Director's Cut: Steve McQueen ('12 Years a Slave')

12 years a slave

This interview was originally published on September 16th, 2013 as part of's coverage of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

British director Steve McQueen is about to have a very good year. His latest film, “12 Years a Slave”, just walked away from its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival with the Blackberry People’s Choice Award, an honor traditionally reserved for films of far less brutality and rigor. It’s a testament to both the power of the film and the talent of its director that audiences have been so receptive to both its physical and emotional violence, and the win here bodes well for its reception when it is released theatrically in October. But while its Oscar prospects have been the subject of endless speculation from awards prognosticators since day one, “12 Years a Slave” is a far cry from the typical Academy-friendly prestige picture: McQueen, a Turner prize winning visual artist and fervent intellectual, approaches the subject of slavery with such audacity of vision that the results are frankly harrowing. Though the crowd cast their vote, this is hardly what you would call a crowd-pleaser.

Read our review of "12 Years a Slave" here.

We had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with McQueen during his time in Toronto to discuss physicality, the importance of being explicit, and why Benedict Cumberbatch had to be auditioned like everybody else.

Calum Marsh: All three of your features have such an intense physicality and, I find, deal with and represent the body in a way that has a lot of presence. Could you talk about the body and its appeal for you, cinematically?

Steve McQueen: I think with “12 Years a Slave”, there’s a certain kind of endurance, absolutely. Endurance is one thing, but also what happens within the body’s soul, as such, and the whole idea of it being tested: your humanity, your dignity, your idea of respect being tested to the limit. That’s what I always wanted to do, really. Of course, the body’s involved and there’s illustrations of that. Someone’s hanged, for example, or people being beaten and so forth. But, for me, it was more to do with what’s inside. It wasn’t such an illustrative situation. It was much more of a -- not spiritual, far from it, but that’s the word that’s used. An inner endurance, I would say.

CM: I can see that, definitely. The shots, for example, in that montage sequence of bodies that have been scarred, people who have obviously endured a lot in that way. I thought that in “Hunger”, the film seems to say that the body can be used as a tool of protest, and that even in desperation the body can be a weapon with which to fight back. In this film, by contrast, it’s almost as though these characters don’t have that privilege because they aren’t able to do anything except endure the pain. Was that something you were conscious of?

SM: I think it’s answered in the first question. It’s all endurance, to hold on, to hope, or whatever you have to get through a situation. Of course, it’s a very physical movie because, you know, you’re being beaten. Basically, you’re a slave, so you’re constantly working in one way, shape or form. But what has to be kept intact for Solomon is his humanity and his dignity. It’s tested to the absolute limit, but it survives this whole ordeal. That’s what I want to emphasize, really.

CM: Absolutely. Do you think the film would have worked the same way if there had not been as much intensely visceral violence, or if the physical pain had been less explicit?

SM: Either we’re making a movie about slavery or we’re not. So, you know, I didn’t have much of a choice, especially given Solomon’s incredible book. That was the story that I had to make. I had to make a movie about slavery, so I couldn’t pull any punches. It was a movie about slavery and that was that.

CM: Do you think that there has ever been a film that deals with slavery in a serious way before?

SM: I think that’s a question more for you, really, than me. I certainly have found -- I mean, I didn’t actively go looking because I didn’t really look at any films when I was making the film, but in my memory I can’t think of one, no.

CM: Were there visual inspirations in other mediums for you?

SM: No, because there couldn’t be -- certain images had never been seen before on film that we shot. That’s exciting and at the same time horrifying, because you have to show those images. I think that’s maybe some of the shock for people. It’s interesting. What we’ve done is take a book of the shelf, wrung the dust off it, opened it, and put that information from that book into a narrative film, and to show the true extent of slavery. We had to do that. As I said before, either we’re making a film about slavery or we’re not. I didn’t want to censor myself in any way. I wanted to make the best film I could.

CM: With no concessions.

SM: You can’t, really, can you.

CM: Yes, of course. I wanted to ask: obviously, for a critic, when a filmmaker gets to a third feature, that’s the point at which you start to pull out recurrences and motifs and things that unify the body of work. One thing I think that your films do really well is the use of the long take. I wanted to know what, for you, the long take conveys or what special meaning it has for you as a filmmaker.

