We recently sat down with director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender to talk "12 Years a Slave", a film that has been labeled a "tough watch", but also one audiences have flocked to during its limited release. We spoke to McQueen shortly after the film's incredibly successful debut on the fall festival circuit, but this is such a rich and vital film that the site welcomed the opportunity to chat with the director and his actor together and get a handle on one of contemporary cinema's most exciting collaborations. Enjoy.
FILM.COM: Michael, is there an emotional contagion to acting that you took with you each day here? Or is the skill of acting being able to let go of what was clearly very tough material?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: With the full-on scenes, if you're going to places that are violent, there's residue for sure. But for the most part I try to stay focused so that it's allowed to unleash in those moments when I need it. And in the evenings I'm sort of thinking about what's going to happen the next day, because you take each scene one by one, and then it's done. I try and wash it away. So yes, over the years I've developed that skill, it's part of the job.
Steve, this the first film of yours you didn't write. Was it difficult letting go of that process?
STEVE McQUEEN: Well, I loved what was being written, but I also helped shape the script as it was happening. It was all about the source material, but I wasn't passive in the development of the script.
I read that your wife actually found this book, how did that transpire?
SM: I had the initial idea of a free man becoming enslaved. What happened was my wife, who was a historian, said, "Why don't you look at real accounts of slavery?" Then she found it, and it was one of those moments where you're thinking of an idea and then the idea is in your hands. I turned the pages and it read like a script. All of our language was directly from the book. It was a bestseller, it sold 27,000 copies in 18 months, but it was eclipsed by "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and that's how it got lost.
Religion plays such a positive and negative force in this film, as a salvation for the oppressed, but also as a weapon against them, somehow codifying their bondage. Was it your goal to show that dichotomy?
SM: Through the history of the world religion has acted as a good and a bad. Whatever you can draw strength from, people will grab on to. And of course slave owners were injecting the bible the way they wanted to keep people down.
It seems as though you went out of your way to show the balance of the slaver owners. Some were terrible, but others were seemingly "good" men simply caught up in the times. But my question is this, don't' we, as an audience, just condemn all of them, no matter the nuance of the situation?
Who are we to say? I think it was just the reality, it's not whether people were "good" and "bad". Nowadays we're so quick to judge and tarnish, but these were just real human beings. So for us sitting here we're like, "Oh, that was horrible". But we're in hindsight, you don't know what you would do in that time. Or at least I don't. I'd like to think there would be a good character in me, but you don't know. You would have had to live and survive in the South. If some of the slave owners didn't act the way they did, maybe it would be their family on the line.
SM: What Michael is saying is dead on, I mean what will people say about us in 50 years?
Well that's a good question, what do you think we will be condemned for in the future?
MF: Where do we get our clothes from? Where did you get your clothes? Probably from a sweat factory in Thailand. Or what about how we treat the environment?
SM: Which is where you have to take the story as it is, and not be so judgmental.
Another theme that pervades this work is that transition from free to slave. Why was this so important to show?
SM: Yeah, that was my in, because everyone can identify with [the main character] Solomon.
But even in the case of Solomon, there was still huge amounts of discrimination, even for those labeled "free". They couldn't vote or testify in court against slave owners for instance.
SM: Yeah, he wasn't a citizen. He was a free man, but sure, there's a difference.
MF: And there were still problems 100 years later.
SM: And even now.
But isn't the tragedy here that you can't get back lost time in your life?
SM: There was a guy on our set who spent 30 years in a prison cell, and he was innocent. So this isn't so far from us, it's not so alien. To a certain extent we're still dealing with this, not in only race, but other aspects as well.
You've worked with modest budgets so far. Do you like this more intimate work? Or are you not opposed to having a huge budget?
SM: Maybe some day I'll get $100 million dollars to make a movie I want to make. But we made a big movie here, epic, for $20 million.
The two of you have done some very serious work so far. Is that what you're comfortable with?
MF: That's gonna change!
So next up, a McQueen / Fassbender romantic comedy?
SM: I actually am interested in doing a musical.
And I'm guessing you'll cast Michael again, what is it about him that you admire?
SM: I think Michael is the most influential actor of his generation. People look at him and want to become an actor, or work with him. They want him to be in their movie, that's how influential he is.
So Michael, when Steve calls, that's that?
MF: Yep. I enjoy working with him, I do my best work with him. You want to do your best work as much as possible. I read '12 Years', the story made me cry, I wanted to be any part in it. I thought it was an important story to tell. Working with Steve changed my life, my career, but more importantly gave me the thing I was looking for professionally, a director who would provoke and take me to places I wouldn't have found by myself. That's what I was looking for from when I was 17 and decided to do this.
Finally, what is your perception of how an audience will receive this film? Do you expect people to rave about it? To be sad? Both?
SM: I don't think you can put expectations on people, I'm just happy I got to make the movie. I certainly hope people see it.
"12 Years a Slave" is now in theaters.