Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Bill Phoned and Anthony Katagas discuss what the film means to them | The Fan Carpet Ltd • The Fan Carpet: The RED Carpet for FANS • The Fan Carpet: Fansites Network • The Fan Carpet: Slate • The Fan Carpet: Theatre Spotlight • The Fan Carpet: Arena • The Fan Carpet: International

Steve McQueen, John Ridley, Bill Phoned and Anthony Katagas discuss what the film means to them

12 Years a Slave
12 May 2014

The upcoming film “12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing look at slavery, but its stars, including Brad Pitt, say it’s a subject that needs to be explored more on the big screen.

Pitt, whose Plan B company produced the film about a free man sold into slavery, was at its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Pitt said he was first drawn to the film because of its British director, Steve McQueen, known for such films as “Hunger” and “Shame.”??”We started talking to him about what he most wanted to do next and he asked ?the question, asked the question that no American asked, why aren’t there more films about slavery?” Pitt tld the Associated Press. “And that’s what he wanted to do. And that’s where it started and that’s what led us here tonight.”?British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is earning rave reviews for his performance as Solomon Northup, a New York violinist kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.??The film, which is already generating Oscar buzz, is based on Northup’s memoirs and unflinchingly depicts the physical and psychological trauma he endured during his dozen years as a slave. Pitt plays Canadian carpenter and abolitionist Samuel Bass, who helps Northup gain his freedom.

“It means everything,” said Ejiofor about his personal attachment to the film. “I was shooting a film called ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ in Nigeria, we were down in Calabar, and I knew I was traveling over to Louisiana the next day to start on this movie. So on the last day I popped into the slave museum in Calabar … because I was aware that not only were a lot of people taken out from there in West Africa, but a lot of those ships ended up in New Orleans, into Louisiana, and that I was going to be traveling on that same journey obviously by different means.??”A lot of my family are out in the east of Nigeria, so I felt very connected to it all. And then to get out to Louisiana and spend time on the plantations was an amazing experience to me and to tell such a rich story with an incredible array of people was very powerful.”??Alfre Woodard, who makes a brief appearance in the film as Mistress Harriet Shaw, spoke about her pride in playing a small part in bringing the story to life on the big screen.

“This picture is long overdue and it’s a gift that Steve McQueen has crafted and brought to us,” she said. “I think people are going to be so excited. Yes it’s a tough subject because most people don’t want to think about slavery, but I think that leaves a void in us individually, personally and collectively.”??Some critics have already questioned whether the film is too graphic to find a large audience, but Sarah Paulson, who plays the wife of a plantation owner, was quick to dismiss that argument.??”To not watch something simply because it’s painful seems irresponsible to me, and dumb,” she said. “I feel like as a culture we so want everything to be watered down so it’s easily ingestible, digestible, and that’s just not what parts of our story as a nation is, as a country is.

I sort of feel like it’s important to tell the truth in your art, and this movie is a great truth teller and that may not always be comfortable, but I think it’s very necessary.”??Actor Michael Fassbender plays the vicious plantation owner married to Paulson. The film marks the third time he’s worked with director McQueen (‘Hunger,’ ‘Shame’).??”Hopefully it touches people and they sort of walk away and discuss things with each other,” he said. “I don’t know the answers, but maybe it poses some questions.”


Mr. Gates, what were your sources beside your background? What special things to you have to do to find what you needed here?

Henry Louis Gates: Well, this is all based on a true story – a book that was published in 1853. It was written in two months and published on July 15, 1853 and it was a runaway best seller. Solomon Northup actually existed and he as minding his business and fell for this rouse and ended up a slave and 12 years later miraculously escapes. As soon as he gets back, he wants to tell the story. Indeed, when he published the book, they were able to identify the two guys who tricked him and brought them to trial. But as you saw in the end, unfortunately, they weren’t punished for what they did.

The book he dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and a year later, he publishes his book and dedicates it to Harriet Beecher Stowe and it sells 27,000 copies in the next 18 months which in the 19th century was unheard of, except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now, many scholars have written about this book. This is the first film ever done based on any of the 101 slave years written by fugitives slaves before the Civil War.  Before that 101 slave years, only one is the testimony of a man or woman who was free and then was a slave and then became free again. The miracle to me is how these people found it. Now, they’ve been teaching this book for years and all of a sudden, I get this email saying that they’re making a film about it. I was like, “What?”


Steve McQueen, can you talk about how you found the book?