SM: What I want to emphasize, here, is that it’s not a gimmick or a tool which I just pull out from a hat every now and then. It’s what the story dictates and what’s needed. If it’s not needed, it’s not a case of using something. But again, it’s not just that. As far as the long take was used in this film, for example, during the beating of Patsey, that is particularly one take because I wanted it in real time. I wanted the tension to build. It’s like a circle. It just goes faster, spins faster, faster, and faster like a whirling dervish spinning to get close to God, in some ways. The eye of the storm is Michael Fassbender whipping, first counter-clockwise and then clockwise. This is very technical what I’m talking about. What’s going on there emotionally is devastating. What has to match that is the choreography of the camera and the action. I didn’t want to put a cut in there because, once you put a cut in there, you let the audience off the hook. It’s almost like they’re allowed to breathe. I wanted to keep that pressure cooker at its highest level, if I could, until the breaking point when Patsey drops the soap, then we cut. You have to hold that tension.

CM: In another film, I might imagine someone cutting to Patsey’s back to show the wounds in that scene, which would have been the obvious way to show the audience.

SM: What we do, the camera turns to her back.

CM: That’s what I mean. The way that it turns rather than cutting to it, but still doing it as a reveal.

SM: Yes, we needed to continue and maintain the momentum.

CM: Up until that point, her back is the one obvious thing that’s not being shown. You’re seeing everything around it and you’re not seeing the actual wounds being inflicted, and conspicuously so. As soon as you do, the effect is incredible. The audience that I was with was just a small group of critics, but there was audible gasping, people in just absolute...I guess terror, really. And I think that terror, for me, is partly a response to what’s going on in the film, but also terror in that you don’t actually expect to be shown those injuries.

SM: For me, it was very important. There was debate at a certain point of me cutting when Patsey is on the floor, to the image of Patsey’s scarred back. There was debate if they would cut that. I said, “No way we’re cutting that,” because I would be betraying the people that went through that. This was an everyday occurrence. This was an everyday occurrence. I could not betray those people -- either I’m telling a film about slavery, like I said, or I’m not. That’s it. Let’s do it or not. I wanted to do it, so I had to do it. That’s it. It’s not a thing to be played with in that way.

CM: How does religion figure into the film?

SM: Religion is kind of interesting. Religion has been used for many thousands of centuries for good and for bad. For me, the film’s always going to be like a fairy tale. It was like Hansel and Gretel, the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales. Very dark without happy endings. Similar to Pinocchio, in the way that Solomon gets seduced by these two characters back to the circus. It’s Pinocchio. Religion, again, is another aspect of fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland or this book called the Bible. People interpreted it the way they wanted to interpret it, you know, for good, bad, and the other. It’s kind of interesting that someone’s authority, corrupting a book, for example, can make them feel better about what they’re doing, as such. It’s a fascinating tool. And also, religion in a good sense when we hope, we roll, turn, and roll. Solomon, what he can galvanize from that to keep him alive, keep him able to survive. It’s very interesting how one plays with the whole thing, from Ford, the nice slave owner, as such, and Epps, of course, when the slaves sing the spiritual at the grave.

CM: There’s also that great moment when Solomon joins in the slave song, finally.

SM: That’s exactly what I’m talking about, yeah.

CM: For me, I saw in that a sort of realization that this would help him, somehow.

SM: Sure! Grab onto anything you can grab onto. That’s what you do. As a lot of African-Americans and Africans have done.

CM: One thing I wanted to ask too, and this may be speculative, so if this is off-base just say I’m way off-base, but: the use of recognizable actors in small, key roles seemed pointed to me. For me, it felt like whenever someone would show up, like if Brad Pitt shows up here, or Paul Giamatti shows up there, for me it connected it more to our world, in that it almost said, “These people doing these heinous things were not villains, but ordinary people you know and recognize.” It’s not letting people off the hook, in a way, by casting an anonymous person.

SM: I don’t know about that. I just cast the best people I thought. Paul Giamatti for that role was brilliant.

CM: Yes, of course.

