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NYFF: Steve McQueen Talks '12 Years A Slave,' Michael Fassbender & More Plus Watch Full Q&A

by Diana Drumm
October 10, 2013 3:11 PM
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Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" is one of the most buzzed about films this year. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup and helmed by the director behind "Hunger" and "Shame," the film follows an African American free man who in 1841 was kidnapped and forced into slavery. There's been a lot of talk already about the film being a shoe-in for a few Academy Awards. Our own critic-on-the-ground at Telluride Chris Wellman wrote, " quickly became apparent that leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor had moved to the head of the line of best actor candidates, with [Michael] Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o sure to contend in the supporting categories. Even those of us who aren’t Oscar bloggers should break out whatever mnemonic devices we need to immediately commit Ejiofor’s and Nyong'o’s names to the tips of our tongues." 

Considering that this chat started over a month ago out of Telluride and continued out of Toronto, a bit of a backlash is already brewing with Mark Harris discussing his concerns about "this year's hasty coronation" and Sam Adams elaborating on the issues between Oscar hype and a substantive reaction. That being said, for those of us here who've seen the picture, it certainly lives up to the hype. This past week at the New York Film Festival, we sat in on the press Q&A with Steve McQueen, moderated by Gavin Smith, and here are a few highlights. And below, you can watch the Q&A in its entirety.

On tackling slavery on film:
"I didn't know what the traditional idea of slavery was. Because I wanted to find out what it was, really. It's just one of those things. Someone asked me the other day for the first time a question I maybe should have known and been asked before—'What was it like when you first found out about slavery?' And I could never remember. All I remembered as a young person was a tremendous sense of shame, a real sense of embarrassment," McQueen shared. "So in some ways, I wanted to make this somehow try to embrace it and tame it, master it, but also to make it mine, as such...So I went into researching slavery as such with open eyes. I couldn't go in with a preconceived idea, that's just not me. So whatever happens, whatever I was able to discover, I discovered. So it was just looking for a way into the tale. The way in for me was the tale of a free man who gets into slavery. And what I liked about that is that everyone in the audience can relate to Solomon, being taken from his family. So you're on that journey with him."

On the impact of slavery:
"When you fast forward slavery to today, you can see the evidence of slavery everywhere in America, in the West Indies, in London, in Europe. You see the evidence of it. This stuff has not been dealt with," the director said. "You think of the Holocaust and what happened in Germany and so forth and how people are studying that, studied that, dealt with that, dealing with that and are continuously dealing with that, slavery hasn't even started. It's a deep psychological wound."

On the ongoing discussion of race:
"I think [the film] has actually helped talking about it and so forth," McQueen reflected. "I think people are starting to talk. I'm not sure it will stop very soon after people start talking about it. Just to try to keep it in focus, try to keep it in the fore, try to have that conversation. It's a difficult one, but it's a necessary one..."

On Michael Fassbender:
"It's one of those things with Michael, don't take him for granted. He's not going to do things because I'm doing it. It's one of these things that it's got to be bloody good before you present him anything. So he was always my choice for [Epps]. He's an amazing actor. For me personally, I think he's the most influential actor of his time right now," McQueen stated. "He's like Mickey Rourke when he was Mickey Rourke or Gary Oldman when he was Gary Oldman. Michael Fassbender is that person now. 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 a movie. People want to make a movie because he could be in it. So he has that kind of pull, that kind of quality because people want to jam with him. He's like Ginger Baker."

The New York Film Festival continues through October 13th. "12 Years A Slave" hits theaters on October 18th. Full Q&A below along with a new featurette via Deadline.

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 New York Film Festival by clicking here.

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  • waavedada | October 16, 2013 2:08 PMReply

    Great read. Thanks for sharing.

  • ... | October 11, 2013 5:10 PMReply

    Alarming because he is watering down his own work down by talking where he should not talk. Here, in my opinion, it adds more limitations to the expression of the film, than anything else. Naturally most people will never see these, but for us (or me), it leads to a wrong track, and makes the film appear merely like a shallow surface, which offers no further view point, than the one that is readily chewed up for you.

    And as someone who became known as a conceptual artist, I am sure he should be able to do better, if he really believed in his own product to be more than that surface. Did he sidetrack from his own beliefs just to please? Could it be, that he never found himself as deep into the topic, he originally wished for?

    But yes, I still want to see the film, no worries there.

  • P | October 12, 2013 12:32 PM

    I think it's important that there's context here. I saw the movie at TIFF with McQueen and crew's Q&A and you have to understand that the movie is extremely powerful and speaks for itself. I don't think he's watering down anything as much as he's saying "you saw it, you know what I tried to do" I also love that McQueen is doesn't like to keep things too high brow and doesn't take himself seriously. He said it @ TIFF "I don't work with actors, I work with artists" so he knows what is going on, there's no need for any reaffirmations.

  • ... | October 10, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    Terrible moderator, such straightforward questions with so much trouble getting it out in the air. And secondly, I am surprised how badly McQueen talks about his own film, and many of the ideas he introduces don't seem to bring anything new, interesting, and/or there's absolutely no greater insight to his own process.

    And this I find alarming, since with the two earlier films he seemed very clear, and I somewhat labeled him as a decent intellectual, who has an understanding of human behavior, of social context and of storytelling / filmmaking.

  • Xavier | October 10, 2013 6:14 PM

    Why alarming? Yes, I didn't enjoy as well hearing McQueen talking like the way he did in this Q&A (or as in any other interview of him floating around in YouTube) but I think he delivers his prose by using another language, the one of cinema. Not all people are granted with the gift of articulated speech but that doesn't mean they cannot you give greater insight through another medium.

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