Filmmaker Steve McQueen

The award-winning director reflects on the Oscar buzz around his latest feature film, 12 Years a Slave.

Since winning countless international prizes for his critically acclaimed first feature, Hunger, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has been on a roll. He received numerous accolades for his follow-up effort, 2011's incendiary film experience, Shame, and is in the Oscar queue for his new feature, 12 Years a Slave, based on a true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. McQueen trained as a fine artist and attended London's Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmith's College, where he made his first short films. An accomplished video artist, his work is held in museum collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Centre Pompidou.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: British-born director Steve McQueen decided to tackle the real-life story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was forced into slavery after being kidnapped from his home in New York State because he felt the factual horror of slavery had never been fully captured on film and never told from an African American point of view.

The resulting movie is “12 Years a Slave,” and it’s generating outstanding reviews and being touted as a frontrunner for Oscar nominations. We’ll start by taking a look at “12 Years a Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.

[Clip]

Tavis: First of all, I just want to shake your hand and say congratulations.

Steve McQueen: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: It is an amazing, an amazing project. There’s so many questions that came to mind when I actually sat and watched this. In no particular order, how does a story like this, a story this powerful, this poignant, get lost?

I suspect there are tons of stories that we could see as Hollywood movies that aren’t, but this is such a powerful story to have never been told.

McQueen: Yeah. I thought so, of course. When I got the material, I couldn’t believe – I was actually – I’m certain of myself, that I didn’t know this book, because I though oh, obviously, a lot of people know that we (unintelligible) United States, we (unintelligible) everywhere.

So I was a bit, pretty annoyed with myself. But then I realized no one I knew knew the book. No one. I thought to myself at that point, I had the passion. I had to make this book into a film.

Tavis: What made you believe that you could put on film such an uncompromising depiction of slavery?

McQueen: I didn’t think I couldn’t. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do it. It’s just a case of doing it. I think of all the times people talk themselves out of it, or they don’t get the opportunity to do it.

I don’t know, for me it was a no-brainer. It had to be done, and I had the wind behind my back to do it. That was it.

Tavis: But I’m asking that, Steve, because this is not the kind of story that gets told by Hollywood on the regular. I can list any number of other things where we get these kinds of – back to my phrase – these kinds of uncompromising depictions.

McQueen: Sure.

Tavis: Slavery is just at the top of that list of those kinds of film.

McQueen: Sure. To be honest with you, I don’t know the odds. I just did it. I just wanted to do it, and I did it. Didn’t think about it, didn’t pre-predict anything. I just wanted to do it, and that was it.

I was very lucky enough to sort of meet with Brad Pitt and his company, Plan B, and they wanted to sort of get involved and make this movie. It was very simple.

Tavis: What’s your sense, at the moment, at least, of the response to the film? It’s generated all kinds of conversation. Is it what you thought might happen when you got this thing done?

McQueen: To some extent, yes. I really wanted to put the debate on the map as far as (unintelligible). Because it wasn’t – it’s one of those strange situations that you know, you walk out the door and you see the effects of slavery in everyday life.

But no one focuses on it, no one – it seems like people in general have just turned a blind eye to it, because it’s easy to do so. I wanted sort of just to hold the camera up and point it in a direction of look at this, look at this.

Just to sort of prod or remind people, or to sort of cause a debate in some ways. I think for me, the only way – that’s what art’s all about. Art is about trying to put something into society which causes debate, at least for me.

Tavis: What is it that you believe you have put on the table for us to debate?

McQueen: Well, I think basically to look again. Look again. Never forget. Look again, never forget. To remind ourselves where we are, where we come from, and possibly hopefully where we could go in the future.

You have to go back to our past and see where we’re going, and the sort of unfortunate situation, events such as Trayvon Martin, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of March on Washington, the voting rights being revoked, having a Black president.

Well this sort of perfect storm, I think, allows us to have a debate about this recent horrendous past.

Tavis: You speak like – you just ran a list like you’re a Black American.

McQueen: Well, I don’t see myself as any – I’m not a nationalist. I am from the diaspora, so the only difference between me and you is your boat went right, and my boat went left, that’s it.

My brothers, (unintelligible) on my boat, and my mother and me went on the other boat, that’s all.

