Thursday 14 December 2017

Hail McQueen

Director Steve McQueen is being touted for Oscar success for 12 Years A Slave. He tells Stephen Milton how he discovered the harrowing story

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen

The waitress at Claridge's Reading Room places a pot of mint tea and a plate of biscuits in front of Steve McQueen. He grants a despondent glance.

"Where are the ones with the raisins," enquires the filmmaker, in those wide, artistic vowels of his.

She explains the sweet selection is changed every day.

"But no," McQueen responds, "I had them this morning. I'd love them again."

She offers to take a second look in the kitchen.

"I'd really appreciate that."

He settles in his chair, blinking at me through his goggle-like spectacles, reminiscent of a ski mask. "I'm terrible, I know. You can put this in the interview if you like, I don't mind.

"But I'm at Claridge's. I'm trying to take advantage before I have to leave. This is Cinderella. Twelve o'clock, I'm gone."

McQueen hasn't the fluffiest of reputations. I sat through a press conference he conducted for Shame at the London Film Festival and most questions were met with a withering head shake and a 'what the fuck?' expression.

One on one, he's mildly mellower, a result of those precious biscuits being eventually located -- he even kisses the waitress' hand in gratitude -- and if anything, I find him just plainly exhausted.

The promotional tour for 12 Years A Slave has been in overdrive since the Toronto Festival in September and with the Golden Globes this weekend, where the film is nominated in seven categories including Drama and Director, the pressure is building.

He interrupts a couple of my enquiries rather gruffly, before apologising and then doing the same again. I suspect fools last the briefest of moments in his presence.

It doesn't really matter though. Sitting before me is the master craftsman who carved and bore arguably the best movie of 2014. And we're only two weeks in.

Based on the eponymous 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave follows his horrifying ordeal at the hands of historic barbarism.

Golden Globe nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the New York-born free man, abducted and sold into slavery in the Louisiana plantations, who endured a holocaust of torture and misery.

It was a crime committed again and again during the 18th and 19th centuries, yet many today remain unaware of this unspeakable legacy.

"I don't know why that is," the 44-year-old gesticulates. "Ten per cent of African Americans at that time were living free in the North.

"If one wants to engage in history or not, or one wants to engage in certain things or not, that's how it is but that's the facts of this particular story. Slavery went on for 400 years and there's so much we still don't know."

With previous credits, Hunger, based on the Bobby Sands hunger strikes and provoking sex addict saga, Shame, the West Londoner, borne of Grenadian descent, had long been interested in producing a feature focused on the abductions of free African Americans, but failed to locate suitable subject material -- until Steve's wife, cultural critic Bianca Stigler, introduced him to Northup's tome.

"That was it. That was what I was looking for. It was fascinating, illuminating; an extraordinary odyssey," he says.

A daring visual artist who has previously won the Turner Prize, McQueen based the majority of an eight-week production and his astounding ensemble cast including Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o and frequent collaborator, Michael Fassbender, across four antebellum cotton plantations in Louisiana, miles from where Solomon was held captive.

Ejiofor likened the location to "dancing with ghosts". Surely a draining experience for the film's helmer? "I just put the blinkers on, focused on what I was doing and making it work," he adds.

"Yes, there were overwhelming moments. A scene when Patsy (Nyong'o) is having her horrific lash wounds tended to while Solomon looks on, it just got to me.

"It broke me, I wasn't expecting that."

A magnificent Ejiofor shatters in the lead role, while as a fellow slave, Kenyan actress Nyong'o is an astonishing tour de force, making her front runner in the Supporting Actress race this red carpet season.

"Casting Patsy was like finding Scarlett O'Hara. We saw maybe a thousand actresses; it was a very difficult process.

"Then this amazing woman walks in, who's beautiful in the inside as well as the outside. She is truly amazing in this film. A star is born."

Also receiving acting plaudits, Steve's confidante and collaborator Michael Fassbender who leers with psychotic prowess as sadistic slaver Epps.

It's another flawless performance under the director's tutelage, after Hunger and Shame. Just what is the key to their enduring affair?

"It's like meeting a girl," he softly explains. "You get on, you fall in love, it doesn't happen every day.

"I met Michael during the first auditions for Hunger and I wasn't too sure. I thought he was very cocky.

"But then, I didn't know how much actors give and don't give in auditions, I didn't understand. I was a first-time director, I was naive to that.

"l love him very much though. He inspires me and I inspire him, that's what you have, that mutual sort of thing.

"You can't learn, you can't force, it just happens. He's fucking amazing."

With the Oscar nominations next week, 12 Years A Slave will naturally dominate. It's a foolish punter who wagers against McQueen lifting the prizes for Best Picture and Director. The odds are skyscraped in his favour.

"You know, I'm just proud people are getting recognised for the work because everyone worked so damn hard," he says.

Critical acclaim aside, it's the emotional investment from the audience that profoundly resonates with Steve, based in Amsterdam with Stigler and their two children, Alex and Dexter.

"I heard from a producer at Toronto, he sat down before the movie started and a black woman sat next to him. He's a white guy, they start chatting and the movie starts and towards the end of the movie, he felt a hand slide across his.

"It was the woman's hand and they held on to each other till the end of the movie and consoled one other.

"I'm proud to hear stories like that. I've heard so many more."

Given the eye from a nearby publicist allowing one more question, I feel compelled to further examine 12 Years' impact on the history of the American slave trade. Or the fundamentals behind his now signature, spirited long shots that punctuate his feature film work.

But honestly, what I really want to know is; why on God's green earth did his parents call him Steve McQueen? Superfans, one must assume?

"I was born the same year as Bullitt in 1969 and what happened in those days, they had the baby at the end of the bed and McQueen was written by the basket.

"And the nurses would pass by and say, to my mother, 'how's Steve doing?' And my mum thought, 'it's not Steve. Where's that coming from?' But Steve, it started to have a nice ring to it."

Wasn't this just setting him up for instant piss- taking?

"I used to get it when I was younger, but nowadays, no one knows who he is. And that's scary, isn't it?

"We're all getting so much older."

12 Years A Slave is in cinemas today.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment