TELLURIDE, Colo. — Many sequences in Steve McQueen's new movie, "12 Years a Slave" — the true story of a free black man kidnapped in 1841 and sold to Southern plantation owners — were emotionally exhausting to film. But the British director didn't fully appreciate how wrenching the shoot was for his actors until he was in the editing room, scrutinizing the footage of a rape scene.
Michael Fassbender, playing a particularly despicable slave owner named Edwin Epps, was violating his most prized cotton-picking possession, Patsey, played by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. McQueen's camera was pressed close to Fassbender's face as the actor whipsawed between tenderness and violence, alternately cooing to and choking his victim.
At the end of the sequence, McQueen saw in the editing room, Fassbender crumpled. The actor, McQueen realized, had momentarily passed out.
"That's how focused he was in that scene, in that situation," McQueen said at the Telluride Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere last week. "There was nothing left."
Opening in limited release Oct. 18 after playing at this weekend's Toronto International Film Festival, "12 Years a Slave" is as difficult to watch as it is lovely to behold. Starring London-born Chiwetel Ejiofor as the former freeman Solomon Northup, the movie received several standing ovations at Telluride and looks like a strong Oscar contender, as long as audiences can see its beauty amid the brutality.
"It is about beauty — those plantations are beautiful," said McQueen, whose first two features, "Hunger" and "Shame," were stark, haunting looks at difficult, dark subjects. "And the juxtaposition of what happens there."
Ejiofor's gripping performance is rooted in the reality of Northup's nightmarish tale, originally told in his 1853 memoir.
Born in Minerva, N.Y., he was an educated musician and married father of two young children when he met a pair of promoters who said they intended to advance his violin playing in Washington, D.C. Instead, he was drugged, and when he awoke, held prisoner. Soon, he was shipped by boat to New Orleans, given a new name — Platt — sold for $1,000 and enslaved by a series of owners, culminating with Epps.
All that separated Solomon from freedom was pen and paper: If he were able to write and send a letter to the North, his hopeful thinking went, his family would quickly send for him, and he would be released. But even obtaining those instruments, as the opening minutes of the film make clear, was nearly impossible.
"12 Years a Slave" arrives as a new wave of filmmakers and authors is wrestling with and reexamining that painful chapter in U.S. history. Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" cast Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz last year as a freed slave and a bounty hunter exacting vengeance throughout the South. And last month, James McBride published "The Good Lord Bird," an acclaimed novel about the abolitionist John Brown.
Though "12 Years a Slave" may seem like a quintessentially American story, McQueen and Ejiofor say the international pedigree of the cast and production (Fassbender is Irish-born, and Nyong'o was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya) is unremarkable. John Ridley, an African American screenwriter, adapted Northup's book, and Brad Pitt's production company was instrumental in bringing the project to life.
"It's international, really, as was slavery," said Ejiofor, whose parents are Nigerian. "We're artists — our nationalities don't matter," added McQueen, who is of Grenadian descent.
Pitt's production company, Plan B, became eager to work with McQueen after the 2008 release of "Hunger," a grim account of the 1980s hunger strike by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands (played by Fassbender). "We banged on his door, and we banged on his door again," Pitt said.
Pitt and his partners Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner asked the filmmaker, then not even 40, what he wanted to do next. McQueen was about to make his sexual addiction drama "Shame," also starring Fassbender, but was eager to follow that with a film about slavery.
"He said, 'Why have there been 57 movies about the Holocaust, but there's hardly been a movie about this?'" Pitt recalled. Gardner replied to McQueen: "We don't know. But why don't we try?"
McQueen was interested in following a character's journey from freedom into slavery rather than telling a more conventional liberation tale. "The notion of someone who had his freedom taken away was always more compelling to him," Gardner said.