Steve McQueen: It started off where I wanted to make a film about slavery. I was trying to find the in and I liked the idea of a free man who gets incarcerated into slavery and through that journey that he goes through comes out the other end and by doing that, the audience participates in his journey. I hooked up with John Ridley who wrote the script and while that business was going on, it was hard, my wife said, “Why don’t you think of firsthand accounts?” Her being a historian so we researched it and she came up with this book Twelve Years a Slave and as soon as it was in my hand, I never let it go. Each turn of the page was a kind of revelation in a way. I live in Amsterdam and Anne Frank is such a big part of Amsterdam and a big part of the world and this book happened to be written nearly a hundred years before Anne Frank and it was just such a gripper. There was such a power to it that I just had to make this film. That was it.

Steve, I was struck by your first film about moral authority of standing up to the film and that seems like it’s linked to this movie which is an individual standing up with moral authority to the errors of the state. Did you see a link when you did this and is it connected with your second film at all?

Steve McQueen: Well I think the state is the state. We are all encapsulated in it. It is what we do within it. So I’m not really focused on that. With Hunger, it was about an individual person. Same situations with Brandon in Shame and this of course with Solomon Northup. It’s just about the person and their spirit and how they deal with adversity. I don’t if I would link all three, I imagine that’s your job as a critic, you do that. I’m just focusing on how to sort of make the best film I can with the particular subject matter so that was it for me.

Starting with Dede, can we describe what it means to make this film and what the subject matter personally mean to you.

Dede Gardner: That’s simple. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade at Plan B working on movies that, we just try and create a harbor that is safe in which movies and filmmakers can actually reach the vision that they set out with their original intention and it’s been a total privilege to do this and to work with Steve. I would never be so bold as to suggest the importance of a film. I don’t want to ever say what someone should take away from it. I think the movie is a piece of art and it stands on its own and I trust the audience to take from it what they will and what they each as individuals wish to and need. I just feel fortunate.

Jeremy Kleiner: I would echo Dede’s sentiments about what our company has tried to do. One of the things that is notable, as Professor Gates was saying, is this story was surprising little known for its power and that we could be a part of that power that the film does possess is an enormous privilege. That’s really all I can say.??Q: Hans how did you come onboard???Hans Zimmer: Really Steve and I were talking about things and finding common ground. I was interested in working on something that I felt was unresolved history. I think everything that this film is is something that echoes into our present and will echo into our future. I think what Steve managed to do rather brilliant is to make us leave the cinema devastated and then invites the conversation. The conversation will helpfully open this conversation into things that have not been talked about and things which have become marginalized that will hopefully become more a part of the conversation and will effect our future.

Bill what does this project mean for you?

Bill Phoned: I think like all of these people, I don’t want to go too far in saying what the movie is about or why we were attracted to it. For me at River Road, like everyone else, we try and make movies that are really gonna impact people and have an individual, personal impact on people’s lives. That was a goal for us. To have a combination of the subject matter, the underlying book and Steve McQueen coming together on a project like this is kind of a no-brainer. We were actually working on Tree of Life with Dede and Plan B and they kind of introduced the idea to us. 


Anthony Katagas: I would just say that they haven’t made films at all about this subject matter, period. So when they called me up and said we ought to take a look at this with Steve McQueen it really was a no-brainer…To have the opportunity, as Hans said, to get people talking about it.


John Ridley: I would say that the main thing to me, as all of these individuals sit here and talk about how it was a no-brainer, because you look at it and look at the work that everyone has done and the power and the magnitude, and it’s easy to say it’s a no-brainer but I think the reality is that everyone up here, from the moment that I first sat down with Steve for breakfast and the time that I sat with Dede and Jeremy, they saw things that were beyond the pale. Remember that this is a book that had disappeared and Steve and his wife found it. Every individual here looked at that story and there’s pain and there’s beauty there but it takes a bit of expose. In the end, I think everyone here had that vision but there’s a difference between having that individual vision and putting all that together and presenting it to all these individuals. I’m exceptionally grateful that I’m a part of that and to Steve for allowing me to be part of it and really for Dede and Jeremy for setting up the situation. It’s very unusual on a development situation for all of these people to take that kind of a chance and to be so devoted to what they do. That’s phenomenal and that’s a true story. 

Jeremy Kleiner: I love the metaphor of resurrection because if you think of the plot, it’s a plot about a man who descends into hell and then is resurrected, right? So he’s a Christ-like figure but what Steve and all of you are doing is resurrected a man who is lost. Not only was he lost when he was a slave but you saw the end of the film where it indicates that we don’t know what happens to him. This man was a best-selling black author in history. He was celebrated coast-to-coast and they even made two stage versions of Twelve Years a Slave and the first one in New York was starring him and it completely bombed. But within four years, he’s gone and we don’t know what happened to him. Now with all the attention that will be directed towards Solomon Northup, there will be some clue and he’ll show up and we’ll all have a happy reunion. It will be a great day.

One of the things that is so effective about the movie is the use of flashbacks. I’m wondering if you can talk about how the film was assembled and how much you were worried about the tonality of going too far with the violence or with the subject matter to play for a general audience while still being respectful to the true horror of the film.

