^ Back to Top
lime Theatre Interview: Steve McQueen

Lime interview - Theatre

Steve McQueen

words by

Cassam Looch

Reporter: Cassam Looch

As the award-winning '12 Years a Slave' arrives on Home Entertainment, we talk to the director of the film about some of the controversies surround it as well as the extraordinary success of the harrowing drama.


Can we talk about race in America? Is it possible to have that subject - North America, and have people be frank? Are we all too careful? Are we all too fearful? What are your feelings about that? 


Steve: I made a movie, this movie because I wanted to tell a story about slavery. A story which, for me, hadn't been given a platform in cinema. It's one thing to read about slavery, one thing to sort of have these kinds of illustrations about slavery, but when you see it within a narrative it does something different. That's what I wanted to do. If that starts off a conversation, wonderful, excellent, it would be about time. Conversations are continuing and they have been done, it goes on and on. This film for me is about Solomon Northrup and how he survived that unfortunate situation. 


It's necessary to show torture and we're watching a movie so it's this very tricky juxtaposition of entertainment, education, and watching people in pain and causing pain. I guess it's a tricky thing to calibrate? 


Steve: From the response we're getting. Everyone's an adult here, they know how to deal with it. They know how to deal with it so it's not about sort of sugar coating it or anything else. The artists, actors, we're here to do something, which we feel is necessary for the film. 


These are artists, they're actors. This is drama. Without people playing people who are appalling, there would be no drama. It's their job, that's what they do, they're athletes. It doesn't mean that they - it'd be difficult if they couldn't do it. If they couldn't do it, I'd get someone else. They're actors, so we should just - come on. 


Can you comment please, how was it the first time you read the book and why was it so important to you in a way to make this wonderful movie? 


Steve: What happened in the beginning is I wanted to make a film about slavery. It was sort of a hole, I think - I wanted to see images from that particular past. I wanted to experience it through imagines. What happened was that I had this idea of a free man in North America at that time, who would have been kidnapped into slavery. He goes through this sort of an assault course, unfortunate assault course of the sort of regime of slavery. I got together with John Ridley to write the script and things were going, but it's hard. Things were going a bit sort of not as well as I wanted. I was talking to my wife and I said - I told her what was going on and she said why don't you look into True Accounts of Slavery, duh. Myself and - we researched it and she come up with this book 12 Years a Slave. 


As soon as she put it in my hand, I didn't let it go. It was just remarkable. Each turn of the page was a revelation. It was just - I couldn't believe - when you have an idea and then you see it in your hand as a book, it was just amazing. I live in Amsterdam so the comparison for me was Anne Frank because it was 100 years earlier, this book was around. I was upset with myself that I didn't know about this book, but then I realized no one I knew, knew about this book, no one. That's when I thought yes I want to make this book. I want to make this film - this book into a film. That was it. That's when plan B came on board and Brad Pitt, and things got rolling. 


What do you think being a British man, did it change your perspective at all or do you think if you was living in America your whole life would it have been a little different? 


Steve: First of all, I don't really like to draw those kinds of lines, nationalism or whatever it is. Yes I'm British. My parents come from the West Indies, Grenada, my mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X's mother was born. Trinidad is where Carmichael was born who coined the phrase black power. It's complex, it's not so simple. Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Sydney Poitier, Harry Belafonte. America, West Indian, British, it's about slavery. We've got Chiwetel's British Nigerian. We have Lupita, Mexican Kenyan. It's about that triangle as such. It's not about me being British, it's about me being part of that history. 


At the end of the movie I wanted to know more and more about this man, so my curiosity is how is it possible that no one knew where he died? He had a nephew, children, grandchildren. Did you do some research? 


Steve: Yes, we have - there has been research. We did actually do some research with Skip Gates. There's no dates or place where he died. We know about his record. We know something about his wife or what happened to her afterwards, but him, nothing, nothing. There's no - maybe now there will be more, but there's been a lot of investigation into what ever happened to him and nothing has occurred. 


