Director Steve McQueen on His Brutal ’12 Years A Slave’: It’s a Film About Love

The director of the violent, true story about a slave delves into why he made it at Toronto press conference

Director Steve McQueen told a Toronto International Film Festival press conference on Saturday that he knows why some viewers find the violence and brutality in his new film “12 Years a Slave” difficult to sit through, but that it was necessary to do justice to a story that has not been told often enough on film.

“Certainly some things, some people aren’t going to be able to sit through … and I understand,” said the British director McQueen of his harrowing take on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

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“That’s fine,” he said when told that some viewers at Friday night’s premiere walked out because of the explicit violence. “But the vast majority were there and gave us a standing ovation. And I just take heart, really.”

Actress Alfre Woodard, who has a small role in the film, added, “Even people that are saying, ‘I’ve been changed by watching this,’ they’ve also been using words like intense, hard. We tend to shy away from those things. But you also have to say [to those people], ‘You have to see it.’ You will see terrible circumstances, but you will see beautiful circumstances played out beautifully and masterfully. It’s a film that you shouldn’t miss, whether you are a cinephile or a workaday Jane or John. It is a film that fills a void.”

The press conference came as heat around the film intensified, a week after it won raves at Telluride. The Fox Searchlight release received a standing ovation at its TIFF premiere on Friday night, and on Saturday morning Vulture published a piece declaring that the Oscar race is over and “12 Years” will certainly win Best Picture and likely capture Best Director and Best Actor prizes as well.

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The precise and sometimes prickly McQueen refused to be drawn into the awards conversation at the press conference, saying that he has no expectations when it came to awards season.

“My expectations have been met,” he said. “I made the movie. I remember someone [calling it] ‘your impossible movie,’ and we made it. That’s it for me … If anything else comes our way, it’ll be great.”

He also resisted the moderator’s idea that the movie could start a conversation about race in America.  “I made a movie because I wanted to tell a story about slavery, a story which for me hadn’t been given a platform in cinema,” he said.  “It’s one thing to read about slavery, to have these illustrations – but when you see it on celluloid and within a narrative, it does something different. “And if that starts a conversation, wonderful, excellent, it’ll be about time. But I hope it goes beyond race.  This film for me is about how Northrup survives a specific situation … and you’re trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved, but it goes beyond that.

McQueen said that he and screenwriter John Ridley began exploring the director’s idea of a free man from the north who is kidnapped into slavery. When the script didn’t proceed as well as they were hoping, McQueen’s wife suggested that they look into true accounts from the period, and found the book “12 Years a Slave.”

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“As soon as she put it in my hand, I didn’t let it go,” he said. “Each turn of the page was a revelation. When you have an idea, and you see it in your hands in a book, it was just amazing. I was upset with myself that I didn’t know this book, and then I realized that no one I knew knew this book.”

The extreme cruelty in the film, said both McQueen and the actors who played both the black and white characters was necessary. “It was important to find a human being in Epps,” said Michael Fassbender, who plays the most vicious of the slave owners in the film, “so that audience members, even as horrendous as he is, recognize something in him at times.”

And calibrating the level of violence, added Fassbender, wasn’t difficult. “It’s not tricky at all,” he said. “History writes it the way it was. We were just there to capture it.”

“It’s a historical narrative,” added Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northrup. “It’s a first-person, primary source. It’s a gift from the past to open a discussion, not about race particularly, but about human dignity … The only way to open that discussion is to show all sides of it.”

“If you don’t tell it truthfully,” said Woodard, “you’re disrespecting the process and the audience you’re telling it to.”

By way of conclusion, McQueen said to him the film is not really about race or violence.

“This film, for me, is about love,” he insisted. “It’s a funny, funny word, love, because it seems silly in this kind of context. But that’s what the film is about. There s a lot of pain in love sometimes, and you have to get through it. It’s the journey of Solomon Northrup, who gets back to his family.

“It’s just like life, you know? It’s tough, and you get through it.”