Since it first screened before rapt audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, Steven McQueen's 12 Years a Slave has been this fall season's leading Oscar contender. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man sold into slavery in 1841, the film is a sober, frightening and deeply emotional depiction of the horrific institution and unfortunate legacy of the American slave trade. In New York recently for the film's local premiere at the New York Film Festival, McQueen discussed how the movie came to be and the experience of working with his favorite leading man, Michael Fassbender (who plays one of Solomon's masters), for the third time.
On the Origin of the Film
Someone once asked me, "What was it like when you first found out about slavery?" And I could never remember. All I remember as a young person was a tremendous sense of shame and embarrassment. So I wanted to make this film as a way to somehow try and embrace it and tame it and master it, but also to make it mine as such. I went into this with an open mind and no preconceived ideas. I was just looking for a way in and the way in for me was the idea of a free man who gets caught up in slavery. And then my wife found Solomon Northup's book and as soon as I had it in my hand, it becomes the screenplay basically. Solomon's journey was so striking; I loved the idea of taking this musician -- an accomplished man with a wife who was a cook and two children living a tranquil life -- and putting him through a not-pleasant ordeal. I always thought about this film as being a science-fiction movie. He's going to a land where there's a book called the Bible, which everyone interprets in a different way, and there are people who are slaves and people who aren't. It seems so far-fetched now, but it's true. It's like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale -- the darkest, deepest most haunting fairy tale where there's a happily ever after, but you go through hell to get there.
On the Role Religion Plays in the Film and in Slavery
As we know, through the centuries, religion has kept a lot of people sane... or insane for that matter, especially in the United States. You have to hang onto something, otherwise all is lost. For me, I didn't see it in terms of Christianity. Solomon calls on God a lot, but it's about his own self-determination and his own gathering up of will in order to keep on going. That was much more in my interest.
On The Biggest Lesson He Learned About Slavery
Survive, survival. That's the biggest thing you learn -- what you did to survive. I'm here because some of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They weren't Bruce Willis with an AK-45 and a grenade. Can you imagine being born a slave? I imagine that's the worst thing that can ever happen to you. Someone who has been born a slave, someone who hasn't been able to think of himself as anything other than what a master thinks of them, which is nothing. Just the psychological damage of that when you are born into an environment in which you are nothing. And when you fast-forward to today and you walk around the streets, you see the legacy of slavery everywhere in America and in Western Europe. You see the evidence of it, because it hasn't been dealt with. It's a deep psychological wound and it's difficult for people to deal with.
On the Visual Look of the Film
I've been working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for the last 13 years and he's shot all of my films. First, we talked about color. This is the first time where I shot outdoors in such a lush environment, so the palette was very important to talk about, as were the costumes. The costume designer took earth samples from three different plantations to take the visual temperature, as it were. When you come to make a film, it's like your preparing for the Olympics, so you come ready. We made sure all the information was there from the beginning.
On Teaming Up With Michael Fassbender for the Third Time
One of the things about Michael is that you don't take him for granted. He's not just going to do this film because I'm doing it. It has to be very good before you present it to him. But he was always my choice for that role, because he's an amazing actor. I think he's the most influential actor of his time. He's like Mickey Rourke when he was Mickey Rourke or Gary Oldman when he was Gary Oldman. People want to be an actor because of him. People want to be in a movie because of him. People want to make a movie because of him. He's got that kind of pull, that special quality. He's like Ginger Baker and shit, you know. [Laughs]
See below for a longer interview with McQueen and the film's stars.
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