Tavis: Is there some sort of indictment that this film was, in fact, made by someone who happens not to be an African American?

McQueen: I don’t actually know what that means. I don’t like to make those sort of distinctions on nationalism, because look, my mother comes from Granada, my father comes from Granada. My mother was born in Trinidad.

Granada is where Malcolm X’s mother was born. Trinidad is where Stokely Carmichael was born, who coined the phrase “Black Power.”

So I’m more interested in us rather than trying to individualize people or separate people. It doesn’t make any sense, because it’s all about – slavery is not an American history, it’s a world history.

Tavis: It is a world history, but this is one of the debates, though, that’s kicked up on social media, which is why it is we’re all glad that Steve McQueen did it, but we’re asking questions why didn’t somebody stateside do this. Why did it take a guy from the UK to make this project?

McQueen: I don’t know, and I don’t really care. That’s not the debate I want to get into because I think it’s a waste of time. If it was someone from anywhere around the world that made the movie, it’s all about what the movie could do, what – the (unintelligible) about who did it or what we could do with it.

That’s the most important thing I want to focus on and debate, and how we could talk about something which is much more tangible and much more worthy and much more practical than something which isn’t of any real interest, really.

Tavis: You’ve been asked before – I was just reading I think in “The New York Times” recently a piece where you were quoted, and the subject of Barack Obama came up.

You raised it earlier in this conversation. This notion of the fact that during the Obama presidency, there has been any number of films, from “The Help” to “The Butler” to “Django Unchained” to “12 Years a Slave.”

You were asked in this article, for those who didn’t see it, what your sense is of how much, if anything, this has to do with the era of Obama allowing these films to be made, or the timing of it being propitious. Your thoughts about that?

McQueen: I think he’s a huge influence on people wanting to tell their story. I feel they feel it’s an opportunity to do so now more so than at any other time people have ever had.

There’s a situation of authority which allows authority – that we can tell our story now, because we are in a position of authority. I hope when he’s not president, that authority remains.

Tavis: I was about to ask, does that mean in 2016, all this stops?

McQueen: Who knows? Hopefully with the momentum, and as I said before, the wind in our sails, it doesn’t stop. Also, there’s all kinds of films, all kinds of stories to be told.

Tavis: Give me some sense of the way you chose to shoot this. I’m not – you’re the expert here, I’m not, but I think, for example, of two or three scenes that come to mind where you stayed on Chiwetel’s face, the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Patsey, you stayed on Patsey’s face for, like, a while.

You wanted us to stay present in that moment, present in that scene. Give me some sense of the way you do what you do in terms of shooting.

McQueen: Well for example, there’s a sequence which is a long take, a one-shot sequence, when Patsey gets beaten. For me, it was not letting the audience off the hook.

Allowing the situation to be shot I wouldn’t say in one take, but in real time, is much more interesting. Once you are there, once (unintelligible) is present but they feel like they are actually there, that’s, I think, an interesting sort of time to actually examine the sequence of events and basically hold the tension.

It’s like if I put a cut in there, then it’s almost like you could sort of exhale. I wanted the tension to be kept up at that moment, until the end of the scene when Patsey is cut down after she’s been beaten.

Then to exhale, and then to bring up again with the next image – the whole idea for me of that particular technique and that particular scene is because it was hand-in-glove with what was asked at that time.

It was like – again, it was like a whirlwind, it was like a hurricane. It was spinning faster and faster and faster until we got into the eye of the storm, which was when she’s being beaten.

To hold it until the thing that she’s holding onto, which was her life at some point, symbolized by a piece of soap. (Unintelligible) it drops on the floor.

That’s when we cut. It’s about keeping the tension in the room and not letting it go, because that’s what the scene actually requires.

Tavis: Is there a point at which for a story that is this true and this raw, and to use your phrase, Steve, this tension-filled, is there a point at which you run the risk – and I’m glad you did, so I’m not critiquing, I’m just asking a question.

Is there a point at which you make it too difficult for the audience to swallow?

McQueen: No, you balance it, but you have to balance it. In the old film I think there’s about five, possibly six, I think five sequences of actually physical violence in a movie which is two hours -

Tavis: But you didn’t tone down, though.

McQueen: No, I didn’t tone down at all.

Tavis: You didn’t turn that – yeah.

McQueen: As far as events, if you can imagine you see a thriller, there’s someone with a gun shooting someone in the head every five seconds. So this is very tamed down to some extent.

But it is a film about slavery. Now in order to make a film about slavery, one has to make a film about slavery or not. How were people kept in servitude for 400 years?

They did it through these kind of methods, which we have to explain. Otherwise, people won’t understand why we’re making the film. We have to tell the truth. Otherwise, there’s no point.

Tavis: This isn’t rocket science, but it is, in the midst of all of that drama and degradation and volatility, it is interesting to see, though, the other characters, the white characters, who are, in fact, socially redemptive in the way they behave throughout the project. So it’s not just about demonizing people.

McQueen: No, but that’s just not how it happened.

Tavis: Yeah.

McQueen: Again, on the boat, for example, when Solomon is on a boat and his friend is sort of set free, his friend doesn’t even turn around just to see how he is or say goodbye.

He – everyone was every man for themselves, because this was all about survival. The white characters in it, there are good ones, there are bad ones. There are all kinds of people. So it’s not about, for me, Black or white.

It becomes too redundant and too easy. It’s about a situation of America. This is not Black American history; this is not white American history. This is about a history of America.

Again, 300 years of this particular industry, slavery, the longest time an industry has survived in the United States. It’s pretty important subject matter, and therefore, one has to focus on it.

It was a hole in the canon of film. There was hardly, for me at least, no film about slavery. But also at the same time, this is a film about love, undeniable love. I think the reason why me and you are sitting here is because people survived, and they survived for their children.

They did what they could in that situation for us to be sitting here now having this conversation. This is a movie about love more than anything else.

Tavis: When you first read this book, this story of Solomon, what did you make of this man?

McQueen: He was amazing. Every turn of the page was just – I was transfixed. It was revelation after revelation on the page, and this man was holding on to something.

What he was holding on to, he was holding on to his faith and holding on to his love of his family. That’s what he was holding on to, and it was just astonishing. I couldn’t believe it. Again, as I said before, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know the back office. How this book -

Tavis: How did you discover the book?

McQueen: What it was was that I had the idea of making a film about – because I wanted to make about slavery, as I said before. I had the idea that this guy, a (unintelligible) in the north who had been kidnapped and who had been dragged into the South.

So I had the idea already, and my wife said to me, “Why don’t you look into true accounts of slavery?” I thought of course, absolutely, why don’t I do that? So we both did our research, and she came up with this book called “12 Years a Slave.”

Well when I got it, I couldn’t believe it. The idea I had was in my hand already. I was like, my God, this is what I was thinking about. But it was amazing. All the detail, all the sort of scope, the epic breadth, was amazing, and I just couldn’t believe it.

Then I thought oh, and again, I thought of course people noticed, but they didn’t. I live in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank is, of course, she’s not just a Dutch hero, she’s a world hero.

That book read to me like the Anne Frank diaries read when I was at school. It was so surprising and so shocking, and a firsthand account of slavery, the only firsthand (unintelligible) slavery of someone who was captured and then was freed. The only one.

Tavis: To your point now, and I’m not naïve in asking this question, but to your point, since you raised the name of Anne Frank, I’m an African American, we’re both – you can look at us and see who we are.

Yet we both know and have read the story of Anne Frank, more than once, I’m sure.

McQueen: Absolutely.

Tavis: Why is it that even inside of our own community, the story of Solomon Northup is not known? Historians will tell you, scholars will tell you that it’s a relatively well-known slave narrative amongst them in the scholars, but why do the rest of us – why have we never heard this name, why do we not know this? We know Anne Frank.

McQueen: I have no idea. Apparently what happened after the book came out it sold 27,000 copies, which was a kind of a best seller then in 1853, and the next year, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” came out and eclipsed it as the “slave narrative.”

But obviously there can be more than one slave narrative, but apparently this one was eclipsed and buried, and it’s kind of a – for me, it’s astonishing. It’s a question for Americans more than anything else. Again, I’m putting the nationality thing up again, but I must say -

Tavis: You flipped on me.

