One of the most artfully composed scenes in Steve McQueen's new historical drama "12 Years a Slave" is also one of the most harrowing. (Warning: Minor plot details follow.)
At the Envelope Screening Series, the British director and his cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, discussed how they approached a pivotal scene in which Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery in the South, is punished by near-hanging after fighting back against an overseer. (The incident is recounted in Northup's 1853 autobiography, upon which the film is based.)
McQueen said he wanted audiences "not just to see the sort of physical aspects of slavery but the mental aspects of slavery." He and Bobbitt shot the scene in a long, unflinching take that conveys not only Northup's own agony but the helplessness of his fellow slaves.
"If one of those slaves did actually try to help Solomon, they'd be strung up next to him," McQueen said. "So to have the two parallel things at the same time — the physical and the psychological aspects of slavery in one frame — that's exactly what I wanted to do."
Bobbitt said that from the moment he first read the script, penned by John Ridley, "It was obvious to me that this was an absolutely crucial scene. … For me it exemplified and embodied what slavery really was. I mean, here's a man who's on the edge of death, and no one can help him because he belongs to someone else. It's a difficult thing to comprehend in an abstract way, but when you see it so graphically displayed, it is so effective.
"Hopefully the emotional effect of it is heightened by the fact that you are not let go, that the shot just keeps going on and on. If you weren't squirming in your seat by the end of it, then we kind of failed."
For more from McQueen and Bobbitt, watch the video above, and check back daily for more highlights.