Epic award winning period drama 12 Years A Slave is out now on DVD. To coincide with the release Flavourmag hear from director Steve McQueen and cast members Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard on what is was like to make this incredible story about Solomon Northup‘s fight for survival and freedom in pre-Civil War United States.
Can we talk about race in America? Is it possible to have that subject – North America, and have people be frank? Are we all too careful? Are we all too fearful? What are your feelings about that?
Steve: This is a question about 12 Years a Slave, is it?
Steve: I made a movie, this movie because I wanted to tell a story about slavery. A story which, for me, hadn’t been given a platform in cinema. It’s one thing to read about slavery, one thing to sort of have these kinds of illustrations about slavery, but when you see it within a narrative it does something different. That’s what I wanted to do. If that starts off a conversation, wonderful, excellent, it would be about time. Conversations are continuing and they have been done, it goes on and on. This film for me is about Solomon Northrup and how he survived that unfortunate situation. I don’t know about a conversation. I don’t know what kind of conversation you’re talking about, be slightly more specific, it’s very broad. I’m trying to sort of cover all bases here, but I don’t know what you mean.
I guess I mean I think everybody who watches this movie has a reaction and quite rightly so to –
Steve: I hope it goes beyond race, that’s what I hope so. Race is involved in it, but it’s not entirely about that.
I think – yes, you’re right. There’s guilt and history, and also watching people in pain I think is a very difficult thing. Having – I imagine that it was – you must have had a lot of conversations in the beginning with your actors about getting to trust one another because there were things that they have to say to one another and things that they have to do to one another that are very difficult. At the films premiere Michael, you said you couldn’t have done it really if you didn’t all have a huge amount of faith and trust in one another and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
Michael: Yeah, you could do it, but it wouldn’t – you wouldn’t get to sort of the places that I think that we achieved in the film. It’s – you’re only as good as the person standing opposite you, especially when you’re doing films like this. There was a lot of love on set. There was a lot of support. We were provoking each other, challenging each other, but essentially at the end of it all, supporting one another, looking after one another, and that’s down to Steve. Steve creates that environment on set and it’s a very trusting environment. It’s a very safe environment to create. I think it’s important to fall on your face a few times. When you don’t have the support railings that you do in a lot of films, coverage shots, takes here, and it’s literally acting by numbers, this is the real deal. You have sort of complete takes and when that’s happening it’s like music, there’s rhythms there. You have to dance with the camera man, Sean Bobbitt and with the fellow players. If the rhythm’s out, you feel it, you see it, but if it’s in sync then something special happens. You surprise yourself, you go to places that you didn’t imagine. You go to the limit and then you sort of go beyond it and at least try and maintain that, and that requires an awful lot of focus and a lot of commitment. If one of us wasn’t committing to the other then something drops and something falls apart.
“Mistress Epps is a woman just drowning in her own fear of losing her husband”
Sarah, a lot of the things that your character specifically does are very cruel. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Steve – a lot of Steve’s movies, Cameron’s has this a lot, are about the body and ways we feel things in the body. Does cruelty – does that affect you in any way when you’re playing a character who’s cruel? How do you get there?
Sarah: Of course it affects me, but I had a very specific job to do within the confines of the story that was – had little to do with me and had everything to do with the story of Solomon and Patsey. The only way I was able to kind of put myself in that head space was to find the reason why and not as a justification for deplorable behaviour, but as a way into it for myself as an actor. To me Mistress Epps is a woman just drowning in her own fear of losing her husband, her standing within her own property, and the public sort of nature of this being usurped by Patsey in the heart of the person that belongs to her. It’s kind of – that was the only way I could really go there, but also it was my job and I wanted to commit to it whole hog and to not take my foot off the gas. There was a relentless quality to her theory and I just thought it’s best to commit to that rather than to pull back.
Steve: These are artists, they’re actors. This is drama. Without people playing people who are appalling, there would be no drama. It’s their job, that’s what they do, they’re athletes. It doesn’t mean that they – it’d be difficult if they couldn’t do it. If they couldn’t do it, I’d get someone else. They’re actors, so we should just – come on.
Right, I understand that, but we’re also – it’s tricky – it’s necessary to show torture and we’re watching a movie so it’s this very tricky juxtaposition of entertainment, education, and watching people in pain and causing pain. I just think it’s a tricky thing to calibrate.
