Anne Thompson: "12 Years a Slave" blew me away, and I'm not the only one. What brought you to the film?
John Ridley: Five years ago now, "Hunger" was screening at CAA and I was invited to the screening. I'd also given Steve McQueen a manuscript I'd written. I thought "Hunger" was truly a phenomenal film and as a kid I had been interested in Bobby Sands as well. When you're a kid and you grow up in the Midwest and you hear about a hunger strike in Ireland, you can't really comprehend what that's about. I was very curious about Steve because on the surface he didn't seem like the kind of person who would be attracted to that story but I guess I didn’t either.
Steve said, "I really wanted to tell a story about that time and place and the slave era in America but I wanted to have a character that was not obvious in terms of their trade in slavery, someone who had artistic abilities and who had station but found themselves in a different geographical location. Something that has scope and scale emotionally." We went back and forth on the idea and his wife found the [Solomon Northup] manuscript, which was really good source material. She gave it to him, he loved it, he gave it to me and said "this is fantastic and if this is what you want to do, let's attempt it."
Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B knew me and he knew Steve and he said, "look, we don't really have any development money, we can't really help you." This was not a standard development situation. It became a spec script. But he said, "if you guys can work out what you want to do and if you're willing to go write a script and do it on spec and turn it into something that works and Steve is happy with it, we'll find a way to put it together."
At that point, Jeremy was one of those producers where if he says that we'll put it together, you believe that he means it. Working with Steve was difficult only with the geography. He lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles and in that time period "Shame" came together for him and "All Is By My Side" came together for me but we both thought that this was something worth doing. When the script got to the point where I thought it was terrific. I gave it to Steve, he had some notes and some thoughts but we got it to the point where he thought it was great. We took it to Jeremy. He said, "let's do it," and it was for me a very heady time because when that kicked off "All Is By My Side" came into production.
By that time I had seen "Shame" and had always known what Steve was capable of. At that point everybody knew. But at the same time, to go off and write and direct my own thing, these last two years have been really interesting, fun exciting time to be able to do two things that are very high level.
Anne Thompson: Why John Ridley?
Steve McQueen: I needed to work with a writer who I thought could understand the material. I thought he would be a good collaborator in finding out what we could leave in and what we could take out, and in what was needed in the script because the book was so good that it needed help, but it didn't need that much help. But it did need this idea of editing, in a way. After that, we moved on.
And here's what Plan B producer Dede Gardner had to say about the writing and development process:
Anne Thompson: "12 Years a Slave" is powerful and immersive and puts you through the pain. It doesn't spare you. How did you get involved?
Dede Gardner: We saw "Hunger" and I couldn't breathe. I thought it was one of the most amazing films I'd seen in a long time. We reached out to Steve McQueen and said, "you don't know us and you're new to the system but we want to work with you, and to trust us." You start talking and feeling out one another's overlap, where your interests are as human beings and artists and as people who love film. He said, "why don't you think there's ever been a movie about the institution of slavery per se? There have been movies about singular events but never one that really presents a survey." We said we didn't know. I was troubled by the question and said, "why don't we try?" So that was the beginning.
We talked about a lot of ideas, fictional ideas. Steve was always interested in the notion of a free man who becomes a slave. He was always convinced that a story will be more resonant with an audience if you start with someone who is free and has his freedom taken away from him. His wife Bianca found the book [Solomon Northup's memoir] and I'm mortified to say I hadn't heard of it. The book is a beautiful piece of writing and also eerily cinematic both visually and structurally, and that was the starting point. We were already speaking with [John Ridley] and he agreed to write the script [on spec]. Our idea was to get this film as far as we could to the point where it was undeniable. Once we had worked with the script for several years, we got Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. We thought we had a shot.
AT: Talk about Ridley's screenplay. How did it change? How did you adapt the Solomon Northup memoir?
Dede Gardner: The 12 years and the progression of plantations is what it is. We had to truncate some stuff. There are whole episodes – the boat stops in Virginia, there's a huge smallpox incident, he goes into a hospital and nearly dies of smallpox before he continues on his journey – and also, Mistress Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard, has one line in the book. It's a great scene, and Steve said to John, "I actually think this is important." He was committed to showing slave masters married to former or current slaves. That interracial dynamic existed back then but wasn't commented on, it just was, and in order to do that it required a full scene and I think John did a beautiful job.