Steve McQueen’s Call to Arms: The Making of ’12 Years a Slave’ | ET REALITY


“So what do you want to do next?”

The question overshadowed director Steve McQueen’s first tour of Hollywood in the late summer of 2008. His first film, “Hunger,” a fascinating and haunting character study of Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands, electrified audiences at Cannes in May and won the award for Best First Film. In rounds of meetings in Los Angeles (McQueen’s first time in town), studio and restaurant executives and producers presented themselves as allies in waiting, eager to help a visionary new talent put together the second movie. he.

McQueen had thought his follow-up would tackle another formidable historical figure, perhaps the African-American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson, or the Afrobeat pioneer and Nigerian political dissident Fela Kuti. But, leaving the Hollywood meetings, he told his agent that he wanted to make a film about slavery. The decision, he said in a recent interview, had been inspired in part by the meetings themselves: an ineffable expression he had seen on people’s faces when they first saw him.

“They didn’t know I was black,” said McQueen, who was born in London to a Trinidadian mother and Grenadian father. “I think because I made a movie like ‘Hunger,’ these white guys didn’t think they would meet a black person.”

For McQueen, the mistaken assumption about his identity (not to mention the carelessness of not having bothered to look him up) was evidence of deep and unexamined prejudice. The legacy of slavery had haunted him since childhood; His mother maintained a family tree that traced his ancestors to Ghana. But, in Britain, his education on the subject had included “Estate“and a little more. In the United States, a country with a long history of violence against black people, a similar strain of mass amnesia was felt.

“There was a certain sense of irresponsibility, as if it were something very far in the past,” he said. “I wanted to hold people accountable, tell them, ‘Wait, wait, wait a minute. this happened here.’”

12 years of slavery,” McQueen’s version of a wake-up call, was released 10 years ago this month. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o (in her first film role) and written by John Ridley, it was based on the real-life autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841, enslaved and then he escaped. (In the end, it was McQueen’s third film. “Shame,” a frank portrait of sex addiction, was released in 2011.)

A serious, R-rated noir drama with no movie stars in the lead roles, it would gross nearly $190 million (most of it overseas) and win three Oscars (including best picture, the first for a film by a black director). , “12 Years” arrived in Hollywood like a UFO landing. Its success paved the way for two other noir milestones from the same production company, Plan B: “Selma” (2014) and “Moonlight” (2016), and dispelled the old myth that “noir films don’t travel.” a year before Disney announced “Black Panther.”

The film’s journey from visceral impulse to unstoppable force was made possible by blind faith (that of an in-demand filmmaker, impervious to industry dogma and a circle of producers who fanned his flame) and the efforts of the actors. and artisans who faced the relics. of human slavery, a real lightning bolt, and the daily hubbub of New Orleans in July.

These are edited excerpts from their stories.

STEVE McQUEEN I knew I wanted to make a film about a free man who became trapped in slavery.

DEDE GARDNER, producer We had a theme before we had a narrative.

JEREMY KLEINER, producer He has a kind of divining rod for taboos and goes straight to them.

McQUEEN My wife (author and filmmaker Bianca Stigter) said, “Why don’t you try to find some material instead of trying to write it?” John Ridley and I did some research and my wife did some research and found the book “12 Years a Slave.” When I read it I said: That’s all. This is the piece.

GARDENER The urgency of John’s script and how cinematic it was was evident. We try to develop a film as much as we can before seeking financing. Can we write it? Can we get it molded? The hope is that you will eventually cross the line of denial.

McQUEEN I met Brad (Pitt, co-founder of Plan B) and he was very receptive. He didn’t blink.

GARDENER He loved the script and wanted to help make it, which I think we all knew his involvement in it would involve. (Pitt plays a small but pivotal role as a Canadian carpenter and opponent of slavery who helps Northup win his freedom.)

McQUEEN I wanted to make a film about Fela with Chiwetel and I made him learn to play the saxophone. I remember calling him and saying, “Actually, I want to make this movie about slavery.” (Imitating Ejiofor)”Man, I’ve been practicing for the last three months!

BRAD WESTON, former president of New Regency, co-financier The script was great and the talent was undeniable.

With a budget set at $20 million, financed by River Road, Summit Entertainment and New Regency, “12 Years” began filming in New Orleans on June 27, 2012. Filming took place on four former plantations on the outskirts of The real Solomon Northup had been held captive. The first day the temperature reached 108 degrees.

SEAN BOBBITT, director of photography How hot does the heat get?

McQUEEN Horses were collapsing in the fields next door.

ADAM STOCKHAUSEN, production designer It was a battle between wanting to take off as much clothing as possible and not wanting to be eaten alive by mosquitoes.

