Mark Kermode looks at the history of slavery and talks to Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, a film based on the true story of Solomon Northup.
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Well, boy, how you feel now?
My name is Solomon Northup.
I am a free man and you have no right whatsoever to detain me.
You're no free man, you're nothing but a Georgia runaway.
-12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup -
a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
It's only the third feature by director Steve McQueen but Oscars
are expected for both McQueen and his lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Steve McQueen is not only a respected feature film director
but also a Turner prize-winning artist.
He gained a reputation in the '90s as a thoughtful
and provocative film-maker.
The transition from art gallery to movie theatre is not always
successful but McQueen has already won a BAFTA
and a prestigious Camera d'Or at Cannes.
There's just a huge truth to him as a man
and I think that's what he tries to pursue in whatever he's doing.
I think that's what people respond to in his work.
He doesn't shy away from provoking and evoking feeling in you.
I think he wants to get as close to the experience as possible
and he wants an audience to feel they are inside the experience.
That's what makes not only his installation work but also
his film work so particular, because he is so particulous.
He is so different.
This is the story behind the making of his latest film
and the history that shaped it.
And a look at the prestigious career of an artist and director
unafraid to deal with uncomfortable and provocative subject matter.
America has always had a complex and conflicted relationship with its slave history.
Over 400,000 slaves were shipped to America in the 1620s.
By the outbreak of the civil war in 1861
their numbers had grown to four million.
The memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped by
slavers, is one of the few first-hand accounts that exists of this time.
It's the basis of 12 Years A Slave,
the latest film from British director Steve McQueen.
The most extraordinary thing about the film, which I think is
really powerful, and really moving,
is that I didn't know that story, How did you come across it?
I always wanted to make a movie about slavery, always,
and it was always about how one got into the material,
what was my "in" as such, and I had this idea of a free man
in the north who basically gets kidnapped into slavery
and through his journey we, the audience, follow him.
And I was sort of trying to write this idea, and then what happened
was, my wife said, "Why don't you look into true accounts of slavery?"
And I thought, of course, yeah, dur,
as you do, and, of course, we both
did this research and what happened was she came across this book
called 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup
and as soon as it was in my hands
I opened the book, opened the page, and I didn't let it go.
For me, living in the Netherlands, it was almost like looking at
Anne Frank's diary, it was this first-hand account of slavery, it's amazing.
In 12 Years A Slave, Solomon Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor,
alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender
and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o.
Brad Pitt has a cameo appearance as well as producing the film.
You said that you'd always wanted to make a film about slavery,
what was it particularly that drew you to wanting to do that?
Well, for me, it was never represented, really.
I'm from the West Indies, my parents are from the West Indies,
and, of course, some of my ancestors were slaves.
And, for me, not to have that history visualised on film,
on celluloid, was very strange.
It's a huge part of not just American history but world history,
European history, so therefore I needed it to be on film
and to see, investigate myself through the camera, what occurred, as such.
Solomon's story begins in 1841.
His world implodes when his comfortable family life
in New York state is taken away from him
and he is sold to work in the plantations of the Deep South.
Powerless to protest,
he's unable to get word to his family that he has been kidnapped.
STOP! Stop your wailing.
You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it.
Have you stopped crying for your children?
You make no sounds but will you ever let them go in your heart?
-They are as my flesh.
-Then who is distressed?
Do I upset the master and mistress,
do you care less about my loss than their well-being?
-Master Ford is a decent man.
-He is a slaver!
-Under the circumstances...
Under the circumstances he is a slaver.
-You truckle at his boot, you luxuriate in his favour.
I will not fall into despair!
I will offer up my talents to Master Ford,
I will keep myself hearty until freedom is opportune.
Solomon is somebody who starts off in this story
believing that he's in a battle for his freedom
but discovers through this story that he's in a battle for his mind.
It's an amazing first person account from
so deep inside this experience that really speaks to...
I mean, so much of the way the world worked then, the way it works
now, his way of being able to relate, poetically relate,
the story of what happened to him so powerfully was so extraordinary.
And that servant
that don't obey his Lord shall be beaten with many strikes.
McQueen's regular collaborator Michael Fassbender plays
a sadistic plantation owner...
Speak! Man does how he pleases with his property.
The film has been praised for its unflinching portrayal
of the brutality that slaves suffered.
Tell me how you approached the physicality of the subject of
slavery, because it's very difficult to know exactly what you can show,
what you can't show and how you can put the audience in those positions.
Well, I didn't want to censor myself on anything
so I said to myself, "I'm going to show everything."
Do you have a completely non-censorious approach
to your vision?
I'm a bit weird like that, I suppose.
No, in this case it was about the truth.
How could I make a movie about slavery
-and not show certain aspects of it?
It would be, for my ancestors,
and for other people's, it would be sort of...
you know... it would be a travesty. You can't do that. I mean, what is slavery?
Slavery is sort of, you know,
making people work in servitude.
And how do you get them to do that?
Well, you punish them. You scare the hell out of them.
And how do you do that? By making examples of people.
And how do you do that?
By the most horrible acts of brutality one can think of.
