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Post by Admin on Fri Sep 06, 2013 3:11 pm

Fall Arts Guide: Born Free

Steve McQueen's new film challenges audiences to view slavery from the inside out
By Inkoo Kang Wednesday, Sep 4 2013

British director Steve McQueen had one simple reason for making a film about slavery—he'd never seen one. "Obviously my background"—as the progeny of slaves on the Caribbean island of Grenada—"would gravitate me toward it as an interest," he volunteers cautiously. "But anyone interested in American history would be interested because [slavery] is huge. It's all around you. You're walking down the street and you see it. It's a huge part of the history of the world which hasn't been given enough screen time."

McQueen has a penchant for tackling themes and topics most directors would prefer to neglect. His debut, Hunger, which won him the 2008 Camera d'Or (for first-time filmmakers) at Cannes, portrayed the slow death of Irish political prisoner Bobby Sands. His NC-17–rated follow-up, 2011's Shame, explored sex addiction and modern alienation. Both starred McQueen's muse, the Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who has a supporting role as a "nigger-breaking" slave owner in McQueen's upcoming 12 Years a Slave. The October release features Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man in pre–Civil War New York who is kidnapped and illegally sold to a Louisiana plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Despite its harrowing subject matter, 12 Years a Slave is McQueen's most accessible film yet. It boasts the biggest budget of the director's career and enjoys a cast full of A-list actors like Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson, as well as small roles for Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. But it's far from the usual middlebrow Oscar-bait fare. As with McQueen's two previous films, it's shot through with the director's unsentimental spareness, matter-of-factly conveying the physical and emotional violence of slavery with candor and moral complexity, wisely eschewing cinematic gimmicks like manipulative music or picture-perfect close-ups.

12 Years a Slave will be the third slavery-related theatrical feature to be released in the past decade, after Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) and Lars Von Trier's Manderlay (2005). But neither of those films, directed by white filmmakers, were principally concerned with the day-to-day barbarism of slavery. Instead, Tarantino used "the peculiar institution" as a backdrop for stylized violence and an homage to '70s exploitation films, while Von Trier trotted out the evil of the slave system as yet another example of the worthlessness of mankind.

By contrast, McQueen's film is refreshingly straightforward in its exploration of chained existence, particularly its warping influence on both black and white families and moralities. When Northup is less than sympathetic toward a grieving mother whose young son was sold off to another family, she denounces him: "You truckle at [the master's] boot, you luxuriate in his favors"—and she's not wrong. Northup is even seen crossing the line that's always divided the movies' heroic slave characters from Uncle Toms: He whips another slave—and a woman, at that.

McQueen says he'd long wanted to make a film about slavery, "but I needed an 'in' on the story." He had developed the idea of a free man who gets captured into slavery. Then inspiration came from his wife, historian and journalist Bianca Stigter.

He recalls, "I was writing the story with [screenwriter] John Ridley (Red Tails, Undercover Brother), but things weren't going so well. Then my wife said to me, 'Why don't you look into true stories?' I thought, that sounds great." Two days later, he says, Stigter found Northup's autobiography, 12 Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. (Twenty-first-century trailers have nothing on 19th-century book titles on giving away the plot.) "It was a script waiting to be shot, a page-turner," McQueen says. "I was embarrassed I didn't know this book."

Northup's bestseller was published a few months after Uncle Tom's Cabin, and its firsthand testimony helped verify the horrors in Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential novel. Born in Saratoga Springs, Northup was a talented violinist, an experienced carpenter, and an educated black man who was drugged by some acquaintances. When the film character wakes up in chains, his fellow captives take pity on him and advise him on how to survive this nightmare. "I don't want to survive," he spits. "I want to live."

Even as his work has become more political, McQueen remains tight-lipped about his personal views. He's particularly hesitant to conjecture aloud why slavery has been so underexplored in cinema, especially when, as he claims, its supreme importance in world history makes it compelling subject matter. "Maybe it's difficult to come to terms with because its history is such a dark one," he offers. "The Second World War is quite dark, isn't it? I don't know. They make a lot of Second World War films. And the Wild West."

McQueen hints that securing financing would have been difficult without the aid of a certain producer known for his passion projects. "If it wasn't for Brad Pitt," he confesses, "I don't think this film would have gotten made. I had a bit of [fame] because of Hunger and Shame, but not the kind of movement, the motion, to get this movie made." For his producing credit, Pitt was rewarded with an easily likable role as a Canadian itinerant with an abolitionist bent, his twinkling eyes and movie-star teeth barely concealed under a scraggly beard.

But the film belongs to Ejiofor, the London-born actor of Nigerian descent who's impressed critics with his star turns in the British films Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots. "He's the only person I thought could play Solomon," McQueen effuses. "There's a genteelness and a sophistication about Chiwetel. [The character] ventures into a place where he [must] hold on to his dignity, his humanity. Chiwetel was the person who could do that. There's some kind of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte quality to him. He's a gentleman."

Solomon's foil—and his greatest victimizer—is Edwin Epps, the kind of sadist who wakes up his field hands in the middle of the night and forces them to dance and play music for his amusement. McQueen gave the role to Fassbender, he explains, "because he's a great actor, he'd pull it out of the bag. I knew with the right environment, something extraordinary could happen. And I think it did."

12 Years' embarrassment of riches also includes a trio of black actresses, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong'o, and Adepero Oduye, who play female slaves occupying very different levels of the hierarchy within the plantation. The women's stories show how life under the whip could be quite variegated depending on gender, beauty, and a slave-owner's particular mix of sexual greed and weakness. "Women were taken advantage of in the most terrible, horrible ways," McQueen says. "Within that, of course, people would make choices." The film, he concludes, is about survival.

"Everyone thinks they have some kind of idea of slavery, but most people don't have any idea of slavery," McQueen says. "They don't. The history's always brushed aside as if we know this, but we have to open our eyes and look at it. I imagine people are sometimes too frightened to look. But I think we have to look, [so it can] recede in our future."

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Post by Admin on Sat Sep 07, 2013 11:17 pm

I love, love, love Steve. He is no-nonsense!

Toronto: Steve McQueen Says '12 Years a Slave' Goes Beyond Race
4:26 PM PDT 9/7/2013 by Pamela McClintock

BAFTA Awards | London, Feb. 12
Charlie Gray
Steve McQueen
The harrowing drama made its Toronto debut Friday night. "For me, this film is about how to survive an unfortunate situation," the auteur said.

TORONTO -- In a feisty exchange at the Toronto Film Festival, filmmaker Steve McQueen said he didn't make 12 Years a Slave to spark a conversation about race, but to reveal how people survive terrible situations.
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McQueen, whose harrowing slavery drama made its Toronto debut Friday night, appeared with some of his cast at an afternoon press conference, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard.

In the Fox Searchlight film, Ejiofor plays a free black man who is kidnapped in 1841 at sold into slavery. The film is based on the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup, and was produced by Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner's Plan B Entertainment (Pitt, who has a small role in the movie, didn't attend the press conference).

The press conference began with moderator Johanna Schneller of The Globe and Mail asking McQueen if he intended for the film to spark a conversation about race in North America.

"I made this movie because I want to tell a story about slavery and a story that hasn't been given a platform in cinema. It's one thing to read about slavery but when you see it within a narrative, it's different. Now if that starts a conversation, wonderful, excellent," McQueen said.

"But for me this film is about how to survive an unfortunate situation. I don't know what kind of conversation you are talking about. It's a very broad question and I don't know what you mean," he continued. "I hope it goes beyond race. You're trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved, but it's not entirely about that."

McQueen, whose film begins rolling out in U.S. theaters on Oct. 18, also bristled when Schneller asked Paulson if it was difficult to play the part of Mary Epps, the wife of a plantation owner (Fassbender).

"These are actors and this is drama. Without people playing people who are appalling, there would be no drama," the director. "It's their job, it's what they do. They are athletes. If they couldn't do it, I'd get someone else. Come on."

Ejiofer, a well-known British actor, added that 12 Years a Slave is about "dignity, not race," to which McQueen responded, "hear, hear."

On a lighter note, one journalist asked Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o if she considered herself Mexican as well. Nyong'o replied that while she was born in Mexico, her family moved back to Kenya when she was a toddler. As a teenager, she returned to Mexico to learn Spanish.

"I'm a Mexi-Kenyan," the actress quipped.

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Post by Admin on Tue Sep 10, 2013 4:50 pm

Steve McQueen Explains Why the World Is Ready For '12 Years a Slave'
Steve McQueen in Toronto. Eric Kohn

The story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South in the 1840's might not sound like the material for an especially high profile movie. Then "12 Years a Slave" premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and everything changed. The Fox Searchlight production has not only continued gathering acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many people have proclaimed that star Chiwetel Ejiofor is a lock for Best Actor in the burgeoning Oscar race. It has also solidified the developing reputation of British director Steve McQueen, for whom "Slave" is a major step up in terms of ambition and exposure after his first two features, "Hunger" and "Shame." McQueen, a sharply reflective and serious thinker who has the air of a university professor, still seems baffled by all the attention. However, during a conversation with Indiewire in Toronto over the weekend, he took a stab at figuring out why this ostensibly difficult movie seems to be doing so well.

He's had a long time to think this over. After he made his well-received debut feature "Hunger," McQueen wanted to make a movie about Civil Rights activist Paul Robeson, but the project didn't come together and the director got drawn into production for "Shame." Then McQueen's wife gave him the little-known text "12 Years a Slave," the memoir written by Solomon Northup. He realized that there was a global issue to the story: Both his family and Ejiofor's have histories with the slave trade, a reality that counteracts the notion of two Brits making a movie about American history. "This text should be taught all around the world," he said of Northup's book. "This was an international issue."

Viewers have had black history on their minds a lot lately. Considering the question of why there have been so few movies that deal with slavery -- and certainly none that portray it with the unflinching detail found in "12 Years a Slave" -- McQueen said he felt that recent changes in American discourse have enabled audiences to confront the issue more dramatically than ever before. "I really think it's because there's a black president now," he said. "Also, with the unfortunate killing of Trayvon Martin and the conversations surrounding the Voting Rights Act, people are ready for something like this."

You can't go wrong with Brad Pitt. The actor's Plan B Entertainment produced the movie, and Pitt appears in a minor role toward its end. Spoiler alert: He doesn't play a bad guy. In fact, some of the early criticisms of "12 Years a Slave" involve the sudden appearance of Pitt's character, a good-natured Canadian working on the plantation where Northup is kept who tells the slave owner (Michael Fassbender) that he should consider the evil nature of slavery. "The idea of Brad being this superman, that's Brad. I can't do anything about that," McQueen said. "But he's also a way for us to talk to Michael's character."

It's not a movie that has been mandated by commercial interests. McQueen had never made a movie with a studio before, but Fox Searchlight didn't intervene much despite the tricky nature of the material. The company may have realized that, in this case, cleaning up the brutal nature of the story would defeat the point. "The studio didn't give me any notes except for one," McQueen recalled. "They said that some of the slaves' fingernails weren't dirty enough in some of the shots."

Because audiences are ready for this story and the studio allowed for it, McQueen held nothing back. Two long takes in the movie stand out for the way they show the filmmaker's ambitious formalism while also deepening the visceral nature of the experience: In one, Ejiofor's character hangs from a noose for minutes on end; in another, another slave is tied to a tree and whipped repeatedly while McQueen's camera swirls around her. "I had to pull you into that environment," he said. "It was the only way to take in the entirety of it."

Audiences can handle the brutality. Most of them, anyway. Few people expect "12 Years a Slave" to provide an easy viewing experience. At the Toronto premiere, McQueen recalled noticing a few walkouts during the whipping scene. "If there's just a smattering of people who leave out of thousands, that's a good sign," he said.


