared during my conversation with McQueen, which led to one or two somewhat contentious exchanges, a little of which you will read in the interview below.

We've long been fans of Mr McQueen's work, since his feature film debut - the provocative, unsettling, avant-garde Hunger - and have become enamored with his pragmatic, candid ways - especially when dealing with the press. But it's one thing to observe this phenomenon from a distance, and quite another to experience it firsthand, which I had the pleasure of doing 5 Sundays ago at the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan, where the New York City press junket for 12 Years A Slave was held.

Ahead of the interview, despite the fact that I'd only been allotted 10 minutes with McQueen (about standard for junkets), being fully aware of what I was potentially up against - knowing that I was (and likely still am) in the minority, when I felt then (and still do feel now) that praise for the film has been excessive, and also being cognizant of his temperament - it was clear to me that I had to be well-prepared, given that I would be asking a few questions that would likely be considered criticisms of the film and the filmmaker. I usually am well-prepared for interviews, but, I'd readily admit that, this time, I wanted to be beyond ready. It's called respect.

Unfortunately, given that a healthy percentage of our 10 minutes (although it would eventually be 12 minutes) was spent in dispute over some of my claims, I didn't get to ask every single question I had for Mr McQueen.

But an interesting conversation it most certainly was - although it's been cleaned up a bit, if only for clarity. For example, there were several situations in which our words overlapped, and it's a challenge to convey the energy of those moments in print, and capture the body language, facial expressions, etc, which contributed significantly to the spirit of the conversation. But this is an interview transcript after all, not a screenplay.

TAMBAY OBENSON (TO): The one thing that really stuck out to me about the film is the passage of time which I didn't quite notice. I think I wanted to feel that 12 years pass, and really feel the weight of the oppression suffered over those 12 years. But, the way the film progressed, and maybe I just missed some cues, it almost felt like it played over just a matter of weeks or even days, as opposed to 12 long years. And Like I said, maybe I missed some cues, but I really wanted to feel the oppression over that lengthy passage of time, and not necessarily anything overt. 

STEVE MCQUEEN (SM): [short silence] You're the first person to ask me that question. You know, I think I've done that job. I'm not interested in having a situation where you tick off one year, or two years, or three years, and by the time you get to four, you're thinking, oh my God, there's 8 more years left in the movie. That does a disservice to the narrative. That's for other filmmakers to do if they want to do it. But for me, I needed to tell the time passing on the physicality of someone, on the familiarity of things in the movie that he was doing. Therefore, when you're invested in the story, these things come about. It becomes too much of a device that doesn't benefit the narrative. What I was interested in doing is having a dynamic narrative. 

TO: I just noticed at the end when he is finally reunited with his family - that's only when I realized that it had indeed been 12 years...

SM: Well, that's just not sophisticated. Putting onto the screen every single year...

TO: I think you misunderstand me. Not that specific. Like I said, nothing overt. Some subtle indications of this passage of time so that one actually feels the weight of 12 long years of oppression. So, no, not ticking off every single year... But, it's slavery era USA, and 12 years have passed from the beginning to the end of the film, and I wanted to feel the weight of oppression of time, and, I just didn't feel that.

SM: The subtle indication is filmmaking. I rely on filmmaking to tell me those kinds of stories, how, if you're invested in the story, you become familiar with what they're doing, how their faces age. How, for example, you've got Solomon running to Ms Shaw's house, saying "Ms Shaw, Master Epps is looking for Patsey, you've got to come now." Obviously he's more familiar at that point. So it's a more sophisticated way of showing the passage of time, rather than ticking a box. For me that wouldn't have been stimulating at all. 

TO: Again, to be clear, I'm not at all suggesting that you had to tick a box to show each year passing, or do something "unsophisticated" as you put it. It's more about feeling it. But maybe it was just me, since you say I was the first person to ask you that question. I do plan to watch the film again. But let me move on since my time is very short. So, I'd say that the overwhelming conversation about the film, from those who've seen it, is centered on the realism and brutality you depict in it, and how hard it is to watch and handle. And I almost have this impulse to chuckle at that, not out of disrespect, but it's just that I feel like it's a reality - slavery in America, the history, American history - that we all should already be familiar with at this point. If you've read or even heard about slavery in America, I'd think that you would be expecting to see the brutality of it, and you shouldn't be so shocked and surprised at what the film shows. I think maybe it speaks to the fact that this is the first film, in quite a long time, that really addresses the subject matter in a very realistic, non-sensational way. And so I wondered what your reaction is to the what the reactions to the film have been so far...

SM: I don't know where you're getting your information from, because the majority of the people are not saying that they can't handle the violence. That's just not true. Some people are saying it, but not the overwhelming number of people. You can't come in here and say something that isn't true. As a journalist, come on, I'm willing to talk to you, but you can't tell me untruths. 

TO: It's not a challenge or criticism of you or the film per say. More of my reaction to what I've read and heard as being the dominant conversation about the film. 

SM: I know it's not a criticism. But when you ask me a question you have to be accurate. You're a journalist, and I want to do the best I can for you and your website. So let's start this right. I try to answer your questions the best way that I can. The majority of people are not saying that, but some people are. You're sensationalizing the question for some reason.

TO: I'm not sensationalizing the question. But really Steve, come on, it's screened at Telluride and Toronto, and I'm telling you that reactions in general, based on what I read in other reviews, and what I heard from those who've seen it, people are taken by the realism and brutality of it. As if it's something they don't or can't recognize. 