Steve McQueen: There was a balance in the book and it’s far more brutal, in a sense of the word, of what we have on film. At the same time. We want to have that balance if we are to present that kind of behavior in the film. I think with John Ridley and the script and dealing with, it was also about editing to an extent of what we leave and what we take out. Then of course, in the editing process, we could restructure and see what works and what doesn’t work as such within the trajectory of the narrative.

John Ridley: If you have the opportunity to read the memoir, it takes a very non-traditional, in the sense of what we’ve become accustomed to in terms of how narratives are laid out, it’s very non-traditional and not linear. Steve and I talked at lengths about how we would put it together but I think we should lay out that the very interesting thing about Steve is there are no absolutes. Through those script stages and the ultimate choices of what the film would look like, he and his editor going into it always had that concept that if each individual scene has its own power and he wouldn’t be locked into a particular time frame and that it can be in some ways like a jewel box. All of these moments have a certain resolution and a certain strength within themselves.

Steve can speak for himself, but I don’t ever think that we thought that it was gonna be that that hard but as you go through it and you look at those moments in the film, each of them is so powerful on their own and speak to each other so that you never lose a sense of who these people are. In some ways, they’re like little gifts that you find in other moments without these characters. For me, the way that Steve will create this space where you don’t have to have that fear that it has to be this way now because if I don’t turn it in like this, it’s all done. That’s not the case.

Steve McQueen: I would really ask people to read the book because you’ll see in the book how these scenes are laid out. There’s also an introduction at the beginning of each chapter of what’s going to happen if you read the book. It’s pretty well structured.??Q: What kind of trust do you have to have with the actors to get them to go to these dark places???Steve McQueen: I do think I maybe a little bit naive because I think that that’s what actors do – they do a job. Just like the film. This is a great book so let’s make the film. I don’t come from a place where things seem impossible. I come from a place where things are possible in my head because it’s that easy. I do think it’s easy because you just do it. It’s a no-brainer. It has to be or otherwise you talk yourself out of the equation. As far as I’m concerned, actors just do their job. They just do it and they do a good job. End of story.??Q: I imagine that listening to Mr. Gates, you learned that the most powerful experience of the slave experience is through slave narratives. Earlier, your producer spoke eloquently about the purpose of the film and balance but it seems to be that the engagement with the audience is to recreate the slave experience on a visceral level and to put the moviegoer into the time of 150 plus years ago into Solomon’s own footsteps.


Can you tell me about that? Was that your creative intent? And how do you do that post-Django which was almost done as farce?

Steve McQueen: For me, I’m looking at something that happened in reality and in history so that’s my starting point. How to bring that to the screen visually, there is one thing about reading a slave narrative and one thing about looking at images of slavery, it’s another thing bringing those images onto the movie scene. That’s the shock for the audience right now. That’s what I’m feeling, at least, from the audience. To see these images and to see what happens, that’s the power and we present it to an audience. It’s kind of strange in a way that it has a certain kind of reaction but that’s the power of cinema. That’s why for me, it’s the best art form in the world. You’re presented something which has been resurrected but you’re giving it images, you’re giving it life, you’re giving it breath. If people respond to it, that’s great. That’s what I’m trying to do – trying to tell some sort of truth on screen. Whatever that is.


For John and Steve, a lot of people talk about how actors get into the mode but both of you had to live with the pain behind this project a lot longer than the actual actors will. How do you two, as a writer and director, get into the mindset to put together something this graphic and raw and real to the screen?

John Ridley: I would say going into it, no-one put any filters on us in terms of the language or what shouldn’t be shown. I think everyone came into it with the concept that if we were going to go down this road, it required a really unflinching look at what happened. For me personally, to write and understand these things, there are things about this story that are not surprising to me. What I carried about and the thing that I think is very painful to me is the understanding of the larger canvas and reading histories and understanding that slavery as we’ve come to believe it in the United States of America was not fully formed. They went through indentured servitude to slavery to slavery identified by racial inferiority and then canonised again and again up to 1896. The thing that’s painful to me is the story of free black people, and people talk about this as a slave narrative, but this is the narrative 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 coming and in some narratives, some individuals truly sang that they will no longer have children because they know what would become of them. That is the most powerful thing. It was just that concept of not being able to see a future where we sit here now and can discuss these things and be involved in these things and have an opportunity to truly shift these levers but to see nothing but bad times coming for the foreseeable future. That’s a certain pain to me as a father and that’s what I carried with me.

Henry Louis Gates: In case you’re wondering about the numbers, only ten percent of the African American community was free by 1860. Of that ten percent, slightly more lived in the South than in the North which is totally counter-intuitive but that’s the way it was. The reason for that is if you were free in the Southern states, it would be difficult for the master to free you so it made the master give you property. So what are you gonna do? Leave your property and friends and go to the North?

