Interview: Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor talk 12 Years a Slave

The director and star of the season's most talked about film discuss their acclaimed slavery drama.

by | October 17, 2013 | Comments

Already one of 2013’s most critically-acclaimed films — and an early Oscar frontrunner, for those that keep track of such things — Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave depicts the grim true story of Solomon Northrup, a free, educated black man who was kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery on a southern plantation — a seemingly hopeless ordeal that he suffered with considerable resolve. The film opens in limited engagement this week, and we had the opportunity to speak with both McQueen and his star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who portrays Northrup in a remarkable performance of dignity and despair.

First up, here’s McQueen on the movie’s origins, his methods, and his attentiveness to power of the image.

Steve, I wanted to begin by asking you how you came across Solomon’s book, and why you decided to make this story as your next film. Had you been interested for a while?

Steve McQueen: Well, I remember doing all these meetings in Hollywood — I’ve never told anyone this — I did these meetings in Hollywood, after Hunger came out, and I got the impression, walking into the room, that people were surprised that I was black. So that was interesting, going to these meetings, because I imagine they thought I was an Irish guy, or white, or whatever, and I think that was sort of interesting. It was curious. But I think it started even before that, just thinking about slavery, and I thought “You know what — that could be interesting, to make a film about slavery,” and again, it’s just once of those things where it’s this massive hole in the canon of film. I thought, “This is a very interesting subject.” It’s sort of ridiculous to call it “interesting” — of course, I have roots in slave history — but I thought it could be very interesting to investigate.

I was thinking about it as a narrative — about a free man who was kidnapped into slavery, and we go through the whole assault course, the whole maze of slavery with him. So I was writing with John Ridley, the screenwriter, and we were working together on the script, and we came into some kind of difficulties. I was talking to my wife and I told her what I was doing, and she said, “Why don’t you look into true tales of slavery?” And I thought, “Of course.” We did some research and found this book 12 Years A Slave, and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I’d had this idea and there it was in my hand, virtually in script form. And I wasn’t upset that I didn’t know the book, but because no one else knew the book — so I thought, “I’m gonna make this my passion to make it into a film.”

When you say you came to Hollywood, were you being offered certain kinds of scripts to direct?

No, I just think people were interested in finding out who I was. I think I was just being interviewed as one of the new filmmakers. That’s what they do, obviously, with the new filmmakers — try to figure out who they are and what they want to do.

This movie is like a horror film, really, almost like some sort of Twilight Zone piece — at least to modern eyes. It’s especially strange given that Solomon’s a free man initially. Was that something in the storytelling that appealed to you?

Yeah. For me it was like a Brothers Grimm story. It was like a fairy tale. And the best fairy tales are so often very, very dark, you know — and then it’s a “happily ever after” at the end. This reminded me of those Brothers Grimm stories and that kind of fairy tale-like thing. And of course, it also reminded me of Pinocchio, with the two men in the book who seduce Solomon into their circus. It had those parallels to the fairy tales, that classical story. So yeah, that was interesting.

The Pinocchio moment totally got me, too. A lot of your video art dealt with the human body, and it’s been much-remarked upon that your features have continued this fascination — on how much the body can endure, and this notion of men in prisons, both literal and, in the case of Shame, figurative. Is there something in particular that attracts you to these kinds of stories?

Well, I think that’s an interesting interpretation of my artwork, but I think it’s the wrong one. As far as my feature films, well, again, Bobby Sands [in Hunger] is using his body — but that’s the only thing he could use in that situation, his body, by not choosing to eat. Brandon Sullivan [in Shame], the sex addict, well that’s a contemporary story of now; that’s what we do. If you want to break it down, everything’s about the body. And that’s the fact about slavery, when someone’s incarcerated, of course. In all three films, there’s the body deteriorating in one, there’s the body being used as a sexual instrument, and in the third one it’s about the time when people have been wronged; but it’s history. People decide to focus on that because it’s an easy thing, and that’s fine — it’s cool to do that — but there’s actually a narrative going along, too, you know. It’s about who we are. It’s not reduced to the body, there’s a narrative going on there. Things happen for a reason.

Well, it’s only one aspect of the films, of course, though it does stand out. And people love to impose threads and themes on directors’ work.

Well, that’s fine. That’s good.

There’s a very methodical sense of despair and deterioration to this film. Was there ever a temptation — or, say, pressure from the studio — to include more beats of hope or emotional uplift?

Well I had final cut on the film — not that that always means a lot these days — and I think the people involved helped me make the sort of film that I wanted to make. So that was my decision. It’s, you know, about a particular time in history — and I wanted to tell the truth about that particular time in history. If we’d altered it I don’t think that would have been helpful. I mean, you have to look at things in the face sometimes, and that’s the way it was. Yeah, there are moments of hope, because again, it’s a fairy tale — you know, “Once upon a time” and then a “Happily ever after.” There is a conclusion, with someone who goes home. But he has to pass through the storm, you know, and I actually think it’s a rewarding movie because of that. Any other way, I think, we would have cheapened the memory of Solomon Northrup. I didn’t want to do that.

It’s the old Inferno situation, isn’t it, about having to first pass through Hell to reach Heaven.

Right, sure.

McQueen on location for 12 Years A Slave.

Was there anything you had to pull back from? Anything that you thought was too graphic or intense to depict?

Well, I mean if you read the book, we pulled back a lot. There are only, I think, five acts of violence in the whole film — a film which last two hours and 11 minutes. That’s five acts of violence. You know, any thriller, or any horror movie, has someone being shot in the head at least every 15 minutes, or cut up or whatever. [Laughs] So as far as violence is concerned in our film, it’s kind of minimal, to be quite honest. But maybe in the context of the truth it becomes quite different, I suppose.

You’ve mentioned that you found the rape scene — with Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o shot in profile silhouette — as being… maybe not “beautiful,” perhaps “striking” was the word you used. Were you at all conscious of not making the visuals too beautiful, or striking? Was there a trade off between your aesthetic and the story you were telling?

I don’t know if I believe in “beautiful.” I believe in what can help the story and grab the audience. What is the best thing that can help a narrative? Beauty is not of any interest to me. But what happens sometimes is that, by coincidence, things occur and there’s a striking image, because of what the narrative is saying and what it’s symbolizing. The silhouette and the rape kind of became its own intensity, but it is all about keeping that intensity, really. That was it. But of course that was also a reference to 17th-century etchings and prints, that sort of silhouette that you’d get from the very kind of crude etchings — so it has a link to the past, as well as the present.

Did you draw on any other visual references in creating the look of the film?

It’s all in my head. It’s all in my head, though when you think about Goya, for example, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, “Look — look at this.” So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image. It’s about looking. Looking at the image, because it’s important. That’s what Goya is saying. And this [film] is something that’s kind of gone through art history, in a way — the frame, the image; it’s what we’ve been dealing with for hundreds and hundreds of years.

You’d known Chiwetel for quite sometime before the film, as I understand. What was it that made you feel he was right for Solomon?

He has this kind of stature, this kind of grace, this kind of dignity. There’s an elegance to him that I needed for Solomon. That was it. He had a sense of Harry Belafonte, or Sidney Poitier; it was the stature that I needed that character to have. The only one I could think of that had it was Chiwetel.

Do you hope there’s a dialogue that arises from people seeing the movie?

Just a debate about, you know, where we are right now within the context of slavery. Look at the prison population. Look at the mental health issues, the poverty, the unemployment. You could go on and on and on. The evidence of slavery is all around. This is not a coincidence. There’s a cause and there’s an effect. It’s one of those things; someone asked me the other day, “What was it like when you first discovered slavery?” And I couldn’t remember when I first discovered slavery. It’s like asking me, “What was it like when you first discovered your name?” It’s one of those things where I thought about it, and I thought about the question, and the only answer you can give was a sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment — and that’s how a young person, as a kid, one starts off their life, because you’re embarrassed about that part of your history. And you understand that the only reason that you’re standing here is because of that unfortunate recent past. And of course, as a young person you really start asking questions about yourself and the society around you.

What are your thoughts on all the critical traction the movie’s picked up?

I’m just happy the movie’s coming out. I’m happy we made the movie. It’s been a long, long road and I can’t believe that we actually made it — but we did make it. I’m just so pleased by the response, and humbled by the response. I’m happy that the broader public will now get the chance to see it. Hopefully they’ll go and see it.

Next, the film’s star Chiwetel Ejiofor on playing Solomon Northrup, his experience with slave history, and working with McQueen and Michael Fassbender.

Chiwetel, so much of this performance is internalized; there’s a stillness and a resolve to Solomon’s character that resonates on screen. Did you find that difficult to convey?