Michael: It’s not really because the history writes it the way it is, we’re just there to facilitate it. It’s not tricky at all. What’s tricky is when people try and sort of sugar coat it or start messing with it. It is what it is, it’s there. The reality is there so you just follow it.
Sarah: It’s your responsibility to tell the truth.
Michael: It makes it easier because it’s real so it happened.
Steve: Everyone’s an adult, they know how to deal with it. They know how to deal with it so it’s not about sort of sugar coating it or anything else. The artists, actors, we’re here to do something, which we feel is necessary for the film.
Chiwetel: It’s the sort of story that I think just requires 100% commitment from everybody involved. The only way to do that – I wouldn’t be able to do the work, my job in the film, if other people weren’t doing theirs. We have to support each other in that way. We have to work together. I think if you’re – it’s not – like I think Steve’s saying, it’s – and Michael, it’s a historical narrative. It’s a first-person primary source. It’s a gift from the past to open a discussion not about race particularly, but about human dignity and our freedoms, and what we most require in the world. The only way to really open that discussion is to see all sides of it. That’s the only way we can make the film, a film that we would be proud of.
Alfre: If you’re storytelling, no matter what the story is, if you don’t tell it truthfully then you’re disrespecting the audience, the person you’re telling it to and you’re disrespecting the process.
I just want to congratulate Mr. McQueen on an excellent movie. Can you comment please, how was it the first time you read the book and why was it so important to you in a way to make this wonderful movie?
Steve: What happened in the beginning is I wanted to make a film about slavery. It was sort of a hole, I think – I wanted to see images from that particular past. I wanted to experience it through imagines. What happened was that I had this idea of a free man in North America at that time, who would have been kidnapped into slavery. He goes through this sort of an assault course, unfortunate assault course of the sort of regime of slavery. I got together with John Ridley to write the script and things were going, but it’s hard. Things were going a bit sort of not as well as I wanted. I was talking to my wife and I said – I told her what was going on and she said why don’t you look into True Accounts of Slavery, duh. Myself and – we researched it and she come up with this book 12 Years a Slave.
As soon as she put it in my hand, I didn’t let it go. It was just remarkable. Each turn of the page was a revelation. It was just – I couldn’t believe – when you have an idea and then you see it in your hand as a book, it was just amazing. I live in Amsterdam so the comparison for me was Anne Frank because it was 100 years earlier, this book was around. I was upset with myself that I didn’t know about this book, but then I realized no one I knew, knew about this book, no one. That’s when I thought yes I want to make this book. I want to make this film – this book into a film. That was it. That’s when plan B came on board and Brad Pitt, and things got rolling.
I was upset with myself that I didn’t know about this book, but then I realized no one I knew, knew about this book
This question is for Lupita. Lupita, big surprise, I realize you were born in Mexico and your name is more Mexican than mole. I would like to know about your background and how long you have been outside of Mexico and if you are aware about the Mexican situation right now and how is it, and can you talk a little bit about that.
Lupita: Yes, I was born in Mexico, but I moved back to Kenya where my family is from before I turned one. I grew up in Kenya, but my parents sent me back to Mexico to learn Spanish when I was 16, so I did spend some time in Mexico in my adolescence. Then I came to study in the US. Of course I have this special place for Mexico in my heart, it’s my birthplace. I say I’m a Mexikenyan. (laughing)
This question is for Mr. McQueen. What were your expectations for the film?
Steve: My expectations have been met, I made the movie. I remember someone telling me your impossible movie. We made it. That’s it for me. I did the best I could, everything, every bone, every muscle, sacrificed my family attention, being with them, everything. I’m just happy. This is it for me. If anything else came our way it’ll be great, but what I was most happy with is that it actually got made and plan B, Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt, these are the people who rolled up their sleeves and actually made this film happen.
Chiwetel, in addition to film acting, I know that you’ve been regularly appearing on the London stage, how do you mix the two? Is your approach to playing characters on screen different from on the stage? How does that work for you?
