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Craft Talking '12 Years a Slave': The Contrast of Horror and Beauty

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 27, 2013 at 2:42PM

The visual power of "12 Years a Slave" derives from a juxtaposition of horror and beauty that director Steve McQueen calls "Goya-esque." It immerses us in the totality of Solomon Northup's experience, a brutal inhumanity that nonetheless took place on gorgeous plantations. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, costume designer Patricia Norris, and editor Joe Walker collaborated on this rich tapestry, which has helped make "12 Years a Slave" the best picture Oscar frontrunner.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"
Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

"We decided that when Solomon was sold to Epps he would remain tacky looking and when he was given over to someone else, he was given new clothes," Norris says. "I think 12 years of work would not behoove you to have the same clothes all the time. I always had it in my mind that Patsey [Lupita Nyong'o] was given Mrs. Epps' giveaways, which I thought was rather sick, but I don't think I ever mentioned it to anybody. That's why her clothes are that empire look with the higher bust."

Walker (who also edited McQueen's "Hunger" and Shame") paid particular attention to the length of time and its impact on Northup's inner life. "One of the things we did with 'Shame' and to a certain extent with 'Hunger' was creating disruptions to the timeline," the editor recalls. "We know that there's an endurance aspect to it and it felt right to break that up. It led to some beautiful, impactful cuts from my point of view. 

This included the opening, which was altered from the script's linear approach (beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Northup living with his family in New York before the abduction into slavery). "There's a really odd thing, which was the first shot of Michael Fassbender reading the Bible as Epps, and so there's a sense of continuity with Michael because I cut all three of Steve's films. It was a sort of Talisman and this strange reincarnation ritual."

Walker also rejected a linear approach to the poignant story of Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who's parted from her children. "Originally it was in story order and she was brought into the slave pen in Washington and she had a very sweet scene with Solomon where she explained how she'd been tricked and dragged away," he continues. "And we saved that and held it back until after she'd left. It just felt like a much better thing to go from her, having lost her children and being dragged away and a woman who can't stop crying -- rightly so -- to this shot where she's smiling and talking about how she lived a life of luxury when she had the master's favor. That was a more heartbreaking way of telling her backstory than telling it up front." 

The journey becomes such an internal one for Northup and yet there's ambiguous surrender when he joins in the singing of "Roll Jordan Roll" during a funeral service. "There's a deliberate choice to show that he's become part of that community. And there's some element of resignation on his face.

"The Epps plantation is the juiciest part of the film. It's where the conflict is utmost and there's this wild derangement. There's violence every minute. And that was the big thing we wanted to see on his face at the end -- that toll of physical labor. It's hell on Earth." 

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

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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.