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Yeah. I think a lot of it was in the script and also in the book. I was able to get a very clear idea of how he would react to these circumstances and, you know, in some cases literally what he was thinking. So that kind of internalization becomes easier as you become more and more aware of the character. I think it’s harder if the character’s somehow distant from you, and you’re trying to reach for something internal. But with Solomon, I suppose, the circumstances that he’s in are so relatable. I found that as I was reading the book, kind of slightly objectively — I was only reading a book — but then at some point I slipped down the rabbit hole with him, and I was really immersed in the book and kind of seeing it with him, and going on this journey a little bit emotionally. The performance became so clear; it had a certain transparency that allows one to have that conversation without saying anything.

What was your first conversation with Steve McQueen about the role? What did he see in you?

He never really said, actually. [Laughs] He called me up and he said that he wanted me to play the part, and I was very, well… I’d been a huge fan of his and we’d known each other for a while, since Hunger. I’d gone out to Amsterdam to meet him on a kind of a pilgrimage, after Hunger, and we sat down and talked, and we wanted to find something to do together, you know. We had a couple of attempts at it but things didn’t work out. Then he called me about this and wanted me to do it; and then I read it, and of course, it’s so stunning as a piece — and I felt the weight of that responsibility, in a way. I’ve never seen a story, certainly not in cinema, from so deep inside the slave experience, and I definitely felt the responsibility of that. That kind of gave me pause. But the journey of turning that around and coming to a point where I felt like I wanted to go on this journey with Steve, it was in the book, really — he never attempted to convince me in any way; he just left it with me, and I sort of came back towards it. Then as we started to get into the actual nuts and bolts, Steve’s someone who lets you get on with that. I wanted to get out to Louisiana as soon as possible and start looking at the plantations… and I had a lot of catching up to do with the violin. [Laughs] At that point I think Steve and I just got on with our various aspects. So in a way, we never really spoke about that — about the character or trying to figure him out; he just sort of let me get on with it.

Coming from the UK, what was your exposure to the slave narrative? Reading Solomon Northrup’s book must have been quite shocking.

I’d heard a lot, I suppose, just in a sort of general way, about this period in American history. But I was never taught it, in school, about the slave trading. And you know, the British slave traded in the West Indies — but that was skipped over, that period, the 1700s and 1800s. We only learned from the restoration of Charles II right into the First World War. [Laughs] There was nothing in between; it was like nothing ever happened. So a lot of that information, I think, about the West Indies, about Africa, about the American slave trade, I discovered on my own, in a way; and just reading about that and thinking about that. And obviously things like Roots coming out when I was very young, that all had a massive impact on my interest and in trying to figure out what happened in this kind of extraordinary history.

Steve’s ancestry is West Indian, I believe. Did you find that the two of you — and I hesitate to use the term “outsiders,” because I know Steve lived in the States for a period — being, let’s say British, brought a different perspective to the story?

I don’t know. I mean, we could only tell it the way that we could tell it. I definitely felt legitimate in telling it, for a couple of reasons. One being my own understanding of the African diaspora, and what that means, you know; my own understanding of the slave trade and what that meant to Nigeria and to the Ejiofor population, of which I am one, with hundreds and thousands of them being taking out of Nigeria and a lot of them specifically to Louisiana, and South America and the West Indies. I know that they were people from my specific cultural group who were taken, because I saw the lists and the charts in the slavery museum in Calabar, in the South of Nigeria, while I was shooting Half of a Yellow Sun, which I did immediately before going over to Louisiana. In the slavery museum they have the lists of the people and the lists of the ethnic tribes that were taken.

So, you know, I felt very clearly connected to that experience, as well as to the nature of that diaspora experience. There was something about it… obviously 95.7 per cent of the people involved in making this film were American, and it was an American film, but I felt like the international element of the film was correct — because there was an international element to these events. These were global events, and their effects are still there globally. So it felt correct to me. It sat right. And I think that was true for Steve and the brutal slave trade in the West Indies, which was, you know, a war over sugar, in a way. We were all affected by it, and we were all connected to it — so if there’s a reflection of that in the film, then I think that’s a good thing.

Ejiofor with co-star Michael Fassbender, who plays the slave master Epps.

Many of the films scenes are harrowing to watch — I’m thinking particularly of the moment you’re forced to whip Patsey, a fellow slave at gunpoint. What were those moments like to shoot?

