20th Century Fox
"12 Years a Slave" is notable not only for its shocking tale of violence and narrative of stark betrayal, but for the wondrous beauty and delicacy of language that the filmmakers bring to the screen. The film is as much an achievement on a technical level as it is as a near-spiritual experience when watching the movie's story unfold.
In this second part of our conversation (in our first conversation we sat down with the cast), Moviefone spoke with the people behind the scenes about the unique challenges of sharing this tale with a general audience, including director Steve McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
What's the background of the film's narrative?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: [The film] is based on a true story, a book that was published in 1853. It was written in 2 months, and was published on July 15, 1853. It was a runaway bestseller. Solomon Northup [played by Chiwetel Ejiofor] actually existed. Minding his business, he fell for this ruse and ended up a slave. When he published the book, they were able to identify the two guys who tricked him and bring them to trial, though as you saw at the end, unfortunately, they weren't punished for what they did. This is the first [theatrical] film ever done based on any of the 101 slave narratives written by fugitive slaves before the end of the civil war. Of those 101 slave narratives, only one is the testimony of the man or woman who was free, then enslaved, then free again.
Steve McQueen: I wanted to make a film about slavery, and I was just trying to find an "in." I hooked up with John Ridley to write the script, and while that process was going on, my wife [suggested I] think of first-hand accounts. As soon as ["12 Years A Slave"] was in my hand, I never let it go. Each turn of the page was a revelation.
John Ridley: This was a book that had disappeared, and Steve and his wife found it. It's painful and it's powerful and there's beauty there, but it takes a bit of excavating.
Hans Zimmer: I was interested in working on something that I felt was unresolved history. Everything about this film is is something that echoes into our present and will echo into our future.
I think what Steve [McQueen] managed to do rather brilliantly is you leave the cinema devastated, and then you have to have a conversation. The conversation hopefully opens and it widens into things which have not been talked about, things that have been marginalized will suddenly become more of an open conversation and affect our future.
Gates, Jr.: Other than Frederick Douglass, [Northup] was the best-selling black author in history, celebrated from coast to coast. There were even two stage versions of "12 Years a Slave," and the first one in New York completely bombed! Within three years, four years, he's gone, and we don't know what happened to him. But now, with all of the attention that will be directed towards Solomon Northup, there will be some clue and he'll show up through his descendants, and we'll all have a happy reunion. It'll be a great day.
How did you formulate the film's structure while keeping the tonal balance of the story?
Ridley: The memoir [is] very non-traditional, non-linear. There was always that concept that if each individual scene works and has its own power, then it need not be locked into a particular time frame, that it can be in some ways like a jewelry box. All of these moments have a certain resolution and strength within themselves. As you go through the moments in the film, each of them is so powerful on their own and speak to each other you never lose a sense of who these people are. In some ways they're like little gifts, when you find other moments about these characters every step of the way through.
McQueen: I would really ask people to read the book, because you'll see in the book how the scenes are played out. There's a little introduction in the beginning of each chapter of what's going to happen when you read the book. When you read the chapters, it's pretty well-structured. The book [is] far more brutal than what we have on film. At the same time, it is about having that balance if you have to present that kind of behaviour in the film.
Ridley: No one put any filters on us in terms of the language or in terms of what should be shown. I think everyone came into it with that concept that if we were going to go down this road, it required a very unflinching look at what happened.
What has been your biggest surprise in translating the story to film?
McQueen: There's one thing about looking at images of slavery, it's another thing to bring those images onto the movie screen, and that's the shock for the audience right now. It has a kind of reaction because I feel that's the power of cinema. That's why, for me, it's the best art form in the world. You're presenting something which has been resurrected, but you're giving it images, you're giving it life, you're giving it breath. And if people respond to it, then that's great. That's what I'm trying to do. Just tell them truth on screen, whatever that is.
Ridley: There are things about this very direct story that were not surprising to me. The thing I carry away with me, the thing that I think is very painful to me, was understanding the larger canvas and reading histories and understanding that slavery as we have come to believe it in the United States of America was not dropped here fully formed, that it went through indentured servitude to slavery to slavery identified by racial inferiority and then canonized again and again in law up to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The thing that was painful to me was to read stories about free black people. This may be a semantical discussion, but people talk about this as a "slave narrative." To me, it's the narrative not of a "freed man" [but of] a "free man" who became a slave for 12 years of his life. To read stories of free people of colour in the United States of America, who truly saw the creeping tide of slavery -- individuals saying they will no longer have children because they know what is to come for them -- that was the most powerful thing to me.
How much of an impact did [producer/actor] Brad Pitt have on the film?
McQueen: Brad was instrumental in the making of this movie. Without him, it wouldn't have been made, absolutely. Without his participation as an actor, I don't think it would have been made.
Bass as a character was very fitting to him. And it was just one of those things where I was looking forward to seeing Michael Fassbender and Pitt on film in this "meat-and-potatoes" heavy scene. That was the audience's voice, what's going on here, and that's such a powerful scene and Brad was one of those people, it was just a no-brainer, but he fit into Bass like a hand into a glove.
Was it challenging to resurrect this narrative for a popular audience?
McQueen: I want to resurrect it, and that's why it's important. I don't care what anyone says, it's not difficult. It's not difficult, you just do it, end of story. I don't know if "on the other side of the pond" it's easier to think about things like this, I don't know. But to me, it's just straightforward -- there's this genius book, let's make a film. End of story.
Gates: The book has only been known [mostly] by scholars, it's not like The Diary of Anne Frank, widely taught. Now that's just changed.
McQueen: And that was always my intention when I was making this film. I wanted this film to erect the book, and [do] whatever we could do to get this book in every school in America. It is such an important testament to the unfortunate recent past of slavery. That was always my aim.
"12 Years a Slave" opens in theatres on October 18.