How a Brad Pitt Mantra, 'Game On, F---ers!,' Fueled His Oscar Contender '12 Years a Slave'
The Plan B star-producer reveals the stomach-churning drama that had his team remaking "World War Z" while developing "Slave," as negative whispers and doubt abounded. Says his partner, Dede Gardner: "It's still hard for me to talk about, to be totally honest."
McQueen, who keeps a family tree at his home in Amsterdam going back hundreds of years to his slave ancestors in the West Indies, was intrigued that there had been no major movie about slavery from an African-American point of view. He also was fascinated by "just the extent of it, the scale of it," he says. "You think you know that, but when you get into the details, it's a factory, an institution which is bigger than most industries you could think of. And what's interesting about it for me was how much it was the norm, in a way. There was no humanity; they were cattle."
After the Chateau Marmont meeting, Pitt arranged to sit down with McQueen separately. "We met in London over a couple of bottles of wine," recalls Pitt, "and ended up talking until the wee hours of the night about art and history -- he was a video artist first." (McQueen, 43, is a recipient of Britain's Turner prize, its most prestigious award for an artist under age 50.)
Encouraged by Plan B, the helmer began to work with screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails), who agreed to write a screenplay on spec. At the beginning, they had a theme but no story. "What I wanted was the idea of a free man who had been kidnapped and put through the assault course of slavery," explains McQueen. "I thought that was a great 'in' to the subject."
Soon McQueen's wife, Bianca Stigter, a writer and art historian, discovered Solomon Northup's memoir, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.
The book, a best-seller that sold 27,000 copies when it was published in 1853, is one of a mere 101 "fugitive slave narratives" written before the Civil War, says Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, a consultant on the film. Of those, only this one "is the narrative of a free man who was kidnapped and manages in this case to be liberated."
McQueen was stunned by the memoir's drama and fablelike quality. "It read like Pinocchio," he says. "I was shocked, I was thrown."
That combination appealed to Pitt. "This particular story, these transformative experiences from visceral filmmakers are the things that truly excite me," he says.
He and his partners studied the book and other original slave stories in depth. Gardner rejects allegations that the Northup account might have been somewhat fictionalized. "We have had numerous conversations with 'Skip' Gates, Ira Berlin, tons and tons of historians who all vouch for its authenticity based on numerous pieces of evidence," she says.
While the script was progressing, Plan B strove to find the money for what was envisioned as a $30 million film. Even with Pitt committed to play a small part as an itinerant laborer who comes to Solomon's aid, that wasn't easy. Few wanted to tackle a film of Slave's bleakness, with its harrowing scenes showing children torn from their mother and a young woman brutally whipped; nor was there any great conviction that a large enough audience existed for a film about the African-American experience -- though the subsequent success of The Help, Lee Daniels' The Butler and Fruitvale Station would appear proof positive.
Bill Pohlad's production and financing company River Road Entertainment joined the project early and helped in its development. "We had done Tree of Life with Brad," he notes. "That was a trial by fire, and Brad was super-committed. He is very passionate, and sincerely passionate, a great quality and a surprise."
Following Pohlad, Fox Searchlight agreed to pay for some of the production's cost, with Arnon Milchan's New Regency footing the rest, and Summit International handling foreign sales -- all drawn by Pitt's stature and his team's conviction.
"We were able to put something together, but it had to be done for a price," says Pitt. The film finally would cost a gross $20 million and receive $4 million in rebates from Louisiana.
Early on, American Gangster's Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British native, signed on as Solomon; Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard all followed. But one pivotal role remained uncast: Patsey, a young slave who works for the slave owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender) and is the subject of his wife's jealousy and both characters' brutalization.
"We auditioned over 1,000 people for the part," says McQueen. "It was like looking for Scarlett O'Hara. I thought we would never find her" -- until a tape came from an untried actress of Kenyan descent, born in Mexico and about to graduate from the Yale School of Drama. The actress, Lupita Nyong'o, had heard about the film from her manager.
"[My manager] put me on tape with a camera in her house against a plain background," recalls Nyong'o. "I did two scenes from the movie -- the scene where Patsey asks Platt [the name Solomon is given by his master] to kill her; and the scene right before the whipping" -- when Fassbender attacks the young woman. "It's pretty difficult to do in a room with fluorescent lights."
When McQueen saw her tape, he flew her to the set: "She came down to New Orleans, and that was it."
With Gardner and Kleiner on hand, and Pitt there for a while, a seven-week shoot began in June 2012 in and around New Orleans. The cast suffocated in heat that regularly topped 100 degrees and then had to deal with a hurricane that destroyed part of the set, but otherwise the shoot was trouble-free.