How am I sitting here? Because certain people survived that.
So...you know, there was not a choice. It's not a question.
In the 19th century, slavery divided America both geographically
At the time of Solomon's kidnap,
America was split into 13 free states and 13 slave states.
Part of that free black population came about because...
a large part came about because of the American revolution.
By the time Solomon Northup is kidnapped in 1841,
there is approximately 200,000-250,000 free black Americans
living across the northern states.
Slavery becomes very much a southern phenomena, in contrast to
the northern states, where mostly northern states pass emancipation
laws which free their slaves at the time of the revolution.
It's seen very much as contradicting notions of liberty
and equality, but in the south, southern plantation owners
interpret liberty as the right to own slaves.
Well, to be a free black in the northern states
would be much better than being a slave in the south
but there were would be all sorts of limitations.
Both legal and political.
Solomon Northup is an educated man partly
because he grows up in the free states and here he's able to
partake in education, to learn to read and write.
But I think it's really interesting because
despite his obvious intelligence,
despite his interest in culture, in the arts, in music,
most of the paid labour he performs is manual.
So that says to me that there's still,
what Solomon Northup calls, "the burden of colour" in the north.
Mr Northup, I have two gentleman whose acquaintance you should make.
America's foreign slave trade ended in 1807, but domestically,
the practice was still legal.
Welcome to Washington, Solomon.
To feed the south's need for slave labour,
black men and women in the free northern states were kidnapped
and sold to plantation owners in the slave states of the south.
Kidnapping is a major issue
in mid-19th century America.
One can't quantify how many people were kidnapped but a considerable
number of free black people were kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Solomon is sent to the plantations of the Deep South,
the economic engine room of 19th-century America.
By the 1850s, the eve of the American Civil War,
there were approximately four million American slaves.
Their total dollar value at that time, as an asset,
as a financial asset, was approximately 3.5 billion.
That was the single largest financial asset in the entire
Slaves as property were worth more than all manufacturing,
all railroads, all banking assets,
all the rest of the economy put together.
By the middle of the 19th century, the slave system
in the United States was the largest in the world, the only
other country that came close was Brazil.
It is central to more than just the south,
slave labour is part of a national economic system.
In fact, it is part of an international economic system
and what makes it profitable is the global demand for textile goods,
so you can follow cotton from the Deep South all the way to
this country, Liverpool, where it is finished into textile goods
and put on steam ships, disseminated around the British Empire,
indeed, around the world.
Cotton and sugar production demanded backbreaking labour.
As a consequence,
the slave mortality rate was at its highest in the Deep South.
Louisiana really epitomises everything that's bad about slavery.
Slave people often talk about their fears of being
sold down the river and when they say this, they are not
talking metaphorically, they are talking literally because that river
is the Mississippi, which famously ends in the port of New Orleans.
Those wouldn't be the places you want to be if you are a slave.
Those plantations tended to be bigger than your average
southern plantation, the work conditions tended to be harder,
the work itself tended to be harder.
Tell me about shooting in those locations.
One of the things you were attempting to do was see the world
through your central character's eyes, but tell me
about being there and breathing that air.
Well, you know, New Orleans has this... It's a sweet scent of...
or the perfume of music.
It is a very...spiritual, as such or haunted.
It's got spirits there.
It has an other dimension, other elements which are within the environment.
EJIOFOR: 'We shot scenes by lynching trees and it's impossible not to feel that,
'to know that you are really dancing with spirits.'
You feel that you are connected to something
and you are connected to one of the most extraordinary
experiences that a collective group of people have ever gone through.
That was really powerful, to be on a set where everything took you
back to a totally different time.
I never thought I would be picking cotton in my life and to be
doing that at the height of summer, the height of noon,
Was faced with how strong these people were that lived through
These people did it for 16, 18, sometimes 20 hours a day.
That is something to reckon with.
This is a list of goods and sundries.
You will take it to be filled and return immediately.
Solomon is unusual amongst his fellow slaves because he can
read and write, a fact he has to hide from his slave owners.
A literate slave is a dangerous slave,
a literate slave has a form of power,
a literate slave has the ability to understand the outside world
and possibly to communicate with the outside world, to read newspapers.
The literate slave has knowledge or can attain knowledge,
and knowledge, in this case, not just a cliche, knowledge can be
power and therefore the literate slave was always dangerous.
Therefore he is urged, even by his fellow slaves, "Solomon,
"don't let them know you can read and write."
Where are you from?
-I told you.
-Tell me again.
-Who was your master?
-Master name of Freemen.
Was he a learn'd man?
-I suppose so.
-He learn you to read?
A word here or there. But I have no understanding...
Don't trouble yourself with it.
Same as the rest, master brought you here to work, that's all.
Any more will learn you 100 lashes.
After 12 years, Solomon is finally liberated.
His traumatic survival story is published soon after in 1853
and immediately becomes a bestseller.
Of the 100 or so accounts of slavery that were written at the time,
Solomon's is the only first-hand account of a kidnapped free man,
most never escape their enslavement.