McQueen: I did, I think. (Laughter) But I must say that it’s kind of astonishing, because maybe in Europe, history is history in Europe, history is priceless, history is revered, history is really – it’s Europe. It’s all we have, in some ways, in that sense, in Europe.

But American (unintelligible) I don’t know. I find it astonishing. I still, I’m scratching my head about it in a way. I don’t understand how this book – and look, for me – anyway, put that to one side. We can debate that and get wound up and bound up in that kind of debate, which is of no real consequence.

What’s interesting and what’s possible is that how this book now could be put into schools as required reading in the curriculum and in Europe too. That’s the goal for me for this film, is how this book can be put into the national curriculum for children to read just as we talked about Anne Frank.

Again, and it’s not a sort of comparison, it’s complimentary to what’s the possibility of the book. I think it could be a great reward to everyone.

Tavis: Give me some sense of how the casting helps make this thing really work.

McQueen: Yeah, a lady called Francine Maisler, who’s the casting director, and also – but before – I always knew Chiwetel just had to be Solomon Northup, and it had to be because there’s some kind of genteelness, a certain kind of stature he has, a certain kind of class he has that I needed to be Solomon Northup.

Tavis: So from the beginning, you knew that Chiwetel was your guy.

McQueen: He reminded me of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte. There was a certain kind of stature that I needed for, and a humanity to him, which I needed to carry through the film within the narrative of a (unintelligible) environment.

So that was Chiwetel. Then there was Michael Fassbender, who I’d worked with previously before as Epps. So for me, he’s a most influential actor there was out there.

Then of course there was the hunt for Patsey. Again, I compared it to hunting for Scarlett O’Hara, because it was that wide and spread out and sort of extensive.

Tavis: What were you looking for that you were so desperately trying to find in that character, Patsey?

McQueen: A certain kind of grace. A certain kind of innocence and grace that can be sort of weathered, in a way. Again, (unintelligible) requirement, but at the same time you’re open to sort of look at any and everyone just to find it.

It was just difficult, and I think also it was difficult because there’s a lot of Black actresses don’t get a chance, who don’t get a shot, or who are untrained, because there’s no opportunities. So that was sort of tied up in that as well.

So anyway, finally we found this lady who was just amazing. She was put on tape and I (unintelligible) and that was it. And Patsey (unintelligible), she’s – a star is born.

She’s absolutely incredible. I urge people to see the movie to see something. She’s, like, extraordinary.

Tavis: She’s phenomenal. An actress that we are rather familiar with, Alfre Woodard, the character she played, I think, will shock people. Because at first – it takes you two seconds to realize who she is.

She’s a Black woman, but she’s actually married to – I’ll let you tell the story, but there’s another piece of history I think people don’t understand or don’t know even existed.

McQueen: Oh, yeah, Black people owned slaves, and some of them will actually buy their relatives back. She, Alfre Woodard is married to a slaver, and she owns slaves. She is the refuge of Patsey, and she’s this amazing character.

What it was was that in the book there’s only one line of her in the book, and what happened, John Ridley, the writer on the script, I said to him, “Look, I really need for this woman to have a voice, because it’s just such an important character.”

I’d never seen this character on cinema before. So we spoke about having a tea party, as such, and that’s how that scene was developed.

Tavis: What was it like particularly, Steve, on these very difficult days of shooting certain scenes? How did – let me ask a personal question. How did you navigate that personally, having to be the guy in charge of knowing that you needed to get what you needed to get.

But this is – I can only – it’s so emotionally wrenching to watch, how did you navigate shooting it?

McQueen: Focus, meditation. Also, we had an amazing crew, from the catering to the makeup, hair, wardrobe, camera department, sound department, et cetera. Grips, electricians, et cetera.

We had a wonderful family, a community on set, so we were together in this. So with that foundation, one could actually take risks. One could actually (unintelligible) one could actually feel better and be in an environment where it was safe.

So people, after a hard day, as you can imagine there were a lot of hard days on set, we all came together and embraced and went out to eat together and hang out together. We were family.

Tavis: I’ve had as a guest on this program any number of times over the years our friend Paul Giamatti. To see Paul play that – he played it brilliantly, but he’s such an evil, ruthless – he was so believable in that -

McQueen: Well, Paul didn’t blink. Paul was on set. He was like Peter Sellers. He was on set, and I gave him some lines, but he improvised that a lot, and I just told him a couple of things, what to do, and he made a hit.

