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Anatomy of a Scene: Solomon Northup Chained in '12 Years a Slave'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 19, 2014 at 4:26PM

One of the most important yet difficult decisions in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" was how to depict Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) waking up in bondage. Fortunately, they hit on the idea in the cutting room to tell it out of sequence, the result of which was disconcerting for Northup and viewer alike, and which laid the groundwork for a more intimate narrative approach by staying with his POV. I discussed this crucial scene with the two Oscar nominees, production designer Adam Stockhausen and editor Joe Walker.
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'12 Years a Slave'

One of the most important yet difficult decisions in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" was how to depict Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) waking up in bondage. Fortunately, they hit on the idea in the cutting room to tell it out of sequence, the result of which was disconcerting for Northup and viewer alike, and which laid the groundwork for a more intimate narrative approach by staying with his POV. I discussed this crucial scene with the two Oscar nominees, production designer Adam Stockhausen and editor Joe Walker.

"It's a very small and simple scene but it symbolizes the story in the cutting room because we discombobulate the time line big time by starting the story of Solomon in slavery and then working backwards," Walker recalls. "Even though it's one of the last ones that we turned around, it's a microcosm of the editorial process, which was to turn a linear narrative into one driven by memories and emotions."

But given that the Oscar frontrunner had only a $20 million budget and a 35-day production schedule, plans to shoot in New York were scrapped and the whole movie was made in New Orleans. So finding the right location was crucial. 

"We didn't want it to be a stage set -- we wanted to find a location because we wanted a real relationship between the cell that he's in and the yard," Stockhausen explains. "And one thing that's really critical is that it's in Washington and it wasn't hidden away -- it wasn't underground. He was in the city and yet already so far removed from his freedom that he couldn't escape.

"I spotted a yard on my very first trip to New Orleans in the warehouse district. We put this fabric up over the yard so you wouldn't see modern-day New Orleans. There was this old wooden door that opened up to an alley way where there was this overgrown lot with a moldy brick wall on one side. And then I started thinking about how we could build the cell structure and the corridor between the cells and add that to the space and then take what was already there. We built the cells and they were based off some photographs taken with Union soldiers during the Civil War at a slave trader's business in Virginia. They were very detailed with windows, latches and hinges and general architecture."

They shot the scene in a tiny cell without taking the walls off, which adds to the claustrophobia and intensity. "It was a satisfying part of the design because it was the first hurdle when breaking the script down. We were concerned about pulling off a convincing Northern street in New Orleans. We worried about having to build it. But we found a street that worked and shifted the offer of employment to the park. And it gave scope to the city by moving around and showing off different facets."

But Walker was encouraged to help tell Northrup's story swiftly and excitingly while trying to get him into bondage before the end of the first reel. After all, the complex dynamics of the Epps plantation household and conveying the passage of time were far more demanding and detailed. "This is one step where we were thinking: How do we render a big surprise?," the editor continues. "So there was a huge piece of compression in that we go straight from him saying, 'Cheers,' and holding up the fateful glass of wine, to a big wide shot of him waking up on the floor the next morning realizing that he's got manacles."

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Editing, production design, Steve McQueen, Immersed In Movies, Interviews , Oscars, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Thompson on Hollywood


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.