12 Years A Slave is not an easy movie to talk about in a pithy introduction to an interview. It's not an easy movie to talk about in a rushed 10-minute junket interview either, especially when it's with Steve McQueen, the director who is so unwilling to tolerate fools that a GIF of his reaction at a press conference is minor Internet legend. At one point I asked what I thought was a follow-up question, only to have him tell me he'd already answered it. I was too embarrassed to include it in the transcript.
To be fair, McQueen has earned the right not to surround himself with fools. His transition from the art work to filmmaking has resulted in three masterpieces of varying degrees. his debut film Hunger was a devastating portrait of a real hunger strike, and introduced the world to Michael Fassbender. His follow-up Shame was an even more emotionally raw portrait of sex addiction, with what we've now come to see as an expectedly great Fassbender performance. And now he arrives with 12 Years A Slave, another wrenching true story, this one about a free man living in upstate New York who was captured and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. The film is earning near-universal good reviews and creating the sense that, though he remains uncompromising and continuously thoughtful in his work, McQueen won't just be an art house favorite for long.
I asked McQueen specifically about his use of long takes in some of the film's most brutal scenes, his attachment to what he calls the "recent past" and the film's current resonance-- he surprised me by mentioning Trayvon Martin and the recent repeal of a section of the Voting Rights Act, hot-button topics that many filmmakers would try to avoid entirely. 12 Years A Slave opens in theaters this weekend; much of our interview is best read after you've seen the film, but you can watch the trailer below for a basic rundown of the story.
You've said that this is a universal story. It wasn’t an American story. It wasn’t specifically about this one time, and that people all over the world could understand it. But what I find works about it so well is that it is specific, that it is one man’s story and it’s not the story that we’ve told a lot of times about people being taken from Africa and shipped. It’s not unusual, obviously it happened a lot, but it’s not the kind of story that’s been told.
Well, it was a story that people didn’t know. It was a story I wanted to tell. I think most people don’t realize that there were a lot of black people living in the north who were free. The reason why I wanted to tell that story is because it was an in for me, that you have this guy, who’s with his family, who is an American, who is with his family, and then one day he gets pulled into, kidnapped into slavery. I mean, that was the initial idea I had.
Without knowing that this was a real story?
I don’t know. I didn’t know about 12 Years a Slave yet. Then, I spoke to my wife about it and she said, look, why don’t you look into firsthand accounts of slavery, and we did, and she found this book called 12 Years a Slave, which landed in my hand. My idea was fully formed already and it reads like a script. I couldn’t believe it and I thought, wow, this is the movie that I want to make.
You've become famous for long takes, or at least that’s what critics talk about from Hunger and from Shame. In this there are two show stoppers that I can remember, the whipping scene and the hanging scene. I’m curious how you chose those specific moments to emphasize with the long take and this really effective, visceral, you-are-there way.
I don’t view it in that way, of long takes to do anything. I mean, I never think of long takes. It’s never in my mind. What I think about is, what’s the best way to portray this scene? What’s the best way of interpreting a situation on cinema? So as far as scenes which are long or short, or conventional or unconventional, I have no interest. I’m just trying to make the best thing I can do at the time. That’s not even in my mind when I’m shooting something.
So, then why was the extended camera for the whipping scene, which is complicated logistically and you’ve got to go through a lot, why was that the best way to do that?
For me, that had to do with keeping a pressure cooker going, keeping the tension of that time in the pressure cooker, and not letting the audience or the scene compress, or off the hook, as you will. It was a situation that was spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning out of control to the point where we get to the eye of the storm where Epps is whipping Patsey in a clockwise sort of rotation. You’re in the eye of the storm then, to the point of when Patsey drops the soap, you know. You keep that pressure, keep that kind of tension going. If I’d put a cut into that scene, then I would have let the audience off the hook. A cut would have decompressed the situation. To keep the tension going, was vital to that scene. I can’t put a stencil onto a situation, onto a scene, onto a film. The scene or the film have to tell me what it wants, and that’s how I go forth and shoot that scene.
In the hanging scene, there were a couple cuts. A couple are for time, just because the day passes, but even within the moment, the cut doesn't diminish the impact.
Well, for example, the first shot in the scene is Solomon hanging there, after he’s been hung.
The one where people start walking in the background?
Exactly, and what happens is slowly and surely, people start walking out of the house to carry on with their daily chores. They notice him, they recognize him, but they carry on. What that does for me, what I wanted to happen in that frame is to put about two or three layers onto that frame. What you have is a physical illustration, as such, of slavery, and a mental, at the same time.
So it's almost like a metaphor.
It’s not metaphorical at all. It’s visual. You see it, you’re there and the audience goes one plus one and comes up with the answer, whatever it is. You see this happening in front of you, and that’s happening from one shot. You get everything in one shot.
I think the reason why I don’t do any coverage, because when I was growing up, I was using a Super 8 camera, a very expensive Super 8, so therefore, whatever I shot had to be bloody good, otherwise, you know, I’m wasting money. I can’t develop it. It’s too expensive. So, I think that taught me to select, that taught me to edit things in my head or be very specific of what I wanted. I mean, I’m not a person with an AK-47 spraying the whole area. I want to be more like a sniper and be more specific, because, you know, it saves energy and it focuses your concentration.