He was like Peter Sellers. He was like a whirlwind. Every time he’d get in and we did about 15 takes, and the set was spinning when he left afterwards. So he was amazing. He was good, totally committed, and not fazed by all our – because obviously what I often do is some sort of not particularly pleasant stuff.

But he was unfazed. I loved that for him, because that’s what we have to portray. We have to portray that time in history. We have to. Also, again, someone asked me the question the other day – what was it like when you found out about slavery?

Now this was a strange question, because I never – it’s like someone asking you what was it like when you found out your name. I had no idea. But then I thought about it. Just imagine growing up as a child – all I could remember thinking of when I sort of had some kind of (unintelligible) I imagine – not even imagine, I know – a sense of shame and embarrassment.

Just imagine as a child growing up and having that psyche at such an early age, that you, some (unintelligible) were enslaved, that this is how you were present today.

You start off with this kind of idea as a child you must look around in your society and start asking questions about your environment. Who am I, what am I, within the context of where I am now? At a very early age, you start asking yourself that question.

Tavis: The irony of all this, Steve, is that we go back to that question earlier about the era of Obama, and the interesting juxtaposition between what you have brilliantly done here, masterfully done, and the era of Obama is that there are a lot of Americans who say, “Get over this. You now have an African American president. We don’t need to be going back into revisiting what McQueen wants us to wrestle with. We’re past that now.”

McQueen: Well, I don’t think we’re trying to sort of – I don’t think it’s a case of getting over it. I don’t think anyone would ask, with respect, a Jewish person to get over the Holocaust. It’s something that should be very much in our minds, because we don’t want it to happen again.

We see the effects of slavery every day, and we need to deal with it. I’m willing to not talk about it if there’s something – again, it’s not about just sort of going on about it or unearthing old stuff.

It’s just a case that the evidence is out there, and in our prisons and mental health and so forth and whatnot, and it’s just a case of doing something about it, that’s all.

I think doing something about it, and then the conversation doesn’t have to go that way.

Tavis: Well you have done your part, and it’s called “12 Years a Slave.” Everybody is talking about this project. I have had a chance to see it already, and you will do yourself a great disservice if you don’t get a chance to see “12 Years a Slave.”

Plus if you don’t see it now, you’re going to be rushing to see it anywhere around Oscar time, because I can guarantee there will be some chitchat about this.

The director of this project, “12 Years a Slave,” courageous director, visionary director, is Steve McQueen. Steve, an honor to have you on this program.

McQueen: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Rose Shapiro

    Your interview with Steve McQueen was wonderful. Unlike some, you treated him with the respect he deserved, and he responded in kind. McQueen does not suffer fools lightly and it’s been fascinating just watching his face, as he waits to respond to yet another idiotic question. It’s like he’s saying to himself: “Oh here we go again.” Your approach with him, which opened him up to speaking of slavery and the African Diaspora, hit to the heart of the matter, in many ways. I always look forward to your interviews.

  • Lee Coleman

    Tavis, I really enjoy your interviews with guest keep up the great work.

  • JAYM

    Brilliant interview – so rich and inspiring. Well done Tavis and well done Steve for directing a movie that will make a difference in this world. . . not just the US. I look forward to watching it.

  • Ibrahim

    More than an interview. Smiley’s interview with McQueen is a unique moment in history. McQueen vision — his greater ambition– is to start an overdue and oh so needed dialog. This dialog takes us through human suffering, dark criminality, and the vestiges that remain. If the USA is to assure its future, it will have to go through its inhumanity. It will have to take blame for the harm it caused to a people. The process becomes the precursor for change, justice, and the perpetuation of America.

  • DAVID PAUL

    I am a descendant of people who were brought here as slaves. For this and other reasons I am very interested in the topic of slavery. This movie 12 years a slave was the most insightful
    look at the life of slaves that I have seen. I am also very proud that it was presented by someone in the family. (Steve’s father and my grandmother, Felicity McQueen, are brother and sister). Congratulations on a job well done and more successes in the future.

Last modified: October 17, 2013 at 11:15 pm