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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'

And then Northup pieces together memories of how he got there in a series of flashbacks that are intercut with his mounting anger when he can't break free. Walker also match cut sounds and music to emphasize his horrible predicament and the life he's left behind. 

"There's also a flashback where he's turning in bed and rousing from sleep in the cell. The idea being that this is a guy who likes to wake up in the morning and turn towards his wife and we finish off that noise with the sound of a manacle clicking. We then used the rhythm of him struggling to pull away from the wall with the visual of him struggling to climb the stairs. So we used all kinds of mirroring and imaging, not only within the sequence but from earlier sequences, and, of course, the whole thing ends with him being put to bed and one of them blowing the candle out, and at that point, two new people come into cell and say, 'How are you doing, boy?' And on we go into a beating, which is pretty much conveyed in one shot."

Thus, it was important to stay ahead of the viewer early on, compressing time and events so that it happens all too quickly like a nightmare, as Northup goes from one freedom to slavery in a matter of a minute.

"That took a lot of rough decisions about material to lose, but also was just a general dynamic that the whole show should be from the point of view of Solomon, where his emotional thoughts drive the narrative rather than following one event after another," Walker reiterates. "We put a lot of material in the rear view mirror, if you like, but so much of the movie benefited from being thrown into this flashback structure."

Indeed, this subjective approach elevated Northup's horrifying plight into something more relevant and relatable -- and with much greater visceral power. Which is why "12 Years a Slave" still remains the favorite to win the best picture Oscar.

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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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.