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Post by Admin on Wed Sep 18, 2013 7:27 am

'12 Years a Slave:' an American story unearthed by British filmmaker
September 10, 2013 08:52 AM
By Mary Milliken
A+ A-

TORONTO: Set in the plantations of sweltering southern Louisiana and based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man sold into slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is unmistakably an American story.

And yet, much is being made of the provenance of a film that has won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences at festivals in Toronto and Telluride and been touted as a top early contender for Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen, whose idea it was, is British.

"It's strange that it took a Brit, Steve McQueen, to ask a question 'Why are there not more movies on American slavery? And he's absolutely right," Brad Pitt, a producer on the film who also has a role in it, said at its Toronto premiere on Friday.

After a surprise screening of the movie in the Colorado mountain town of Telluride in late August, trade publication Variety wrote a glowing review, but said it was a "disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face."

McQueen plays down the role his nationality might have, as does the actor who plays the lead role of Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Briton of Nigerian origin. Both have slavery in their family histories and believe in the global nature of the story.

"It was just one of those stories that I felt needed to be told," McQueen told Reuters. "My ancestors were slaves, of course. I come from West Indies. I went through the whole Americas, South America, West Indies and I got the idea of North America and the idea of this free man."

McQueen, who won over critics with his first two dramas "Hunger" and "Shame," also feels kinship with the United States, due to his family diaspora and the links between the West Indies and American black culture.

Ejiofor, in the biggest role of his career, believes slavery is something that has defined the experience of half the planet.

"I am Igbo, my family is Igbo from the east of Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of Igbo were taken from southeast Nigeria to Louisiana," said Ejiofor.


Ejiofor as Northup begins the film as a free man, a musician living a good life with his wife and two children in New York state. But then he falls prey to two men who drug him and sell him into slavery and there begins his descent into a pre-Civil War world he never imagined could be so cruel.

"The reason I got the idea of the free man is that you could identify with him," said McQueen. "When he is captured and put into slavery, you go on this journey with him, you go through this assault course of slavery, you are with him."

McQueen was going around in circles to develop the story when his wife found the autobiography of Northup.

At first in the movie, Northrup tries to convince everyone he is a free man, but soon learns that showing his intelligence makes him a threat to the slave traders and owners. He works hard, looks out for others and mostly keeps his head down.

But then he finds himself in the ownership of Edwin Epps, a complex and brutal master played by German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender who drinks heavily and is deeply in love with the slave Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o.

Solomon tries to protect her from Epps, but the slave owner's desperation leads him to extremes of physical and mental punishment, played out in thick heat and muck, steps from his stately plantation house .

After 12 years, Solomon wins his release from slavery, thanks to the mediation of a Canadian abolitionist played by Pitt, and leaves Epps' plantation with a look of stunned disbelief in his eyes.

After the screening of "12 Years a Slave" in Telluride, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "By the time the theater emptied out, few hadn't shed a tear in response to the emotional roller coaster on which they had just journeyed."

Pundits have predicted a large number of Oscar nominations for the film, which was made for a relatively small budget below $20 million. The predicted nominations include best picture.

Ejiofor stresses that "Americans were deeply involved in telling this story" - from cast, to crew, to producers, but adds that the story is an international one that impacts everybody with its underlying theme of human respect.

In any case, he says, there should be no national boundaries when it comes to art and film.

"If somebody responds to a piece of material and wants to tell that story and wants to pursue telling the story in that way, then they do," he said.

"12 Years a Slave" from Fox Searchlight Pictures opens in North American theaters on Oct. 18.

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Post by Admin on Wed Sep 18, 2013 7:48 am

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

Calum Marsh September 16, 2013

12 years a slave

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 f&%$#& 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 f&#! 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.

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Post by Admin on Thu Sep 19, 2013 10:20 pm

Racking Focus: What Filmmakers Can Learn From Steve McQueen's Career
Zachary Wigon | Wednesday September 18, 2013

Many independent filmmakers are under the illusion that you "start commercial," then become more artistic as time goes on. They couldn't be further from the truth.

It's a stunning and exhilarating thing to hear Oscar buzz swirling (so heavily!) around Steve McQueen's latest film, 12 Years A Slave, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It's also - for this writer - rather shocking. Not because I don't think McQueen is talented - quite the contrary - but because of how his career began and the direction in which it has moved. McQueen's progression contains a truth any independent filmmaker would be wise to absorb.

In my opinion, McQueen is perhaps the most exciting young filmmaker to watch on the planet. His debut feature Hunger is one of my favorite films, a masterpiece that addresses the concept of the political act in a brilliantly nuanced fashion.

Understanding that politics is both specific and universal, that political action is both simple and painfully complex in its consequences, the film painted a portrait of "doing politics" unlike anything else I'd ever seen in cinema. It was also fabulously creative in its treatment of narrative - the main character is barely seen in the first 25 minutes, there's no traditional narrative progression whatsoever, and there's barely any dialogue - oh yeah, except for a 22-minute sequence in the middle of the film that is nothing but dialogue. When Hunger came out in 2008 it was hardly a surprise (at least to the British public) that the film was as elliptically told as it was - McQueen spent many years making video art for museums and galleries before he made Hunger, so his background was decidedly non-narrative.

Fascinatingly, McQueen's trajectory since Hunger has been both fast-rising and trending toward the mainstream. No one could accuse his follow-up Shame of exactly being a conventional film - it revolves around a sex addict having a breakdown - but it was certainly far more conventionally told than Hunger (while still a great film). 12 Years A Slave, which I have not seen, is generating heated Oscar buzz and is certainly marking a rise in McQueen's popularity, as he climbs a rung higher on the ladder of general film-world recognition and respect.

Show us what you can do that makes you as different and singular as possible.

Why is all this of note? So many independent filmmakers are under the impression that the best route to success is via making a commercial product as their entry into the industry, after which they can begin to "branch out" and do more commercial work. For McQueen, the opposite path has proven highly successful. Hunger is nothing if not a bracingly unique film, a fiercely original work of art that couldn't have been made by anyone else. The singularity of vision behind Hunger gave industry figures the confidence in McQueen to let him make films on a larger (and more commercial) scale.

Any number of filmmakers are capable of making a conventionally told film - but there's only one Steve McQueen. By distinguishing himself (with his first film) as a filmmaker capable of doing things no one else could do, McQueen quickly earned the respect needed to "advance" in the industry. Let it be a warning to aspiring filmmakers - no one's interested in seeing you do what everyone else does well. Show us what you can do that makes you as different and singular as possible.

Of course, most filmmakers won't end up being as brilliant and original as someone like McQueen - but anyone with some talent for making art has an inner creative compass that steps to its own beat. Following that rhythm may give an emerging filmmaker a better shot at being noticed than anything else.

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Post by Admin on Fri Sep 20, 2013 2:10 pm

Steve McQueen: Director On The Rise

20 September 2013

Steve McQueen is one of the most exciting new director's making a splash in Hollywood at the moment.

McQueen's first two feature films had the critics raving, while 12 Years A Slave is already surrounded in Oscar hype.

But it was back in 1993 when he kicked off his directing career with short film Bear; a film that raised issues of race and violence.

McQueen continued to make shorts from 1993 throughout the nineties and was known more as an art filmmaker.

His film Deadpan - which was a restaging of a Buster Keaton stunt - won him the Turner Prize in 1999; seeing off competition from Tracey Emin.

It wasn't until 2008 that he made his directorial debut with Hunger; since then he has been a filmmaker that everyone has been excited about.

Hunger saw McQueen team up with Michael Fassbender for the first time as the director told the story of Bobby Sands; an Irish Republican who lead a hunger strike while he was in prison.

Fassbender took on the role of Sands in the movie, in what remains one of his most powerful performances.

McQueen delivered one of the best directorial debuts of all time as Hunger was an unflinching and provocative piece of filmmaking.

McQueen's very direct and no nonsense style really did grab everyone's attention as Hunger is a bruising watch.

McQueen won the Camera d'Or award for a first time filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as picking up a whole host of other awards and nominations.

It was 2012 when a McQueen directed movie hit the big screen again, and this time he whipped up a storm with Shame.

The movie saw McQueen reunite with Michael Fassbender to deliver a movie that looked at sex addiction.

Shame is a character driven film as McQueen looks at the devastation an addiction and cause. This movie was helped along by another fantastic performance from Fassbender; he really should have been nominated for an Oscar.

The movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Fassbender would go on to win the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.

In the new year McQueen is back with 12 Years A Slave; which tells the true story of Solomon Northup. Solomon is a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

McQueen has brought together an impressive cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti.

12 Years A Slave is already whipping up a storm on the festival circuit and is expected to be a major player during the awards season.

With just three movie McQueen has established himself as an exciting as well as a provocative filmmaking.

McQueen has a very long and successful career ahead of him and could well be tasting Oscar success at the beginning of next year.

12 Years A Slave is released 24th January 2014.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 03, 2013 6:35 pm

British Filmmakers Shift American 'Conversation On Race'

by Bilal Qureshi
September 30, 2013 4:06 PM

7 min 46 sec

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun, one of the films to premiere in Toronto this year, is part of a new wave of films with roots in Britain about the black experience.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun, one of the films to premiere in Toronto this year, is part of a new wave of films with roots in Britain about the black experience.

Following the premiere of the film 12 Years A Slave at the Toronto International Film Festival, reporter Johanna Schneller of The Globe and Mail asked British director Steve McQueen, "Can we talk about race in North America? Are we all too careful, are we all too fearful?" McQueen bristled in response: "I don't know what kind of conversation you're talking about."

12 Years A Slave is McQueen's upcoming portrait of American slavery that opens on Oct. 18. It follows the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Critics at Toronto immediately hailed the film as a landmark achievement — "necessary and essential," the Schindler's List of slavery films. The film is brutal, unflinching and unsentimental in its portrait of a theme that remains deeply charged for an American audience. But McQueen, who is black and has , said his film is about more than America's history with race. "Of course it is about race, but at the same time it goes beyond the boundaries of that ... in a way that life always does. We always want to put ourselves into boxes or put sort of frames around things. But actually most of the time things break out of those frames," he said.

McQueen's film was one of several international productions with black British actors front and center to premiere at Toronto. Idris Elba came to the festival with co-star Naomie Harris to premiere Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who also appears in 12 Years A Slave, accompanied Thandie Newton for the premiere of their film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

But instead of seeing these films as a banner of new black filmmaking, "absolutely none of these movies are about race," Newton said, despite their predominantly black casts.

Gary Younge, who covers America for the British newspaper The Guardian, says the unwillingness of black Britons to have themselves and their work categorized by race is a reflection of a fundamentally different historical experience. "There is a demand sometimes when black Britons come to the U.S. to speak a different language of race, a language that they were not raised with, that they are not necessarily fluent in — and that they may not also respect and that by and large, people will resist and say well, I don't want to use those words and I don't want to talk in that way."

Unlike the defining chapters of African-American history — enslavement, emancipation, the great migration to the North, and the civil rights movement — the black British experience carries with it an immigrant sensibility. It's a community with roots and intact links to Britain's former colonies. Younge says: "We are fewer in number. We have been in Britain less long. Our civil rights movement took place abroad, in India, Jamaica, Nigeria and elsewhere. I grew up with a map of Barbados on the wall, with a flag of Barbados on the door and I was 17 before I would admit that I was British."

Ejiofor grew up shuttling between Nigeria and London. Newton says her mother "literally grew up in Zimbabwe." But as filmmakers with international aspirations, America remains the promised land. Younge says that "America is still where the money is, so if you want to make films — which cost a lot of money — then chances are you are going to end up in America for some time." And even though coming to America can mean being classified as "black actors," it can also allow for a kind of freedom and critical distance when addressing uncomfortable truths.

Early in her Hollywood career, Newton played Sally Hemings in the film Jefferson in Paris and then took the role of the daughter of a slave in the big-screen adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. "One of the reasons why I had a perspective that freed me up to play the role of a slave without a very powerful sense of betrayal and the baggage of that was because it wasn't in my history," she says. "I saw it from a completely sort of fresh perspective."

Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, was at Toronto for the premiere of the screen adaptation of Half of a Yellow Sun. Her , explores a Nigerian woman's journey to understanding the American contours of race. Adichie says if there's one thing she's learned crisscrossing among Africa, London and America, it's that to address these issues, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable:

"People are so uncertain about how to deal with it because on the one hand it's a very good thing that America is a country that tries to nurture the idea of being inclusive, being sensitive, that sort of thing, but then you wonder at what point does it clash with the idea of being truthful?"

When I asked director McQueen if he felt any responsibility to engage in the American conversations that will inevitably emerge from 12 Years a Slave he said, "I don't have to. I'm a filmmaker. My responsibility is to the film and that's it."

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Post by Admin on Wed Oct 09, 2013 8:37 pm

Interview: 12 Minutes w/ Steve McQueen - On '12 Years A Slave,' His 'Brand,' His 'Blackness' & More
by Tambay A. Obenson
October 8, 2013 2:05 PM

It's been about 3 weeks since I saw Steve McQueen's much-ballyhooed drama 12 Years A Slave, and also about the same amount of time since I interviewed him. It's a film that I intend to see a second time, if only to compare my reactions (to the film, as well as the reactions others have had) to the first time I saw it - reactions (certainly not all of them) that I shared during my conversation with McQueen, which led to one or two somewhat contentious exchanges, a little of which you will read in the interview below.

We've long been fans of Mr McQueen's work, since his feature film debut - the provocative, unsettling, avant-garde Hunger - and have become enamored with his pragmatic, candid ways - especially when dealing with the press. But it's one thing to observe this phenomenon from a distance, and quite another to experience it firsthand, which I had the pleasure of doing 4 Sundays ago at the Conrad Hotel in Manhattan, where the New York City press junket for 12 Years A Slave was held.

Ahead of the interview, despite the fact that I'd only been allotted 10 minutes with McQueen (about standard for junkets), being fully aware of what I was potentially up against - knowing that I was (and likely still am) in the minority, when I felt then (and still do feel now) that praise for the film has been excessive, and also being cognizant of his temperament - it was clear to me that I had to be well-prepared, given that I would be asking a few questions that would likely be considered criticisms of the film and the filmmaker. I usually am well-prepared for interviews, but, I'd readily admit that, this time, I wanted to be beyond ready. It's called respect.

Unfortunately, given that a healthy percentage of our 10 minutes (although it would eventually be 12 minutes) was spent in dispute over some of my claims, I didn't get to ask every single question I had for Mr McQueen.

But an interesting conversation it most certainly was - although it's been cleaned up a bit, if only for clarity. For example, there were several situations in which our words overlapped, and it's a challenge to convey the energy of those moments in print, and capture the body language, facial expressions, etc, which contributed significantly to the spirit of the conversation. But this is an interview transcript after all, not a screenplay.

TAMBAY OBENSON (TO): The one thing that really stuck out to me about the film is the passage of time which I didn't quite notice. I think I wanted to feel that 12 years pass, and really feel the weight of the oppression suffered over those 12 years. But, the way the film progressed, and maybe I just missed some cues, it almost felt like it played over just a matter of weeks or even days, as opposed to 12 long years. And Like I said, maybe I missed some cues, but I really wanted to feel the oppression over that lengthy passage of time, and not necessarily anything overt.
STEVE MCQUEEN (SM): [short silence] You're the first person to ask me that question. You know, I think I've done that job. I'm not interested in having a situation where you tick off one year, or two years, or three years, and by the time you get to four, you're thinking, oh my God, there's 8 more years left in the movie. That does a disservice to the narrative. That's for other filmmakers to do if they want to do it. But for me, I needed to tell the time passing on the physicality of someone, on the familiarity of things in the movie that he was doing. Therefore, when you're invested in the story, these things come about. It becomes too much of a device that doesn't benefit the narrative. What I was interested in doing is having a dynamic narrative.

TO: I just noticed at the end when he is finally reunited with his family - that's only when I realized that it had indeed been 12 years...

SM: Well, that's just not sophisticated. Putting onto the screen every single year...

TO: I think you misunderstand me. Not that specific. Like I said, nothing overt. Some subtle indications of this passage of time so that one actually feels the weight of 12 long years of oppression. So, no, not ticking off every single year... But, it's slavery era USA, and 12 years have passed from the beginning to the end of the film, and I wanted to feel the weight of oppression of time, and, I just didn't feel that.

SM: The subtle indication is filmmaking. I rely on filmmaking to tell me those kinds of stories, how, if you're invested in the story, you become familiar with what they're doing, how their faces age. How, for example, you've got Solomon running to Ms Shaw's house, saying "Ms Shaw, Master Epps is looking for Patsey, you've got to come now." Obviously he's more familiar at that point. So it's a more sophisticated way of showing the passage of time, rather than ticking a box. For me that wouldn't have been stimulating at all.

TO: Again, to be clear, I'm not at all suggesting that you had to tick a box to show each year passing, or do something "unsophisticated" as you put it. It's more about feeling it. But maybe it was just me, since you say I was the first person to ask you that question. I do plan to watch the film again. But let me move on since my time is very short. So, I'd say that the overwhelming conversation about the film, from those who've seen it, is centered on the realism and brutality you depict in it, and how hard it is to watch and handle. And I almost have this impulse to chuckle at that, not out of disrespect, but it's just that I feel like it's a reality - slavery in America, the history, American history - that we all should already be familiar with at this point. If you've read or even heard about slavery in America, I'd think that you would be expecting to see the brutality of it, and you shouldn't be so shocked and surprised at what the film shows. I think maybe it speaks to the fact that this is the first film, in quite a long time, that really addresses the subject matter in a very realistic, non-sensational way. And so I wondered what your reaction is to the what the reactions to the film have been so far...

SM: I don't know where you're getting your information from, because the majority of the people are not saying that they can't handle the violence. That's just not true. Some people are saying it, but not the overwhelming number of people. You can't come in here and say something that isn't true. As a journalist, come on, I'm willing to talk to you, but you can't tell me untruths.

TO: It's not a challenge or criticism of you or the film per say. More of my reaction to what I've read and heard as being the dominant conversation about the film.

SM: I know it's not a criticism. But when you ask me a question you have to be accurate. You're a journalist, and I want to do the best I can for you and your website. So let's start this right. I try to answer your questions the best way that I can. The majority of people are not saying that, but some people are. You're sensationalizing the question for some reason.

TO: I'm not sensationalizing the question. But really Steve, come on, it's screened at Telluride and Toronto, and I'm telling you that reactions in general, based on what I read in other reviews, and what I heard from those who've seen it, people are taken by the realism and brutality of it. As if it's something they don't or can't recognize.

SM: Some people. Some people.

TO: In your experience...

SM: In my experience. [short silence] You've come in, and unfortunately, your research is not particularly good.

TO: Ok [laughter].

SM: If you say that some people have had that response, I can respond to that. But not to say that the majority of people have, as you said.

TO: Ok, ok.

SM: Ok. So let's start again [sigh]. My, this has been bizarre.

TO: Ok, let's [laughter].

SM: My response to that, is that, either we're making a movie about slavery or we're not. Now I want to make a movie about slavery. And in order to make a movie about slavery, one has to look at exactly what happened. Why people were slaves. The mental torture. And the physical torture. Now, I didn't want to pull punches in that department because, otherwise, you know, you can't make a movie about slavery that way, and I would be doing a disservice to the people that died, and the people that died, giving me my freedom, and I couldn't let that happen.

TO: I think the most impactful scene in the film is during the last half of it, when Lupita Nyong'o's character, Patsey, is whipped. That was probably the most heart-wrenching scene. We've actually been following Lupita for about 4 years, starting with when she did something for MTV Base in kenya - a show called Shuga on HIV awareness. And so when she was cast in the role, it was kind of a surprise for us, a pleasant one of course, since the rest of the film's starring cast comprises of actors whose names and faces much of America is already familiar with. So I'm interested in your finding her, so to speak, and casting her in this part.

SM: I wouldn't give myself credit for finding her at all. I mean, she already existed. It's just that, what was interesting about that, is that there was a hunt for Patsey. A huge hunt, which lasted a very long time. I think we saw about 1000 girls for that role. And Lupita... she came from out of nowhere. And, you know, I was wondering if she was real on the audition tape. And thank God she won the part, because she's sensational, she's a force of nature, and we were really grateful to have her, because it was a real hunt.

At this point, the Fox Searchlight rep signals that I'm running out of time.

TO: The gentlemen is telling me that I have two minutes left. So, it looks like I need to speed things up now...

SM: Because you had a bad start, I'll give you 2 extra minutes on-top of the 2 minutes left.

TO: [Laughter] You're too kind. You're too kind... So... Are you aware of, or do you pay attention to the larger conversation taking place about Steve McQueen as the filmmaker, as the artist, or...

SM: No, no, not at all [immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively].

TO: Ok, I'll just move on from that [laughter]. But as a filmmaker or artist of African descent, and as someone - myself - who writes about filmmakers of African descent, since that's my website's focus, I can say that there aren't many black filmmakers, or filmmakers period, of your ilk.

SM: Sure, sure.

TO: So do you think of yourself in this space as a significant, important artist, filmmaker...

SM: No, no. [again, immediate and definite, shaking his head decisively]. Not at all.

The Fox Searchlight rep walks in to tell me that my time is up. Steve McQueen interrupts.

SM: [to the Fox Searchlight rep] We'll give him 2 more minutes.

Fox Searchlight rep acknowleges and exits.

SM: Um, I don't think of myself in any sort of context like that, far from it. I wouldn't dare.

TO: So your blackness, or African-ness, if I can say that, doesn't at all influence the decisions and choices you make as an artist.

SM: No, no. Never has. I don't dare think in that way. I wouldn't dare.

TO: Ok, I'd love to dive a bit more into that, but I know my time is up, so I'll squeeze whatever else I can in. So, everyone wants to know what's next for Steve McQueen. With Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years A Slave, you tackle these sort of transgressive subjects, and do so in a way that's also transgressive, we could say. Films and a filmmaking style and approach that most others would shy away from. In the USA anyway, especially in mainstream. Any plans for a Steve McQueen comedy, or a Steve McQueen horror movie, Steve McQueen thriller, etc.

SM: You say "Steve McQueen" but I'm not of any interest. You say "Steve McQueen comedy," "Steve McQueen this or that." I'm not a brand. I'm not any kind of institution. I'm a filmmaker. That's what I try to do. I try to do the best I can. And that's it, really.

TO: You may not think of yourself as someone of interest, or as a brand, but, come on, you're the man of the hour. You may not pay attention, but there is a conversation being had about "Steve McQueen," the filmmaker, the artist. Maybe not all over America, but your name carries certain expectations with the audiences who appreciate your work. We've come to expect certain things from a Steve McQueen film.

SM: I don't think of myself like that, so I'm not even interested in having that conversation. Not out of disrespect, but I don't see myself like that. I just see myself as a guy who's trying to make a film or, make art. I don't really get into that. It's not my bag. I just try to do the best I can, and that's it. You know. I'm not that interesting of a person.

TO: [Laughter] You're not?

SM: What I hope is that what I make is of interest.

TO: Understood. But to go back to what I initially wanted to know, is that, you're interested in tackling all kinds of subjects, in all genres, right?

SM: Sure, yes, of course.

TO: Ok, and can you let us know what you're considering doing next.

SM: I'm interested in doing a musical actually.

TO: Oh really? That's interesting. Any ideas on...

SM: I don't know what. Not yet.

TO: Ok. That's it. Thank you very much sir, I really appreciate the time.

SM: My absolute pleasure.

TO: Thank you.

Thanks to Steve McQueen for the time.

Fox Searchlight will open 12 Years A Slave on October 18, in an initial limited release, before expanding nationwide.

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Cover Story: Steve McQueen and the Cast of 12 Years a Slave
Published at 3:44 PM on October 16, 2013
By Michael Dunaway
Cover Story: Steve McQueen and the Cast of 12 Years a Slave

Cover photo by Michael Dunaway

Page 1 of 2

You could argue that 12 Years a Slave is the best film of the year. But an easier argument is that it’s the most important. Steve McQueen’s slavery epic, which opens this weekend, is the most cinematic and meaningful examination of The Great American Shame. And it comes at a time when racial issues are once again in the forefront of the American conversation.

The English director himself is not unaware of the importance of the moment. “Look,” he says, “your country has this wonderful thing, its Constitution, and the right to pursue happiness. It’s kind of quite amazing, quite moving. Right now you have a black President, it’s the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the unfortunate incident of Trayvon Martin which happened quite recently, and the revoking of voting rights. So, you have this kind of perfect storm which has occurred. Within that, I think people are assessing where they are in society now. I hope the film can be a point of discussions for where people have come and where they are going. You’re just hoping that it can cause discussion. Start a spark.”

It seems inevitable that this film will do just that. The real question is, why did it take this moment for a major American film about slavery? Alfre Woodard, who has a small but powerful role in the film, has a theory. “I think it’s shame on the part of the dominant culture,” she says, “and shame on the part of black people who don’t wanna hear it. They feel shame and or anger, and none of us could ever imagine ourselves in that situation. But what Steve does is he gives us the reality, the everyday reality of what it was to live in a slave economy in the same way that we live in a dollar economy. It’s populated and peopled by so many kinds of people and realistically portrayed, so we can imagine ourselves in that place. We never say there are too many Holocaust movies. We never say there are too many gangster movies, too many love stories. But once Roots was done—which wasn’t a film, it was a television event—it was like, okay, we heard that. Late ’70s! That was the late ’70s.”

Michael Fassbender, who played the lead role in McQueen’s previous two films, Hunger and Shame, has a large role in 12 Years as well, in an Oscar-worthy performance as a cruel slavemaster, Epps. Fassbender, too, sees the film’s timing as propitious. “We’ve seen so many films about the Holocaust over the years,” he says, “and rightly so, but not many films about this particular period in history. We’re all Solomon, we’re all Epps, we’re all Ford. We’re all, all of these people. These are our ancestors. This is what our history is. Why would we try to forget it? It’s important. We should know what we’re capable of doing to one another. At the same time we see through Solomon Northup how resilient the human spirit can be. The fact that Solomon keeps his dignity intact at the end of the film is just an incredible example of human greatness.”

Northrup’s true story is almost impossible to believe. He was a free middle-class black man living in New York, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, where he spent the eponymous 12 years before he could get word to his family, prove his identity and be freed. The script is based on his memoir. “He has a fascinating way of looking at the world,” says Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has leapt into the Oscar race himself with his magisterial portrayal of Northrup, “even within the context of all that is happening to him. I was struck by his depth of soul, his unbreakable spirit, his lack of judgment, his lack of hatred. He’s somebody who starts off in a battle for his freedom, but soon realizes that he’s really in a battle for his mind. Anything that is not going to help him, he just cuts loose. Hatred ain’t gonna help him, so he cuts it loose. He’s focused on staying sane, on keeping himself together, on not breaking. He was an extraordinary person. And then to have the wherewithal to write about it in such a poetic, direct and humble way is amazing.”

Northrup was the guide through his own story, for both Ejiofor and McQueen, and he led them to some surprising places. “For me,” says McQueen, “I think that it’s not a black-and-white thing. I think slavery is a bit more complicated than that. It’s an Our thing. It’s not about black people and white people. We’ve gone past that. It’s a much more complex story than that. I always saw it as a dark fairy tale, as a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale. Or Pinocchio, when they sell him into the Circus. It’s a movie where people should be linking arms, instead of being divided. It’s about embracing one’s past in order to go forward.”


Ejiofor felt the gravity of his task from the very beginning, when he first read the script. “This is Solomon’s story,” he says, “this is actually what happened to him. I was struck by the responsibility of that, of telling someone’s story. Of delving into this world and the responsibility of telling a story so deep inside the slave experience. I spoke to Steve and decided to attempt to tell this story. Then, it actually become—rather than a responsibility, it became a privilege. Every day of shooting on this film was a real privilege. To bring Solomon’s story and the other people in the film—their experience—to bring their story to life.”

Fassbender had been in the trenches twice before with McQueen, and was eager to participate in anything he did. “I remember,” he says, “Steve sort of said to me—I think we were doing a junket for Shame or something like that—around that time, ‘Oh, I want to make a movie about slavery,’ and I was like ‘Of course.’ It seemed pretty obvious. Steve always seems to tackle the elephant in the room. So, that was the first I head of what part Steve had me in mind for. I was hoping it would that. So I called him up and as soon as I read the script and of course I was in tears. I found it such a moving story, an incredible story. I couldn’t believe that it was a true story. I’d never heard anything about it before. So, I called him up immediately and said ‘Whatever, whether it’s one day, two days on this job, I just want to be part of it.’ I felt that it was a really important story to tell. Luckily enough, he offered me a part.”

Alfre Woodard had a similar enthusiasm for McQueen’s work. “For me, it was Steve McQueen,” she remembers. “I was so excited in just this way when you say “Oh my God, here is a new filmmaker with a voice and a vision and an artistic ability—“ when I saw Hunger and then Shame and I got a call saying ‘Steve McQueen would like you to be in his film,’ and I said ‘Yes!’ to my agent. And they said ‘Well, we’ll send you a script,’ and I said ‘No, just yes right now!” They said, ‘It’s very small,’ and I said ‘I don’t care what it is, yes!’”

The film is also quite a coming out party for Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsy, the prize slave of Fassbender’s plantation. It’s quite a first role for her. “Never in my wildest dreams,” she says, laughing, “did I think that I would be involved with a project of this magnitude right after graduating from drama school, so it’s been a gift. Particularly because when I was in high school, primary school, I wasn’t really good at history. I didn’t really retain information, and one of the things I love about being an actor is you get things outside of yourself outside of your sphere and take them personally. For me, it was a real privilege to take this time with history through this process. With this particular story, I didn’t know that I didn’t know these things about slavery. I’m just glad to be a part of this that will—the knowledge will be spread and retained in a way that would otherwise not be done.”

McQueen’s directorial voice speaks loudly in the film, and he had a huge impact on set as well. “It’s the greatest working experience I’ve had,” says Ejiofor simply..” He’s an amazing man to work with and discover with. Everybody wants to give 100 percent, but it’s great to have a director that articulates that, encourages it, and even demands it. It’s a great force, and when everyone is in that moment, it’s incredible.”

That same commitment to the work also struck Woodard. “You don’t really half-step when you’re around an artist that lives it out fully,” she says. “That’s one of the things I enjoyed about being around Steve. To bring a character’s true reality to the forefront, you have to first start naked. It requires running naked into it. And the director is there to grab you and hold you and make sure your nakedness is appropriate. And that’s what kind of director he is. You can grab whatever comes organically from your homework, your prep work, and give it. The only way to be wrong creatively is not to fully go in that direction. And he’s one of those that you trust. He’s got your back, he’s got the eye, he’s got the sensitivity and he’s got the bravery to want you to play it up to the edge of the glass. And he’ll let you know if it goes over, but he’ll certainly let you know if that glass isn’t full.”

Fassbender has a similar sentiment, but expresses it more directly. “He’s got a bullshit detector,” he laughs. “I think as actors sometimes we have a tendency—I’ll speak for myself—to use tricks or get comfortable in certain ways of going about the work, because the work in certain respects has become very formulaic in the way that it’s been taught. Steve just likes to disintegrate yet. He likes to say, this is a baby form, just over 100 years old. There is no right or wrong, you just need to go do it. When you’re on Steve’s set, you’re encouraged to fail. And then to fail better, as he says himself. It’s exciting. He’s very demanding, but he’s also very nurturing. He’s got an incredible ability to give you the confidence to depend on your instincts and follow them—and not question them.”

Sarah Paulson plays Epps’ wife, who’s even more menacing than Epps himself. McQueen encouraged her to find the humanity in the monster. “Early on Steve said, I don’t want you to apologize for her. I didn’t want to think about how cruel she’d be seen as. The only way I could do that was to figure out why and to try to see the motivation. What I came up with was that she was a product of the time and probably raised by ignorant bigots, and I don’t think she had the emotional capacity to challenge what she was taught. And when confronted with big feelings like being usurped by someone, having the man she’s married to so clearly and blatantly have his heart set on another… although the behavior was deplorable and indefensible, it was all she knew how to do. She was a victim of the times, too. I’m not excusing her. But when I was playing her, I couldn’t judge her.”

“They’re all human beings,” agrees Fassbender, “and we’re all made up of the same things. There’s a lot of fear in these characters. They’re tortured. For me, it was important to give a glimpse of this character to the audience where they say, God, I see something of myself there. The object, for me, was that he wouldn’t be someone they could easily hold at arms-length away from themselves. I wanted to build some sort of empathy there so it would be harder to deal with.”

Fassbender’s performance is a virtual master class in playing histrionic without going over the top. Paulson was his most eager student. “I learned a lot about spontaneity from Michael,” she remembers. “I was very jealous of his willingness to fly in the face of convention. He just tried things that I thought, ‘Oh my God. Wow. s$#!.’”

She was also blown away by the performance from young Nyong’o. “I think Lupita is probably the future of this profession,” she says. “She’s so open and alive and present and brave and willing. It’s extraordinary to see.” Nyong’o herself is more modest. “Steve chooses actors he trusts,” she says simply. “He chooses actors because of the power he knows you can bring, and not for your name. And because of that, I got this role. He gave me a huge break.”

But the film really does belong to Ejiofor, who creates an endlessly interesting Northrup. “With Chiwetel,” says Paulson, “I learned about the power of stillness. To be completely full to the brim, and nothing spills over. I think as actors we think we have to hit our marks and do something. You feel you can’t just stand there and be, and have a whole inner life coming out of your pores. It was an extraordinary experience for me.”

Much of the power of those performances comes from McQueen getting out of the way of the actors and letting the camera linger on them. The long takes he’s famous for are are very much on display in 12 Years. “I think you can tell so many things in just one shot,” the director muses. “I don’t think you need eight shots to understand the situation when one is enough. And for me, it’s always been about the economics of means. Because that forces you to think about what you want to do. I mean, I don’t shoot coverage so for me, it’s about being precise about what one’s doing. I mean, it’s almost like Tai Chi. You have to understand—sometimes the environment tells you what it wants you to shoot. You have to be sensitive to the things in that moment. I learned that through shooting on Super Eight. Very early on, when I was in film school, I wanted to shoot in Super Eight. It’s very, very expensive. What I ended up shooting had to be very good. If I was going to shoot something in my camera, it had to be really good because it was expensive. So it taught you how to edit and refine in your head. You know, film is what? A hundred and something years old? It’s a baby. We’re still learning or finding out what language is. Either it works or it doesn’t.”

Fassbender loves McQueen’s long takes. “It’s exciting,” he says, “because it’s getting rid of these safety nets. ‘Well, we would do a cover shot here and if we don’t get that, it’s okay because we’ll come around here.’ No! It’s on. Now. And we’re all in it together. And we’ve got to dance together. You know, there are a lot of components there. So there’s a lot of technical stuff that needs to be covered. So, I found the technical stuff helped me drive through the scene. I knew I have to get to a certain mark, so I could get as close as I could to Lupita without hitting her. So all of those things are very real. So, how are we going to move with Sean, the DP, how do you get that rhythm going? All those things become palpable on the camera. They start to collect that electricity in the air in those long takes. Again, speaking about film and how it’s become very formulaic in it’s format, we’re used to seeing master, close up, close up, mid shot, mid shot. It doesn’t have to be that way. And in actual fact, you want to save those close ups for those beautiful shots of Chiwetal. Where you’re with Solomon Northup and you’re inside of him. His eyes are just so mesmerizing because of the close ups have been saved for that moment.”

Those long takes are a large part of how McQueen brings the audience into the story. “I have to say,” says Fassbender, “after watching the movie, that it’s physically encompassing, mentally encompassing. It’s the great thing that Steve does with all of his films. It’s not a passive experience as an audience member. You participate. Once the film starts, especially once Solomon gets captured, we go on the journey with Solomon. That’s a very rare thing as a film experience—to experience. And for a filmmaker to really grasp that, why not go on that journey? Even though, as I’ve said, it’s difficult at times, at the end, I felt a great sense of hope. I felt a great sense of love in the room and coming out of the auditorium afterwards, seeing how people interact with each other. I know that total strangers were hugging each other and sort of embracing each other. That’s the human condition at best. That’s what we want.”

Paulson agrees that the effect of the film, though difficult, is heartening. “Steve said something really great, that this film was a call to love. When he regains his freedom and rejoins his family, we see the power of all that was living inside him the whole time he was enslaved.”

That’s the kind of film that actors dream of being a part of. So much so that Fassbender makes a pretty serious claim. “I mean, I’m happy,” he says. “If someone pulled the plug on me tomorrow, I’d be happy. I’m serious. If I try to find one film that I could be super proud of, I feel this is definitely one of them. At the end of the day, this is a masterwork. And I’m part of this. God, I feel so privileged. I knew when I read the script and having worked with Steve before, knowing what an exceptional artist that he is. In every sense of the word that man is an artist. I just knew, the first time I met Steve, when we met for Hunger, that I was going to learn a lot from this guy. I was just so proud of Steve, Sean…everyone involved in this that I wouldn’t change a frame.”

Woodward, though, isn’t ready for that plug to be pulled just yet. “I feel like, I’m not done,” she practically yells. “I will top out my career when I get to play Steve in the Steve McQueen biopic.”

Now that’s a film I’d pay to see.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 17, 2013 4:00 pm

The Moviefile
Five Questions for 12 Years a Slave Director Steve McQueen
by Ethan Alter October 14, 2013 6:00 pm
Five Questions for 12 Years a Slave Director Steve McQueen

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 s$#!, you know. [Laughs]

See below for a longer interview with McQueen and the film's stars.


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Post by Admin on Fri Oct 18, 2013 10:38 pm

Steve McQueen on '12 Years a Slave' squeamishness: 'It's the truth and should be respected as such'

Is the media doing another disservice to the film?

By Kristopher Tapley Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013 9:54 PM

Much has been made the last couple of days about the "tough medicine" of Steve McQueen's slavery drama "12 Years a Slave." Two stories, one at the LA Times and another at The Wrap, played up modest attendance at the film's Academy screening* this weekend as evidence that its "brutal" depictions are keeping the squeamish at bay.

In reality, though, this is just another step the media has taken in doing another disservice to a film that is hardly something you have to take a deep breath and suffer through. (The first disservice, of course, being breathless proclamations that it was the Best Picture Oscar contender to beat.) The film's account of slavery is unflinching, yes, but some reports, ever since it was first unveiled for audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, would have you believe it was shackles by way of Gaspar Nöe or Eli Roth rather than the thoughtful Brit at the helm.

All of this was on my mind this morning when I talked to McQueen about the movie, so I led in with it. Is his film so brutal, I asked.
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"It's the truth," McQueen said. "But it's not like you're seeing a horror film. This is about the truth and it should be respected as such because this is how I'm able speak to you; part of my family had to go through that and over 25 million African Americans had to go through that, too. So to turn one's back on it is to turn your back on how people came to exist in America. We don't turn our backs on Holocaust survivors and it would be indecent to do so. This is about the truth, that's all. Plain and simple."

And for those people, Academy members or otherwise, taking the media's lead on this and forming some view of "12 Years a Slave" as something more akin to a "Saw" movie, take heart: it's really not that bad. I'd even wager you've seen much worse. Don't take my word for it, take Tim Gray's at Variety. But even if it were such a difficult sit, as McQueen says, one should respect it for what it is, the truth of our nation's history.

Oh, by the way, to that AMPAS member quoted in the LA Times piece who said he or she had read all about the Civil War and slavery and didn't need to see a movie repeating what he or she already knew, I'd like to see you try and be consistent with that facile reasoning from film to film. I imagine it will inevitably cave on you at some point. Have a little respect for art? You are, after all, a member of an organization that annually tips its hat to such a thing.

Stay tuned for more with McQueen and others on the film in the coming days.

"12 Years a Slave" arrives in theaters this Friday.

*It's worth noting, respect my fellow awards beat analysts as I do, that it is increasingly pointless to report on Academy screenings that seat 1,000 people -- be it attendance or reception -- as if they are an indication of what the 6,000-member organization will collectively think of a film.

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Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave
October 13, 2013 A Director Q&A in Los Angeles

Audience members are thrust headlong into the struggle for freedom in antebellum American in Director Steve McQueen’s stirring drama, 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, the film recounts his fight to survive and regain his freedom after being abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.

McQueen discussed the challenges of recapturing such a dark part of history in his first American film and the joys of working with a top-notch cast (Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard) in a discussion with DGA Award-winning Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) after the October 13 DGA membership screening in Los Angeles.

In addition to 12 Years a Slave, McQueen’s other works include the feature films Shame and Hunger, and the short films Static, Deadpan, Exodus, and Bear. McQueen joined the DGA in 2012.
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photos by Howard Wise - print courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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Steve McQueen


The director Steve McQueen has found a way to constantly include the element of surprise in his work, both as an artist and as a filmmaker. It would be dismissive and reductive to say that he operates on pure instinct, but what he has done with his installations—such as his video pieces Bear (1993) and Five Easy Pieces (1995)—comments on the way that we inhabit space, and how subtly and insidiously shocking it is when our intimate spaces have been violated. He often seems surprised himself when he's asked about the unrelenting power in his work. The three feature films he's responsible for as director—Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and his latest, an adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave, which is out this month—all explore the notion of having someone's personal space invaded, and how the protagonists in each film deal with that issue.

Given how unflinching his productions have been, the 44-year-old McQueen is remarkably gentle and thoughtful—so much so that he will request a moment to consider a question, and turn it around in his head to get the shape and weight of it, before answering, occasionally with an excited rush of words in response. (And I'm hard-pressed to remember a conversation with him, be it an interview or a chat over tea, that hasn't included a chuckling, "I hope that won't stir up too much trouble ...") That has been my experience with him since we became acquainted a few years back, after the American release of Hunger. He has an insatiable desire to understand and to be understood; if his work stimulates conversation—demands it, really—then so much the better.

ELVIS MITCHELL: How much did you know about the Solomon Northup story before you took on this project? I remember that when you told me you were going to make this film, you were surprised that I knew about him and his story.

STEVE McQUEEN: Well, I'd known for a while that I wanted to make a movie about slavery, but I didn't have an "in" as such. I was working with [the screenwriter] John Ridley at the time, trying to get things together to possibly do something, and I'd had this thought about doing something about a free person who is kidnapped, and then through the kidnapping we'd get to see all of the different cycles of slavery. I mean, I'd read stories about people being kidnapped, but how were these people kidnapped? I'd spoken to my wife about it, and she'd said, "Well, why don't you just look for true stories about it?" So we both started doing some research, and my wife found this book by Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, and said, "I think I've got it." I read the book and immediately thought, This is amazing. The book read like a script. It was a script already—there it was, on the page—and with every turn of the page, there was another huge revelation. For anyone who thinks that they know slavery—you read that book and you do a double take. It was just stunning to me that I'd never known about it. In fact, the majority of the people who I spoke to about the story had no idea about it. I was like, "How did I not know about this book?" It was like reading Anne Frank's diary for the first time. I was surprised that this story had never really been thought of as material for a film before. I mean, Gordon Parks had done something on Northup ...

MITCHELL: Yeah, it was a public-television thing that followed Northup's story [the 1984 American Playhouse film Solomon Northup's Odyssey].

McQUEEN: Yeah. But I was just shocked that I didn't know this story, and immediately became very passionate that I wanted to make it into a movie.

MITCHELL: Maybe it's just part of being American or because of where I grew up in a certain era, but I was assigned to read that book in school. It's almost like a bit of a Grimms' fairy tale. It's got the feeling of a fairy tale—and that awful brutality that a lot of fairy tales have, too.

McQUEEN: I might've mentioned this before, but to me, this was like Pinocchio. It's very much like a fairy tale because it's one of those stories where the hero is lost, taken away from his home, and then finds his way back, but through this harrowing situation. Those Brothers Grimm stories are also classic stories—they are stories that have sort of withstood the passing of time. That was what hit me when I first read Twelve Years a Slave: that this was a classic.

MITCHELL: Why did you want to do slavery story?

McQUEEN: Well, clearly, it's a huge part of history. It seemed to me like a kind of an obvious thing to do, to make a film about slavery—just like it's an obvious thing to make a film about the Second World War or the Holocaust. My grandparents from the West Indies were descendants of slaves. But then, at the same time, there really aren't too many films about slavery. It's funny because as I was going to make 12 Years a Slave, I bumped into [Quentin] Tarantino, and he was working on Django Unchained at the time, and he said, "I'd hope there could be more than one film about slavery." It's interesting because there are a bunch of westerns, a bunch of gangster movies, a bunch of sex or war movies ...

MITCHELL: I find myself thinking back to a conversation that we had a couple of years ago, where you were talking about the incredible lack of stories about people of color. Was that aspect of things in your head, too?

McQUEEN: Well, yeah. This film is about that hole in a way—and this is a gaping hole because it's a part of history that's barely even in film. It's kind of incredible. It's similar to Hunger, for me, which was an obvious film to make in telling the story of 10 men who died in an British prison cell and their hunger strike. But with this film—I mean, goodness gracious. Prejudice is all around us. Just walk down the street—it's everywhere. So how is it possible that this subject—slavery—hasn't been given some larger form of cinematic representation? I don't know the answer to that.

MITCHELL: Did you watch any of the films about slavery that do exist before you made this?

McQUEEN: No, not at all. I'm not interested. To be honest, I just don't even really watch a lot of movies. It just has to do with the fact that I used to watch, like, five movies a week. But I was that person at that time, when I was younger. This film was really just in my head—the images were in my head—so it was really more a process of speaking to my DP, Sean Bobbitt, getting images in my head, and then feeling it out. For me, making a film is a bit like switching off the light in the room and trying to navigate around by touch and feel and smell and not by doing the sort of obvious thing of opening your eyes and looking around. It's a different way of trying to make a reality on film, and that's what I'm interested in. I'm interested in the here and now, and not other people and how they do things. It's doesn't help me. For me, it's all about being present with the material that you have.

