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Steve McQueen Explains Why He Can't Talk Enough About '12 Years a Slave,' Unlike Michael Fassbender (VIDEO)

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 17, 2013 at 6:26AM

Steve McQueen on "12 Years a Slave": "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."
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Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Fassbender, Nyong'o, Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'

SM: I welcome those kind of debates because we were very careful, of course. We had an advisor, an historian. All of them vouched for the facts that these events actually occurred, with documents to back it up. So of course I welcome that kind of attention because I want to be right as well. Every picture that's "based on a true story" will have that kind of scrutiny, so I welcome this.

What is your sense of how accurate you were?

SM: Quite. Of course you would get something wrong. There's no two ways about it. We were very meticulous. Our fantastic production designer Adam Stockhausen and an amazing costume designer Patricia Norris who researched the look and the authenticity of what was happening. A lot of the costumes were actually slave clothes worn by slaves. You do your best. We hope we're good at it.

One thing I believe you added was the scene with Patsy (Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o) and wealthy neighbor Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard).

SM: She had one line in the book, a description of her. I spoke to John and said this character needs a voice in this film because it's such an extraordinary character, and one I've never seen on film before. For me, that scene was John's best work.

Michael Fassbender doesn't want to participate in campaigning the movie for the Oscars. How do you feel about that?

SM: I understand. It can be a bit much. [On "Shame"] it was very tiring, and it was unhealthy. You get exhausted and try to do your best at every moment. Forgive me for saying this, I felt like a prostitute, every 15 minutes another john would come through the room and it'd be taking, taking, taking. It was a bit much. This time, it's much more enjoyable. I don't know why. I think that it's worth it. I'm not saying that "Shame" wasn't.

The conversation has shifted to a cultural conversation that could have an enormous impact on the world.

SM: Yes, I think that's it. I do think it's worth it because the conversation has been on such a high level and it's fascinating. Someone asked me the other day, "When was the first time you were conscious of slavery?" It was just amazing. Or, "what was the first time you understood your name?" I was thinking, "my goodness, the only thing I can remember is that I grew up with such a feeling of shame and embarrassment." To start life like that as a young person, it's either a huge disadvantage or it's a situation where you become much more aware of your surroundings in society.

The assumption made by many people in America is that folks from Africa who grew up in Britain are not the products of slavery; they came from Africa without having been part of the American horror, without that sense of shame. It's inaccurate?

SM: My family came from the West Indies...It's debatable. What is correct is that we all come from this diaspora. We're all from a situation where we were displaced or dispersed, or parts of your family are missing. If you're from Africa, where some of your relatives would have been taken.

So talking about these issues is satisfying for you.

SM: For me, the movie stands up by itself because the story is so extraordinary. I'm happy we're having a debate about slavery but at the same time, for me, I'm excited about the picture because the picture is the picture.

When you were editing, were you challenged or did it fall into place in an organic way?

SM: It was very organic. With reshoots, different ways of looking at time, it was exciting. Also because of the set, because of the crew, the makeup, the wardrobe, the electricians, the camera and sound departments, we were all a team. When you have that sort of safety net, that friendship, that camaraderie, any and everything was possible. I knew from the first few days we might have something.

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, 12 Years a Slave


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Thompson on Hollywood

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.