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12 Years A Slave - Steve McQueen interview

12 Years A Slave

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEVE McQueen talks about some of the challenges of making 12 Years A Slave and why he feels the themes represent a “world story” and not just an American tale.

He also discusses his relationship with leading men Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender and how he went about employing Hans Zimmer to do the score. He was speaking at a press conference held during the 2013 London Film Festival.

Q. Film sets are known for being practical places of work, but the film you’ve made is emotionally devastating. How hard was it emotionally to make?
Steve McQueen: There were times when it was emotionally impactful, but I think what we had was a wonderful crew. The support of the crew, from make-up and wardrobe, to camera department, sound department, gaffers, electricians, grips, all of us came together so there was always a sense that it was our film. There as that kind of support structure, that kind of camaraderie, that kind of family, everyone had a claim on the film and a stake in the film.

It was such a supportive atmosphere it allowed the actors to sort of go there, as it were. To risk and try and fail of course and feel better and sort of go for it, whatever it was they were trying to go for. There were no restrictions. There was no censorship. That environment allowed that to happen. It was really beautiful. There was a lot of love on that set. After a hard day we would all go out together and eat together. We actually had a great time making that movie.

Q. On some level it feels like a definitively American story. Obviously, it’s a human story, but it’s also an American story. How did you approach that as two Londoners?
Steve McQueen: It’s a world story; it’s not necessarily an American story as such. It takes place in the United States, but it’s a world story because it’s about slavery and slavery was a world industry as such. I chose this black people’s story, I was looking at slave stories from that time, and this was the story that struck me: the Solomon Northop story. As I said before, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come across this story or this book before. I couldn’t believe it and I felt really stupid. Then I realised nobody else had either. It was always about the narrative and the story and wherever it took place around the world, it didn’t really matter. It was a subject I wanted to talk about, which was slavery.

Q. In terms of how upsetting it is, were you ever worried that you were going to far or that you weren’t going far enough?
Steve McQueen: If I was to make the book, that was pretty extreme. The book was pretty extreme. My responsibility is this: either I’m making a film about slavery or I’m not. And if you’re making a film about slavery, you have to understand why people were incarcerated in this particular way. Sorry, incarcerated is not the right word: why people were in bondage for 400 years is through mental and physical torture in a way. It’s a world event. It’s a huge whole in people’s minds that they don’t want to think about. But if we’re going to bring it to the fore, then we have to remember why we or I for instance am here today. I’m here because members of my family were involved in slavery. Fact. And it’s to be respected. That’s all I can say I think.

Q. What was the process of casting Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role?
Steve McQueen: I knew Chiwetel already and when I read the book there was only one person I could see in the role and that was Chiwetel. There’s a stature, a class, a dignity to him, which I needed, which Solomon needed, he had to be portrayed in that way and Chiwetel is just a great actor. And he also reminds me of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. There’s a similar kind of stature that just translates on screen. I think that’s the sentence. And that’s why I chose him. He’s one in a million.

Q. Is there a parallel in your working relationship with the way you work with Michael Fassbender? And could you comment on Fassbender’s comments about his unwillingness to play the Oscar game given all the talk of Oscars for this film?
Steve McQueen: Well, me and Michael go back to 2007 and I first met him at an audition for Hunger. Obviously, our relationship has grown, and has hopefully blossomed into something that I value more than a lot of things in my life; I value it tremendously. H’s an artists, a force to be reckoned with. There’s a magic that happens on set; when he leaves the set, people were crying. He has that kind of spirit. As far as campaigning or not campaigning: his campaign is on the screen. That’s Michael Fassbender’s Oscar campaign. He’s done his thing, that’s it.

Q. Steve, what process did you go through to get Hans Zimmer to do the score, because he’s one of the most versatile composers out there?
Steve McQueen: I just rang him up. As you do [smiles]. We’d had a chat around the time of Hunger. And also Shame. I said: “Hans, listen I’m doing this film, there’s no money…” And he said: “Steve, I’m destroying the world.” He was basically making Superman at the time. So, I said: “But Hans, would you consider this idea?” And he said: “I’ll do it, I’ll do it.” And I said, ‘thank you’ and put the phone down. Then we had a few discussions. Hans is a very interesting guy. We had two conversations lasting about five hours. And two conversations for about three hours on the phone. Seriously. Then I came to his studio and he does this [makes a pinging sound] and it was all this conversation led to a couple of notes. He has to be submerged in the narrative so deeply that it comes out in another way, it translates in him through sound.

Q. Was it difficult raising money for this film America as a black man?
Steve McQueen: Interesting question [laughs disbelievingly]. No, no, it wasn’t at all. Plan B, the production company behind it were very supportive and Brad Pitt was extra supportive. I had great people at Fox Searchlight, and Arnon Milchan, our producer, and also Brad Weston, there were a group of people who came together with the money and believed in me and believed in the subject. So it wasn’t as difficult as maybe people thought.

Read our review of 12 Years A Slave

Read our interview with Chiwetel Ejiofor