Director Steve McQueen made quite a splash a couple of years ago at the 2011 New York Film Festival with his stark indie drama Shame starring Michael Fassbender, and he’s returned this year to present what many are calling his masterpiece – a harrowing period drama called 12 Years A Slave.

The film is based on the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black violinist living in New York with his family who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o and Scott McNairy.  McQueen spoke at a press conference after a screening of the film (which drew audible gasps and crying throughout) and spoke at length about what compelled him to tell Northrup’s story, and why he loves working with Michael Fassbender so much.

5.  McQueen’s wife introduced him to Solomon Northrup’s story.

One of the first questions posed to McQueen was the idea of depicting slavery.  McQueen said that he didn’t really know how to and that he pondered the first time he had ever heard of slavery.  His best understanding of the idea of slavery made him feel shame, and it manifested into an idea of a man being torn away from his family and sold into slavery.

He said it was his wife who introduced Northrup’s story to him.  Here is how McQueen tells it:

“I was looking for a way in, and the way in was the whole idea of a free man who gets caught into slavery.  What I liked about that was that everyone in the audience can relate to Solomon being taken away from his family, therefore you’re on that journey with him.  So I thought that could be interesting, and then of course my wife, after speaking with her, found this book.  I said, ‘what’s this book?’  So I had it in my hand, and I opened the book and it was strange.  Because you know, you have an idea and then it becomes this screenplay basically in your hand.  It’s incredible.”

4.  Religion is a strong component of the film’s narrative, but McQueen says it’s simpler than that.  

There is a fair amount of pointed, and at times abject, interpretation of Christianity in the film.  The zealotry is explored through Fassbender’s character Epps’ vile and manipulative exploitation of scripture and true faith is represented in Northrup’s enduring optimism and hope.  When pressed about the use of Christianity as a means to connect the captor and captive, McQueen had this to say:

“Through the centuries, I think religion has kept a lot of people sane in one way, shape, form or another, especially in the United States – or insane for that matter.  You have to hold onto something otherwise all is lost.  To me, I didn’t see it in a sense of Christianity in a way.  Not really.  In the book he calls on God a lot, but for me it was all about his own self-determination.  His own courage.  His own gathering up of his own will to keep on going was much more my interest.  

Religion in films can always be a divisive issue, and to focus more on Northrup’s will is more powerful.  Although, the use of religious imagery and dialogue in the film cannot be ignored.

3.  Steve McQueen approached this film like it was a science fiction story.

When asked about why he chose Northrup over many other slave narratives in literature, McQueen had an interesting response.  He said the journey from freedom to servitude was compelling, and he explained how he connected the dots in the film by using the style of another popular genre.

“Okay, so I always saw this film as a science-fiction movie.  Some guy lands on Earth, and there’s this book called ‘The Bible’.  Everyone interprets it in a different way.  There’s these people who are slaves, and there’s these people who aren’t slaves.  It’s incredible.  It’s so surreal and so far-fetched, but it was true.  So that was interesting to me.  Then again, it reminded me of ‘Pinocchio’.  The two guys seducing Solomon, seducing Pinocchio to the circus – it was like The Brothers Grimm fairy tales.”

2.  Rehearsals are important.

A question was asked about whether or not there were scenes in the film that the actors found hard to approach from an emotional standpoint.  McQueen was quick to point out that there is a method that almost never fails him when the story calls for such heavy performances: rehearsals.  Here’s how he puts it:

“All the hard work comes in rehearsal.  As far as spontaneity is concerned, there’s slight deviations for sure.  But when you’re working with actors like this, and you’re rehearsing, they’re so good that you want to stop and it’s like ‘no, that’s good I don’t want you to do anymore.’ So what happens is when you say ‘action’ or somebody else says ‘action’, and they’re doing it, it becomes like a sphere.  Because, when we’ve trained, we’ve talked so often, talked a lot, there’s a lot of trust with each other.  They become spheres, so whatever they do is correct.  It’s beautiful.  It’s magic.  It’s kind of like, you work for that – you’ve worked damn hard to get there of course, but you have to try to get there.”

1.  McQueen thinks Michael Fassbender is the best in the business.

Steve McQueen has worked with Michael Fassbender on this film, and also his two previous films Shame and Hunger.  It was inevitable that the question about their working relationship would come up, and whether or not Fassbender’s character in 12 Years A Slave was written specifically for Fassbender.  In short, McQueen loves the guy.  In his words:

“Well it’s one of those things with Michael that I don’t take him for granted.  He’s not going to do things because I’m doing it, so it’s one of those things where it has to be bloody good before you present him anything.  Yeah, so he was always my choice for that and he’s an amazing actor.  Me personally, I feel he’s the most influential actor of his time right now.  He’s like Mickey Rourke when he was Mickey Rourke or Gary Oldman when he was Gary Oldman.  Michael Fassbender is that person now.  I mean, 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.  So he has that kind of pull, that kind of quality because people want to jam with him – he’s like Ginger Baker and shit, you know?”

Well, he certainly doesn’t mince words here.  I’m inclined to agree that Fassbender is definitely an influential actor, and I hope these two keep grinding out more important films as the years go on.  Plus a Ginger Baker reference?  Not bad, sir.

 Stay tuned as we bring you more coverage from the New York Film Festival, and be sure to check out 12 Years A Slave when it hits theaters October 18, 2013.