MITCHELL: The book is very straightforward in describing these things that happen to Solomon one after another in a very episodic way, and I was struck by how much of the detail you used in the film. I mean, even in that first beating that Solomon receives after he is kidnapped, when the guy who is beating him breaks the paddle over him—that's in the book.

McQUEEN: As I was saying before, the book itself is so much like a script. Making it into a film was almost like conceptualism in a way, where there was the book, and let's just make the film. So much of it was just about taking it off the page and putting it onto film. At the same time, though, the movie isn't an illustration of the book, as such. It's not linear. The book gives you so much information, but you've also got to figure out how to construct it and find a rhythm and transfer it all visually. The book is quite long and quite wordy. It is actually a bit of a yawn at points. But another aspect of wanting to make a film about slavery was the visuals. I mean, people talk about being beaten or what happened to them, but when you see it visually and interpret it or imagine it within images, it becomes a different thing. That, to me, was the possible power of the book and the way it was written. There was just so much material for making images and constructing a visual narrative. It was also about finding a kind of balance in telling the story. Making this film was almost like making a Calder mobile—everything has to balance in just the right way for everything else to work. One thing can't weigh too heavily because it sort of puts it out of balance, out of whack. So it was also about pruning, and balancing, and waiting to see how it's going to balance and if it balances correctly.

MITCHELL: Comparing this film to a mobile is a very good way to put it because 12 Years a Slave goes to such extremes—even within the first five minutes.

McQUEEN: I wanted to throw the audience into the deep end at the beginning. I think, as far as audiences go, most people can swim, so the film dives right into the environment of slavery, and then we go back to see how it all started. It was just one of those things where I wanted the film to have an impact right off.


MITCHELL: I was thinking about the way you use the beginning of the movie to depict intimacy. Very early on, you move between a sex scene that occurs later chronologically, when Solomon is enslaved and in bound quarters, and then an intimate scene between him and his wife, which happens before he is kidnapped. In both cases, they actors are in profile and nose-to-nose.

McQUEEN: I think what was interesting for me about that scene that occurs once he has been kidnapped was that everything is controlled in the slave's life—what clothes one wears, what time one eats, what time one sleeps. The whole environment is controlled. So it was just that one moment where this woman, who is broken, grabs for this kind of intimacy with someone who she doesn't know and has this brief moment of freedom ... And then, of course, after she climaxes, she's back to her reality and the embarrassment, the sadness, the shame ... I don't want to even use that word because this isn't Shame, but it's more about her finding this moment of humanity and feeling human.

MITCHELL: She is able to claim a moment for herself by expressing that sort of control over her life, however briefly.

McQUEEN: Yeah, she can feel human for a moment. And then afterwards, of course, it's back to reality and the sad and unfortunate world that this woman lives in. We wanted to put that at the beginning of the film because that's right in the deep end of things, not just in terms of the environment, but emotionally as well. For me, it was really important to have it at the beginning because it's like, we're not playing—this is it. You're bringing someone into the game in a way that has some kind of impact. I mean, you could have started with Solomon alone, and then, la-da-da-da-da, he's in Saratoga, New York, and he gets kidnapped ... But for me, that's just too linear. It's not stimulating or challenging. This is storytelling—you need stimulus. To me, film is art. It's like painting or music or sculpture. How you structure a narrative is almost like how you structure color on canvas. So by bringing that piece of story forward and then showing what actually happens and having a reprise midway through the film where we get back to that section ... It's interesting because audiences are intelligent. They want to be stimulated, and having that kind of directness about the information that we're trying to give can be rewarding.

MITCHELL: The line in the book that really lives for me in the movie is the one where Solomon talks about how slaves live their lives with a constant fear of punishment. There's this perpetual sense of dread that lingers in the book.


MITCHELL: And you found a visual correlative to that. You illustrate that constant fear.

McQUEEN: Yeah. At any time, anything can happen.

MITCHELL: One thing that's fascinating is the way that you use space in the film, which is so much about these kinds of violent intrusions. The violence in the film is horrific—and so powerful.

McQUEEN: The thing about slavery is that the violence was always present, but then people also went mad through their own behavior. Violence was part of slavery—that situation of people always being a second from being beaten or abused. So in making the film, it was, again, about finding a balance in terms of how that aspect of things is presented—which I did carefully and surgically. Sometimes you can't see violence, you know? It's sort of like the James Baldwin book The Evidence of Things Not Seen—you can see a bruise or a red eye without seeing how the person was hit. You can interpret it like that. Or you can use a sound to indicate rage. It's about building to a certain crescendo. It's just like writing or poetry, in terms of what you leave and what you take out.

MITCHELL: There's the palette of the movie, too, and the way you use color. I'm thinking of that awful red, which we often associate with violence ...

McQUEEN: We did kind of hold back certain colors for certain things, but we were also mindful of how we used it in terms of the plantations. We took soil samples from each plantation to match, basically to interpret each individual plantation owner. With Ford [Benedict Cumberbatch], for example, the colors in the plantation were a bit lush. With Judge Turner [Bryan Batt], the colors were a lot less lush, but stayed warm. The temperatures were dictated by their personality, in a way. When Solomon was back in Saratoga, too—those scenes had much warmer colors.

MITCHELL: The way you illustrate the passage of time in this movie is also interesting. Obviously, you're operating within a certain structure dictated by the title. But time is like a force of nature. In this film, sometimes it's like a gale wind, other times it's like a hurricane, others it's like a breeze on a sunny day. It feels like time almost exists in the film as a character itself.

McQUEEN: Absolutely—and not just because it's called 12 Years A Slave. It is like another character. But the environment also was crucial. The heat ... I nearly passed out in Louisiana. I was seriously thinking of calling my wife to have her get me a water vest at one point because people would die in that heat. We were filming in the middle of Louisiana in the summer, so it was crazy. But interpreting that was very important, the certain kind of swampiness ... It's a huge character in this particular story. Huge character.

MITCHELL: Just seeing how much Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon, sweats in the movie—I haven't seen an actor sweat that much in a movie in my life.

McQUEEN: The heat was awful. And these people were working in it every day. But I think that's the kind of thing that you want to interpret in the movie. You want that uncomfortable thing, that sensualness.

MITCHELL: With Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years a Slave, you have, in a way, made three films about imprisonment.

McQUEEN: That's what you told me when you saw it. [laughs] Forgot about that.

MITCHELL: Well, it makes me wonder what the idea of imprisonment means to you. Hunger literally takes place in a prison, and then Shame is about a man who is basically in a prison of kind of his own making. The difference with 12 Years a Slave is that the imprisonment is not created by one's own will. Bobby Sands knew what he was doing. Brandon, in Shame, knows what he's doing. But Solomon Northup is thrust into his imprisonment.

McQUEEN: Well, for me, it was a matter of having people in the audience, regardless of their race or ethnicity, look at Solomon and see themselves. All Solomon wanted, at the end of the day, was to get back to his family, and the whole idea of that sort of imprisonment and that anyone could identify with it was the "in" for me. In telling the story, I wanted to put people into Solomon's shoes, but then, as I said, also take them through the journey and the conveyor belt and the different cycles of slavery.

MITCHELL: One of the other ways that 12 Years a Slave links to your other movies is that the protagonists that Michael Fassbender plays in both Hunger and Shame are people who are incredibly verbal. Solomon is, too, which makes him a sort of classic McQueen protagonist. But Solomon can't be that person—he can't be verbal—because of what it will cost him.

McQUEEN: One of the great things about Chiwetel—and that I discovered in working with him—was that he has this quality where he's like a silent movie star in a way. It's all about the eyes. Because he cannot be verbal in the movie, he has to use other tools to communicate. Of course, Solomon is not just some sort of nice guy who gets lost. He goes along with the guys who end up kidnapping him out of a bit of arrogance, too, because he wants to train with these musicians and tour. But I think the connection between Solomon and Brandon in Shame, in particular, is that these characters are not the classic sort of heroic people who you usually connect with in movies. They're not Supermen—they're just human beings, men. But what touched me so much about Solomon's story was that in this horrific environment that he was in—and which he, at some point, participated in as well—he still managed to hold on to a certain kind of humanity, even though what was happening to him and around him wasn't particularly humane.

MITCHELL: Is the idea of innocence important to you?

McQUEEN: Yes and no. I think Solomon is innocent to a certain extent but at the same time, he is a little bit more complicated. His innocence is tested by things like the conversation that he has with Lupita Nyong'o's character, Patsey, where she asks him to take her life. The way he sort of turns his back on her ... There's a certain kind of thing where you might start off sort of innocent, but by the time you get out of the hole, you're damaged to where your abilities to remain innocent are gone. You've gone through the gauntlet and come out a different person, so you're no longer innocent. That's what I was interested in, really, as far as innocence is concerned.

MITCHELL: In that scene that you are referring to with Patsey, it seems like Solomon is fighting to hold on to whatever he has left of his innocence, and by assisting her in that act—

McQUEEN: Sort of. He would never do what she's asking him to do, but he's also not particularly caring. He's actually very aggressive towards her. He throws everything on the floor and says, "How can you ask me to participate in such a godforsaken act?" He's very aggressive, and he then just turns his back on her. He's not comforting her. I think at that point in his journey, he is trying to figure out a way to survive—and in order to survive, he has to be very selfish. He has to think about himself and how he's going to survive the next day rather than think about other people.


MITCHELL: There is a circularity that runs through the film as well. I'm thinking of that scene early on where Clemens [Chris Chalk], one of the slaves kidnapped with Solomon on the boat, runs to his master, who comes to claim him, and Solomon is left behind.

McQUEEN: Yeah. It's survival. When they're on the boat, Clemens is always preaching about how he'll survive without saying anything, you know? He is always preaching, "Keep your head down," and "Don't do anything," and "Don't walk off." But as soon as he sees his master, he doesn't even turn around and look at Solomon or the others.

MITCHELL: Having those three characters on the boat—Clemens, Robert [Michael K. Williams], and Solomon—interact the way they do almost feels like a play on these three ideas of African-American masculinity being spoken aloud.

McQUEEN: Well, that's it. You had a Malcolm, you had a Martin, and then you had the dialectic, with the guy in the middle, Solomon, sort of seeing which way he was going to go. Was he going go the militant way? Or was he going to go with a more passive approach?

MITCHELL: Talk to me about the casting because it's such a great group of actors that you've got in this film. From Chiwetel and Michael Fassbender, to Chris Chalk and Michael K. Williams, to Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and Alfre Woodard, to the newer people like Lupita and Adepero Oduye ...

McQUEEN: Adepero was amazing. She had to be in a certain state of mind throughout the shoot, which could not have been easy. Her character, Eliza, is a woman whose children were just taken away from her, and this woman's children were her life—once they were taken away, she had no reason to live anymore. There was no will to continue. I mean, that's one of the things that kept Solomon alive—the possibility of him getting back to see his children. But with Patsey, all hope has evaporated . We auditioned more than a thousand girls for her role, and we were becoming desperate. It was like looking for Scarlett O'Hara—like, "Oh my god, we're never going to find this person." Then one day I saw this image on my computer, and that was it. Benedict, too, was just so right—there's a certain kind of genteelness to Benedict, but also a seediness about how he performed or interpreted our thoughts. Again, it's a balancing act—he has us all torn. He has feelings towards Solomon and the other slaves, but at the same time, he's within this system, and a system that he also wants to uphold. But the list of actors goes on and on and on.

MITCHELL: Had you seen Adepero in Pariah [2011] before?

McQUEEN: Oh, yeah. That's how I found her.

