Matt's Blog

Interview - Director Steve McQueen On 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen

I was thrilled to be able to speak to director Steve McQueen about 12 Years A Slave just a few hours after the film received 10 Academy Award nominations. You can download a short audio extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt:  The Academy Award nominations were revealed less than 12 hours ago.  Congratulations I should say – firstly for your film and also for your nomination for best director.

Steve:  Thank you very much.  We were pleased with the 9 nominations and I’m very happy for my crew and the cast.

Matt:  Did you watch the nominations or did you wait for the phone calls and messages to start coming in?

Steve:  I did watch it live and it was kind of surreal to be watching television and seeing your name called and your film called.  It was one of those “once in a lifetime” situations.

Matt:  You’ve made two terrific features – Hunger and then Shame, my favourite film of 2011.  They picked up their fair share of awards but with 12 Years A Slave, that you’ve been thrown full on into the madness that is the Hollywood award season.  What’s the experience been like so far?

Steve:  What’s been great about it is the conversation and dialogue.  Every Q&A I’ve been to for this film has felt like a town hall meeting.  People are very passionate about the subject matter and there’s been a huge amount of discussion.

Matt:  I heard your speech at the Golden Globes.  The last person you thanked was Brad Pitt and you said this film would never have been made without him.  Can you tell us about the extent of his involvement in the project?

Steve:  He’s a producer who also acted in the film.  To be honest, without Brad’s clout I don’t think the film would have got made.  He’s definitely someone that people listen to and respond to.  He has a stature in Hollywood where if he says something then people listen.  He was a huge part in this film’s success.

Matt:  Did he approach you or did you approach him?  How did you guys get together on this?

Steve:  It was his company.  Plan B and Brad approached me and we’d been having discussions since I made Hunger.  They were very supportive and they asked me what I wanted to do.

Matt:  To talk quickly about the cast.  You’ve got Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch… but the performance that seems to be sticking with everyone is that of Lupita Nyong’o.  I’d never even heard of her name 3 months ago.  Where did you find her?

Steve:  She was a Yale drama school student who auditioned before she even graduated.  I saw a tape of her and then I asked her to come over.  She was amazing.  She’s an incredible actress and I was just very pleased to hear that she’d received an Oscar nomination.

Matt:  When you set out with a role like that, are you trying to discover a new actress?

Steve:  I don’t really mind.  I was very fortunate to find Michael Fassbender and Lupita N’yongo.  I’ll work with anyone.  It was just one of those things.

Matt:  With both Shame and Hunger there was a noticeable lack of dialogue.  It felt like that again here with 12 Years A Slave.  Yes, there are conversations but it feels like no one says anything unless they absolutely have to.  Am I right in saying that? 

Steve:  Yeah.  Most of the time when we speak to each other, we say a lot of rubbish.  We never really know how we feel verbally.  We never tell each other how we feel.  We often use our mouths to get out of situations or to just get by.

I’m more interested in how we feel and how we act as human beings.  Therefore, what we say isn’t all that crucial.  It’s what we do that provides the evidence.

Matt:  So much of the story, so much of the content in 12 Years A Slave was new to me.  Watching it, looking back at this piece of history, I was just shaking my head and wondering how it happened.  Was it new to you when you came across Solomon Northup’s book?

Steve:  Not really.  I’d done a lot of research into slavery before.  What’s been interesting for me is how many people didn’t know about kidnapping and didn’t know that African-Americans lived free in the north.  The fact they didn’t know tells me a lot about the education of slavery in schools.

Matt:  Our perspective of events can change over time with the benefit of the hindsight and so it’s remarkable that this book exists – written by Solomon back in 1853 just after he’d escaped – particularly as well because so few of those who were kidnapped could read and write.  Aside from Solomon’s words, is there a lot of other material written in that era, that you could draw on to help create the film?

Steve:  Yes and that’s what we did.  There were a lot of academics who had studied Solomon’s work for a long time.  We also went to a few museums and looked at artefacts and whatnot.  It was pretty amazing.

Matt:  It’s easy to look back at a piece of history like this and say “thank goodness things have changed for the better”.  But then I wonder if people in 100 years time are going to back at us today and shake their heads.  Are wars, oppression, discrimination something that we’re never going to be able to truly defeat?

Steve:  I don’t know and it’s a sad thing.  Will people look back 100 years from now and shake their heads at the fact our clothes were made in sweatshops all over the world?  I don’t really know.

Matt:  And I have to ask, I’m a huge fan of film scores and I was curious about your choice to use Hans Zimmer as the film’s composer.  I always associate him with big, loud, epic action type scores but here he’s a lot softer, a lot subtler.

Steve:  Hans is a talented artist and I was very lucky to meet him and I was very lucky for him to accept.  He wanted to be involved with this project and I was very pleased.

Matt:  You’ve certainly got a fan in me and so I’d love to finish up by asking what’s next?  Do you have any projects in the works?

Steve:  I want to do a musical.

Matt:  Really?  Have you got a particular one in mind?

Steve:  I’m still looking and trying to figure things out.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by looping back to the Academy Awards which will be held on March 2.  I always like to have a punt on the Academy Awards every year so I have to ask – what do you think of your chances for the film and yourself?

Steve:  Not bad but then I’d say that about everyone else too.  One can never predict what will happen at the Oscars.  Anyone that says they know later end up not knowing so I won’t even try to predict anything… but please go ahead, have a flutter!