AT: Talk about Ridley's screenplay. How did it change? How did you adapt the Solomon Northup memoir?
DG: 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.
AT: The filming must have been emotionally grueling for the participants; how rough was it for them?
DG: You're right, but it wasn't a surprise. Everyone knew what we were going to do. We'd all read it and rehearsed it and talked about it and planned for it. It's maybe a little bit like a marathon where you physically get yourself into the headspace of what you're about to embark on. Unlike a marathon, which is a solo endeavor, you have a team and a group of people that are going to link arms and help each other.
AT: Why was Chiwetel the right person for the role?
DG: He is who we went to first. Steve was going to make another movie with Chiwetel and knew him well. He's a funny awesome guy but he's reserved at first and I think that seeming dispassion was right for the trajectory of Solomon. The choices he made were in order to stay alive, and they are choices that put everything inside and didn't expose his vulnerabilities or emotions because they would have been exploited and it would have been over.
AT: You must have done a lot of research.
DG: We did a ton of research and we had consultants to help us. It was really important to us to get it right. But we were obviously telling a really specific story at a specific time that we feel is so relevant to now in terms of what humans are capable of doing to other human beings. There was an extra on the set, a man named Gregory Bright, who was very quiet and showed up every day in the 100 degree weather and did his thing. It came out over time that he'd been incarcerated mistakenly for 17 years and was freed by the Innocence Project. We had to drag the story out of him and I thought, "Oh, here's this now." It was a quiet set. It was good.
AT: The most harrowing scenes involve whipping. There is one specific long scene that feels as though you're really putting the audience right there. What was the intention and how did you execute that?
DG: We planned for a long time. Steve really wanted to do it in one take and as it turns out we had to do it in two. It's virtually one take and it's an entire mag. What Steve does is he shoots things for as long as things take. So in "Shame," that's how long it takes to order dinner at an awkward first date, and that's how long it takes to ride an elevator when you're in a total panic that someone you love has hurt themselves, and that's how long it takes to run two city blocks. Similarly in "Hunger," he said, "Oh, you want to see how long it takes to starve yourself? I'm going to show you what that looks like."
He's uncompromising in, I think, the best way and what I find so amazing is when I'm in a moment like that in a movie and it's uncomfortable, I think, "this is what's real, so how conditioned have I become to portrayals that edit, cheat, truncate, don't show me what something really takes in terms of time?" It's an aspect of his filmmaking that I really appreciate and admire, and there is no mistaking the fact that he's trying to show slavery for all its evils. That's what happened--everyone was made to sit around and watch it and everyone was made to participate in it. It was a right, almost, on plantations so why should we make that easier [for an audience]? It's already easier, we're sitting in a movie theater.
AT: Talk about the young actress you discovered.
DG: Lupita Nyong'o. She is a superstar. She put herself on tape. She was at Yale Drama School. She had a manager from a tiny movie she had done in Kenya. Steve saw the tape and thought "wow." She came to New York and did it again, and then she went to New Orleans to work with Steve. She's a really special woman. She's Kenyan and was born in Mexico City. She's extraordinary and I think the performance speaks for itself.
AT: Why the Hans Zimmer soundtrack?
DG: Steve and Hans had a previous relationship that they reignited when we were cutting the movie, and Hans saw it and said, "yes." I think Steve and Joe found themselves using a lot of Hans' music in the temp. It was very organic.
AT: It was unusual with a lot of percussive sounds and organic noises.