20th Century Fox
"12 Years A Slave," Steve McQueen's latest in a growing number of exceptional works, is one of the most harrowing and powerful in recent memory. This tale of a free man who was abducted and sold into servitude, only to escape more than a decade later to tell his tale to the world, is easily one of the best films of this or any other year.
During the Toronto Film Festival, where the film made its Canadian premiere, there were two unique and lengthy discussions with both the filmmakers and the actors who helped craft a film of this magnitude.
In this first conversation, Moviefone spoke with McQueen, director of such films as "Hunger" and "Shame," alongside actors Chiwitel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps) and the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Moviefone: What was the connection between performers on-set, given the confrontations inherent in the narrative?
Steve McQueen: We're a family, so it wasn't a case of "I don't want to talk to you because you're going to be horrible to me later." It was a family because we needed the support of one another.
I think that's the environment I want to create. We are here to support each other making this piece of work. All of these actors here are exceptional artists, so it was quite joyous at the same time as being consoling. It was beautiful, really an honour to be around.
Alfre Woodard: I think we had a circle of trust, and it took trusting each other and feeling safe to go to those places. In the case of me and Michael [Fassbender], we made nice before we did our scenes and then afterwards. I trusted him, and I felt safe with him as a scene partner and that's what allowed me to be able to go there.
Michael Fassbender: Steve definitely creates that kind of environment on-set, where the actors can feel that they can explore everything about the characters right there in the moment, and try to leave everything there. You do the work and [don't] go away regretting anything or thinking, "Could I have done more?" Cut means cut. We were bonded, and we would just try and support each other.
What effect do you think having a non-American direct the story has on the movie? And why is right now the time for this tale to be told?
McQueen: [The United States] has a black president, it's the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, the unfortunate situation with Trayvon Martin, and also the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington. With that kind of perfect storm, people are ready to receive and to look and reflect on the unfortunate recent past.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: What most fascinates me is the combined sensibility between a black British director and a black American screenwriter. And the result is so subtle. Often, there's a tendency for those of us who are directly descended from African-American slaves to overstate and not to let the story ... the story is hyperbolic anyway. Slavery? What's more hyperbolic than slavery of an actual human being? You have to pull back and let the story tell itself and that's what they did. By and large, I think it's harder for African-Americans to get distance, so there's a tendency to want to scream rather than hold back and understate. So it's easier for [Steve], I think, 3000 miles away sitting in London, in Amsterdam, to bring an objectivity to it.
Woodard: I'd just like to point out that Steve has his roots in the Caribbean, in Grenada, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and Lupita [Nyong'o] have roots in England as well as Africa and that's the whole big loop. There is no part of the world that isn't touched by that, so I think we're all children of the diaspora, even [the white cast members in attendance] Sarah and Michael.
How does one even prepare for a movie like this?
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Solomon Northup's story is extraordinary, one of a kind, a real gift. It's a real insight into a time and a place, a first-person narrative, a historical document. It should be studied in every school in the world. it's really something of significance. I was primarily taken with that, and really tried to understand him and get underneath his skin and his psychology, to understand how he was able to survive something like this with his mind intact, which I consider remarkable. I landed in New Orleans and saw the plantations to get a sense of the overall history of what was going on there, the different histories as well, the different narratives, which was a very completing experience for me. I suppose the process is just trying to uncover this character and then working with an exceptional group of people.
Lupita Nyong'o: It was about coming to terms with the fact that I was going to be working with people I admired so much. My research involved going to the "Blacks in Wax" museum in Baltimore because I wanted to get as much of a three-dimensional experience of slavery as I could. I researched the time, always trying to create in my imagination a world that Patsy lived in. Things she smelled, things she tasted. Solomon describes Patsy so vividly, he says she "had an air of loftiness that neither labour nor lash could get rid of." For me that was her complexity, that she could be a person who lived so fully, who was so genial and pleasant-tempered and still wanted to die. That's the kind of complexity that as an actor you can only dream of.
Adepero Oduye: For me, everything was in the book. The way he describes the experience is so specific and I could just imagine it and it was horrific and unbelievable in a way. Certain times on set, it was unbelievable what we were all doing, and I'm just thankful to have an amazing cast and for Steve to be there, so we could be there for each other and feel safe and have trust.
Fassbender: First of all, I had to try to find [my character's] voice, so I worked with tapes and a dialogue coach. I went to New Orleans five weeks before we started filming to soak up the atmosphere there. I read the book of course, but then just spent time with the script. Obviously being a slave is the worst deal when you're getting beaten and suppressed every day, but the suppressor is also going to be affected by that. How does that affect the person administrating all of that suffering and pain? I thought of Epps as a boil on the skin of society, representing how damaged the whole society was because of slavery. He's not the sharpest tool in the box, he doesn't understand the Bible, [for him] it's just another way of keeping people suppressed and controlled. I think religion and pain go hand-in-hand sometimes. How many people are holding the Bible up in one hand and launching missiles with the other?