SM: If he wasn’t playing a horrible slaver, I don’t think you’d be saying it. Again, it’s not an excuse. What it is, they’re actors. Lupita Nyong’o, who I found, is not a known actor. I did not go after anybody for their star power. I auditioned them against a lot of other people. Cumberbatch I auditioned. Sarah Paulson I auditioned. I just want the best person for the job. That was it. It was about someone who actually worked, not about celebrity. I could care less. I want to work with artists, not actors.

CM: I didn’t mean to imply that you were trying to cast stars.

SM: No, no, but you asked me a question about Paul Giamatti in that role and other people -- I don’t know if people recognize them, maybe film critics. Normal everyday film people have no idea.

CM: Brad Pitt though, surely.

SM: Of course, Brad Pitt. Absolutely. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in a faceoff like that? That’s why I cast Brad in that role as Bass, to have that kind of confrontation. He’s the only one who confronts Epps and to have these two waify actors having this verbal fight was what I was interested in.

CM: How much of the structure of the book remains in the film?

SM: Not a lot. We changed it.

CM: When you went to make the film and had create a new structure, then, one thing I really like is this ongoing sense that there’s going to be no escape and that, despite the fact that the title obviously suggests a finite amount of time, the film makes the pain seem infinte. There’s no break from it, no moment of relief where the audience can relax and say, “Okay, we won’t have to watch anything bad happen for a while.” Is that something that you wanted to try and show the audience and say, “This is the reality”?

SM: This was an everyday occurrence. Again, I don’t want to exhaust people. If I was to illustrate the book -- I’m not an illustrator -- it would be far more worse than what I filmed. If you count the incidences of violence you can see: Solomon gets beaten, then Solomon gets lynched. Then, Solomon witnesses a lynching. After that, the cravat in Patsey’s face. Patsey gets scratched in the face. Could we take that one out?

CM: Yeah, that’s not really that brutal.

SM: And then the beating. Basically, there’s five acts of violence in two hours and thirty minutes.

CM: But the emotional violence is much more constant.

SM: Precisely. For example, I think when Patsey asks Solomon to kill her -- that’s fucked up. She asks it in such a peaceful and happy, joyful way. That and the psychological stuff when Paul Dano is singing, “Run, n*gger, run.” He’s singing, “Clap your hands!” These guys have got axes and swords in hand. This guy’s got a song and from that song, he can fuck them up. You can’t go anywhere. “Run, n*gger, run”, that’s how mental torture or mental slavery was introduced. There you have it. When you look at it, it is what it is. There’s five real instances of violence and we’ll say, within that, there’s three brutal ones. First the whipping, then lynching, then the last whipping. Maybe I would say four, because the double lynching is pretty horrific, and then the cravat. Again, I’m nitpicking here. It’s not that many scenes, but within the structure of the narrative, it feels like much more. I’m very proud of it because I can’t back off things like that. It’s about slavery. Just as you wouldn’t tell Roman Polanski or Steven Spielberg to tone it down -- and I’m not putting them in the same class as me, I’m just giving examples of filmmakers who have made these kinds of films -- you couldn’t tell them, “Don’t put that, don’t put that, and don’t put that in.” It’s impossible.


CM: How cautious are you about aestheticizing violence?

SM: You see, style -- no, I’m not interested in that. The hanging of Solomon is very formal. We got all the shots in the book. We’ve got the front, we’ve got the back, we’ve got the close-up of the front, and the amount of focus keeps it focussed, the close-up of the back. It’s very precise, and then the wide, wide, wide shot towards the end of the day. And to end the day shot with that. Basically, what it’s doing, he’s doing time. He’s doing time. When we did the first shot of him, we’re doing an illustration of people walking to their work and a couple might creep out and get knocked into frame, so we have to have all those elements in. One shot can tell a thousand words. That’s what I think. I love to be economic in that way because I like the idea of the economy of means. One shot can say so much, rather than cut, cut, cut, cut. That’s what I’m interested in. So, I’m very careful with how I shoot. For example, the beating of Solomon. It’s a bit down here for the first one, and he’s facing in shadow. Again, you’re getting a glimpse -- it’s just economy. It’s what’s necessary: the motion, the body in the frame, that’s it. Nothing to do with making anything look like anything other than real. That’s all.

