With “Hunger,”his feature debut in 2008, Turner Prize-winning artist-turned-director Steve McQueen made a bold statement right out of the gate: he was a filmmaker to watch. Three years later, “Shame” solidified his reputation as an audacious director with an unflinching eye. And now, with “12 Years a Slave,” which screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival after premiering at Telluride, McQueen has made what is destined to become the definitive film about slavery in the American South (you can read our review of the film here).
The film, based on a true story, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a genteel New Yorker born into freedom who was kidnapped in 1841, trafficked to Louisiana, and sold to a series of slave owners (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender) who are increasingly cruel and unusual. It’s a horrendous story, layered with levels of degradation and brutality designed to irrevocably damage both the spirit and the body, and yet McQueen finds humanity and grace in Northup’s (ultimately triumphant) story.
We caught up with McQueen once the rave (that’s an understatement) reviews began rolling in at Toronto. He’s a smart and thoughtful man, and we discussed how he was inspired by Anne Frank, why there is room in the world for both Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, and his undying admiration for Michael Fassbender, his constant leading man.
How did you first learn about Solomon Northup?
I wanted to tell a story about slavery. I thought, “How do I get an ‘in’ on this story? Okay, a free man who gets kidnapped into slavery...” What was interesting to me about that was to have the audience go with him and they become that person.
I was working with John Ridley on the script, and it was going well, but it was taking time. My wife said to me, “Why don't you look into true accounts of slavery,” her being a historian, of course. So we both researched it, and she came up with this book called “12 Years a Slave.” She said to me, “I think I've got it.” If anything was an understatement, it was that. Because when you have an idea, and then you see it in script form in your hands? I was trembling. Every page was a revelation.
I live in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank is a world treasure. [When I found this book,] I thought, “My God, this is Anne Frank, but 100 years earlier. Why did I not know this book?” But then I found out that hardly anyone knew this book; in fact, all the people I spoke to had no idea of the existence of this book. No one. And that's when I made it my passion to make this book into a film.
There have certainly been American depictions of slavery before—most notably, “Roots”—but nothing has ever been this unflinching. Do you think it took a Brit – an outside perspective -- to make this movie?
I think it's more complex than that. My parents are from Grenada, my mother and father; you know, this is the place where Malcolm X’s mother was born. My mother was born in Trinidad; the phrase “Black Power” was born in Trinidad. Harry Belafonte is from Jamaica. Marcus Garvey is from the West Indies. And there's this huge majority of my family living in the United States, so it's a little bit more complex than that. It's not about me being a Brit; it's about me being a part of that sort of diaspora.
There’s some tough scenes. It felt like you were saying, “You need to see this, you need to look at this.” Was that always the idea? Making the camera linger on difficult moments?
Absolutely. I'm a filmmaker, so I always think: When is the breaking point? Sometimes you've got to go beyond the breaking point, and then you catch it. When is long enough? It’s one of those things you have to look at, walk away, and go home and find out what it is. It's sometimes beyond the breaking point, because you go through that barrier of the pain of this person. In the book, Solomon is hanging all day… So I wanted somehow for the audience to sort of experience that, for a fraction, as much as I could.
Did you ever dial it back?
I think if I was to film the book the way it was, it would have been too much. So I knew I had to be very selective about what I could do, and [I had to] take things out because that was the story. If it wasn't best for the film, or wasn't good for the narrative, it got edited out. So to answer your question: I had to be careful, but it is what it is. Because when you get to the crescendo at the end of the movie, when Patsey's whipped, we have to slowly build to that.
Right. But there's also more you could have shown, but didn’t.
I was happy with what I shot. I didn't edit myself at all.
What was it like for the cast, and for you, living with this for so long? I would imagine it was a lot to deal with.
I’m the kind of person who likes to create the environment and mindset—not because I do it deliberately, but because that’s how I like to live—where, from catering to makeup to hair to wardrobe, electricians, camera department lighting, sound, you know, it's our movie; we're together, and we have that camaraderie and that closeness. To have that environment where people feel safe, the actors feel safe to experiment, to fail, to fail better is what I want. It's always what I wanted.
I can't work in an environment where it's a stiff hierarchy; that's not my kind of way. We have to create an environment of love. It sounds corny, me saying it, but I don't really care—“love” is way underused anyway. We have an environment where people have a stake in the film, it’s our movie, so they want to go that extra mile. That's the kind of environment we had for people to work together in difficult situations and difficult scenes, and at the end of the day, come together and have a hug, and go for a drink and be together. It was about being together.