OSCARS Q&A: Steve McQueen On '12 Years A Slave' – “It Was As Real As It Got”

For having covered such dark material in all three of his feature films—Hunger (2008), Shame (2011)AwardsLine.LogoBW and this year’s 12 Years A Slave — Steve McQueen will be the first to admit he’s actually a happy, jovial guy. And with all the recent accolades pouring in, he’s got a lot to smile about. Already a winner as best director from New York, Washington D.C. and Boston critics groups, McQueen also nabbed a Golden Globe nomination and is courting Oscar. His harrowing look at slavery, a subject Hollywood rarely explores, has defied any expectations that some of the violent scenes depicted in the film would affect its reception at the box office.

Related: OSCARS: A Crowded Field Vying For Directing & Writing Noms

12 Years A SlaveAwardsLine: Hollywood has not really tapped into slavery as much as, say, the Holocaust. People are responding to it because it is, oddly enough, a new subject for them in movies.
Steve McQueen: I suppose you’re quite right. Also, what’s interesting about this being a new subject is that it’s about our shit history. Even if I’m British, it’s my shit history too. The screen becomes a mirror that reflects this unfortunate recent past. But that past is strangely about love. What I mean is that through all the unfortunate situations that have happened, the slaves survived what limited choices they had and they brought up their children. And through that comes someone like me. The fact that I’m sitting here talking to you is because of my ancestors’ sacrifices. And I don’t take that for granted.

Related: ‘12 Years A Slave’ Leads London Critics’ Circle Nominations

AwardsLine: How did you connect with Plan B and producer Brad Pitt for this?Brad Pitt
McQueen: After Hunger, the people from Plan B basically pursued me and wanted to work with me. It was very flattering. There were other people (interested), but (Plan B) was very persistent and it was in a very organic way. I told them I wanted to make a movie about slavery, and that was it. I met Brad in London when he was (working on) World War Z, and we had a fantastic three-hour meeting over a couple glasses of wine. He’s very focused, very attentive to detail and very direct, and that was wonderful.

AwardsLine: Was it always your intention to cast him in the film?
McQueen: (With) a producer and a great actor like Brad Pitt, you sort of have to put him in the film. It’s like a two for one. You never get two for one!

AwardsLine: You did a Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival, and you said finding the book was like finding the diary of Anne Frank.
McQueen; The question is, why do we know Anne Frank and not Solomon Northup? His book was written 97 years before Anne Frank’s diary. And he was lost; he was buried. Thank God for my wife who found his book. It’s just interesting that I live in Amsterdam, (where) Anne Frank is a national hero, and no one knows Solomon Northup. My whole idea with making this film is that he becomes a hero because he is a hero—a real American hero. Solomon fulfills that prophecy that you have in this country, which is the right to pursue happiness—that’s what Solomon wanted to do.

12 Years a SlaveAwardsLine: Did you ever think making this film would have such an impact?
McQueen: I never really thought about it. I’m just happy that people went out to see the movie. (What) matters is that people are discovering the movie and going—not necessarily (just) African-Americans. For me, that’s been the most beautiful thing, really. It’s historic. I was in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center (showing) my work, and some people from the African-American community were upset that they weren’t included in this viewing of the film. So Fox helped to facilitate the cinema, and 500 people came to the next screening and there were more outside for the Q&A. There were black folks and white—it was America. And the passion of the discussion… You know my movie is not a passive movie, it’s a call to arms to do things like this. Reading newspapers, watching television, we always feel helpless, but actually we can do something.

AwardsLine: A lot of people have focused on the brutality of the film.
McQueen: I think we’ve overcome that with the evidence that people are going to see it. Critics saw it and (were) predicting what they thought would happen with audiences. And they were obviously proven wrong.

AwardsLine: You tend to hold shots, which makes some of the scenes in the film tense, like the one in which Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is brutally whipped.
McQueen: It was one take. If I put a cut in there, it would have taken all the air out of the scene. The camera is moving with the actors, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next—as in life. You’re in the film—there is no frame; you’re living it. I designed it that way because that scene deserved that kind of attention.