CM: There’s a certain beauty in the film, though, on an aesthetic level. That clearly contrasts with the content of the film, which is so ugly and brutal.

SM: I mean, a lot of people said it was beautiful, which is great, fine. It’s a brilliant landscape, it’s unavoidable. A lot of horrible things have been happening in the most beautiful places. “Go look at this beautiful plantation.” The most horrible things happen in the most beautiful places, for sure.

CM: Where was that filmed?

SM: In Louisiana, in New Orleans.

CM: I see. How much authenticity is there in the locations you’re using?

SM: They’re all actual plantations. Patty Norris, the costume designer, worked -- she actually took soil samples of each plantation to work with the costumes. [Adam] Stockhausen, our art director, was very meticulous about the period and attention to detail. This is as accurate as we could possibly get it. There’s some clothes that were worn that were actually slave clothes. Patty Norris discovered some clothes on set that were actually worn by slaves.

CM: Why are things like that important to you, as a filmmaker?

SM: Because I wanted to visualize slavery. Now, like I said, it was one thing reading about something in a book, or seeing an illustration of someone being whipped, held up or whatever. It’s another thing when you put it in a narrative as an image. It becomes real. It becomes an actuality. What’s interesting for me as that when you leave the cinema after seeing that film and you walk into the street, you look around you at the evidence of the recent past, which is all around you when you leave the cinema, be in the United States or be it in Europe. The evidence of the past is all around you.

CM: Speaking of leaving the theatre, how do you want people to walk away from the film? What feeling do you want them to walk away with? Do you want there to be a sense of -- well not guilt, per se, not personal guilt, but guilt in the sense that it shows what our culture can do that is so horrific.

SM: We’ve got to move on from that. We’ve got to move on from the self-pity. If you’re black, if you’re white, you’ve got to move on from your self-pity, because it just gets in the way of progress. One thing America is about is progress. I think, right now, you’ve got a black president, which is an extraordinary amount of progress. Unfortunately, what happened at the same time is this kid called Trayvon Martin was killed. Then, there’s a situation with the voting rights being revoked. Then, another situation of the 150th anniversary of slavery being this year. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. So, this perfect storm has come together right now and what’s happened, I think people have been galvanized, so that they’re interested in responding to a film like this. It might not happen at any other time, but right now, I think people are willing to look and reflect on the past to go into the future. To look back, a lot of people feel shame about slavery, they feel a lot of shame. Those last words that Solomon says in the film, “Forgive me,” and his wife comes up to him and says, “There’s nothing to forgive.” That’s, for me, very important in a way, because it’s like saying, “It’s not your fault.” It’s nothing to be ashamed of. One has to embrace this, black and white and Asian and Spanish, whatever. Solomon, as a character in the film, is everyone. You look at Solomon and you see yourself in that situation. I don’t see only black people looking at Solomon and seeing themselves, I see white people looking at Solomon and seeing themselves. That’s a journey. Also, I think the film is, for me, a call to arms to do something about anything. When Solomon looks at you in that last long shot, it’s almost like, for me at least, he’s passing the responsibility on to the audience. “What are you going to do about this?” It’s not just about racial topics. It’s to do with anything: helping out a friend, seeing something which is wrong and you can do something about, that’s it really.

CM: I definitely feel that works. And I personally found the end devastating. His apology to his wife about his apperance was unbearable. Which is strange, really, because the horrible violence didn’t affect me as strongly as just the tiny gesture.

SM: Because he kept his dignity, he kept his humanity throughout. Throughout, he kept his dignity, he kept his humanity. That takes some doing.

CM: I was thinking, earlier in the film, when he’s on the boat and they’re conspiring to possibly fight back, I was thinking if the film would work had it followed one of those other characters, had it followed someone less educated than Solomon or less overtly dignified and intelligent.

SM: Film is all about character. The source was actually Solomon. I don’t know anybody else. Again, it’s not even about that, it’s the true story, which is important. It’s a true story, and unfortunately, slaves were not allowed to read and write. If you were found out, you’d have been killed. So, it took someone who could actually read and write to make this book, and that’s the only thing I could say. That’s the film I wanted to make.

"12 Years a Slave" will be released in theaters on October 18th.