The Day’s reporter attended the premiere of the film 12 Years a Slave that took place at the 51st New York Film Festival, and was able to interview its director after the show.
Your film is atypical as far as the slavery narrative goes. Had you thought about a more traditional storyline before you got your hands on the book by Solomon Northup?
“I don’t really know what a traditional idea of slavery was. I wanted to find out what it was. Someone asked me one day for the first time, a question I maybe should have known but I wasn’t asked before: what was it like when you first heard of, first found out about slavery? And I could never remember. But all I remember as a young person was a tremendous sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment. So in some ways I want to make this finally summarized, somehow try to embrace it, tame and master it, but also to make it my as such. It is very important now. So I went into researching slavery as such with open eyes. I couldn’t go in there with a preconceived idea, it’s just not me. So, I was just trying to look for a way into the tale. The way how a free man gets caught into slavery. And what I liked about that was that everyone could follow Solomon being taken away from his family. Therefore, you are on that journey with him. So, I thought that could be interesting. And then of course, my wife found this book. Basically, you had a script in your hands, it’s incredible. And now that was it.”
One of the most impressive things is that Northup virtually never fell into despair, even for a minute, helped by his strong Christian faith. However, his oppressors professed the same religion.
“Yes, I think, through the centuries religion just kept a lot of the people sane, in one form or the other, especially in the United States, or insane, for that matter. You have to hold on to something, otherwise the world is lost. I didn’t see it in a sense of Christianity. In the book he calls on God a lot. But for me that wasn’t interesting. For me it was about his own self-determination, his own courage, gathering up of his own will. His wanting to keep on going was much more my interest. And of course when we do have that symbol, that image of him joining the choir, for me it was a catharsis moment, it had to pour out. It had to come out at some point. For me, that was the moment that you spoke about.”
In addition to the theme of slavery, the film is an attempt to understand the mentality of those who are ready to treat other people as property. There are two characters exemplifying this mentality in it, the overseer played by Paul Dano, and the planter played by Michael Fassbender, both embodying a certain level of hysteria and hatred. What do you think, how they became this way?
“Well, I think that Paul’s character we spoke about, Tibeats, was beaten by his father. And this situation might have come from within his family. I imagine in the United States there existed a similar thing: you know, a lot of parents beat their children. I was beaten by my mother, and I was beaten by my father with a belt. It comes from slavery, you see something like that, and you do it back, and you think it’s good to do it to your children. So the Paul Dano character for me was about that. Of course, he is a white Southerner, and he has his views on selling and buying people. For me, it came from a sense of him being beaten by his father, as well as, of course, who he was.
“The thing with the Michael Fassbender character, Epps, he doesn’t know how to deal with his condition of him being passionately in love with Patsey. He doesn’t know how to deal with it. The only way he can deal with it is by destroying his love with violence. Violence is a very interesting thing in a sense of how it perpetuates within history, within families, with other people. And love is obviously very close to hate. I can’t go too deep into this discussion, because it gets too complicated, but it’s a very interesting thing to touch upon.”
What have you learned about the psychology of slavery when working on the film? How has this knowledge changed you?
“Survival is the biggest thing you learn, and what you do to survive, what you block out to survive. I’m here because some of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They had to deal with it the way they had to deal with it which is surviving. It wasn’t pretty – could you imagine being born a slave? I mean it’s the worst thing that might ever happen to a human being. Someone is born a slave, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as anything other than what the so-called master thinks of them, which is nothing.
“The psychological damage of that, that you are born into an environment where you are nothing is huge. And I think when you ‘fast forward’ slavery to today, you can see the evidence of slavery everywhere: in America, in the West Indies, and in Europe. You see the evidence of it everywhere. You see it on the surface and delve it. You know, you think of Holocaust, of how it was in Germany, and so forth, and how people actually started to study it, and delve into it, dealing with it, and continue to deal with it. Slavery, having started, is a deep psychological wound.”
Perhaps, your movie can give an impetus to hold a more active dialogue about slavery and its remnants in the modern world?
“I think the film has obviously helped people to talk about it. People are starting to talk, and we need to try to keep it focused, try to have the conversation, and it is a difficult one, but it’s a necessary one because we’re living together.”
Please, tell us a little about your collaboration with the operator. How did you create these stunning, astounding images, like the camera focusing on the bright blue eyes of the slaver?