McQUEEN It was brutal, but you realize how people had to live in those conditions.

BOBBIT It was very important to Steve that it looked real and that it was real. We talk a lot about simplicity and truth, not frivolities. The book is very simple and honest.

STOCKHAUSEN There were terrible storms. One of our sets at the dock (where a ship carrying Northup arrives in New Orleans) collapsed two weeks before we started filming.

BOBBIT There was one day when lightning struck the edge of the ship set and knocked out all of our electronics and sound. Everyone (maybe 100 extras and the key actors) fell to the ground, screamed, and ran away. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but paramedics quickly came and checked everyone out.

Among the most challenging shoots was a much-discussed scene in which Patsey, an enslaved woman played by Nyong’o, is whipped by volatile plantation owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender). It unfolds in a single, dizzying four-minute shot.

BOBBIT There were three or four takes, with one camera. We never use the word “coverage.” It’s anathema to cinema: anyone can go out and do 20 takes in every scene, give them to a really good editor, and you’ll get a movie. Will you get a great movie? From my point of view, it is unlikely.

McQUEEN We rehearsed a lot and (Nyong’o, Ejiofor and Fassbender) were incredible. Lupita made everyone step up her game. You could put her in a garbage bag and she would figure it out. (Representatives for the actors declined to make them available for this story due to restrictions around interviews during the actors’ strike.)

BOBBIT It was emotionally draining for everyone, but the idea was not to give the public a chance to look away, to remember the true horror of what was perpetrated against slaves for 200 years.

McQUEEN We couldn’t avoid it, we had to go to very dark places. But at night we would all get together, hug each other, eat together, get drunk together and come back the next day. It was beautiful.

The film had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2013. It received a rapturous ovation and was immediately hailed as an Oscar contender. But an obstacle came to light a week later, during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festivalwhen a visibly uncomfortable white moderator repeatedly emphasized how “heartbreaking,” “brutal,” and “complicated” it was.

McQUEEN We had a bit of a… not very good press conference in Toronto. I thought the questions were a little silly. My answer was not good.

PAULA WOODS, McQueen’s publicist He was a little taken aback after having such a good premiere. He fed on all this “Is it too hard to see? conversation that bothered us all.

HANS ZIMMER, composer It was full of injustice, but it was also full of human dignity.

McQUEEN Cameron Bailey (then artistic director of the Toronto festival) took me aside and said, “You know, this movie is bigger than you.” I had to put my emotions aside and get on with the job of promoting the film.

FOREST Before #OscarsSoWhite, people wrote things that would never be written today. It’s part of the larger problem of systemic racism. I remember we were in New Orleans visiting one of the plantations with a journalist, and a man who was working there sidled up to me, with one eye on Steve, and said, “You know, it wasn’t as bad as they say.”

NANCY UTLEY, former co-president of distributor Fox Searchlight It was a challenge, but that’s part of what we thought made it special: that it was willing to take you places that are hard to go.

STEVE GILULA, former co-president of Fox Searchlight We had a two-pronged approach with the campaign: one was the festivals and the other was African American opinion makers.

UTLEY We did screenings with Skip (Henry Louis) Gates Jr., the Equal Justice Initiative, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Museum of Tolerance.

GILULA We didn’t want it to be pigeonholed as an art film. When we released it, it did very well in African-American theaters.

After winning the top awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, “12 Years a Slave” arrived on Oscar night, March 2, 2014, with nine nominations, very close to “Gravity” by Alfonso Cuarón and “American Hustle” by David O. Russell, with 10 each. The best picture race was widely considered a failure.

McQUEEN I came with my mother and my sister, and when we walked out on the red carpet they started crying.

WESTON We knew we were in the conversation for real, but you don’t allow yourself to go any further. You never know.

KLEINER There is an old mythology that says that slightly harsher films may not be liked by the academy. “Ordinary People” instead of “Raging Bull.”

Nyong’o and Ridley were the first winners in the categories of best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay. But, late in the night, the award for best director went to Cuarón.

UTLEY That’s when your heart goes to your stomach, because many times the director and the film go hand in hand.

McQUEEN Will Smith (featuring best picture) looked directly at me and said, “12 Years a Slave.” It was incredible. I took it out of the presenter’s hand, gave my speech and I jumped as high as I could.

UTLEY It was a calling card for many of the film’s talents and also for us. Everyone had to do more things.

KLEINER It was significant that when people now think about how this industry has represented that period – “The Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind” – they could also think of “12 Years a Slave.”

BOBBIT There are states in the United States where that movie would be banned in schools today, but it is there and always will be there.

McQUEEN We made history. At that moment there was no turning back.

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