10/15/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

Steve McQueen On Shooting His Masterpiece, '12 Years A Slave'


Steve McQueen is known for not suffering fools. The second-biggest story to come out of this year's Toronto International Film Festival concerning McQueen -- behind the fact that he made what just might be the best movie of 2013 with "12 Years A Slave" -- was his now infamous face, shaking from side to side in disgust after hearing what he considered a dumb interview question. (Which, of course, is now preserved forever in GIF form.)

The thing about McQueen, though, is that he's not a jerk -- far from it, in fact -- but he does demand that an interviewer knows what he's talking about. (McQueen ranks right up there with Mike Leigh on the "most intimidating directors to interview" list.) I can only assume McQueen is this demanding of his cast, which just might be why his first three films -- "Hunger," "Shame," and now "12 Years" -- are just so good. And it's probably why as dedicated an actor as Michael Fassbender has joined McQueen on this journey all three times.

"12 Years A Slave" is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in upstate New York circa 1841 who is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. He's owned by, as McQueen calls him, "good slaver" William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then, later, a man who might just be pure evil, Edwin Epps, played by Fassbender. (A scene involving Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is especially horrific.)

I met McQueen at his hotel in Manhattan's financial district. Luckily, on this day, I avoided receiving that look of disgust and, instead, got a look inside the mind of one of the best filmmakers working today.

I was in Toronto for the premiere; the film received an amazing reception.
That was surprising, yes.

Really? Can you look at your movies and realize if [they're] good?
Well, I might think I have, but that doesn't mean anything. What I mean by that is you can never anticipate an audience's reaction to a film. You can never anticipate. So, I was just very grateful.

A friend of mine went to film school at NYU and he said that on his first day, a class showed the first 20 minutes of "Hunger" as an example of great filmmaking.
Who did? The professor did?

Wow. I left that school after three months of being there. That's a compliment. I remember lying down in my bed, crying, with tears rolling down my eyes into my ears, talking to my mother saying that I want to leave NYU. It wasn't for me. But, it was for other people.

What didn't you like about it?
Well, it was just one of those things that certain things are for certain people -- and it just wasn't for me. But, this is just interesting -- I'm very grateful for that. The idea of them showing my film as an example, I'm quite [happy].

Benedict Cumberbatch's character, Ford, is a slave owner. I don't want to use the word "nice" concerning anyone in that position, but did that contrast need to be there before we find out how evil Michael Fassbender's Epps is?
Well, it was in the book. He actually existed, Ford. It's kind of strange to have in the same sentence, "the good slaver." It's kind of a weird concept. But, you know, he existed and he had these dilemmas. I mean, some would say they prefer Epps because Ford is always in a dilemma about his situation. And Judge Turner, the other slaver, who is a mysterious, kinder, slaver ... so, there are these three pillars of slavers. It was a wonderful gift, in a way, to work with those actors and to create those characters with Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Michael Fassbender gives a great performance, then again he seems to be in all of your movies.
For sure. I mean, he's the most influential actor of his generation. He's like a Mickey Rourke or a Gary Oldman. Other actors want to work with him and people want to hang out with him -- people want to be an actor because of him. That's how influential Michael is an an actor.

I've read where you have said that you don't purposefully think about the long uninterrupted shots that are in your movies, but there's one in "12 Years a Slave" that is particularly uncomfortable that becomes more and more difficult to watch. As a viewer, I started feeling it myself. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. Again, I don't, it's not a trick to use the long shot -- it's what's necessary for the scene. Cinema is 120-odd years old, and, therefore, the whole idea of me using film language, however I use it -- there no right or wrong way of doing anything, it's just if it works or not. For example, the hanging scene, for me, was "how do you talk about two things, even three things, in one shot?" Sometimes people do six shots to say one thing and I'm interested, in this situation, in one shot to show not just physical abuse, but mental abuse. Solomon is hanging in the tree struggling, but, at the same time, you had these slaves creeping out of their hut and going about their daily chores. And [they're] noticing Solomon, but not reacting to him because they know that if they get involved in it, they'll be strung up beside him. So, there's that kind of mental abuse and mental torture. And you have the kids running behind and playing while Solomon is suspended. The whole idea of normalizing that particular situation, it was very necessary for those scenes to hold the shot. And time passing as well, because he's hung up there for most of the day.

I want to ask about two scenes and how they were accomplished.

There's a scene in which Sarah Paulson throws a glass bottle point blank into Lupita Nyong'o's face, shattering the bottle.
What she threw, actually, was a foam decanter. And then with CGI you put in a real decanter. And the sound helps as well.

That makes sense, but you don't think of CGI having a role in this movie.
Well, I think I use it in a more modest way than most people do -- because I can't afford anything more [laughs].

The other scene, Michael Fassbender is chasing around Chiwetel Ejiofor and Fassbender jumps and trips over a small fence landing face first on the ground.
That was Michael. That's how committed he is. That's why he's Michael Fassbender. He actually got a cut on his foot, but, that's how he is -- that's who Michael Fassbender is. There's another example in the rape scene when he passes out, he actually passes out. Because he's that intense and the level of focus, not just for him, but for Chiwetel and Lupita and all of the actors is so high, the command of the acting is of an extraordinary nature.

You used to act in your short films. I've always wondered, if you ever acted again in your films, would you have to use a middle initial for SAG purposes?
I don't know. And I'm not interested in being in front of the camera.

Never again?
No, no, no. I'm only interested in working behind it [laughs]. I don't want to ruin my movies!

You had some interesting casting in this movie. Taran Killam plays one of the kidnappers.
From "Saturday Night Live." He's amazing. It was through auditions. Sarah Paulson was through auditioning. Benedict Cumberbatch, he came through auditioning. We don't get "Saturday Night Live" outside of America, so I didn't know who Taran was. So, I just cast him through his audition -- I had no idea who this guy was. Afterward, people were like, "Oh, he's on 'Saturday Night Live.'" But, he's an amazing actor. But, unfortunately, for me, it was a small role. But I would work with him tomorrow. He's an extraordinary cat. He's an amazing actor. He and Scoot McNairy as a duo were amazing. He's an amazing actor because I think a lot of comedians have that talent where they can go to those kinds of places. I would love to work with him tomorrow. I can't hold him in higher esteem. I know his part wasn't that big, but I would work with him tomorrow. For sure.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

'12 Years A Slave' Photos

Subscribe to the Entertainment email.
Home to your favorite fan theories and the best movie recs.