Who published the book? The publisher of the book doesn't know anything? 


Steve: It was published in 1850 - the first edition was then, of course, but it's about - we don't know, we just don't know, unfortunately. A lot of people get lost. How they died and where they died, and what circumstances that they died, we don't know. Someone was involved in the Underground Railroad. He was a tireless worker for freedom of slaves, we just don't know right now. Hopefully, who knows, we might unearth what happened to him now just as we unearthed the book. Let's hope. 


Brad Pitt tends to play heroic likable characters for the most part. Did he consider other roles? I know he's one of very few characters that has some redeeming qualities in terms of the people who play the white people in the cast. Did he consider Michael Fassbender's role or Benedict Cumberbatch's role?  


Steve: I don't think it was his to consider in that way. That's not how we do things. We talked and we talked about Bass. That was him. What was interesting about Brad is that he kind of fits quite well as Bass, what he's doing in New Orleans and so forth and what not. Also, the debate, I think he was very interested in that kind of level of debate about - he's the only one who confronts Epps verbally. I think that kind of boxing match - who doesn't want to see Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt sort of - doing some meat and potato acting about the reasons why this film - the reasons why this situation has occurred. He's being confronted. You've got Michael Fassbender, you've got Brad Pitt doing this sort of great scene together. For me it was a no brainer and fantastic. 


I wondered how and if you could relate the film to Django Unchained. I also wondered how you'd respond to those people that left the premier unable to cope with the violence. 


Steve: In fact they're two different movies about slavery. That's the only way I can answer that question, really. That's about it. Again, there's lots of different kinds of gangster movies or different kinds of westerns. In fact, when I was in New Orleans I bumped into Tarantino, Quentin and we had a discussion. He said to me hopefully it's okay to have more than one slavery film. Yeah, of course. It's like have more than one gangster movie, having more than one western. That was kind of - that sort of answers that question very straightforwardly. 


[on people leaving] Yeah, great - not great, but certain things some people aren't going to be able to sit through just like a bad movie. I understand, that's fine, but the vast majority were there, were giving us a standing ovation. I just take heart from that really. This film for me is about love. It's about love. It's a funny, funny word, love because it's hardly ever used. It seems silly, obviously, in this kind of context, but that's what the film's about, it's about love. That's it. It's one of those things where there's a little pain in love sometimes, but you have to get through it and it's the journey of Solomon Northrup to get through back to his family. That's the journey I wanted to go on. It's just like life, tough, and we get through it. 


There's been just a handful of slave narratives in American cinema. I wanted to know was there any forethought on what nuances that you wanted to bring in this story that we haven't seen in slave stories before.  


Steve: I didn't look at any films or TV shows. That wasn't my interest. My interest was like the book and the landscape. No, to answer that question, I didn't look at any other films. 


Also, if I could add, there's a lot of shame about slavery in America and the West Indies, a lot of shame. It's that line where Solomon says forgive me and the wife says to him it is nothing to forgive. That's, for me, one of the most powerful lines in the movie because there's nothing to be forgiven for, it wasn't your fault. This is what happened to you. That was very key. 


12 Years A Slave is released to Blu-ray and DVD on 12th May 2014, courtesy of Entertainment One. 

Some other Theatre interviews ...
Todd Twala Theatre interview
Todd Twala
WORDS: Gillian Fisher
Lime Magazine interview with Lloyd Newton Theatre interview
Lime Magazine interview with Lloyd Newton
WORDS: EDITOR - Vernia Mengot
Kwame Kwei- Armah Theatre interview
Kwame Kwei- Armah
WORDS: EDITOR - Vernia Mengot
... and some other interviews by Cassam Looch
Beauty & Lifestyle interview
a.d. models
WORDS: Cassam Looch
Screen interview
Sophia Boutella
WORDS: Cassam Looch
Screen interview
The Sapphires
WORDS: Cassam Looch