It's really popular among northern abolitionists,
as are many other works by formerly enslaved people,
such as Frederick Douglass's autobiography
and a whole raft of fictional accounts of slavery as well,
including Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which really
exposes to American society the brutality of enslavement.
It was illegal to have this kind of literature
if you lived in the south.
People who were caught selling abolitionist literature
in the south were dealt with very severely. Yes, yes.
In some cases you could get ten years for being in possession
of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Despite its initial popularity, Solomon's story disappeared
from public consciousness after the American Civil War.
In broad general terms, white Americans are not discussing
the slavery question any longer,
they are not discussing the rights of blacks.
What they want to talk about is the individual valour
and heroism of northern and southern white soldiers,
and there is no space in that discussion
for the African-Americans, so they are kind of written out
of the popular memory in the late 19th century.
Americans love a past and a story that says, "We are
"problem-solvers, we are a people of progress, we are
"a nation on a trajectory of improvement," or,
as somebody once said,
"The United States is supposed to be the country that was born almost
"perfect and then launched a career at just getting better."
The slave narratives, the whole story of slavery,
McQueen's film is a piercing exploration of one
of America's darkest eras.
Despite its huge impact on American history and culture, slavery is
a subject that Hollywood has rarely or accurately explored on film.
The American film industry has typically depicted slavery
in rather benign and a rather stereotypical way.
There's an old joke, nightclub joke, that Lenny Bruce used to say,
"What's the difference between Lassie and a black man in a movie?
"At the end of the movie Lassie lives."
Americans do not deal well with this story of race and slavery
and most Hollywood efforts and attempts over the many, many
decades to represent slavery have not been very effective.
An early depiction of black America featured in DW Griffith's
1915 epic, Birth Of A Nation, a story that chronicled
the relationship of a northern and southern family.
Although a commercial success at the time, it has
since been highly criticised for portraying
African-Americans as unintelligent and sexually aggressive
and the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force.
The less said about that Ku Klux Klan film, Birth Of A Nation,
the better. I don't think it has anything to say that is remotely...
It's power was in its technique rather than its interpretation of what was going on.
It is completely false and misguided.
As we move through the century we have Gone With The Wind,
a family favourite.
So, Gone With The Wind, as we all know,
is the plantation writ large,
you have your Roman columns to simulate Roman power and the
plantation itself being the bastion of civilisation in the south.
This notion of architecture and power,
the big house and enslaved people working in the fields.
-Who says it's quitting time?
-I said it's quitting time.
-I is the foreman.
I's the one who says when it's quitting time at Tara. Quittin' time!
And this was mythologised and romanticised
and the investment in the happy plantation slave, the singing
banjo-playing darkie, to use the racist terminology of the time.
Mammy! Here's Miss Scarlett's vittles!
You can take it all back to the kitchen, I won't eat a bite!
Oh, yes, you is! Yous gwanna eat every mouthful of this!
So, it's problematic in that it's a great picture but it's a lie.
American television also tackled the subject of slavery.
In the 1970s, Roots became an overnight hit in the US and Britain.
Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Alex Haley,
it's the story of a family's journey from enslavement in Ghana
to their struggle to survive the plantations and Civil War.
The key to Roots and the marketing of Roots,
which was brilliant, was that it was called Roots -
The Story Of An American Family.
So, for Americans, a family.
Very classic, very Dickensian
and the storytelling was easy to follow and you could relate.
I think you're going to make it.
Lord be praised, Toby, you're going to walk.
Woman, I told ya, my name ain't no Toby.
I am Kunte Kinte, son of Omoro and Kairaba Kinte.
A fighting man from the village of Juffure.
It was great storytelling in an era of great stories about families,
The Godfather, Roots, all stories of people who are marginalised
in American society, Italian-Americans, African-Americans,
suddenly here they are, and Roots would fit right into that.
Roots, the great television series of the 1970s, garnered the largest
audience for a dramatic series in the history of television at that time.
It was eight hours, eight nights, on national television.
I was a high school teacher when Roots played.
I was in a large urban high school,
half black and half white, in Flint, Michigan.
And when Roots played on American television, every night for more than a week,
we had near riots in our hallways.
This was the 1970s, most American youth were, for the first time,
learning anything about slavery.
Most recently, Quentin Tarantino's award-winning Django Unchained
tackled the subject of slavery and divided the critics.
Django Unchained is this cartoonish revenge film of the ultimate
badass hero who kills all the white people
and rides off into the sunset like in a spaghetti western.
I saw it in the theatre where people cheered and rollicked
and had a grand old time.
I personally found Django Unchained offensive.
They're spending the night. Go up in the guest bedrooms and get two ready.
-He going to stay in the big house?
-He is a slaver. It's different.
-In the big house?
-You got a problem with that?
Oh, no, I ain't got no problem.
If that's the lens through which we can get to the history of slavery, we are a sick people.
Django Unchained is a film-maker's movie.
There's a lot of historical inaccuracies in it but what
happens with Django is you never for a moment think
you are looking at anything that is real. You never do.
You know that you are going to a Quentin Tarantino picture.
