The U.S. Premiere of 12 Years a Slave at the New York Film Festival
Screening in the United States for the first time, Steve McQueen’s powerful, heart rending 12 Years a Slave once again left a festival audience in silence and many viewers weeping in their seats. The story of Solomon Northup’s betrayal, his years of horror while a slave in Georgia, and his desperation to return home to his family in New York requires the viewer to face an unflinching portrayal of humanity at its worst trying to break a man taken at his best. Yet McQueen’s film is shot through with grace notes, moments of astonishing beauty, all abetted by performances that stay with you once the credits roll.
During the press conference following the film, the packed theater wanted to know just how McQueen had pulled this off.
About the look of the film—McQueen relied on his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Bobbitt captures the beauty of the South’s landscape—weeping willows swaying in bowl of golden sunlight, the churning paddles of a riverboat, and those grand plantation estates that, on their own, look gorgeous and tranquil. These shots serve as momentary bursts of serenity in a brutal world. “I have been working with Sean Bobbitt for the last thirteen years. First, it’s about the color. This is the first time I feel like I’ve shot outdoors, in an environment that was so lush. So the palette is very important.”
Nearly every aspect of the look of this film was designed with purpose, which is no surprise from a director and artist known for his attention to detail and desire for specificity. The color palette of the costume design, by Patricia Norris, was matched with the very earth the characters toiled on to create a sense of visual cohesion, even poetry, while the story itself keeps pulling you deeper and deeper into hell. “She [Norris] took earth samples from all three of the plantations to match the clothes,” McQueen said, “and she had the conservation with Sean [Bobbitt] to deal with the character temperature on each plantation, there was a lot of that minute detail.”
McQueen’s prime inspiration was the real Solomon Northup’s memoir, given to him by his wife in what could arguably be called as a moment of serendipity. McQueen described reading Northup’s gut-wrenching story and feeling as if he was reading a screenplay.
“When I read the book I had images in my head immediately.” He enlisted screenwriter, playwright, novelist and graphic novelist John Ridley to adapt Northup's story for the screen.
“I always saw the story as a man’s odyssey home,” Ridley says in the production notes. “This is the story of an immense journey, and one in which Solomon Northup truly comes to understand what many of us take for granted: the privilege of being a free American.”
McQueen also looked at Northup’s story in near mythical terms, but with a slightly different bent. “I looked a this as a kind of science fiction movie. Some guy lands on earth, there’s this book called the Bible, everyone interprets it in a different way, it’s just incredible, it’s so surreal, so far-fetched, but it’s true.”
There is absolutely an element of the surreal, especially when Northup is first betrayed. His circumstances simply seem impossible to him—a free man, with a home in Saratoga Springs, New York, and a wife and two children, enjoying a lovely meal with two new business partners. Then he awakes, and it's as if he’s been transported to a strange, despotic planet. While you watch him wrestle with what's going on, with how can this be, you can feel his own stupefaction. It was only yesterday he was kissing his wife, kissing his children goodnight.
“It reminded me of Pinocchio, these two guys seducing Solomon, seducing Pinocchio, to join the circus,” McQueen said. He also drew a parallel between 12 Years a Slave and the Brother Grimm fairy tales. “They are the darkest, deepest, most haunted fairy tales, which end happily ever after…but you go through hell to get there.”
McQueen said he needed to come to this story on his own terms. “The way in for me was a free man who gets sold into slavery. What I liked about that, about a man being taken away from his family, is that you are on that journey with him.”
Northup's journey eventually leads him to McQueen's go-to actor, Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. A brutal, drunken plantation owner played with fearlessness and ferocity, Epps torments Northup, but reserves his basest, ugliest behavior for Patsey, a slave girl played by the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. She is Epps best field worker, the object of his sexual fascination, and the progenitor of his own self-disgust.
McQueen says that Epps doesn’t know how to deal with his condition of being "passionately in love" with Patsy. "He does not deal with it, and the only way he can destroy the love is through violence. Violence is an interesting thing in how it perpetuates. Even with people we love. Love is very close to hate.”
When asked about his relationship with Fassbender, now having made their third film together (after 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame), McQueen spoke of him with reverence and not a little bit of awe. “It’s one of those things with Michael that I don’t take him for granted, it has to be bloody good before I present him with it…he was always my first choice to play Epps, he’s an amazing actor. I think he’s the most influential actor of his time right now. He’s like a Mickey Rourke when he was…Mickey Rourke, or Gary Oldman. Michael is that person now, people want to be an actor because of him, people want to be in a movie because of him, people want to make movies because he could be in the movie. So he’s got that kind of pull, that quality, people want to jam with him, he’s like Ginger Baker and shit.”
Of course none of this works unless the lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup holds up. Ejiofor was a magnificent choice to play the intelligent, proud Northup. The camera almost never strays from him, and when it does it often provides a glimpse of the horror he’s witnessing. Ejiofor's performance is as physical as it is emotional, the pain inflicted upon him is felt, blow by blow, insult by insult, as his body sags but does not break. Northup had what so many of his fellow slaves have been robbed of—a family to return to, it's simply a question of how he might make that happen, and if he can survive the horror. Survival is something McQueen thought a lot about.
When asked about what he learned from researching his subject, and the psychology of slavery, McQueen had one word—“Survive.” He then offered a personal note, “I’m here because certain members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could.”