Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave"

"I wanted to put the debate on the map," says director Steve McQueen, who is throwing "12 Years a Slave" into the national conversation in a big way. He was aided by producers Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner, screenwriter John Ridley, frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender, fellow Brits Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch, and distributor Fox Searchlight. After he was seeking a story about a free man who becomes a slave, to fill a hole in the canon of cinema, his wife found the Solomon Northup memoir, published in 1853--when it was eclipsed by the previous year's bestseller "Uncle Tom's Cabin." McQueen was shocked that not only had he never heard of it--nobody else had either. Doing that as a film was "a no-brainer," he tells Tavis Smiley, below. "It had to be done...I wanted to hold the camera up and say, 'look at this..cause a debate.'"

As for the issue of why it took a Brit to confront this ugly piece of American history, McQueen considers slavery to be not just American history but world history. His family emigrated to the U.K from the West Indies. His mother was born in Trinidad, the birthplace of Stokely Carmichael. And Martin Luther King, he points out, was born in Grenada. 

Anne Thompson: Your trajectory from "Hunger" to "Shame" to this movie, feels like a leap, it's very different, bigger and on a more ambitious scale.

SM: Those two other movies were focused on one person. It was Bobby Sands and Brandon Sullivan, both played by Michael Fassbender. Of course the canvas of "12 Years a Slave" is huge. We're talking about the North, the South, we're talking about slavery. It was a time in history where things were very different from how they are now. Also with the number of characters, it's a large vista.

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen

Why Plan B?

SM: Jeremy Kleiner was the first one I had contact with. He contacted me after seeing "Hunger" and pursued me from there. Then I was really working with him, Dede Gardner, and Brad Pitt.

Were you a little resistant, thinking this is a studio production company?

SM: Coming from England, I was flattered. Other people were interested but what I liked about Plan B is that they showed their commitment and their desire to work with me. They were very focused on what I wanted to do, so it was very straightforward.

You knew that you wanted this material to be from the POV of a man who had freedom and had it taken away. Why?

SM: That was my in. Once I knew I wanted to make a film about slavery, I needed an in. What I liked about that idea was that that character would be me, it would be you, it would be the audience in the cinema so that we can relate to him and to him being in situations that are not just unfamiliar to him, but unfamiliar to us. I love that everything he sees, we see for the first time. I was working with John Ridley on the script and at some point it wasn't going as well as I wanted it to. And then my wife said, "why don't you look at firsthand accounts of slavery, as every historian would do?" We both did our research, and she found this book "12 Years a Slave." She gave it to me and said, "Steve, I've got it." If ever there was an understatement, it was that. As soon as I opened the book, it was a revelation at every turn.

Why John Ridley?

SM: I needed to work with a writer who I thought could understand the material. I thought he would be a good collaborator in finding out what we could leave in and what we could take out, and in what was needed in the script because the book was so good that it needed help, but it didn't need that much help. But it did need this idea of editing, in a way. After that, we moved on.

Why Chiwetel Ejiofor?

SM: Chiwetel has some kind of elegance, some kind of stature and some kind of class. He's almost like a Harry Belafonte or a Sidney Poitier, there is a kind of stature with him which I needed because he had to carry that humanity through the most inhumane situations throughout the film.

You are known for long takes, which you use to immerse us in this world, that's what the long, uninterrupted take does. You can't escape.

SM: You're in real time. The audience loses the sense that they're watching a film but has a sense that they're involved in a moment, and that's the difference. What one has to do is use the right way of shooting for what the scene demands. It's not about forcing. It's about allowing the audience to observe. What they're looking at is violence, as far as Patsy getting beaten. It's a case of making a picture about slavery. Either you make a picture about slavery, or you don't. It's one of the two. I am here, in evidence of those unfortunate events. My family survived those unfortunate events so I can't make a picture which would not tell the truth otherwise there'd be no point. 

Where did your family survive?

SM: In the West Indies, which was another kind of slavery. Very hard.

There are many kinds of slavery all over the Americas, which makes it a global story.

SM: Absolutely and I've always said that. The question has always been asked, "Why did it take a British director to make this film?" I'm part of that story here in America. Some of my families, one boat took a left and one took a right. On one boat was my mother and sister and on the other was my father. It was the slave trade. One moved to West America, one moved to West Indies, another to the South. They all come from the same place. We ended up in Britain as immigrants in the early 60s.

Now that you're in the thick of the Oscar season, stories that have emerged such as the challenging of the accuracy of Northup's own account. Where is that coming from?