“I’ve been working with Sean Bobbitt for the past 13 years as a cinematographer. Actually, he is a Texan, but he’s been living in England for goodness knows how long. We’ve been working on my other work, so we have known each other for a very long time. First, it’s about the color, you talked about color. This is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve shot outdoors, in an environment, which has soul and is so lush.
“Apparel is very important, too. For example, I also want to talk about the cotton designer, Patty Norris. She took her samples from all three plantations to match them with the clothes. She had conversations with Sean to deal with the temperature of each character. There is a lot coming from minute detail. For example, there’s a terrible scene with Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) where he rapes her. What I very much like about that is the silhouettes, the profiles, the very European profile of Michael, and the very African beautiful profile of Lupita. It was just one of those things we discussed. When I read the book, I had images in my head immediately. I think you do all your hard work about images and stuff when you see films all the time. So, I wasn’t looking at references like that, I had it all in my head.”
Literature abounds in stories of slavery, but they all have some tropes in common: Christian morality, links to abolitionists and the general audience for which they were written. Have you used this literature? Why did you choose the book by Northup?
“Well, Solomon was the one that matched my original idea. It was just so striking, this journey from a free man. About 10 percent of African Americans at that time lived in the North and were free. So, the whole idea is that there is a musician and an accomplished man with his wife, she is a cook, and with his children, living a very quiet tranquil life. I love the idea of, how I said before, of just taking them, just grabbing some of them and bringing them into a not particularly pleasant ordeal, and you go with him. That’s what was interesting for me, that journey.
“I always thought about this film as being science fiction movie. Because some guy lands on Earth, and there is this book called the Bible, and everyone interprets it in a different way. And there are these people who are slaves, and who aren’t slaves, and it’s just incredible. It’s so surreal, so far-fetched, but it was true. And again, it reminded me of Pinocchio, the two guys seducing Solomon-Pinocchio into the circus, that were Hamilton and Brown. It was like the Grimm brothers fairy tales, the darkest, deepest, haunting fairy tales, which had ‘happily ever after.’ But you go through hell to get there. And I think the Grimm brother’s books are amazing. This film has the Grimm brothers quality in it.”
This is your third film starring Michael Fassbender. Was he your first choice for the role?
“It is one of those things with Michael, you don’t take him for granted. He’s not going to do a thing just because I’m doing it. It has to be bloody good before you present him anything. He was always my choice for that, he is an amazing actor. I think he is the most influential actor of his time right now. People want to be an actor because of him, people want to be in a movie because of him, people want to make a movie, because he could be in the movie. He has that kind of pull, that quality.”
Considering the number of emotionally intense scenes, I guess there was some improvisation involved when shooting them. How long did it take you to bring the actors to the required level of emotionality?
“A lot of hard work comes in rehearsal. As far as spontaneity is concerned, there are slight deviations for sure. When you work with the actors like these and they are rehearsing, they’re so good, that you want to say stop, let’s not do it anymore. And when you say action, what happens is it becomes like a sphere, because we train, we talk so often, we’ve talked a lot, there’s a lot of trust towards each other, that they become spheres. So whatever they do is correct. It is beautiful, it’s magic. You worked for that, you’ve worked damn hard to get there, of course, but you have to trust them, because again, they become spheres, it’s amazing: whatever they do and wherever they go is correct.”
You have pictured the planter’s wife as treating cruelly the female slave her ??husband was in love with. How did you feel depicting it, since it is unusual to see slave-owners’ wives as negative figures in American films, despite many documented facts of cruelty displayed by white women, especially towards female slaves?
“We found out a lot of thorough research. We found out that one story, where one woman knew that one of the children was born from her husband and she wanted to kill the child, and then that plantation owner had some kind of mercy and forced the slave woman to sell the child, because his wife was going to kill it.
“The horror stories, you can imagine, violence is the thing. The whole idea of love though is kind of weird, because I’m sitting here talking to you about the film, but at the same time I’m a survivor to some extent. And most people involved in this are in one way or another also survivors. It just comes down to what is called love, and it sounds odd, it sounds weird, but it is, because the whole idea of how to survive is to understand. And I think what is wonderful for me about this whole experience, is to delve deep into the whole idea of slavery, but to come out the same again, because you could actually lose yourself.”