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Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" hits theaters this weekend as part of an overall theme this Oscar season, or a theme the media has made sure is pronounced, in any case. But while films like "Fruitvale Station," "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and, indeed, "12 Years a Slave" do plenty to stoke a conversation about race in America, McQueen feels there's something much bigger at stake, at least with his film.
"This is not a story about African-Americans, this is a story about America," he says. "So race, of course, has something to do with it, but it's also about respect for people. It's all about learning from the past in order to move on into the future. This isn't a petty conversation about, sort of, 'you did this' and 'you did that.' That becomes too negative. This is a story about how some have survived through a horrible ordeal. Solomon Northup survived because of love."
Of course, it's rare for a film to tackle slavery on this level with such definitive strokes (last year's "Django Unchained" was much more in the realm of hyper-reality), and McQueen concedes that the topic of race relations has to be a part of the conversation; it is not something that has been dealt with and put in the rearview mirror, after all. But Northup's story spoke to him in a myriad of ways. "For me, on any level, this was an extraordinary story," he says. "It could have been an adventure story. It could have been a sci-fi movie. It could have been whatever kind of movie. It's just an extraordinary story that one person was kidnapped into this thing called slavery and he had a glimpse of it for 12 years."
Most people are unaware of the book on which the film was based, an autobiography that may have taken liberties with the facts of the specific instance but nevertheless in no way embellished what was a horrific status quo in the mid-19th Century in this country. McQueen had been eager to do a film about slavery but couldn't find the right context, until his wife brought Northup's story to his attention. "As soon as it was in my hand, I couldn't put it down," McQueen said of the book at the Telluride Film Festival in August. "It was just riveting. Every page I turned, I just couldn't believe what I was reading."
The book felt to McQueen, an Amsterdam resident, like he was reading Anne Frank's diary for the first time. And it had a spirit to it that the director found tangible, enlightening, even.
"I'm not from America, but one thing I love about this country is the Constitution," he says. "And there's one bit in the Constitution when it says, 'and the right to pursue happiness' [though that line is actually from the Declaration of Independence]. That's extraordinarily moving. And I think that's all Solomon wanted to do. Like he said, 'I don't want to survive. I want to live.'"
Not long after McQueen's debut film, "Hunger," movie star and producer Brad Pitt decided he wanted to be in business with the director. Through his Plan B production company, Pitt, who has a small role in "12 Years a Slave," has sought out the chance to work with artists with unique voices, like Martin Scorsese or Ryan Murphy or Andrew Dominik. And making movies like "12 Years a Slave," he told an audience at Telluride, is why he wanted to get into film in the first place.
For McQueen, Pitt's involvement meant having not just a movie star but a cinephile in his corner, one who would back him every step of the way. The two met in London while Pitt was making "World War Z," finished off two bottles of wine and just talked.
"What was so interesting about that, for me at least, is as a producer, he's an actor, so it's an advantage for me that he wants to sort of work with the director," McQueen says. "And therefore, it's such a wonderful relationship to have when you've got an artist who wants to support you in making the work. He's very, very encouraging and very just, you know, he trusts the filmmaker. And he asks the questions many people are afraid to ask; he just comes out with it. Without Brad Pitt, this movie could have never have been made."
For the role of Northup, McQueen needed something specific. There's a grace to the man that was present in the book and that the director wanted to carry across in the translation to the screen, so he sought out longtime character actor and budding leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor for the part.
"There's a certain kind of class and stature to Chiwetel, which I needed for the character, a certain sense of dignity and humanity," he says. "And the reason why I needed that from him was because he had to go through a journey, which was full of inhumane situations, and he had to keep his humanity through that journey. I thought he was the only one to do that."
The film was shot in Louisiana in the peak of summer, July and August of 2012. The first day on set was well over 100 degrees and, McQueen assures, any time you see a character covered in sweat in the film, that's real sweat, not the result of someone spritzing the actors' faces with water. He'd go back to his hotel room in the early days of shooting and wonder, "God, how am I going to survive this?" But that setting was nevertheless crucial to the film in the end.
"It was another character," he says. "I mean, when you're walking around in that heat and those flies, mosquitoes, Spanish moss, the oppressive heat, it just brings another dimension to the proceedings. And it really affected the performances…It was just one of those amazing things that added to the piece."
And now, after coming out big with the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, "12 Years a Slave" is ready for its close-up in cineplexes. Ahead of McQueen is a sure-to-be dense and whirlwind Oscar season, but all he can manage for now is relief that people will see the fruits of his and his cast and crew's labor.
"I'm just happy that the film is being released on Friday," he says with an exhale. "That's the most important thing to me, that we actually got the film made and people, hopefully, are going to go and see it, or have a chance to, at least…This film is about the truth."
"12 Years a Slave" is now playing in limited release.
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