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Interview: Steve McQueen Talks '12 Years A Slave,' 'Django Unchained', Pitt & Fassbender & More

The Playlist By Kristin McCracken | The Playlist September 11, 2013 at 2:37PM

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).
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12 Years A Slave

I was struck by how many times you showed the slaves holding deadly weapons—hammers and scythes and things—but it showed how broken their will was that they didn't ever rise up.
There were also the “petty-rollers” song—the patrollers. And that song that Paul Dano sings about it: “You dare to run, you dare to go, the petty-rollers are going to get you, run, nigger, run.” So that kind of psychological [terror]... he's berating them with a song when they've got axes and swords in their hands. Because what's happening is, of course, when people did run away, they were made a huge example of, so that the sort of psychological slavery and terror [used].

"I want to do a musical with Michael Fassbender. He can sing really good!"

“Django Unchained” is an elephant in the room. I almost feel like your movie should have been made first, but then I don't know if ‘Django’ would have been made. Complicated to compare oranges and apples, but do you have anything to share about ‘Django’?
I met Quentin Tarantino in New Orleans, where we shot, when he was still shooting. I think he was getting to the end of shooting when I was there beginning to shoot. He said to me, “I hope there can be more than one film about slavery.” And I said, “Of course, just like there's more than one gangster film or more than one western.” And that was it.

Can you talk about the process of your casting? Was it pretty straightforward? Did you always have Chiwetel in mind?
Chiwetel Ejiofor was always going to be Solomon Northup for me. I was looking for someone that had that genteelness, that kind of humanity. Knowing that humanity was going to be tested under certain duress and circumstances, I needed a person who could actually keep hold of that, even through periods of extraordinary trying and extraordinary situations where it would be tested to its absolute limit. He was the only person.

In finding Lupita [Nyong’o, who plays the pivotal role of Patsey], that was like searching for Scarlet O’Hara, really it was. We saw over 1,000 girls and it was Francine Maisler, the casting director, who was instrumental in hunting down people, but every week I'd be getting like fifty girls or twenty girls; it was very difficult. And then all of a sudden, seeing her, that was it; she was just amazing. I just said, “That's her.” 

Can we talk about the visuals and how stunning they were? You incorporate these long shots that felt like paintings in motion.
I've been working with Sean Bobbitt for 13 years now; he's just an amazing cinematographer. But also the fact is, we know what we want; I talk to him a lot. I don't do storyboarding ever, I'm not interested in that. It’s all about finding it, and we’ve been fine-tuning the way we work for 13 years now. That’s why I suppose we work fast... people say we work fast, but I think maybe it's like the Olympics; you train for a certain amount of time, the gun goes, and now you have to perform. So that's it.

Do you have the shots planned out in your script?
No, no. Because you write the script in New York, you write the script in Amsterdam, and then you get to the location, and it’s like totally different. So that’s great, because it makes you think, “How am I going to do this now?” It’s liberating, in fact. Because I’m not an illustrator; I’m a filmmaker. The script is a place for departure, for changes.

12 Years A Slave

Let me tell you, I think your movie is phenomenal. I never cried more in a theater.
Paul Giamatti hadn't seen the film, and he was crying on my shoulder. It was an amazing night.

I bet it's really hard to see themselves doing those things. Or do you think, “They're actors, that's their job”?
I don't know.If you can't go there as an artist and act it, then we can't tell the story. And, as you said, it's a necessary story, so their bravery has to be commended and appreciated.

So I think Brad Pitt and Plan B came knocking early for you.  What was your initial reaction? 
Yeah, [they called] during “Hunger.” It's flattering, isn't it, if someone's interested in working with you? Especially if you're European—for us, Hollywood seems like Mecca, so when you get someone like that knock on your door for your first movie… There were a lot of people courting, but what was interesting about Plan B was they were interested in helping me make this film. They were always ringing me, so [I knew]: these people really are serious.

Did you know you were going to cast Brad Pitt in the beginning? He gets to be the good guy.
Yeah, he gets to be the good guy. But Brad and Michael Fassbender together on screen—that was really my interest. Having them do a meat and potatoes scene on a board, almost like a boxing ring. And having Bass [Brad Pitt’s character] asking—hopefully—the questions the vast majority of the audience is thinking. He is the only person who verbally stands up to Epps [Fassbender’s character], in the end.

So you’ve covered a hunger strike, sex addiction and an epic about slavery. Do you ever want to do something lighter, or does that not interest you at all?

I'll do a musical next. I want to do a musical, that's what I want to do.

Any ideas?
I'm thinking about it, but I want to do a musical with Michael.

Can he sing?
Oh yeah, he can sing really good! Oh my God, what was that guy’s name? [He starts singing, “What a Fool Believes,” which is awesome.] Michael McDonald? Oh God, he does a fantastic Michael McDonald.

Fassbender, Fassbender.
Tell me about it. He's like Mickey Rourke, or Gary Oldman—he's the most influential actor of his generation. People either want to be with him, want to be like him, or want to become an actor because of him, that's Michael Fassbender.

"12 Years A Slave" hits theaters on October 18.

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews


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