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.

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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.