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Oscars 2014: For Steve McQueen, a fast rise and a strange journey

MoviesEntertainmentFilm FestivalsArts and CultureSteve McQueen (director)Academy AwardsMichael Fassbender

The best picture win for Steve McQueen and his “12 Years a Slave” on Sunday may not have been a surprise for the many who saw the movie on the fall-festival circuit and predicted big things for it even then.

But, in a larger sense, it was a highly unexpected turn for the producer-director, who just six years ago was an acclaimed provocateur artist in his native Britain who had never made a feature film. Even immensely talented directors can pay decades of dues before landing on the Oscar podium (see under: the Coen Bros), but McQueen has gotten there in what in movie terms is the bat of an eye.

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, McQueen, then not even 40, premiered his first movie, “Hunger,” to a somewhat unsuspecting audience. Though his art was known by some, even many of the plugged-in cineastes who attended the festival had little idea who he was. That famous name only added to the confusion.

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Quickly, though, the film -- about the IRA activist Bobby Sands’ famous prison hunger strike in 1980 -- began gaining buzz, some of the intestinal fortitude variety. The film contained a single 18-minute take of Sands (Michael Fassbender) talking to a priest before embarking on what would likely be a fatal mission, and those of us who sat at the premiere emerged energized by both a striking new voice in cinema and the fact that it could make a single take, tedious in some contexts, fly by like the most fleet action-movie sequence.

Soon many were recommending the movie, and it gained an art house cachet. Several years later, at the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen made good on the promise shown at Cannes with "Hunger" by unveiling his sophomore effort, “Shame,” about a different kind of obsessiveness. Focusing on sex addiction and its effects, the film also starred Fassbender, and it was quickly clear the director and actor had renewed their collaboration to great effect, coming up with a film that saw them push the bounds both of content and shotmaking.

“Why do I want to do all this with Steve?" Fassbender said to me in an interview upon the release of the film. "Because what's massively evident and refreshing about [him] is that he has no rule book about making a film. He'll never rule anything out."

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Or as producer Iain Canning said: "Steve combines an incredibly creative instinct with an ability to ask 'Why is something done that way? Why do we have to do it that way?'"

Talking to McQueen, one quickly found a forthright, if occasionally prickly, subject, willing to take and discuss risks many seasoned filmmakers weren't. His decision for single takes, often held uncomfortably long (the Patsy whipping scene in “12 Years,” which in its way was foreshadowed by Carey Mulligan singing a slow cover of “New York, New York” in “Shame” and the Sands-priest conversation in “Hunger,” for instance) was the most visually bold. But it was also evident in all sorts of other angles, dialogue and choices. A slavery epic was, in a sense, just a version of this why-not thinking writ large.

Since "12 Years" came out, film fans have been admiring the audacity of the movie and its conceit -- a beautifully shot film about the brutal subject of slavery. Visionary as it is, this kind of filmmaking comes with a degree of meticulousness. “Not a detail escapes Steve’s attention,” Fassbender laughed to me at Toronto this year when I recalled a comment McQueen had once made to me in which he said (somewhat) jokingly that I misunderstood a shade of meaning in a previous interview.

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The at-times officious director didn’t let his guard down much on the award-season circuit, but after a somewhat nervous speech accepting the picture prize Sunday, he stepped away from the mike and offered a joyous few jumps that could have come right out of a vintage music video.

Backstage, he acknowledged how strange a journey it has been, and how that led to an unscripted moment with a refreshingly un-Oscars feel.

"I mean everyone's talking about the jump, but it's just really truly, I was just so ecstatic, so happy for us all," he said. "And, you know, it's one of those moments in life where it might not ever happen again. It's not a dream. It's a reality. So emotions, physicality just takes over. So, you know, Van Halen. 'Jump.'"

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