Cinema: The art of truth telling
Steve McQueen on putting slavery into the spotlight and assembling a rock band of blinding talent
Film by film, Steve McQueen is surely and steadily building a case for the crown of most important director of his generation.
It started with Hunger, his emotionally eviscerating, daring and visually stylish retelling of the story of Bobby Sands, in which he elicited a performance from Michael Fassbender that marked his transformation from a promising newcomer to a bona fide star and won the Camera D'Or at Cannes.
He cranked things up further with 2011's Shame, again starring Fassbender (now established as McQueen's muse) alongside Carey Mulligan, nominated for Best Film at Venice. And now, there is 12 Years A Slave, already being hailed as the film of the year. An adaption of the novel by the same name, it stars Fassbender again, but the central role this time is taken by Chiwetel Ejiofor who turns in an hypnotically contained performance as Solomon Northup, a free man who in the late 1800s was abducted and sold into slavery.
McQueen and I are having tea in Claridges, the morning after 12 Years A Slave cleaned up at the Chicago Critics Awards. He is a tall, broadshouldered man who seems to regard the world at a critical distance from behind his thick, black-rimmed spectacles. He is at turns professorial and west London colloquial, and can seem austere, but there is another side to McQueen, he confesses, an anarchic, rock 'n' roll one.
He has, he feels, by now assembled an almost perfect storm of talent for his films. "I've my band, I've got Michael Fassbender as the lead singer; he's Jagger. You've got Sean Bobbit on drums keeping time -- perfect, if you fall off he'll always pick you up. I've got Joe Walker my editor who is just there keeping it tight, helping Sean out to keep the time," and with a flourish, he announces. "And I'm Keith Richards. I wanna be f**king Keith."
Because Mick might draw the crowds, but it's Keith who embodies the band's uncompromising, piratical creative soul.
"We've made a few albums and we hope we'll be able to make a few more. It's a band we come around, every now and then we come together and do our thing and then we leave because we love each other. And also we seem to sort of riff, we jam as it were," he says.
McQueen came to film-making not as a reverential film school graduate but as an already feted, Turner prize-winning video artist, whose vision had not yet been blunted by the perpetual compromise of ascendancy through the industry.
What seems to interest him most as an artist is the workings of the human psyche in extremis. The vulnerability, cruelty, agony, courage and compassion that are unearthed under pressure. He loves and understands his characters, the kind ones and the cruel ones alike in equal measure. Even in 12 Years A Slave, a film which renders some of the most uncompromising brutality ever imagined on celluloid, McQueen finds humanity among the ashes of civility.
"I want understanding of these people," he says. "Some of these people I wouldn't even f**king talk to. I've got no time for them, but at the same time I do have sympathy for them in a way because they're human beings. I'm not going to turn my back on them."
In making 12 Years A Slave, there was a wider goal too. He'd had a vague idea that he wanted to make a movie about slavery, a story about a free man who had been kidnapped into slavery, when his wife, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter unearthed the book 12 Years A Slave, a memoir by Solomon Northup who, in 1853, had written about exactly that experience.
"As soon as I had it in my hand, and turned the page, each page was almost like a revelation to me," says McQueen. "One thinks they have an idea of slavery but most of the time, more often than not, we don't. I finished the book and I felt angry and upset with myself. Why did I not know this book?
"Then I realised that no one I knew, knew this book. I live in Amsterdam, and I thought to myself, well why do I know who Anne Frank is, but I don't know who Solomon Northup was. And also, when I read the book, the images were in my head. I knew how I wanted to make the film. Basically it was a script already. Eighty per cent of the dialogue in the script was in the book.
"Sometimes things you want so badly come to you. I was puzzled. I was upset. How come this book isn't more well known? This book was written 97 years before Anne Frank -- these are two people who are trying to survive in an environment of terror, and they are both first-hand, intimate accounts of who and what they were and what they were going through."
"Because of the film," he says, with satisfaction, the book "has been in the New York bestseller list for the last five to six weeks".
"That's the main aim. I'm working with Penguin to do study guides with teachers to get kids to read the book throughout the United States. That's my main goal and it's coming about.
"Solomon Northup should be a household name. Everyone should know who Solomon Northup is. And that's what I'm trying to do.
"For me there was a big hole in the canon of cinema. And, you know, slavery lasted 400 years, the Second World War lasted five. There have been hundreds upon hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust.
"And within the legacy of slavery that lasted 400 years, there have been less than 20 films about that. I'm not trying to right a wrong, that wasn't my interest. My interest was, there's so much great narrative within that. Things that we haven't seen yet. How come there has never been a film about the underground railway. And it's part of America and America is in the movies, so it's kind of odd."
As a black child growing up in London, and a descendant of slaves from the West Indies, McQueen was never innocent of the bloody legacy of history. "Some of the journalists ask me when was the first time you were introduced to slavery. And for me it's a situation, it's like asking someone, when did you first know your name? For me it's always been there.
"As a black child, what happens is you arrive in this world at a very early age being very conscious of you and your surroundings. In a political way. Because your existence -- a part of your existence has occurred through bondage. So it's interesting how you become socially aware quite early."
Having studied fine art and established himself most prominently as a video artist, he turned to film after recognising its greater "generosity" with regard to the immediacy of its appeal to a larger number of people.
"For me, making art and making a feature film, making art is like writing poetry. And a feature film is like writing a novel -- it's the yarn. And it's using the same words to say the same thing but using them differently, poetry being abstract, fractured, and then the novel being a story as in once upon a time and happy ever after -- it's the linear. And it has the same kind of appeal. I mean how many people read poetry these days? It's the same thing with art. There's a small audience in a way. And of course with a novel or with stories there's a bigger public."
Hollywood people, when interviewed, often greet questions with verbal silicone, smoothing the way for light conversation that reveals little. But McQueen tackles each question with earnestness.
He speaks in staccato rhythms, with delayed and repeated beats and hesitations, followed by rushed train-of-thought sentences. He is a man aware of the consequence of his words. But there's a jovial, playful side to McQueen. "Go on, ask me a question about Michael," he nudges.
Fassbender, of course, is one of his favourite themes. The Irish actor has taken a lynchpin role in every one of his films, and nails it again in 12 Years A Slave, playing cotton plantation master Edwin Epps. Fassbender conveys a man whose inner conflict (he's in love with a slave girl) has crystallised into ice-cold sadism -- a man in the grip of barely contained emotional chaos with wolfish eyes and a teeth-baring grin. "Michael is an artist," says McQueen. "He doesn't hold you away at arms' length. He brings you in. There's intimacy to him. There's vulnerability. And there's a sexual element there as well. And yeah, he's a monster," he says of Epps. "He's ugly, he's disgusting. But he's a human being as well."
12 Years A Slave is in cinemas from Friday.