I've had real arguments with younger black artists,
but this is a Quentin Tarantino picture,
do you go see Quentin Tarantino to tell you anything about history? No.
History was the inspiration for McQueen's feature, 12 Years A Slave.
160 years after it was first published,
it's been brought to a cinema-going audience.
McQueen's film is important in so many ways.
He takes the slave narrative that is narrated by an individual who
was born free and sold into slavery as a result of kidnapping.
What this does politically, artistically, imaginatively,
is it means the audience are empathetic with an individual
who is, in inverted commas, like them.
So, he starts from a position of similarity to get to
a position of difference and what he does then is create
a world that is very unfamiliar and that's where the horror of it lies.
McQueen has a reputation for creating strong, visceral images,
first practised in his early career as a visual artist
working primarily with film.
If you look back at... when you started out working in visual art,
are there pieces you are proud of and do you still see yourself...
Do you see yourself primarily as a film-maker or
primarily as an artist who makes films?
I don't see myself as anything. I just do stuff.
I'm lucky enough that I can do stuff.
Would you go back and do other stuff or has film become your abiding
-I do... No, I do everything.
It's the same thing, art or film is the same thing.
I don't see any difference. It's not... I don't see any divide at all.
Maybe. Of course, I think art is,
to a certain extent, like poetry.
It's concise, it's precise, and maybe film-making is
more of the yarn, the novel, as such, because there's a narrative to that.
There can be narrative in art as well, but maybe fractioned.
Anyway, it's the same thing. You use the same language, the same thing. That's all.
The piece that first brought McQueen to the attention of the art
world was his 1993 work, Bear.
It's a film of two naked men wrestling
and, as Steve told me,
at that time he wanted there to be two actors
but one of the actors didn't show up.
It's a very, very stylised piece so there were moments
when we had to repeat a lot of movements quite a lot because he was
very specific about the shape, the shot he was looking for, the angle.
He is very meticulous. That's one thing about Steve, detail.
Very often when a powerful work of art appears it triggers a rumour,
and I lived in Paris at the time, before I lived in London,
and I had messages from a friend saying it is urgent,
come to the ICA, there is this extraordinary work of art,
it left no-one indifferent and created a rumour far
beyond London that this great new artist had emerged on the art scene.
The characters, or the two male protagonists, it was very unclear
whether they were really fighting, whether there was an element
of homoeroticism in their interaction.
There were times when they appeared less to be wrestling than to be dancing, in a way.
You just get captured by the feeling of it, or by the movement of it,
or by the rhythm of it, or by the... or by...
There's just something that makes you want to stay a while and watch it.
McQueen's love of cinema is evident from his early installations
which reference cinema classics.
Deadpan is a film that Steve made for a solo exhibition that he
went on to have here at the ICA in '97.
Steve took this cinema moment from Buster Keaton where
the front facade of an entire house falls on top of him.
Steve reworked this and repeats this motif.
I think he is really extrapolating
and sucking out all of the formal
and cinematic qualities,
things like the wind that such an event creates
or the vibrations on the face.
What I think this introduces into Steve McQueen's work is
a sense of the body under pressure,
the body under physical pressure, under mental pressure,
a sense of physical confinement, and this becomes claustrophobia
in some of his more recent films.
It's impossible to be indifferent because the house falls on the viewer as well,
it falls on Steve, but the viewer as well,
and it's an incredibly sculptural piece.
Many of these films
are relatively short but they are incredibly addictive.
Someone looks at them again and again and again and again.
I don't know anybody who has seen Deadpan only once.
It creates a situation where one cannot stop watching it on a loop.
In 1999, McQueen was nominated for the Turner Prize.
Also on the short list were twins Jane and Louise Wilson for their film work,
Steven Pippin for sculpture and photography and, most
controversially, Tracey Emin for work which included her unmade bed.
We wanted Steve to win because the work had this amazing presence,
amazing formality to it
and, in a way, a weight that would sustain through time.
When it came to, "And the winner is..."
then it pretty much had to be him.
It was an absolutely timely recognition
of somebody who produced a compelling
and really singular body of work,
not just in Britain but throughout...throughout the world.
In 2004, McQueen collaborated with movie star Charlotte Rampling,
in a work that continued to explore the physical discomfort of the body.
It was an artistic blind date, yep.
The gallery, the artist Steve McQueen, requires the presence of,
it wasn't quite that but almost, requires the presence of Charlotte Rampling,
and would like to know her or get to know her or something,
because he might have a future project in mind.
Something like that.
He had a fascination with her face,
just as an actress.
And also I think he was really attracted to her bravery,
she has done a lot of art installation work
for a number of artists.
Erm...and a lot of people aren't brave enough to do that.
It's a piece about resistance to aggression.
And it all happens just on the eye.
All you see is a very close-up of my eye.
-tries to poke a finger into my eye.
And it's about my resistance to that from of aggression.
We were shooting it hand-held on 16mm on a macro lens
and...something electric was happening between the two of them.
And even, you know, as the operator of the camera,
I could sense this amazing charge.
And I think that's what you see in the installation.
Steve always takes these things and turns them into something else
and builds an emotion out of the most unlikely images.