MITCHELL: The way you cast the parts of Hamilton and Brown, the two guys who steal Solomon into slavery, was remarkable to me. The actors actually look like his descriptions of those men from the book.

McQUEEN: Those two actors, Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam, were fantastic. They came to rehearsals in New Orleans, and they were off script so fast—they were finishing each other's sentences. We don't really get Saturday Night Live in Europe—or I don't really see it—so all I knew about Killam was through his audition. But his timing was so perfect.

MITCHELL: It was great seeing Michael K. Williams turn up, too. I'm guessing you were a fan of The Wire ...

McQUEEN: Oh, yes, huge fan of The Wire. Michael was only on the set for a short time toward the last few days of shooting, when everyone was feeling a little bit fatigued. But he just lifted everyone's game and brought this energy and this focus ... Everyone just stood up straight. He's an incredible actor and his presence was electric.

MITCHELL: How did Brad Pitt end up getting involved with the film? [Pitt co-produced the film through his Plan B shingle, and also appears in the movie as Bass, a worker on Epps's plantation.]

McQUEEN: Jeremy Kleiner from Plan B had approached me after Hunger about working together, and then I met Brad while he was filming World War Z in London and had a very long, engaging chat about Twelve Years a Slave, and Brad emphasized his commitment to bringing the film to the screen. He is the kind of guy who, when he wants to work with somebody, he'll approach that person. That doesn't usually happen. So that was pretty good. [both laugh]

MITCHELL: What was the rehearsal process like? Did you have a read-through with the entire cast?

McQUEEN: No, we didn't do that. Unfortunately, everyone was not around at the same time, so I just took sections of the film in rehearsals and divided people into groups.

MITCHELL: Was it harder doing it that way?

McQUEEN: Not really because, as we've said, the actors were incredible anyway, so it was more about rolling up your sleeves and getting into the moment, and there are so many different moments in Solomon's journey. It's almost like they're little episodes within the journey, so it was pretty straightforward in that respect.

MITCHELL: Watching the way you use Michael Fassbender, who plays the brutal slave owner, Epps, in the movie is also very interesting. He's such a physical actor in your film, but this character is all impulse. In fact, the only time he seems to be liberated from his ways is when he's acting out physically.

McQUEEN: I think, in the end, there are pieces of action, but this character, Epps, is in love. He's in love with Patsey. He's in love with her, but he cannot fulfill that love. He also hates himself for it. He hates himself because he loves this slave—he loves this black woman. But it's a funny thing about love because you really can't control it. It just happens. It's not something that you can just switch off or switch on. It's a constant. So he hates himself for it. He hates all for it. So there's this guy who has a lot of anger and a lot of longing that just comes out in a physical way—in violence most of the time.

MITCHELL: You've worked with Michael now on all three of your films. What were your discussions with him like? How do you work together?

McQUEEN: Well, Michael reads the script and we talk about who the person is that he's playing, and then we rehearse, which is really where things get shaped. Michael, though, has his way of doing things and he realizes how to get a good angle on a character. For me, rehearsals are a very important part of the process, and Michael warmed up to me pretty quickly. But with different actors, you work in different ways.

MITCHELL: This was your first time working with Chiwetel. What was your process like with him?

McQUEEN: Chiwetel was different. At first, I thought he was going to be difficult because I didn't know him but also because I needed him to trust me. Gaining people's trust is important because there can't be any question of that in the work. So we had to get to know each other, which took a little bit of time, but things just started to fall into place, which was amazing.

MITCHELL: This was such a demanding piece of material. Do you think that informed the relationship a little bit, too?

McQUEEN: Absolutely. It was like working on Hunger with Michael—when the material is so extreme, you have to have a trust there because you need support to go to that mental space. So in that way, we ran into this thing together—and we went straight to the deep end, which is one of things I love about working with actors. It was just amazing to see Chiw do that—you know, he ended up really opening up to the camera. It wasn't even him—it was Solomon—because he was so deep in things at that time.

MITCHELL: The physical abandon that Fassbender throws into his performance is remarkable.

McQUEEN: He had nothing to lose. There's a particular scene, that rape scene with Epps and Patsey, where he beats her ... Michael passed out in the middle of that scene while he was strangling her. He blacked out.

MITCHELL: Oh my god.

McQUEEN: I didn't know that at the time when we were shooting—he told me what happened about five months later. But that's the amount of focus and intensity that he brings.

MITCHELL: How much of that for him is instinctive?

McQUEEN: Oh, I don't know—you'd have to ask him. But he goes there because he is an artist, just like Chiwetel is an artist and Lupita is an artist now ... They're rarities, these actors, and I'm very fortunate that I got to work with them.

MITCHELL: It's almost like Michael's character and Chiwetel's character are opposing poles in this film, because Solomon has to be all deliberation because he can't let himself be liberated, be physically free.

McQUEEN: Well, there's that scene where Epps and Solomon are having a discussion about Solomon writing that letter ... I mean, it may be bold of me to say, but I think that scene is as strong as Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in the back of the taxi in On the Waterfront [1954]. I'm talking about my own work in that way—I don't know if that's quite polite—but those two guys in that scene are incredible. It's exactly what I was getting at when I was talking about Chiwetel and that whole idea of sort of the silent actor—the eyes, the body language, the movement of Chiwetel, as opposed to the physicality of Michael.

MITCHELL: One image in the film that really sticks with me is when Solomon shatters the violin.

McQUEEN: The violin, to me, is his last remaining hope. It's like the sex scene with the slave that we were talking about—that object was his sense of being human. That was his instrument, that's what he wanted to engage in. And he gives up his hope, in a way, by smashing it.

MITCHELL: Well, the violin is also kind of his last link to his old world. There's also that pride that he has in his art—as far as he's concerned, he's an artist—and the idea of an artist giving up his means of achieving that art is heartbreaking.

McQUEEN: It's like destroying a piece of yourself in order to feel, I suppose. To feel what? I don't know.

MITCHELL: We see Solomon throughout the film as someone who always sees possibilities, and just destroying that violin means that he realizes he can't live for possibilities anymore—that he's just got to be thinking about existing day to day.

McQUEEN: Destroying your violin ... I mean, it's just about the worst thing you could do in that situation short of cutting off your hands. The worst thing you could do as an artist is to destroy your art.

MITCHELL: I have to ask you this because it's a question that you are going to get asked: Did you see Django Unchained?


MITCHELL: What did you think of that movie?

McQUEEN: I think Tarantino is a great moviemaker. There were aspects of Django Unchained that weren't my cup of tea, but the piece was quite interesting. When I met Tarantino, he was still shooting, and, of course, I was already starting ... But it just wasn't a reference for me because it was a different kind of movie than what I was making. People want to engage with this subject, though. They want to look at this side of history, to examine it and discuss it, and the best thing, for me, is if a film can start a discussion.

MITCHELL: Each of these films you've done feel like they're catalysts for discussion in different ways. Did you think of them as that?

McQUEEN: Not entirely, while making them.


McQUEEN: No. I mean, the only reason I'm making a movie is if there's really a very interesting story to tell on film. I could never think about starting a discussion by making a film. It can happen, but I can't make that happen at all. That's never my wish when starting to make a film. I hope it does that, but that's never my wish.

MITCHELL: Even though Solomon eventually finds his way to freedom, you let us know that because he's been where he has been and because of the emotional investment he had to make to survive, it's somehow not over.

McQUEEN: When he's back home with his family, when they're together, he's still thinking of Patsey and of all of the other people who he's left behind. So it's not over. It's not the end. It is the end, of course, of the movie, but it's not over.


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Post by Admin on Tue Oct 22, 2013 3:26 pm

Steve McQueen Finds Beauty In Pain
by Katina Vangopoulos

Knowing that Hollywood can have two men with the same name and let them be successful in their respective eras is a lovely thing. the first was an actor in the 1960s eventually known for one of cinema’s greatest action scenes, and the other is one of the most talented directors to emerge during the past decade. There are no links between the Steve McQueens besides the name, and it’s the director who’s now squarely in the industry’s focus.

This week’s release of 12 Years a Slave, the British director’s third feature, marks a return to the themes explored in Hunger and Shame. McQueen films always deal with with hardship and personal torment, presented in their rawest form for emotional impact. His new project marks his first foray into producing in lieu of writing the screenplay. His extreme choices in stories are fascinating, showing humanity’s conflict with politics, intimacy and acceptance.

Hunger and Shame revealed his talents, complimenting excellent direction with understated scripting. The minimal dialogue is excruciatingly noticeable, for when characters speak their words possess more meaning than could be imagined. When Brandon in Shame says “actions count, not words,” it’s a direct reflection of McQueen’s thinking and how he pursues his filmmaking. He shows us nature at its core, and humanity’s most basic emotions.

McQueen also focuses on pain, using motifs like blood to suggest mankind is stained. Pivotal moments in his films exploit this as a way of revealing the darker side of humanity. Hardships come in many different forms; Hunger‘s political and religions undertones accentuate the sacrifices the protagonist believes he has to make for the greater good, and Shame presents the emotional turmoil of addiction stemming from an unknown past. McQueen’s characters are seem void of emotion, but a conflict rages inside.

Michael Fassbender has played an archetypal Steve McQueen role in each film. He takes on the major roles in Hunger and Shame with a fierceness incomparable to other muses of the current day. McQueen gets Fassbender to bare his soul in his performances, and the actor in return gives his director the confidence to continue pushing boundaries. They again team up for 12 Years a Slave, but leave chief player duties to Chiwetel Ejiofor. To see their professional relationship grow is enthralling regardless of the capacity, and while time will tell to show us if it continues, it’s been a joy to watch.

Steve McQueen is a director forging his way into the minds and hearts of millions with his films. His ability to represent unhappiness in such a raw form serves as a reminder to the audiences that self-acceptance is the only way to leave it behind. Few of his fellow filmmakers deal with these themes as well as he does. His stories are journeys that speak to all of us.

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Post by Admin on Fri Oct 25, 2013 4:22 pm,0,1741148.story#axzz2ilHrYDXn

Steve McQueen films '12 Years a Slave' on familiar territory
Director Steve McQueen used Louisiana plantations as sets to give '12 Years a Slave' the right feel. It helped get the cast in character.

By John Horn

11:30 AM PDT, October 18, 2013

9 MILE POINT, La. — Director Steve McQueen was just a few yards from modern civilization — in this case, an air-conditioned sports utility vehicle that had brought him some 45 minutes from New Orleans — but as he looked around a sprawling plantation here last week, he could just as well have been walking around in the 1840s.

Spanish moss draped from the limbs of many of the sycamores, and the only way to navigate much of the 200-acre property was to plod down rough paths where the mud reached your shins. The plantation's main residence dates to 1784, and because its land rests largely below levees, you could neither see nor hear the Mississippi River, even though the waterway was just a stone's throw away. The mosquitoes were as thick as the buzzing of the cicadas.

"Oh, my God, look at this," McQueen said as he turned a corner on the foot path, slapping at the bugs landing atop his head. "It's all overgrown. The grass has all come back. It looks like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon."

WATCH: Envelope Screening Series — '12 Years a Slave'

A year ago in this precise spot — a small clearing with a giant live oak at its center — was where McQueen filmed a critical scene in "12 Years a Slave." The movie, opening in limited release Friday, traces the true story of a free man named Solomon Northup living in New York who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana for a dozen years.

The last time the British filmmaker behind "Shame" and "Hunger" was in this clearing, Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was desperate to return to his wife and children in the North and was about to make a run for it.

He had stepped into the clearing, where he promptly came upon two would-be runaways. They had been captured in the act of fleeing and were being strung up on nooses. Solomon quickly turned around, more certain than ever there was no flight from his predicament.