Chiwetel: Well, it’s a different world, really, the characters on stage. The stories can be as rich, but your approach is different. You can’t – you have to be sort of slightly more – you have to consider your decisions within the ideas of theatre craft and stage craft, which is really thinking about how you sustain a performance for eight shows a week for months at a time, how you hit the back of an auditorium, how do you communicate in a room, something that can be nuanced or subtle that you can do in a film. You have to approach it in a completely different way. It works – it ends up working a completely different set of muscles, which I love doing theatre. I’ve done it since I started acting, but it’s – but to – it’s impossible to compare to an experience in a way, just to technically compare to an experience like this film where you are – where you’re not really using theatrical muscles at all, that you’re actually trying to approach something much rawer, much more immediate.
One of the strongest things about this film, I think, is the way hope moves in and out of the story, that you feel at a lot of times, that all hope is lost and then some hope comes back. Can you talk a little bit about calibrating that for you as your character, sort of every time he thinks he can change things something – there’s a lot of up and down with him.
Chiwetel: It’s a fight for his soul. He’s at war for his psychology, for his mind, for his spirit, for his heart. It’s a very silent war in a way, but a war nonetheless. It is – there are moments where there are bits where he thinks he can win and they’re almost as harrowing because hope is complicated, certainly in that kind of scenario. Hope is a double-edged sword, but to abandon hope is to lose his mind. Every – I think every sequence is calibrated and this is really where Steve really shapes the story, I think, in this remarkable way is leading you through his psychology and where he is, and where he is winning in that battle for his own mind and where he’s close to losing.
“If you’re storytelling, no matter what the story is, if you don’t tell it truthfully then you’re disrespecting the audience”
Steve, how would this movie had been different it was done by an African-American instead of a Brit. I was wondering what do you think being a British man, did it change your perspective at all or do you think if you was living in America your whole life would it have been a little different?
Steve: First of all, I don’t really like to draw those kinds of lines, nationalism or whatever it is. Yes I’m British. My parents come from the West Indies, Grenada, my mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother was born. Trinidad is where Carmichael was born who coined the phrase black power. It’s complex, it’s not so simple. Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte. America, West Indian, British, it’s about slavery. We’ve got Chiwetel’s British Nigerian. We have Lupita, Mexican Kenyan. It’s about that triangle as such. It’s not about me being British, it’s about me being part of that history.
At the end of the movie I wanted to know more and more about this man, so my curiosity is how is it possible that no one knew where he died? He had a nephew, children, grandchildren. Did you do some research?
Steve: Yes, we have – there has been research. There’s no dates or place where he died. We know about his record. We know something about his wife or what happened to her afterwards, but him, nothing, nothing. There’s no – maybe now there will be more, but there’s been a lot of investigation into what ever happened to him and nothing has occurred.
Who published the book? The publisher of the book doesn’t know anything?
Steve: It was published in 1850 – the first edition was then, of course, but it’s about – we don’t know, we just don’t know, unfortunately. A lot of people get lost. How they died and where they died, and what circumstances that they died, we don’t know. Someone was involved in the Underground Railroad. He was a tireless worker for freedom of slaves, we just don’t know right now. Hopefully, who knows, we might unearth what happened to him now just as we unearthed the book. Let’s hope.
Brad Pitt tends to play heroic likable characters for the most part. Did he consider other roles? I know he’s one of very few characters that has some redeeming qualities in terms of the people who play the white people in the cast. Did he consider Michael Fassbender’s role or Benedict Cumberbatch’s role?
Steve: I don’t think it was his to consider in that way. That’s not how we do things. We talked and we talked about Bass. That was him. What was interesting about Brad is that he kind of fits quite well as Bass, what he’s doing in New Orleans and so forth and what not. Also, the debate, I think he was very interested in that kind of level of debate about – he’s the only one who confronts Epps verbally. I think that kind of boxing match – who doesn’t want to see Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt sort of – doing some meat and potato acting about the reasons why this film – the reasons why this situation has occurred. He’s being confronted. You’ve got Michael Fassbender, you’ve got Brad Pitt doing this sort of great scene together. For me it was a no brainer and fantastic.
One of the other great things about this story is that it has quite naturally shows very different points of view sort on every part of the prism. Alfre’s character in particular is interesting in that the question of how much do you participate, how much are you trying to save yourself in a situation like this. Can you talk a little bit about what kind of research you might have done into your character and people like here.