I think with Steve's work
you're really not meant to sit back and have an easy ride,
you've got to be working, if you like, as a viewer as well.
You need to be sort of actively engaged in analysing
why something looks the way it is,
why it's been shot in that particular way.
You know, he wants to unsettle you.
You know, you're not going to sort of sit back
and just ease into a Steve McQueen cinematic experience,
whether it's one made for an art gallery or one made for a cinema.
In 2003, during the time of the Iraqi war,
McQueen was made the official artist for the Imperial War Museum.
The result was this coffin-shaped box
containing a haunting series of stamps
that commemorated the fallen, called Queen And Country.
The installation led to my first meeting with McQueen in 2008.
I went to Iraq...and it was a situation
where they only gave me six days to make a piece
or to investigate and to make a piece.
-Not been with the military before, not been in Iraq before, not been in a war zone before.
I was sort of thrown into a situation where, you know,
I had to acclimatise, and within that time it was time to go home.
So, it was a case of really being embedded, where someone is sort of holding your hand all the time
and monitoring what you saw and what you couldn't see.
I imagine I was a bit of an irritant for them,
but it was one of those situations where I came back very frustrated.
And therefore what happened after that was that this idea came about
where I thought, OK, I wanted to go back but I couldn't
because basically things had taken a turn for the worst.
-You know, people being kidnapped. I couldn't go back.
So, what happened was that this stamp idea came into my head.
And I was actually posting a stamp, I was actually paying my taxes,
and putting a stamp on an envelope of Vincent van Gogh.
And then... It just happened.
I thought, "Ah, stamps, soldiers, war letters."
The narrative of that, and that was the trigger, really.
What I'm trying to do is enter people's psyche in a way
which doesn't come through the media,
which isn't about newspapers, TV, radio, the Internet.
It comes through people's psyche in a much more everyday, tangible sort of existence.
So, in some ways it's the whole idea of it going through the bloodstream of the country as such.
When Steve was sent to Iraq
as the Royal artist, obviously we would have expected a film
to come out because that's what everybody thought would happen,
either a film or a video piece.
And I think once more, you know, as very often,
he is full of surprises and he always does unexpected things.
One can never really predict what he does next.
2008 was also the year
McQueen brought out his first feature film, Hunger.
Based on the story of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands,
who starved himself to death,
the film won him Cannes' prestigious Camera d'Or for a first feature
and also a BAFTA.
I think it's an extraordinary first feature, but tell me about that subject matter.
Bearing in mind the other projects you've worked on, why that subject matter?
It was one of those situations where 1981 was a big turning point for me.
Tottenham won the FA Cup, which was fantastic,
a big turning point in my life for sure.
And then there was the Brixton riots,
which was another sort of twist in a way.
And then obviously this guy called Bobby Sands,
who appeared on the TV screen with a number underneath his image
which obviously changed every day.
There was that awareness of some guy who, through not eating,
was having a voice in one way.
So, at 11 years old, it was almost like an awakening for me,
finding out who I was, what I was,
almost like a real sort of... The outside world looked different.
I mean, a tree looked different after those kind of events.
It seems to me, in a rather crude way in my interpretation,
that there are obvious parallels that one would make
with the post-9/11 world.
I mean, it is impossible now to look at a film of somebody imprisoned being maltreated
and somebody who is willing to effectively commit suicide
for their cause
without drawing comparisons
with what's happened in the world since 9/11.
That's the whole idea, that's the whole beauty of making this film,
that it is about 1981 but it is about now.
You know, people tend to forget what happened in a British prison cell 27 years ago.
People talk about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib,
but in Her Majesty's prison in Belfast
there were other things going on.
It's always something happening in a distant country
and actually, you know what, it happened right in our own back yard.
You've been working within the medium of film throughout your career
from the early installations to now the feature.
I mean, has it all fed naturally into the next project?
Erm...the only way I can really answer question
is the fact that when I was in art school I wanted to be in film school,
and when I was in film school I wanted to be in art school.
Because I was at Goldsmiths before and then when I left I went to NYU,
I did grad film, but I left after three-and-a-half months because I hated it.
So, every time... I mean, it's not so linear as far as a progression,
it's all about the idea rather than the medium.
It's not about a camera, a big camera or a small camera,
or a paintbrush or a wooden sculpture or whatever, it's all about the idea.
One of the most striking elements of Hunger is a 17-minute scene
between Bobby Sands and a priest filmed in one long, continuous take.
I want to know whether your intent
is just purely to commit suicide here?
You want me to argue about the morality of what I'm about to do
and whether it's really suicide or not?
For one, you're calling it suicide, I call it murder,
and that's just another wee difference between us two.
We're both Catholic men, both Republicans,
but while you were poaching salmon in lovely Kilrea, we were being burnt out of our house in Rathcoole.
Similar in many ways, but life and experience has focused our beliefs differently.
-You understand me?
I have my belief and in all its simplicity that is the most powerful thing.
Why did you choose to do that scene as a single take?
It's like watching a tightrope walker,
the further you get into that scene the more you think,
"How many times did they have to do this to get it right?"
-I mean, it's one single take.
And, I mean, Bobby smokes three cigarettes during the course of it.
-It's like setting yourself the most difficult task.
"I know, we'll just do that whole scene in one take."
How I structured it was this.
Often it's the case, in a conversation like this,
a two-shot in a movie, the camera is on one person
and then it cuts to another person.
So what it is is the conversation is not with the two people
having their conversation, the conversation is with the audience.
-So what I wanted to do, I didn't want that,
I wanted a situation where the conversation was with the two people.
By having two people talking to each other intimately
and in some ways being a bit disregarding of the audience,
what happens is the audiences lean in more and they listen more carefully.
At the same time, they know they're not supposed to be there because it's an intimate conversation,
so everything becomes much more sharp, listening gets sharper, vision gets sharper.
So, in order to play that central role of Bobby Sands,
Michael Fassbender had at one point...
you had to stop the production so that he could massively lose weight.
Tell me about what happened, how did that process work?
Well, we stop the production for two-and-a-half months,
and Michael took himself to LA, I think around Venice Beach,
and he went onto the situation of losing the weight.
We had a doctor with him, of course.
So it was a medically-assisted fast?
And then when Michael came back, of course, onto the set
we were all anxious, "Michael's coming and we don't know how he's coming."
And he walked in the door and it was just...
His sort of hollows here had sunk...and he looked very ill.
I was quite concerned.
Erm...but he had this sort of...
Yeah, he was ready, you know?
He was ready. It's almost like, "Yes, now I'm here. I'm ready. I'm there."
The Hunger was probably one of the most haunting experiences I think I've had with watching a film.
And the way he constructed the film too, which was before he really was getting into film,
so for me it was in-between like a video installation and a film.
It was... And it really got it.
I don't know why things get it but they do and he got it.
McQueen cast Fassbender again in Shame, his second feature,
which explores the subject of sex addiction.
It left such an impression on me
that when I was in New York on the subway,
I was so afraid to look at anyone.
I was just so afraid, cos I was like, "Oh, I don't know what you're thinking and I don't want to know."
So, that was a memorable, memorable movie.
And, again, Steve doesn't shy away from the hard subjects.
And we all know that these things are going on, you know, and we don't face them.
And he does, you know. And he just doesn't look away.
In Shame, set in New York,
Fassbender plays a troubled loner, Brandon,
and Carey Mulligan his equally anguished sister, Sissy.
Look, you get the sofa and you get your arse off it before I leave every morning.
-I know. I promise I will. Mwah!
-OK. OK. OK.
-We leave in 15.
The conversations around Shame came out of so many different things,
but, you know, primarily it came out of our interest in how people
find intimacy in the 21st-century when you can Facebook and tweet
and grind and twerk and do whatever you need to do,
you know, to connect and have relationships.
And yet you don't necessarily have the day-to-day normal conversational interaction
that perhaps our parents had, or the dating system.
'In 2011, I met McQueen to talk about Shame,
'a film which, despite its difficult subject matter, received widespread acclaim,
'particularly for Fassbender's central performance.'
Wait, you'll see.
Tell me what you meant by calling it Shame?
What happened was when we spoke to people with sex addiction
was what they would do was go on these sexual escapades as such
and...when they would come out the other end...
what would happen is there would be a sense of self-hate,
of self-loathing and ultimately shame.
And this word "shame" kept coming up again and again and again through our interviews.
There's a key confrontation between Brandon and Sissy at one point
-in which she says, "We're not bad people but we come from a bad place."
One of the things that I admire very much about the film
is that you're never explicit about what that bad place is.
Tell me what you can about what that line meant?
I wanted to make their past familiar rather than mysterious.
I think when people come to the cinema and sit on these seats...
they bring their history, they bring their luggage, they bring their baggage with them.
And when they're presented with something on screen, they have an idea of what it could possibly be
or what happened or what has happened to Sissy and Brandon,
all the possibilities.
And I think that's much more exciting for them and, you know,
much more sort of close to the audience.
I could have told a long yarn about, "OK, this is what happened
"and this and this and that and the other," but it makes it so specific.
And also I didn't want it to be a let-out for Brandon.
-You mean like an explanation?
-Precisely, for what he does in the movie.
I mean, you know, it's their past. And again when we meet people in our lives,
we know nothing about them other than what they present.
-It is a pleasure to meet you.
-Nice to meet you.
-I think you're absolutely fantastic and you look great in the dress too. Please, sit down.
The actual script is really the last 60 pages of the film,
cos we actually threw away the first 40 pages.
And, you know, I was always had this idea that we need to see Brandon go to sex therapy,
and we need to see him in a therapist's room,
and I want the tap-tap-tap of a fan going, and I want him at the end redeemed.
And he goes into the therapy and we start to understand why he is the way he is.
And Steve was really good about going, "No, I don't think we need that,
"I think we just pull it right back to the central story,
"which is a man who is driven by his addiction and destroyed by his addiction."
The central theme that runs all the way through the film
is that you have fleshly contact, but he's psychologically more and more withdrawn
the more contact he appears to have.
He can only do what he can do as long as it's completely objectified
and there isn't any compassion.
Yes, as long as he's in control. As long as he's in control.
I don't think he wants to let anyone in.
I think to fall in love with someone or to be in love with someone
is, you know, pretty brave. You know, that person could break your heart.
I think for him, somewhere along the line in his life,
he didn't want that to happen
or didn't want that possibility of being vulnerable.
There are sort of recurring themes,
these long extended shots are something that Steve within his artwork has explored extensively.
And that has come over into the film work as well.
Particularly in Shame when Michael goes for a run.
You know, what's the point of the edit in that case?
There's no need, the character is off running.
By just simply following him we are, you know, we're observers.
And we can start to project what might be happening in his mind
as opposed to being distracted by a series of edits.
I just love the way he sees the world
and I love the way he somehow seems to communicate things to me
without ever speaking, and I don't know how he does it.
I think he's just...
There's just a huge truth to him as a man
and I think somehow that's what he tries to pursue in whatever he's doing.
I think that's what people respond to in this work
is the kind of ultimate...fearless desire
to point the camera towards the truth.
ALL HUM SPIRITUAL
Despite its scale, the sense of intimacy of Shame and Hunger
is retained by 12 Years A Slave,
a modern epic with painstaking attention to period detail
and a large cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Tell me about working with Chiwetel. I mean, it's an extraordinary performance from him.
He's done great work before, I think anyway, but tell me about him,
how you cast him and how you discussed the role with him?
Well, I asked when I rang him on the phone.
I said, "Have you read the script?" He said, "No."
He said, "No." I said, "What?!"
"I just offered you..." He said, "No."
-I think because, as he has said before,
it was like having the role that you've been waiting for all your life
and this thing landing on your lap and...him being paralysed,
and him saying to himself, "Well, I can't do this."
I'm not filming that.
'I was just very aware, first of all, of the responsibility of it.'
You know, the responsibility of telling Solomon Northup's story.
-Because it's a real story and an important story?
-Yeah, it's this man's life and his experience.
There's a responsibility to him, to his descendants, you know,
there was a responsibility to the overall idea.
I'd never seen a story like this before, I'd never read a story that was so deep inside this experience.
And I was shocked by it, I was compelled by it obviously, but I was also...
It took me a moment, it took me some pause.
So we worked, we worked together, we talked a lot about...
Valentino, Buster Keaton, silent movie stars.
Because what's interesting about them is their face, their eyes.
I concentrated on his eyes all the time. Eyes, eyes, eyes,
because he has to communicate something which is in him to the audience.
I mean, you are Solomon Northup as the audience member, you are him,
so when you see his face you have to recognise yourself somehow or what he's thinking.
Cos oftentimes he can't express who he is really at all,
he can't sort do certain things, but you have to feel it.
I remember so distinctly him walking onto the set for the first day.
So everyone was fairly relaxed and when the camera turned over,
Chiwetel turned it on and it was electric!
And you could see every other actor in the room suddenly pricking up and thinking,
"Oh, my God! We're going to have to act our socks off here now just to keep up with him."
Days ago I was with my family
-In my home.
Now you tell me all that's lost.
Tell no-one who I am, that's the way to survive?
Well, I don't want to survive...
..I want to live.
One of the crucial things about his performance is, of course,
-the stance and the stances that he adopts during the film.
Yeah. I mean, at the very beginning we did a lot of test shots of him in his costume,
the various costumes he had in the film.
And it was a woman called Paddy Norris, who's an amazing costume designer,
and she used to take soil samples from each plantation and match them with the costumes.
It's just the level of detail.
So, what happened was that when he put clothes on, he was standing in different ways.
It was kind of wonderful to look at cos it was one of those things
which occurred through the clothes and the attire. "OK, what am I wearing now?
"Where am I in this journey?" And through that the stances would change.
Solomon's story is a nightmarish reversal of the American dream
as he goes from free man to slave.
It's all right, Solomon. There's no shame in it. No shame at all.
We identify with him as a person who's been captured and taken away from his family.
We as the audience identify with him, so we move along...
we move along the narrative with him.
And that's Solomon's crutch in the movie, we are actually in the audience helping him,
so when he doesn't say anything,
when he's looking at us, we are him filling in the blanks.
So the whole idea of what's happening inside him is happening to us,
we understand what's going on in his head because other people don't.
And that's what helps the narrative very much, the audience.
Without the audience, of course, he sort of falls flat.
Solomon's chief tormentor is the plantation owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender.
-You come here.
-I said come here!
I brought her back just like you...
Michael Fassbender is now in the third feature in which you've directed him,
you have a very sort of close relationship, you've done incredibly intimate and intense work with him.
How did you and he talk about that character?
You know, we talked about Epps as a person who is in love with Patsey,
he's totally besotted with her.
So we talked about it in a way that he...
As a character who doesn't understand his love for this woman,
because she's a slave.
You know, she's a black woman.
So he had to deal with grappling with that situation of him being in love with this slave
as well as him being who he is.
And how he deals with it is obviously...
through trying to destroy his love for her.
