24 Sep 2013
- Written by Kam Williams
Artist and filmmaker Steven Rodney McQueen talks about his latest film, "12 Years a Slave," which recently won the People's Choice Awards for Best Film and Best Director at the Toronto Film Festival.
Kam Williams: I've loved all three of your feature films, this new one, and "Hunger" and "Shame" as well. They are so different from each other and yet quite remarkable and memorable, each in their own way.
Steve McQueen: Thank you. Well, I do my best. I'm just happy that people are responding to the films as positively as they are. To be honest with you, it's one of those things where we're just happy to get them made. When you get to make something, you always hope people will go and see it. And we're very, very pleased by the response to "12 Years a Slave." It's kind of humbling and remarkable.
KW: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: "What does it mean to you to be in charge of adapting Solomon Northup's memoir? How do you explain that his autobiography was buried for around a hundred years contrary to those of some of his contemporaries like Frederick Douglass?"
SM: I feel tremendously honored but I also feel a tremendous responsibility because through this film we can bring Solomon Northrup's memory to the surface. His story was buried for so long. When the book first came out in 1853, it was a phenomenal best seller for its time, and sold 27,000 copies in 18 months. But what happened was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published the following year, and that was it for "12 Years a Slave." It fell into obscurity. Academics knew about the memoir but it otherwise became lost. To me, it was always like the American equivalent of "The Diary of Anne Frank." That's why it became my passion to get this film made.
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: "In a film described as a historical drama, how do you establish a healthy balance between history and drama?"
SM: By relying on the book. As a filmmaker I was interested in illustrating the history of what slavery was about, which was slave labor. In the background of one frame, for example, you see sugar cane. In the second plantation, you see logging. And on the third location, we see corn. So, at the same time you're following Solomon's adventure of trying to get home, in the background you simultaneously see the horrors and pains of what slavery was about.
KW: Fellow director Rel Dowdell asks: "Do you feel that the great success of "Django Unchained" improves your very visceral film's chances for a warm reception?"
SM: I think that film was very helpful, of course, in making people aware by getting the subject-matter on film. So, I couldn't say it didn't help.
KW: What interested you as a Brit in an African-American story?
SM: The story's not just an African-American story. It's a universal story. It's a world story. My parents are from the West Indies. My father's from Grenada, which is where Malcolm X's mother was born. My mother was born in Trinidad, which is where Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the phrase "Black Power!" was born. Sidney Poitier was born in the Bahamas. I'm part of that diaspora of people displaced by the slave trades. I'm part of that family. It's our story. It's a global story. ...
KW: How did you settle on Chiwetel as Solomon Northrup?
SM: Chiwetel was always the one I wanted to make the movie with because there's a certain humanity and gentility about him that I needed for the lead role. Solomon was a person who maintained his humanity whatever his circumstances, and I needed someone of that same caliber, because he would be tested to the breaking point. I needed an actor who could hold up during those moments of extreme stress.
KW: Why did you use the great Michael Fassbender in each of your films?
SM: I think Michael is the most influential actor of his generation. He's like a Mickey Rourke or a Gary Oldman. People want to be him. Actors want to act with him. Students choose to pursue acting because of him. I was very fortunate to land him for "Hunger." We've been close friends ever since. He's an amazing actor I will always want to work with.
KW: How did you assemble such a top-flight cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Quvenzhane Wallis, Paaul Dano, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o.
SM: I had huge help from the casting director, Francine Maisler. She did an incredible job. We auditioned over a thousand girls for the role of Patsey. And we ended up with Lupita, who hadn't even graduated from acting school yet. But she auditioned for us, and that was it. A star was born! ...
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: "How do you want to be remembered?"
SM: As a person who tried.
(To see a trailer for "12 Years a Slave," visit: