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1:09 pm
Tue February 18, 2014

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

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 2:38 pm

A lot of people believe 12 Years A Slave is the best film yet made about slavery in the United States. That doesn't make it easy to watch.

It also wasn't easy to edit.

"Editing is like a massive, 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," says director Steve McQueen. He's just arrived from Europe and is relaxing in a suite in a swanky West Hollywood hotel with the film's editor, Joe Walker.

Walker edited McQueen's previous feature films, Hunger and Shame. The two share a taste for experimentation. Walker was trained as a classical composer; McQueen comes from the art world. When they remember their first rough assemblage of footage for 12 Years A Slave, they use words like "horribly wrong" and "nightmarish."

"There was one scene that we were struggling with, a scene when Solomon [Northup, the film's main character] boards a steamship," remembers Walker. "He's being kidnapped, and he's transported south to be sold into slavery."

But editing that terrible, disorienting voyage to Louisiana proved a problem. It was taking too long, and was further complicated by the production's sizable investment to build an authentic steamboat. The 10-week edit was taking place in Amsterdam, where McQueen lives. So one night Walker, in a fit of frustration, went out and bought "some international prize-winning skunk."

"And I got really, really stoned," he admits sheepishly. Now, Walker isn't normally a pot smoker, he says; his usual drug of choice is peppermint tea. But this time he just let it rip.

"What was going on in my head was a combination of some of the images, sort of snapshots of the things we'd been working on all day," he says — images swirling around with the music of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

Walker started editing the steamboat sequence to an Andriessen piece called De Snelheid, and showed it to the director.

"It was amazing," McQueen recalls. "It abbreviated the scene, but you felt the journey because of the physicality of the music and [the sense that] you were coming closer to something. This inevitable dark ending, to be sold down the river."

The music eventually used in the scene, by Hans Zimmer, was inspired by Andriessen. Generally, though, Walker and McQueen tried to avoid music in favor of natural sounds: the ominous rumble of Louisiana thunder, or slaves laboring on a plantation.

"We used the hard percussive sounds of pressing; they're sowing seeds in a field," Walker says.

12 Years A Slave's editing has been described by critics as formal and classical, partly for its use of restrained, unbroken shots. They are partly a conscious refusal to look away from slavery's ongoing depravations, faced particularly in the film by a young woman named Patsey.

"There's this long sequence when Patsey is beaten, and that's an all-in-one shot," Walker says. "Something peculiar happens when you don't cut. In some way, you're sort of calling to your audience — that it's real."

At another point, the filmmakers wanted to illustrate both the physical and psychic traumas of slavery, together, in one wide-angle shot. As a punishment, Solomon Northup is strung by his neck from a tree for hours, so he's barely able to breathe.

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

The physical distance allowed the filmmakers to not just show Solomon dangling from the tree in agony but also to see the other slaves, forced to carry on with their tasks all around him.

"To me, it always felt like it was sort of a great way of realizing the casual nightmare of it all," Walker adds quietly.

He says he didn't really have a hard time working on such scenes of brutality. What was hardest was when Northup's freedom is eventually restored.

"I was in tears in the cutting room when I saw that come in," he says. "There wasn't a single shot of that family reunion that wasn't heartbreaking."

Perhaps those big emotions are — partly-- why some people are afraid to see the film. It's made less than $50 million in the United States. But most moviegoers who've seen it are happy they did. 12 Years A Slave is the best-reviewed film of the year, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes. (It sent McQueen its own award, the Golden Tomato.)

And on March 2, 12 Years A Slave will be up for nine Oscars, including best picture, best director — and best film editing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Hey, you, go on.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Get down, right there.

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

ULABY: But they were stymied by the piecing 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DE SNELHEID")

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 - it 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Edwin Epps) Patsey.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

FASSBENDER: (As Edwin Epps) A man does how he pleases with his property.

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 meant 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 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PANTING)

MCQUEEN: And we see him hanging and doing this, you know, surreal dance with his tip toes 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Forgive me.

MCQUEEN: He's 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

KELSEY SCOTT: (As Anne Northup) There's nothing to forgive.

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, the Golden Globes and maybe as many as nine Oscars. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.