And he tries to do that by trying to destroy her in an unfortunate way.
So it's very twisted.
-I went to master Shaw's plantation.
-Ah, you admit it?
Yes. Really. And you know why?
I got this from Mistress Shaw.
Mistress Epps won't even grab me no soap to clean with.
-I stink so much I make myself gag!
500lb of cotton day in, day out!
More than any man here!
And for that I will be clean!
And what about Patsey?
Well, Patsey...that was Lupita Nyong'o.
It was like searching for Scarlett O'Hara, it really was.
It was over 1,000 girls we auditioned for that part.
It had to be someone who was new, it had to be someone we had to find cos there's no-one like that.
So it was a long and hard hunt.
And we found this girl who had not graduated from Yale yet
and she was just amazing.
And that was it...a star is born.
I had to recognise that I had the privilege of doing this character
in an imaginary world.
And the woman who I was representing had no choice,
that this was actually her life,
these atrocities actually happened to her.
And that always just grounded me and reminded me of what's important,
that I couldn't sentimentalise the experience
and I had to get to it in a very practical way.
That Patsey was working through her pain not wallowing in it.
In 12 Years A Slave, McQueen explores the moral ambiguity that slave owners faced.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Solomon's first and more sympathetic owner, Master Ford.
You must know that I'm not a slave.
I cannot hear that.
-Before I came to you I was a free man.
-Aye, and I saved your life!
One of the most conflicted characters is that played by Benedict Cumberbatch
and there's a line about, "He's a good man. No, he's a slaver."
And the film is full of those contradictions,
it goes out of its way to not paint people with simple strokes.
I think that's one of the powerful things about this story
that it's about human beings, you know, who are forced into circumstances together.
You know Ford, that Benedict plays brilliantly,
is somebody who understands that it's all wrong, you know,
that he has, as he describes in the film, he has debts to be mindful of.
And...he allows himself to behave in this way, to be part of this system,
because it's a system to which he owes his entire reality.
And so why would he break it? You know, how can he break it?
It's a very strange character and I think he's maybe the worst of all three of them,
because he...he's not...he knows what's going on but he does nothing about it.
But at the same time he's in that environment where it's very difficult to fight back,
it's very difficult to say anything against it.
But at the same time he's...I think he's one of the biggest villains, actually.
I thought I told you to commence to putting on clappers?
McQueen takes the audience out of familiar cinematic territory,
he is candid in his portrayal of difficult subjects.
It can be uncomfortable viewing.
-Goddamn you! I told you!
-I did as instructed.
If there's something wrong, it's wrong with the instruction!
You bastard! You got goddamn...black bastard!
Strip your clothes.
-I will not.
Do you think there's a comparison between this story and your interest in it and something like Hunger,
which again is about somebody suffering great physical pain
and anguish in the pursuit of a cause?
Well, you know what, I've only made three films.
Thank goodness I've made three films. My goodness, I've made three films!
I've only made three films, so the next film, hopefully, or whatever's next, will be something else.
I don't have any kind of journey that I'm on in this way,
it's just, I don't know...
I think, you know, you're a critic, you want to tie things up neatly.
"OK, he's this or he's that."
But I don't know what I am yet, because I'm just starting.
You know, I've been lucky enough to have made three films, that's all.
What would you like people to take away from seeing 12 Years A Slave?
I think it's each individual person's responsibility in a way,
not necessarily about this particular subject of slavery,
but in any subject in who you are, what you do today.
But one of the great things about cinema is that it does have a very populist and lasting effect.
Cinema is the living, breathing storytelling of the day, isn't it?
Yeah. Look, all I hope...
All I could hope is that people have two minutes to think about their surroundings
and what they can do about it, that's all, end of story.
You know, we're powerless,
all we can do is try and do something for five minutes and then we die, that's all.
So you've got to always hope that's about it, end of story.
I think the movie's really great, I wish you all the best success with it,
and I look forward to whatever you do next.
-Cheers, mate. Thank you very much.
# Row, Johnny, row
# Row, Johnny, row
# My soul arise in heaven, Lord
# When you and Johnny row Hallelujah!
# Row, Johnny, row
# Row, Johnny, row
# My soul arise in heaven, Lord
# When you and Johnny row
# Everybody say Row, Johnny, row
# Row, Johnny, row
# My soul arise in heaven, Lord...#
To coincide with the release of 12 Years a Slave, this Culture Show special, presented by Mark Kermode, looks at the history and culture of slavery. The subject of slavery has inspired director Steve McQueen's film, which is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was sold into slavery in the 1840s.
McQueen is known for his visceral, hard-hitting films, and even though this is his third feature, it's already creating awards season buzz for him and the movie's star Chiwetel Ejiofor. McQueen initially began his career as an artist, creating provocative work that won him the Turner Prize in 1999. In his relatively short film career, McQueen has already won a BAFTA and Cannes' Camera d'Or.
Mark Kermode talks to McQueen about the making of 12 Years a Slave, his life, other works and unique artistic sensibility. With contributions from Charlotte Rampling and Chiwetel Ejiofor.