No, you’re gonna stay in the South. By 1860, there were 220,000 free negroes in the North. That was Solomon Northup’s community. Out of 4.4 million black people. 

Steve you said this movie couldn’t have been made without Brad Pitt’s involvement. When shooting his character, how did that come up with him? Was he a composite or actually someone who existed?

Steve 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 Brad Pitt on film. It’s one of those meat-and-potatoes scene, this heavy scene, this confrontation. He’s the only one who confronts Epps in a way that we all wanted to in some way. That was the audience’s voice – what’s going on here. I think that’s such a powerful scene. It’s a no-brainer of what’s gonna happen but he kind of fits into Bass like a hand in a glove.

For people who haven’t read the book, was he a composite?

Steve McQueen: No, he was an actual character. An actual Canadians.

Henry Louis Gates: They were very faithful. I was amazed but they were very faithful to the text. The reason has to be the fact that he must have died after reconstruction. These guys who wrote these slave narratives are superstars. Frederick Douglas, Solomon Northup, and then there is a Civil War. If he died during the Civil War, they wouldn’t do an obituary. The reconstruction period lasted from 1866 to 1876. Then the curtain comes down and all of these laws came up which we now call Jim Crow laws. They were designed to put the negro back into slavery and eventually they did that. Separate but equal was only codified in 1896. We think it’s been around all the time, but it wasn’t. So there was a period where they were trying to put the genie back in the bottle. All those guys who were super-stars of the anti-slavery movement just fell into obscurity because there was no movement anymore. It was the worst time in history to be black. I’m sure that he died sometime between 1876 and the turn of the century, which makes sense. But we’ll find him.

The book was actually a told-to book, correct?

Henry Louis Gates: Yes, there was an editor who identifies himself. I was thinking about that yesterday on the plane and the voice is very consistent. There are some of these slave narratives that are clearly written by somebody else. This is very much a merged voice. This is his voice shaped by this editor. As a professor and literary historian, that’s what I would say.??Q: There were occasionally literally flourishes and a certain formality of speech. I’m impressed very much by the adaptation in which you do a mixture of the formality of speech and at other times a more casual kind of voice. I’m interested in how you found the balance in those two voices.

John Ridley: It was quite difficult. If you read the memoir, and as Steve said, I would encourage every single person to read it, there were moments where the dialogue is arcane and there’s moments where it’s elevated and there’s moments where it all disappears and it’s just descriptive. For me, coming into it, just in terms of the words on the page, it was something like a restoration project in that you had to find that bridge between what was there and what was created but in no way show your hand. It really had to be an invisible hand. I think the thing for me that was extremely helpful was reading a great many newspapers from that era, particularly shipping news. I found shipping news to be amazingly descriptive. All things of import came by dock and either was very perfunctory and straight-ahead in what they would describe or people who were very interested in sowing their wears, were amazingly descriptive.

There were moments that they were like circus performers in the way that they speak and I wanted to use a bit more of that language in other places where it was a bit more of a portage in trying to understate it. For me, again if you read this memoir, it is one of the most amazing documents that has been left behind and it’s sad that it was undiscovered. Going into it, more than anything else, when you came out of the pure writing, just the words on the page, I wanted to insert myself to the lowest level possible but execute, when need be, the highest degree necessary.

You had mentioned that most of us do not know that much about American history.

Steve McQueen: I was surprised that people hadn’t read the book not that you didn’t know American history. I would never say that. ??Q: What part in the process were you most surprised by about American history???Steve McQueen: Well again, I sort of know your history quite well. American history is world history. There was nothing surprising about it for me. What surprised me was the book and that it was missing. That was a surprising thing, that no one that I knew, knew that book. When my wife gave it to me, she said, “We have to make this book.” That was a surprising thing- that this history gets buried and cast over where someone like Anne Frank is elevated and championed.

Can someone address that please – that this history is lost until this movie?

Steve McQueen: Absolutely and that’s why I want to resurrect it and that’s why it’s important. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not difficult. It is not difficult. You just do it. End of story. On the other side of the pond, I don’t know if it’s easier to think of things like this but, to me, it’s just straight forward. There’s this genius book, make a film, end of story. ??Henry Louis Gates: The book is lost in that it’s only known to scholars. It is not like Anne Frank which is widely taught except in African American University’s Literature Class.??Steve McQueen: The question is why.??Henry Louis Gates: Now, things are changing. It’s been around and it’s been available but it’s just not known.??Steve McQueen: That was always my intention while I was making this film. I wanted this film to sort of resurrect the book. Whatever we could do to get this book in every school in America because it’s such an unfortunate testament to the recent past of slavery. That was always my aim.



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