One owner of the plantation had told McQueen and his team that their selection of the specific tree was jarringly fitting. In the shadows of the huge tree, in ground swiftly disappearing under kudzu vines, were the graves of slaves who had been hanged from its branches in the 19th century. There were no headstones, but if you looked closely, you could make out several small mounds in the undergrowth.

REVIEW: '12 Years a Slave' impressive, and hard to watch

"It's what made the scene even more vital and necessary — bringing the past into the present. If this tree had eyes, imagine what it has seen," said McQueen, dressed in a maroon shirt, black jacket, navy pants and black boots. "Just out of respect, we said a few words before we started shooting here."

As adapted by screenwriter John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave" follows Northup's memoir of the same name, published in 1853 with the help of writer David Wilson, remarkably closely.

While Ridley compressed some scenes in the memoir's earliest chapters, he didn't have to invent any of the most horrific acts that befall Solomon in the film, including when he has to whip fellow slave Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) on the orders of a sadistic plantation owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt.

As part of the rigor of presenting Solomon's story with scant embellishment, McQueen said he considered only one location for filming: Louisiana. It was a fortuitous coincidence that the state has some of the most generous film production credits in the nation, rebates that can cut as much as 35% from a movie's cost, which kept the "12 Years a Slave" budget to a modest $22 million.

PHOTOS: '12 Years a Slave,' on location

"I couldn't shoot anywhere else," McQueen, who had never visited the state before making "12 Years a Slave," said on the plantation near 9 Mile Point, a few hours before "12 Years a Slave" would open the New Orleans Film Festival.

The production traveled to four main plantations during filming, most of which were south of where the real-life Solomon was held and toiled, because journeys from New Orleans to more distant parcels would have been impractical and expensive. (That meant the film had to hire botanists to plant half an acre of cotton because the crop generally is farmed farther north in the state).

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who has shot all three of McQueen's features, said it wasn't difficult to find plantations that would welcome such a production. But in many cases, the architectural artifacts of slavery — the huts where slaves slept, for example — had been removed. "Rather than repair them, they tore them down," Bobbitt said. "So while the facades of the plantation homes have been preserved, a lot of the elements of slavery are gone."

McQueen and the owner of the plantation with the hanging tree asked that the location not be identified in this article out of fear that vandals, motivated by whatever strong feelings they might hold about slavery, would cut the oak down.

PHOTOS: Scenes from '12 Years a Slave'

Owing to scheduling constraints, "12 Years a Slave" had to be shot in the middle of the summer, and the temperatures often exceeded 100 degrees, with oppressive humidity.

"The heat is a character of its own," Nyong'o said. "It changes the way you walk — it changes how you think. It definitely helped move me into character. I don't think there's any other place in the world we could have shot. It's pregnant with history."

When the movie was filming closer to swamps, the production brought in four snake and alligator wranglers to keep any unwelcome wildlife away from the cast and crew.

"It was a very hot summer and also a very wet summer. We had very extreme conditions," said McQueen, dousing himself with bug spray. "But without the locations, we wouldn't have the performances that we got. The fact of being on a plantation does something to you. It's like being at the scene of the crime. And yet it's also extraordinarily beautiful. It's an odd thing to be around."

VIDEO: '12 Years a Slave' trailer

Though the film's subject matter is exceedingly rough, the loveliness of the land reinforced in McQueen and Bobbitt's minds that "12 Years a Slave" should be filmed in a composed, painterly style, with several extended shots that look like a formal portrait — the still life of slaves. He said that if he and McQueen hadn't shot the film in a lush style, audiences might find the film unrelentingly harsh.

"We spent a lot of time talking about things in broad strokes and coming up with early ideas. When you get to the locations, those broad strokes get tighter," said Bobbitt, a former television news journalist. "When you see the locations, the story starts to come alive visually."

Added McQueen, referring to an opening shot of slaves standing silently: "That tableaux is like the first day of school. You line up, not knowing what's going to happen, and someone tells you what to do."

Woodard, who in the film plays a former slave named Mistress Shaw who enjoys a privileged life because she has married a white slave owner, said she previously worked several times as an actor on plantations. The first time she did so, "it wrecked me," Woodard said. Making McQueen's movie, on the other hand, was almost a spiritual experience.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

"This was a lot more intense, because of the actual proximity," Woodard said. "It becomes a place that's sacred to you — but in the way of a family reunion that goes way, way back — because you own that land."

Knowing that they were working so near to where Northup and thousands of other slaves had suffered so horribly didn't just lend the production a sense of verisimilitude; the immediacy also deepened their commitment to tell his story as faultlessly as possible. At several points in the filming during emotionally and physically draining scenes, crew members either broke down in tears or had to avert their eyes.

"As actors, you want to slip down the rabbit hole," Ejiofor said of shooting in Louisiana. "You want to get as close to the experience as you can possibly do."

Back at the hanging tree, McQueen recalled how he had returned to the plantation months after wrapping principal photography, needing to reshoot the hanging scene because his initial filming of the sequence (at another location) hadn't worked to his satisfaction for a variety of reasons.

"It wasn't good enough. It needed something more," McQueen said.

When he and Bobbitt first saw the giant oak, they considered it excessively large, its lower limbs too far from the ground. But once they learned of the graves beneath it, their minds were in agreement — here they would not only be filming but also reenacting.

"The scene was not connecting somehow," McQueen said. "What we needed was something, and the something we needed was the tree. It brought everything back together."

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Post by Admin on Tue Nov 26, 2013 8:10 pm

10:30 AM, November 25 2013
Steve McQueen on Michael Fassbender’s Brutal Slave Owner: “He’s One of Us”
by Krista Smith

12 Years a Slave, the third feature from British artist turned filmmaking auteur Steve McQueen, may or may not take home all the Oscars next year, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and moving films to come along in quite some time. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre–Civil War South. The remarkable ensemble cast includes Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose portrayal of a beautiful slave has earned her major Best Supporting Actress buzz.

Krista Smith spoke with McQueen about the story behind the movie, his love for Michael Fassbender, and what jazz and filmmaking have in common.

Krista Smith: This film is not only about race, it’s about America. Every nation and civilization in history has horrible things in its past.

Steve McQueen: Not only just America but the world. Slavery was not unique to North America. Far from it. It was all over Europe, all over the world. It was an industry. But of course racism comes into it. I’ll tell you a story. One of the last things my father said to me was a story that happened in the late 50s. What they used to do in Florida is get migrant workers from the West Indies to pick oranges. My father was one of those young people, a teenager, and one day he and two Jamaican guys said, “Come on, let’s go out and get a drink.” They climbed over the wall of their camp and went out to this town to get a drink at a bar. When they walked into the bar, it was almost like a Western; everyone turned their heads and looked at them. So one of the Jamaican guys says to the bartender, “I would like a drink, please.” And the bartender said, “We don’t serve niggers.” So the Jamaican guy says, “Then we’ll serve ourselves.” And he took the bottle and smashed it over the bartender’s head. And there was a big fight, and my father ran out of there. The two Jamaicans were shot dead, and my dad hid in a ditch all night until he could make his way back to the camp. Why I’m telling you that is the whole idea of what people had to suffer [long after slavery ended]. The evidence of slavery is everywhere, not just here in the United States but in the U.K., too; in the prison population, mental illness, education, drugs, unemployment. The list goes on, and it hasn’t really been dealt with.

This is your third full-length feature film. What made you want to take on this subject?

I wanted to make a film about slavery because I hadn’t seen it before. I hadn’t seen this part of history visualized. As a filmmaker, I thought to myself, I want to do it. Not just because of my background but because I wanted to experience that part of history in the cinema. So I had this idea that this free black man from the North gets kidnapped and dragged into the maze of slavery, and we, the viewer, go with him through the ordeal of him trying to get back home. I got stuck a bit with the script, and what happened was my wife said to me, “Why don’t you look into real accounts of slavery?” And her being a historian, we both did our research, and she came up with this book called 12 Years a Slave, and she said to me, “I think I’ve got it.” And if there ever was an understatement! Everyone thinks they know about slavery. But when I started reading that book and turned the pages of that book, every turn of the page was a revelation. When I finished the book, I was so astonished, but at the same time I felt so stupid. Why did I not know this book? I felt ridiculous, really. But then I slowly realized no one I knew knew this book. The strangest thing was having this original idea and then finding this book. It was like a finished script. I think sometimes you can become a magnet. It was astonishing, and I had to make the film.

We hear a lot about how hard it is to get movies financed. How was the process of getting this film made?

One person who was working on the movie said to me, “Your impossible movie.” That’s how difficult it was. It was all hands on deck, and somehow it got financed. On the outside it seems easy, because by that time myself and Michael [Fassbender] had a little bit of stock, and of course Brad came in, Mr. Pitt came in; it was a lot of stock, and it helped push the project forward. I can’t say it was easy, but it got done, and it got done for a very small amount of money. But maybe because I’m English, I know how to stretch a pound.

This is your third film with Fassbender. Did anything this time around surprise you about working with him?

It’s that I love him more. I love him deeply. It’s an understanding. I don’t question it; that’s the funny thing. I think we both don’t question it. I think we have something and we just get on with it.

His character, Epps, is so evil, but also in such pain and so tormented.

The thing is, he is deeply in love with Patsey. I mean, Patsey may not be deeply in love with him, but he’s deeply in love with Patsey. And he doesn’t understand it. He doesn’t understand that he is in love with this slave. But what he doesn’t know is that you don’t choose love, love chooses you. And he, through the pain of this love, apparently tries to destroy that love by trying to destroy her, and it’s tragic. Don’t get me wrong: the person I feel the most pain for is Patsey. But in order to understand people, one has to understand what they do. And just as much as I am Solomon, I am Epps. Epps is a human being. I think people like to write him off as a monster, but he’s one of us.

How much do you prepare, and how much of what happens on-screen is spontaneous?

Oh, I prepare like crazy. But what you’re after is almost like jazz. You write the music, you have everything, you’re prepared, but you’ve still got that aspect, that range where you can improvise. It’s like Miles Davis’s My Funny Valentine: you have the melody, but from that melody you can improve, you can go off, but only within that range.

What has been the most surprising thing that has happened to you since Shame and coming back into Hollywood with 12 Years a Slave? What has been the difference?

What has surprised me is that some people don’t think audiences are as intelligent and as interested in certain narratives as they actually are. I think audiences are hungry for stories, and that is surprising how some people don’t think they actually are.

Do you have another movie that you’re prepping for?

A couple things, but my son just started school this year, and I think I’m going to take some time off. I’ve got to be there for my family, and that’s the most important thing. My family, my wife, gave me the book, and now it’s time to give it back.

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Post by Admin on Fri Feb 28, 2014 2:07 pm

'12 Years a Slave' director receives accolades from UN secretary-general
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was rendered "speechless" Wednesday after watching director Steve McQueen's Academy Award-nominated film, "12 Years a Slave" at a special screening at the UN Headquarters in New York.
By JC Finley | Feb. 27, 2014 at 6:16 PM

NEW YORK, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Director Steve McQueen received accolades from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his film, 12 Years a Slave.

The director screened his Academy Award-nominated film at the UN on Wednesday, after which the secretary-general said he had "become speechless after having seen this very powerful movie..."

"There were moments when the film was very hard to watch. But there can be no turning away -- not from the horrors of slavery as it was practiced then, and not from the forms of slavery that exist today around the world."

Ban Ki-moon drew a parallel between the movie's depiction of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States and modern human trafficking.

"Millions of people of both sexes are being exploited -- forced into debt bondage, sexual slavery and other vile practices. All too often the predators operate with impunity."

He expressed hope that McQueen's film "will inspire many years of action to end all forms of slavery for good."

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