Directors on Their Teams: Steve McQueen

The first in a series of conversations with helmers about key collaborators

Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” has a vast scope and an attention to detail that belies its fast, relatively low-budget shoot: 35 days and under $20 million. Director Steve McQueen says he likes to work quickly, but the efficiency was possible only because everyone worked together. “We’re all musicians. We’re a band. The concentration on the set was so high, everyone was involved in the making of the film.” Here he pays tribute to the specific contributions of several team players.

Cinematography, Sean Bobbit

At these plantations, the most terrible things happened in the most beautiful places. Sean and I spoke about the Spanish painter Goya. Goya painted the most horrific images on battlefields, but they are the most beautiful paintings you’ve ever seen. He wants your attention. He’s saying, look at this: This is us. There’s no point in painting a picture which is ugly, your attention would be drawn to the form, not content… I’ve been working with Sean for 13 years now. He’s very sensitive to people and to the environment. He allows things to BE, to happen, he allows things to breathe.

Editor, Joe Walker

Joe has worked on all three of my films. We don’t talk about it. It’s instinctual; it’s not mechanical, it’s emotional. There’s a balance between artistry and practicality. It’s all about finding the film. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s not that difficult; you just have to be sensitive to it. I don’t shoot coverage. I was brought up using Super-8 camera at school, and it was too expensive to film a lot, so when I found something, I would shoot it. It trained my eye to be selective. I had to know what I wanted before I shot it. Some people shoot like an AK-47, they shoot everywhere and then try to discover it in the editing room. That’s not accurate enough for me.

Costumes, Patricia Norris

She took earth samples from all three plantations to match the clothes. That’s how detailed she is. If the audience notices the costumes, that’s a problem. If they don’t, that’s good. Some of the clothes you see in the film were actual slave clothes. Her research and her attention to detail are remarkable.

On the set, she’s looking all the time. She’s more than a costume designer. There is a scene where Solomon returns from Judge Turner’s and Epps (Michael Fassbender) is there; I wanted evidence of what he’d been doing just before we see him. Five minutes before we started shooting, I said, “Michael, would you take off your pants?” So we have him only in his long shirt. I said, “Something else is missing.” She said, “What about the girl?” A couple of days before, Michael had a scene where Epps is ranting and screaming; a little girl was so petrified of him that she started crying. (Norris) said, “What about the girl?” and I said, “Yes! The girl! Michael is holding her hand, she is the new Patsey (the character’s favorite slave) to him.”

Art direction, Adam Stockhausen

He’s very dry and quiet and correct, and a professional. He finds things in details. He has a talent for surprising me with his research, what actually happened. And finding the most incredible things. He’s a true artist and a marvelous architect. He worked hard to find all three plantations, and he had to match the plantation with the characters — Epps, Turner and Ford — in a way that would feel right. Ford’s has a lushness. But Epps’ is quite crude and not particularly pleasant. That pigsty became a real character. It’s all about narrative, all about storytelling.

Casting director Francine Maisler

I’d never met Francine. The amount of research she did! Searching for Patsey was a massive undertaking. We looked at 1,000 women. It’s difficult to find people who have a certain level of quality that was necessary. Francine never gave up. We would never have found Lupita if it weren’t for Francine. And it wasn’t just Lupita. At auditions, Francine would “beat people up” to get to what she thought was there. There was no stone unturned with her. We had another unsung hero in New Orleans (casting person Meagan Lewis). At Epps’ plantation, there’s this black overseer. The (man who portrayed the character) had been in prison for 25 years, for a murder he didn’t commit. She thought that he could play that role because he’d been in servitude, she thought he’d know exactly how the character would behave.

Music, Hans Zimmer

I rang Hans on the phone and I said, “I am doing a film. We would love for you to do this, but we don’t have much money.” He said, “Steve, right now I’m destroying the world! But of course I’ll do it.” I think he was doing a Superman movie. So he went from this big, epic film right into our film. He was my refuge when I was in L.A. When I came to his studio, he had musicians from all over the world there. It was a place to think and to have conversations. He’s amazing in the way he can facilitate that environment. We talked! The first two meetings were about five hours each. Then we had three two-hour conversations on the phone. And not a musical note was played. After that, he said, “I think I’ve got something.” Somehow through the talking, he captured the atmosphere of the film.

Directors and Their Teams will run every Monday and Wednesday.

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