Well, I traveled in with Lupita [Nyong’o, who plays Patsey] that day, I think, from the crew base where we were at to get ready, and it was blistering hot — over 100 degrees, usually — and I think we just spoke very calmly about knowing what we were about to do in the days shooting. It happened, you know. It really happened to these people, and we’re right there in Louisiana, and you have that sense that you’re dancing with spirits, dancing with ghosts. That whole area has that feel anyway, and then you’re there doing something like this on this particular day, a day probably not dissimilar to the day that it happened 100-odd years ago. And you’re sort of hoping that whatever happens is guided by these spirits, in a way — you just have to be open to that, and to feel the privilege of being able to tell their story.

That’s interesting. Although it’s a completely different film tonally, I remember talking to Jamie Foxx for Django Unchained and him saying a similar thing — that they could feel the atmosphere was almost haunted, the ghosts.

Oh, it’s definitely true. And on the plantations they talk about it — they’re very open about it now. There are some that have been turned into museums and so on. You know, so much happened on that soil, so much that it still possesses the land, and possesses the air.

Probably my favorite scene in the film was when Solomon finally joins the chorus of the slaves’ song — just that moment when you raise your eyes and connect, it was something else. What was going through your mind at that point?

I think — well, it’s hard to say specifically what was going through my head — but I think in just the general sense, as you’re trying to connect to Solomon, it’s also a story about a man who believes that he’s in a battle for his freedom, and he comes to realize that he’s in a battle for his mind. And I felt that sequence — the burying of another slave, and the realization that one day that could be him, that he may never get home and this could be his reality one day.

It was though he realized he was part of something bigger, too — whereas he’d previously been obsessed with his own survival.

Yeah, there’s a community. And there’s strength there. There’s spirituality, and a different kind of hope. There’s something else that he can look to, and it’s connected to the people around him. The spirituality is a different kind of freedom.

What’s the dynamic like between you and Steve on set? I imagine, given the gravity of the subject matter, it’s quite serious. What’s he like when the cameras stop rolling?

You know, in terms of doing the press tour with Steve now, you’re kind of introduced to a completely different man, in a way. [Laughs] And he’s hilarious and very embracing. On set Steve is encouraging, but also has a real sense of demand. Everybody wants to see everyone give 100 per cent, because why else would you do it, but it’s great to have somebody like Steve who demands that, and encourages it. It’s important. So in a way the on-set dynamic is just deeply focused. I think everybody was working at such a pitch, I mean, to shoot this movie in just 35 days and get to all the places emotionally that we needed to get to — and physically — just required a lot of focus and a real kind of engagement with it. It was great to have a group of actors there who were of that school and of that mentality, as well as a director who absolutely believes in that. The on set was just a high pitch of focus, and that was very much lead by Steve. There was also a sense of camaraderie and engagement, and we were able to get to know each other a little bit in New Orleans, when we weren’t shooting. I think all of us were very engaged in what we were trying to do.

Did anyone stay in character? Did you not talk to Michael Fassbender between takes?

[Laughs] No, no, no. That would’ve taken too much energy. There was a lot we had to accomplish and we left it at “cut.” You know, hopefully you leave everything there. You’ve given 100 per cent on that day and then you can walk away from it, and hang out and get to know people. And Michael’s a great guy and fun to hang out with. That was good to know, given the full knowledge that at 6 a.m. the next day we were gonna be back into what we were doing, and that became the rhythm of how we worked. I thought that was a good way to do it.

There’s already been a lot of crazy buzz about this film, as you know, in terms of awards and Oscars and that stuff. Do you think this kind of attention is beneficial — in that it brings attention to the movie — or does the awards talk threaten to obscure the movie’s real significance?

I think it’s all about a kind of balance, you know. It’s great that the film is receiving the attention that it’s receiving — I mean, the public attention it has received is remarkable, and I love it. I’m deeply proud of this film. But at the same time the heartbeat is a bit quieter and meditative — it’s about a man’s journey through this incredible time, this incredible 12 years, so in way, it’s a double-edged thing. People are being encouraged to see the film because there’s a kind of excitement around it, in a way, but they’ve got to try and come into it without that, to approach it with their own minds and own hearts — and I think that’s our attempt in telling the story.

12 Years A Slave opens in select theaters this Friday, with an expanded release to follow.