SM: Some people. Some people.

TO: In your experience...

SM: In my experience. [short silence] You've come in, and unfortunately, your research is not particularly good. 

TO: Ok [laughter].

SM: If you say that some people have had that response, I can respond to that. But not to say that the majority of people have, as you said. 

TO: Ok, ok.  

SM: Ok. So let's start again [sigh]. My, this has been bizarre.

TO: Ok, let's [laughter].

SM: My response to that, is that, either we're making a movie about slavery or we're not. Now I want to make a movie about slavery. And in order to make a movie about slavery, one has to look at exactly what happened. Why people were slaves. The mental torture. And the physical torture. Now, I didn't want to pull punches in that department because, otherwise, you know, you can't make a movie about slavery that way, and I would be doing a disservice to the people that died, and the people that died, giving me my freedom, and I couldn't let that happen.

TO: I think the most impactful scene in the film is during the last half of it, when Lupita Nyong'o's character, Patsey, is whipped. That was probably the most heart-wrenching scene. We've actually been following Lupita for about 4 years, starting with when she did something for MTV Base in kenya - a show called Shuga on HIV awareness. And so when she was cast in the role, it was kind of a surprise for us, a pleasant one of course, since the rest of the film's starring cast comprises of actors whose names and faces much of America is already familiar with. So I'm interested in your finding her, so to speak, and casting her in this part.

SM: I wouldn't give myself credit for finding her at all. I mean, she already existed. It's just that, what was interesting about that, is that there was a hunt for Patsey. A huge hunt, which lasted a very long time. I think we saw about 1000 girls for that role. And Lupita... she came from out of nowhere. And, you know, I was wondering if she was real on the audition tape. And thank God she won the part, because she's sensational, she's a force of nature, and we were really grateful to have her, because it was a real hunt. 

At this point, the Fox Searchlight rep signals that I'm running out of time.

TO: The gentlemen is telling me that I have two minutes left. So, it looks like I need to speed things up now...

SM: Because you had a bad start, I'll give you 2 extra minutes on-top of the 2 minutes left.

TO: [Laughter] You're too kind. You're too kind... So... Are you aware of, or do you pay attention to the larger conversation taking place about Steve McQueen as the filmmaker, as the artist, or...

SM: No, no, not at all [immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively].

TO: Ok, I'll just move on from that [laughter]. But as a filmmaker or artist of African descent, and as someone - myself - who writes about filmmakers of African descent, since that's my website's focus, I can say that there aren't many black filmmakers, or filmmakers period, of your ilk. 

SM: Sure, sure.

TO: So do you think of yourself in this space as a significant, important artist, filmmaker...

SM: No, no. [again, immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively]. Not at all. 

The Fox Searchlight rep walks in to tell me that my time is up. Steve McQueen interrupts.

SM: [to the Fox Searchlight rep] We'll give him 2 more minutes.

Fox Searchlight rep acknowleges and exits.

SM: Um, I don't think of myself in any sort of context like that, far from it. I wouldn't dare. 

TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn't at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist.

SM: No, no. Never has. I don't dare think in that way. I wouldn't dare. 

TO: Ok, I'd love to dive a bit more into that, but I know my time is up, so I'll squeeze whatever else I can in. So, everyone wants to know what's next for Steve McQueen. With Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years A Slave, you tackle these sort of transgressive subjects, and do so in a way that's also transgressive, we could say. Films and a filmmaking style and approach that most others would shy away from. In the USA anyway, especially in mainstream. Any plans for a Steve McQueen comedy, or a Steve McQueen horror movie, Steve McQueen thriller, etc.

SM: You say "Steve McQueen" but I'm not of any interest. You say "Steve McQueen comedy," "Steve McQueen this or that." I'm not a brand. I'm not any kind of institution. I'm a filmmaker. That's what I try to do. I try to do the best I can. And that's it, really.

TO: You may not think of yourself as someone of interest, or as a brand, but, come on, you're the man of the hour. You may not pay attention, but there is a conversation being had about "Steve McQueen," the filmmaker, the artist. Maybe not all over America, but your name carries certain expectations with the audiences who appreciate your work. We've come to expect certain things from a Steve McQueen film.

SM: I don't think of myself like that, so I'm not even interested in having that conversation. Not out of disrespect, but I don't see myself like that. I just see myself as a guy who's trying to make a film or, make art. I don't really get into that. It's not my bag. I just try to do the best I can, and that's it. You know. I'm not that interesting of a person. 

TO: [Laughter] You're not?

SM: What I hope is that what I make is of interest. 

TO: Understood. But to go back to what I initially wanted to know, is that, you're interested in tackling all kinds of subjects, in all genres, right?

SM: Sure, yes, of course.

TO: Ok, and can you let us know what you're considering doing next.

SM: I'm interested in doing a musical actually.

TO: Oh really? That's interesting. Any ideas on...

SM: I don't know what. Not yet.

TO: Ok. That's it. Thank you very much sir, I really appreciate the time.

SM: My absolute pleasure. 

TO: Thank you.

Thanks to Steve McQueen for the time. 

Fox Searchlight opens 12 Years A Slave today, October 18, in an initial limited release, in NYC and LA, before expanding nationwide.

This article is related to: Steve McQueen, Steve McQueen


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