12 YEARS A SLAVE
Recreating Louisiana's Slave Plantations
Steve McQueen brings to life a world that few have experienced in 12 YEARS A SLAVE -- and
he does so in his characteristically uncompromising and visceral way. As he says, "I don't pull
punches. I just wanted the depiction of everything Solomon witnessed to be as realistic as possible."
That realism takes audiences into the every sensory aspect of Louisiana plantations -- the
sights, sounds and smells, the relentless heat, the swarming insects, the wild, fetid swamps and the
long, dark nights in slaves' quarters. As Northup's memoir did, McQueen sheds light not only on the
brutality of slave life but on the patchwork communities it created -- communities built on survival and
the tenuous bonds forged between friends. McQueen immersed cast and crew as much as possible into
"We were shooting on real plantations. We were dancing with ghosts, there's no two ways
about it," says the director. "I mean, I don't know if Solomon was around, or if Eliza was around or
Patsey, but we knew we were breathing the same air they did."
A lean, fast-moving 35-day shoot began at Felicity Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, right
next door to where Northup actually spent his years in bondage. Here, McQueen assembled a devoted
team including cinematographer Sean Bobbitt who has worked on both of McQueen's previous films,
production designer Adam Stockhausen, who mostly recently created the imaginative childhood realm
of MOONRISE KINGDOM, and five-time Academy Award nominated costume designer Patricia
Bobbitt keeps the audience tightly aligned with Solomon and his experiences, whether through
close-in camerawork or long, continuous shots that allow the audience to be a kind of fly on the wall in
shocking situations. "The film is fast cutting, but at certain points we used the camera to hold the
tension. There are scenes in this film where you don't want take the air out of the room," notes
Says Dede Gardner of the way McQueen and Bobbit use the camera: "Steve has such faith in
the characters, in human behavior and in the fireworks that come out of real life that he doesn't feel the
need to add visual trickery to it. The camera gives the audience a chance to bear witness."
For his part, Bobbitt knew he and McQueen would be stepping into loaded visual territory --
and they both wanted to break out of the traditional molds to tell this story. "I think what most people
know about slavery has been very conditioned by what we've seen in movies and shows like 'Roots' --
but what is different about Solomon Northup is that this is a truly first-hand account of a man
witnessing all the degradation and dehumanization of the whole slavery process," says the
cinematographer. "We didn't want to romanticize the period; we wanted to bring out that element of
To that end, Bobbitt says that most of the influences on the film came from paintings rather
than cinema. "We didn't look at any other films about slavery, because we felt we were trying to do
something different and unique," he explains. "But we did do what Steve and I always do, which is to
immerse ourselves deeply into the subject. We were also helped greatly by Adam Stockhausen who
came up with loads of amazing early photography that were very helpful for setting the tone of the
Like the cast, Bobbitt faced the looming challenges of the near-lynching of Northup and the
whipping of Patsey, and to do so in honest and impactful ways. "I always saw the lynching as the
pivotal scene of the movie," he says, "because that is the moment the audience is forced to accept that
Solomon has become simply a good that can be sold and used like property. It was important for the
camera to stay as close in as possible to an event that is really quite shocking, but from which Solomon
cannot escape. From the beginning, Steve and I spent hours talking about the scene and how we could
build the sense of passing time and the idea that his life is hanging in the balance for agonizing hours.
It's done in a number of shots, each of which was created to add to that sense -- but the camera gives
By contrast, the whipping of Patsey was shot in a single, long take -- all by Bobbitt, who as a
former broadcast and war journalist, always operates the camera himself -- which keeps the audience
captive much like the participants in the terrible event. "It's a major scene that really gets to the heart
of Epps' cruelty, barbarity and heartlessness. Michael was just terrifying in the scene and Lupita was
astounding," Bobbitt recalls. "We made the decision to do it with no cuts, so that at no point are you
allowed to think 'well, this is the end of it' or 'this is only a film.' You're forced to live with the
characters in real time and that hopefully adds to the madness of what is happening."
In the midst of shooting such intense moments, Bobbitt was awed by the work of the actors.
"It was electric to be the one person in such close proximity to the action and see these performances
unfold, to see these characters transform and transcend," he says. "It was an incredible privilege."
Bobbitt also worked closely with production designer Stockhausen to bring to life Louisiana's
lush and moody natural environment. "Louisiana is such a beautiful state with a stunning and original
landscape -- but we also didn't want it to feel too idyllic or bucolic," he notes. "Even so, there are
moments when the beauty and spaciousness of the natural world gives the audience a chance to
Stockhausen was equally invested in bringing 1840s Louisiana to life. "It was very important
to Steve to be faithful to all the details of the time period," he says. "So we really took our time
looking at how things were made, how they worked, what something like a 'gin house' would really be
like in operation. We looked at endless paintings, drawings and etchings -- and did enormous amounts
of historical research."
The film would shoot at four Louisiana plantations. Felicity Plantation in Vacherie stands in
for Epps' place. Built in 1846 by real estate investor and farmer Gabriel Valcour Aime -- who is
credited with perfecting the vacuum pan method for refining sugar -- the property offered a roughhewn
quality that echoed Northup's tough passage there. "Everything felt gray and coarse," says
Stockhausen. "There's a majestic revival house but it has a starker, grittier feeling than the lush green
at Ford's plantation."