Alfre: I think when we look at this film and when we – also when we look at history, we have to understand that people live smack in the middle of the times that they live. We get to, in reflection, decide oh I would have been here, oh I would have been there and that’s very simplistic. Just as every day we find the place amongst the savoury and unsavoury circumstances that we live in, we find a place to continue to live and to hopefully thrive, and to be there. You learn to live to fight another day, learn to live another day. I think that’s something that Mistress Shaw does. There is no room when you’re in the middle of life. There’s only room to figure out how to keep your head up and the heads of the people that you love. You always do what you have to do. I think it is a very complex portrait of life in a slave economy that Steve has drawn and shown us. For Mistress Shaw and I think for Mistress Epps, and for Patsey, women found a way to be present and to live another day no matter was it was. Each of you could talk about that, but you take your circumstances and you figure out if you have power, if you have ambition and expectation, you don’t judge yourself even. As we look at this, also, you just mentioned the white characters thinking that there weren’t that many there who were of sort of sound moral stance. I think there were tons of them. I think even with Epps we see the struggle that he’s having. I think again, Ford, he – if he’s going to leave his family and go tilting against the slave system, he would have been gone like that. Again, he found a way to live. I thought he was a good man. That’s a whole other discussion. I think we’re judging –
Steve: He’s a slaver.
Alfre: I think we can’t judge in black and white. You said he was a slaver?
Steve: I was just quoting the movie.
Alfre: Yeah, but it’s like I’m a capitalist too and think of the things that are done in the name of capitalism, but you try to do great deeds in your surroundings. I think Mistress Shaw was – I get her. To prepare for it, I just had to be alive a long time as an African-American woman.
I wondered how and if you could relate the film to Django Unchained?
Steve: In fact they’re two different movies about slavery. That’s the only way I can answer that question, really. In fact, when I was in New Orleans I bumped into Tarantino, Quentin and we had a discussion. He said to me hopefully it’s okay to have more than one slavery film. Yeah, of course. It’s like have more than one gangster movie, having more than one western.
“This film for me is about love”
What are your thoughts on people leaving the cinema not being able to cope with the violence?
Alfre: I think this is something that – have you all seen the film? Mostly have seen the film. One of the great powers that you have is the ability to let the public know whatever you feel artistically, critically in your discipline. However you feel about the movie, you have the ability to let people know that it’s a film that they should see because even people that are very excited and have been really endorsing it, saying I’ve been changed by watching this, they are also using the words like intense, hard, and all that. As contemporary people we tend to shy away from those things, but you have to also say, but you have to see it because it is – you will see terrible circumstance, but you will see beautiful circumstances. You will see all of these played out beautifully and masterfully, and it’s a film that you shouldn’t miss whether you are a cinephile or whether you are a worker day Jane and John. It is a film that fills a void in us, I think, collectively and personally. Yes, about history, but also just about ourselves as human beings. That’s why I think Steve could not follow you all the way, Johanna, when we started off talking about race because it goes so much more individually, personally past race.
Steve: This film for me is about love. It’s about love. It’s a funny, funny word, love because it’s hardly ever used. It seems silly, obviously, in this kind of context, but that’s what the film’s about, it’s about love. That’s it. It’s one of those things where there’s a little pain in love sometimes, but you have to get through it and it’s the journey of Solomon Northrup to get through back to his family. That’s the journey I wanted to go on. It’s just like life, tough, and we get through it.
Chiwetel: To not show what he went through as explicitly as we can would, I think, be a disservice to him and his journey, and there would be in a way, no point in telling the story if we can’t tell the story. I sort of feel passionately that that’s what’s amazing about what –
Steve: If we couldn’t tell the story this great.
Chiwetel: Yeah, what Steve’s done, he’s told the story.
What’s your favourite line from the film?
Steve: There’s a lot of shame about slavery in America and the West Indies, a lot of shame. So it’s that line where Solomon says forgive me and the wife says to him there is nothing to forgive. That, for me, is one of the most powerful lines in the movie because there’s nothing to be forgiven for, it wasn’t your fault. This is what happened to you. That was very key.
12 Years A Slave is released to Blu-ray and DVD on 12th May 2014, courtesy of Entertainment One