Sarah Paulson: Steve was very helpful in the physical life of Mistress Epps. It was very much about my posture and the rigid way that she moved that all really came from Steve. As we were saying earlier, I'd spend time with Lupita off-camera and then I'd have to go to work and play a woman that didn't want to see her face ever, anywhere, and wanted to bring her down. It was a hard thing to do, but I felt very necessary to tell the story of Solomon and Patsy properly. If I soft-pedalled it, it wasn't going to do the story any favours.
How did you sustain the intensity throughout the film, through the various travails of your characters?
Ejiofor: Steve had such remarkable vision for the film, and was able to measure certain stuff in such a skillful way, with a real eye on the story. I feel like he was able to create a circumstance where certainly I felt very free to explore and to try things. I had absolute faith that if something was false, if it was not working, if it wasn't going to fit, he was right there to talk about it, to adjust it, to figure it out. I think that's the great advantage to working with a terrifically talented director.
Oduye: I think the biggest thing for me overall was that idea of trust and faith in many aspects -- in the director, in the cast. I can be vulnerable in that I can fall down on the floor and get really dirty and that at the end of the day there will be people there to smile with and also trust that I've done the work. All of the work that I've done is in there somewhere, and I don't have to do anything or control anything, all I have to do is just sit and breathe and look around and it will all come up. Naturally your body in certain situations just wants to shut down. Your mind just goes, and I keep reminding myself, first of all, we have a job to do, this is where we're telling a story, we have these people who've actually lived these lives, just relax, just breathe, and trust that everything will come out and you'll be right there.
How was casting decided upon?
McQueen: Chewitel's work I knew before, and I think he was, for me, the only person who could have played Solomon Northup. We needed someone who had a genteel appeal, someone who had deep humanity and was a gentleman. Michael Fassbender, I don't have to say anything more. I think he's the most influential actor of his generation. He's like a pop star: kids want to be that person. I think just as Gary Oldman was and how Mickey Rourke was, people were influenced. Sarah Paulson came through an audition, and there were many people who auditioned for that role of Ms. Epps. Sarah just came on tape and killed it. I'm not interested in names, that's not my style, that's not why I do things. Everyone here has had a different journey to be where we are now and it's just been a wonderful experience.
How hard is it to let things go at the end of the day?
Fassbender: That's our job. I think sometimes with ugly characters, actors might want to go there for personal image or something, but for me it's a job. And especially in a job like this, it's such a massive responsibility to do it justice and to speak the truths. The main thing was to honour these spirits that lived these lives and to do the best that I could for that. Epps is is a human being who's caught up in something so complicated and so unjust, but not "evil." I don't even understand that word. There's so much responsibility here, so the preparation is so important to me. The worst feeling for an actor is to finish a day's work and go, "Shit!" That happens anyway, it's the classic thing, you're halfway home and you think "Oh God, that's the way I should have done that!" You minimize that feeling, you really put everything into the day so at the end of the day it's all left on the floor. Then you can go home and relax somewhat. You're always living with the character, but as much as possible, you exorcise the demons on set that day.
Woodard: A lot of actors half-step, they keep one foot on the dock and one on the boat, and you probably get whacked out trying to do that. An actor like Michael and the other actors here, they get on the boat. They understand they're bringing to life an entirely separate human being from themselves, and so you have to go there and when you go there cleanly, you can walk away from it because you're not taking it personally. It's a matter of facility but also spiritual soundness and freedom and understanding your role in this life as a storyteller, as an actor, as a healer. The reason Epps is an effective villain is because Michael sees him as a human being. We're all capable of it and it happens in our lives, in our personal lives on different levels, the way we behave in our offices in public, in our cars, all kinds of things. We feel Epps so much as we're repelled by it because we know we can go there. We can't forget, just as we know that we can triumph with Solomon.
Please discuss the "hanging scene," one of the most wrenching moments of the film.
Ejiofor: The book describes that moment of the hanging in vivid detail, and to me it was the first real "in" I had into Solomon in terms of his psychology. That was the moment of change, that you realize that this person is going to survive this journey. In the book, he references the fact that he would have given more years of servitude if they'd just moved him a few feet into the shade, and that perspective, that way of looking at a circumstance was the first real clue that this is a person who is going to figure this out.
When we came to shoot that scene, it was a massive moment. I knew it was going to be a complicated day in terms of what I was going to be required to do physically, but I was engaged with it, I wanted to try and accomplish that with Steve. I think that making this film has been an extraordinary journey. I think that making this film with the people involved has been amazing, so I'm delighted right now. I'm thrilled.
"12 Years a Slave" opens in theatres on October 18.