Standing in for Ford's more pastoral place is the Magnolia Plantation in Schriever, Louisiana,
with its 1858 home surrounded by oak and magnolia trees dripping with Spanish moss. "What's
unique about the Magnolia Plantation," says Stockhausen, "is that it is lived in by a family that still
26farms and grows sugar cane. It hasn't undergone too much change so it retains the feel of 1840s farm
Shaw Farm, where Patsey heads on Sundays to visit with Mistress Shaw, is portrayed by
Bocage Plantation in Darrow, Louisiana. Built in 1837 it is considered one of the most original
examples of American Greek Revival architecture in the nation. "The Shaw plantation is different from
the others," notes Stockhausen. "It's Patsey's refuge, where she's treated like a human being. There's
a dichotomy between the two plantations, so that Patsey going from tea with Mistress Shaw to Epps is
a radical shift. We were fortunate to be able to use Bocage for these scenes, because the building looks
a bit like a wedding cake. We wanted it to be a shiny, spiffy plantation that's a source of envy and
jealousy for Epps."
The final plantation used in the film is Destrahan, which dates to 1787, making it is the oldest
documented plantation in the lower Mississippi. Epps' "gin house," where the cotton bales are
counted, was recreated in an outbuilding here. Stockhausen was further challenged to build a replica of
the bustling 1840s Port of New Orleans; and to recreate Saratoga, New York, when it was a resort town
lined with horse-and-carriages. Perhaps the most unpleasant location -- though visually stunning -- was
the Sarpy Swamp, where the production shot for three humid, insect-ridden days as the bayou path to
Ford's lumber mill. Essentially untamed wilderness, the location required snake and alligator handlers
to join the crew.
Two well-known New Orleans locations were also taken back into time: the iconic Columns
Hotel in the Garden District became Washington D.C.'s Gadsby Hotel where Solomon's fate is sealed;
and Madam John's Legacy House in the French Quarter became the slave trader Freeman's domain
and the "slave pen" where Solomon and his shipmates join those headed for "sale."
"During the Civil War Union soldiers photographed a specific slave pen which was invaluable
to us when we were doing research," says Stockhausen. "We had beautiful detailed photographs of the
exact doors and gate leading out into the yard and were able to bring those details into our set. Some
of the items seen on the slave ship are authentic. For example, we had real shackles and chains
borrowed from different museums. It was very powerful for us as well as for the actors to know that
they were the real thing. It helped everybody become part of that world," concludes Stockhausen.
Jeremy Kleiner notes that Stockhausen's work on 12 YEARS A SLAVE was indispensable.
"In 35 days, Adam created a period road movie with epic locations," he says. "He was so inventive
and rigorous in his research. The boat, the slave shacks, the plantations, the cotton -- all the elements
make you feel like you're there in that time."
Patricia Norris' costumes played an equally important role bringing Northup's world
dynamically to life. From the beginning she was an unusual choice for such a challenging film, since
she is in her 80s with Oscar-nominated work that spans several decades, but Norris, a life-long
history buff, took on the task with determination. "She's just very unique," muses McQueen. "She
brought a tremendous amount of detail to the costumes and the littlest things became so important.
First and foremost, she's an artist."
Norris's level of detail went literally right down to the dirt. Recalls Gardner: "At one point,
Patty sent someone out to get a handful of earth from each of the plantations -- and then that same earth
was sprinkled on the bottom of the dresses for each location. She works in that incredibly intuitive
Norris notes that she faced an uphill battle from the outset because so little information is
available about what slaves really wore, but she did as much research as possible, extrapolating from
all that she learned and her own rich knowledge of period dress. "There were no photos, and the few
etchings from the period were mostly by whites in the North who had never even been to the South,"
she explains. "Even the slave museums didn't have a lot of authentic clothing. Most of the research
came from reading and more reading and my own understanding of what kind of fabrics would have
Throughout, McQueen trusted Norris to fill in the gaps with her own creative and historical
instincts. She goes on: "This is a period and a place so unfamiliar to people that you start with what
research you can but then you have to really explore. Steve gave me the freedom to do that."
One thing that was clear to Norris is that slave clothing would be largely cast-offs. "Most
slaves arrived in the New World naked. So where did they get their clothes? Their owners would have
provided them," she explains. "They would have been left-overs, hand-me-downs and off-period
dresses for women. Once I got that into my head, it started me on the path."
Despite the stripping away of slaves' former identities, Norris felt that there would be a subtle
African influence. "The slave traders tried to deprive people of their culture but in time, African things
started creeping back in, a little fabric here and a little color there. Alfre's Mistress Shaw has more
stature as a woman married to a white man, so for her, I used colors that look a bit more African."
Norris worked closely with Chiwetel Ejiofor to have his clothing reflect the changes Northup
goes through. She started with the more refined look of a 19th Century New Yorker, with modest,
hand-made but citified outfits of the era. His clothing shifts when he's taken captive and sent to
Louisiana and, over the next 12 years, the few items he wears day in and day out age and become
embedded with literal blood, sweat and tears. "Chiwetel and I spent hours at a time discussing what
really happens to clothing over 12 years. His clothing probably caused him suffering on most days but
it also helped him because he could experience just how miserable it must have been for Solomon,"
With Mr. and Mrs. Epps, Norris went for a more genteel look that belies their conflicted
natures. "Mrs. Epps' dresses were either imported from England or we hand made them," she notes.
"They give us a sense of who she wants to be. Sarah wore them so beautifully and she just has this
marvelous carriage that helps to create the character," Norris observes. "For Mr. Epps, there is almost
28a bit of romance to his outfits, with their poofy sleeves. Steve and I talked about the idea of making
him attractive in a way that contrasts his behavior."
For the actors, the clothing was transformative -- if physically challenging. Sarah Paulson
recalls that her outfits involved "wool and layers of crinolines and petticoats and bloomers and a
corset. It couldn't have been more hot! But it also couldn't have felt more authentic."
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