12 Years a Slave Interview
12 Years a Slave Interview
Steve McQueen is a renowned British director whose first feature length film Shame, starring Michael Fassbender , was nominated for numerous awards and won the 2012 Black Reel Best Director and Best Screenplay awards in 2012. His latest film was screened at the 2013 London Film Festival to great acclaim and tells the extraordinary and heartbreaking story of Solomon Northup, a man kidnapped from his home and taken to a plantation to work as a slave. 12 Years a Slave Chiwetel Ejiofor alongside a cast of other famous names in what is set to become a future classic.

Here he and Steve McQueen talk about putting together their epic story of slavery and history, told through one heroic man.
Film sets are known for being very practical places, yet the film you’ve made - it’s very emotional. How emotional an experience was making the film?

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Like anything, there’s not really one answer. There were sequences that were technical. There were sequences, obviously, that were emotional. But in a way, the focus of the film is always on Solomon Northup and attempting to connect as much as I could to his journey and his character. Part of that was in his biography, so there were a lot of clues there, to his very specific characteristics. In some of the things that he endured, I was able to then try and connect in any way that I could, to how he may have felt in any given moment. That was a real privilege to feel the sense of any kind of connection to what he went through. We were trying to do sequences as close as we could possibly do to what he described in the book.

Steve McQueen

There were times when it was emotionally impactful, but we had a wonderful crew. The support from the crew, the catering, the makeup, wardrobe, camera department, sound department, gaffers, electricians - all of us came together. It was like it was our film. So with that kind of support structure, that kind of camaraderie, everyone having a stake in the film - it was such a supportive atmosphere that allowed the actors to go there. To risk and to try, and to fail of course, and to go for whatever it is they’re trying to go for. There were no restrictions, no censorship. It was beautiful, there was a lot of love on that set. It was a great time, making the movie.
On some levels it feels like a very definitively American story. Obviously it’s a human story, but it is an American story. How did you approach that?

Steve McQueen

It’s a world story, it’s not necessarily an American story, as such. Yes, it takes place in the United States, but it’s a world story because it has to do with slavery. Slavery was a world industry. I chose that in the story, I was searching through slave stories at that time and that’s the story that struck me. As I’ve said before, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across this story before. I felt stupid, but then I realised no one else had. It was always about the narrative and wherever it took place in the world, it didn’t really matter. It was about a subject I wanted to talk about, which was slavery.

Chiwetel Ejiofor

By definition, there’s an international element even to American slavery, because the slaves weren’t from America. I learnt about [slavery] in terms of Africa, in terms of the West Indies, Britain, America. So I always have that in my head. I felt like it was a very American story, absolutely, but I felt there was something correct about it being international. Even though 97% of the people involved in this movie are Americans. There was an element of something international about it which I felt really reflected something about the international nature of this event.
An extraordinary film, but I’m not sure if I could watch it again. There were some quite difficult scenes. Were you ever worried that you were going too far, or were you worried that you didn’t go far enough?

Steve McQueen

The book is pretty extreme. My responsibility is this - either I’m making a film about slavery, or I’m not. I decided I wanted to make a film about slavery, and if you make a film about slavery, you have to understand the way people were incarcerated in this particular way for four hundred years was through mental and physical torture. It’s a world event. There’s sometimes a huge hole in people’s minds, that they don’t want to think about it. In order to bring it to the fore, people have to remember why I, as an individual, am sitting here today. I’m here as an individual, because members of my family went through slavery. It’s to be respected. That’s all I can say, really.
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Content updated: 15/12/2019 11:36

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