AwardsLine: You also shot the film on real plantations in Louisiana.
McQueen: Those trees have seen everything. For example, the tree that we used to show the two guys getting lynched was an actual lynching tree. It was as real as it got. We were dancing with the ghosts. Everyone was in tune in making this environment. They can see around them the same views those slaves had and the same views plantation masters had. So every day you’re reminded of that history.

  1. Steve McQueen is one of the most talented filmmakers to emerge in the last several years. From HUNGER to SHAME to 12 YEARS A SLAVE, his work is consistently amazing. I look forward to seeing more of his films. And hope his most recent work is awarded with several Oscars,

  2. ‘Shit history,’ huh? Second time I’ve heard a successful black American make this reference. The same shit history where hundreds of thousands of whites died setting things straight, one of the bloodiest wars in history. We don’t ever want to forget the past, but to use it to demagogue and defile – and make a buck, all pretty disgusting. All guys like this want is control and revenge, not equality…unless it’s the Marxist kind of equality. Won’t be happy ’til everyone is as miserable as him.

    1. Going to be as diplomatic as I can to Mr. Smitty here.

      1. You CLEARLY did not pay attention to the article. While whining about the “Second time I’ve heard a successful black American make this reference” you clearly missed the part of the article where Mr. McQueen clearly states “Even if I’m British”. Maybe you missed that pertinent information because you were so into your preconceptions that reading comprehension wasn’t a priority.

      2. Where, EXACTLY, in the barely one page article did you get the sense that Mr. McQueen made the film motivated by (your words) “control and revenge, not equality…unless it’s the Marxist kind of equality”. Where do you see that? It’s certainly not in the article. Were there secret passages in the artice that only you can see?

      3. Given that the focus of the movie was ENTIRELY about the real life plight of Solomon Northrup, where exactly in the film would you have placed the “thank you white people” section you feel should be included? Maybe like the Italian promo poster, Solomon Northrup should have been an afterthought in his own story?

      4. Let me guess, you haven’t seen it, but frequent web sites (cough..cough..Drudge..cough cough..Breitbart) that have conditioned you to view any mention of slavery with the angry projection you displayed in your post.

      1. Dear Pete,

        Thank you. I felt pain reading Smitty’s moronic fail of a comment.
        But, I did legs today. I’m very tired. Squats kicked my…

        You pointed out his stupidity and said everything I was thinking. You did it and I didn’t have to…thank you.

    2. McQueen’s not an American. He’s a Brit. “Shit history” is exactly what slavery is. There’s no need to wrap it in pretty paper and put a pink bow on it. The fact is that the Civil War did NOT initially begin solely to correct the injustice of slavery. White people like to pacify themselves that the war was to free the slaves when in fact it wasn’t. It’s what it became, but NOT what it started out being about. Thousands of black people died in that war as well so don’t make it sound as if only white people died. The fact is that for a long time even northern whites didn’t allow free black to fight, so don’t whitewash (pun intended) history to make yourself feel better about your ancestor’s perfidy.

  3. By shit history he is referring to the fact that it was very ugly. Which it was. He said absolutely nothing in any way shape or form about those who died fighting in the Civil War. You’re the one who has issues, not him.

  4. Steve Mcqueen is brilliant. He is truly a genius. I saw him speak at the AFI festival and the entire audience was in awe. 900 people. 1 clip. 1 man talking about his art. stunning day and a stunning film. Bravo!

  5. Being a slave in the pre Civil War south
    was, even by Engles own admission, NOTHING
    beside being an industrial SLAVE in midlands England.

    And BTW –where’s Hollywood on the full blown
    resurrection of enclosure, work camps, concentration camps,
    child labor, and ferocious EUGENICS and SLAVERY itself
    inside Globalist RED China?

    NOT even a PEEP!

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