Hard To Watch '12 Years A Slave'? Try Editing It NPR's Neda Ulaby talks with the director and editor of the gripping fact-based slavery drama.

Hard To Watch '12 Years A Slave'? Try Editing It

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/279076803/279216425" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

Film editors often say the best part of their job is watching the daily footage come in. The worst, many say, is when it's all there in front of them. Then begins the long process of shaping weeks and weeks of raw footage into a living, breathing story.

The movie "12 Years A Slave" received nine Oscar nominations, including for Best Editing. Recently, NPR's Neda Ulaby sat down with its director, Steve McQueen, and its editor, Joe Walker, to talk through just some of the many choices they made in the dark of the editing room.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: A lot of people believe this is the best film yet about slavery in the United States. That doesn't make it the easiest movie to watch. It also wasn't easy to edit, says director Steve McQueen.

STEVE MCQUEEN: Editing is like a massive, 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. You know, you got - oh, there's a bit left-hand corner, but you haven't got the right-hand corner.

ULABY: McQueen's worked with editor Joe Walker for his last three films. They share a taste for experimentation. Walker is also a classical composer. McQueen comes from the art world. When they remember the first rough cut of "12 Years A Slave," they use words like...

MCQUEEN: Horribly wrong.

JOE WALKER: Nightmarish.

ULABY: Here's editor Joe Walker.

WALKER: There was one scene that we were struggling with, a scene where Solomon is - boards a steamship.


WALKER: He's being kidnapped, and he's transported south to be sold into slavery.

ULABY: But they were stymied by the pacing of that terrible, disorienting voyage to Louisiana.

WALKER: It took too long, to be honest.

ULABY: And they'd paid a boatload of money to build an authentic steamboat. The editing was happening in Amsterdam; that's where the director lives. So one night, editor Joe Walker, in a fit of frustration, went out and bought something to make himself feel better.

WALKER: Some international, prize-winning skunk. And I got really, really stoned.


ULABY: Now, Walker is not usually a pot smoker. His drug of choice is normally peppermint tea. But this time, he just let it all hang out.

WALKER: What was going on in my head was a combination of some of the images, sort of snapshots of the things that we'd been working on all day revolving around in my head; combined with some music by a Dutch composer who I'd known when I was a music student.


ULABY: Walker started editing the steamboat sequence to the music, by Louis Andriessen, and showed it to director Steve McQueen.

MCQUEEN: I thought it was genius. I thought it was amazing. It just got it - it was the physicality. It was so physical. It wasn't - it was - abbreviated the scene, but you felt the journey because of the physicality of the movement of the music and that you were coming closer to something - this inevitable, dark ending where you're going to be sold down the river.

ULABY: The music eventually used in the scene was by Hans Zimmer, but inspired by Andriessen.


ULABY: Generally, Walker and McQueen tried to avoid music. They dislike obviously manipulating the audience. They prefer natural sounds - the ominous rumble of Louisiana thunder, or what slave labor on a plantation might sound like for real.


WALKER: And we used the hard percussive sound of, you know, pressing, you know, they're sowing seeds in a field.

ULABY: "12 Years A Slave" relied on sustained, unbroken shots. It was a refusal to look away from slavery's ongoing depravations, based in particular in the film by a young woman named Patsey.


WALKER: There's this long sequence where Patsey is beaten. And that's held in one - it's an all-in-one shot.


WALKER: Something peculiar happens when you don't cut. You know, in some way, you're sort of conning your audience that it's real.


ULABY: The editing of "12 Years A Slave" has been called formal, classical, even old-fashioned. That mystifies director Steve McQueen.

MCQUEEN: Do you know what they mean - people mean by that?

WALKER: Well, I guess they mean it doesn't cut every two and a half seconds.

MCQUEEN: Maybe that's it. I mean, you know, films of the '40s really would hold a conversation in one shot.

ULABY: With conviction, discipline and rhythm. A great film editor is attuned, says McQueen, even to the silences.

MCQUEEN: They could be just as valuable as the words. You know, it's just all about timing. And that's what he has. Joe, he has time.

ULABY: Pick a scene when the hero, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, asks Brad Pitt's character to smuggle a letter that might help him get free.


CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) It would be an unspeakable happiness to see my wife and my family again.

ULABY: The filmmakers wanted at one point to illustrate the physical and psychic trauma of slavery in one wide-angle shot. The main character is being punished. He's strung by his neck from a tree branch for hours, barely able to breathe.


EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) (Gasping for breath)

MCQUEEN: And we see him hanging and doing this, you know, surreal dance with his tiptoes - of his feet in the mud. And we aren't plying you with music, and we aren't, you know, making big comments, and we're not that close.

ULABY: The distance let the filmmakers show not just Solomon, but the slaves who had to carry on with their tasks all around him.

MCQUEEN: To me, it always felt like it was a sort of great way of realizing the kind of casual nightmare, the casual nightmare of it all.

ULABY: The editor of "12 Years A Slave" said he did not really have a hard time working on the film's scenes of brutality. What was hardest was when the main character's freedom is eventually restored.


MCQUEEN: He was in tears.

WALKER: I was in tears in the cutting room, when I saw that come in. I mean, there wasn't a single shot...

MCQUEEN: The family reunion.

WALKER: ...of that family reunion that wasn't heartbreaking.


ULABY: Maybe it's partly because of those big emotions that many people are afraid to see the film. It's made less than $50 million in the United States. But most people who've seen it are happy they did. It's the best-reviewed film of the year, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes, that sent McQueen its own award.

WALKER: The Golden Tomato.

MCQUEEN: Yes, the best-reviewed movie of the year.

ULABY: Just part of a parade of golden statuettes the film's already received: the Golden Tomato, Best Drama at the Golden Globes - and maybe as many as nine Oscars. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.