Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

The movie of movies on the fall film circuit was Steve McQueen's"12 Years a Slave." The film, which eventually picked up Oscars for Best Picture, screenplay and supporting actress, was nurtured along the way by Plan B producer Dede Gardner and her partner, Brad Pitt, who co-stars in the film with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and Benedict Cumberbatch. I interviewed Gardner for a Toronto Film Festival Industry Q & A, below. 

Anne Thompson: When you showed the film at Telluride were you worried?

Dede Gardner: Of course. 

AT: Here you are at TIFF with "12 Years a Slave." It's so powerful and immersive and puts you through the pain. It doesn't spare you. How did you get involved?

DG: 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: Is a $20 million budget about right? How did you do that?

DG: We shot in New Orleans for 35 days. We had in the costume designer and production designer two extraordinary partners. It was an endeavor of goodwill. Everybody wanted to be there and everyone was willing to do what it took to get it finished on schedule and see it through.