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‘12 Years a Slave’: Steve McQueen on ‘keeping the tension’

In “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen demonstrates both an eye for striking compositions and an unflinching gaze at scenes of stunning cruelty. There are abundant examples of the latter to be found in the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped in the North in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South for a dozen years.

At the Envelope Screening Series, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt discussed their use of long takes to grab and hold the audience’s attention, as in a searing whipping scene that lasts 10 minutes without a single edit.

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“It was about keeping the tension,” McQueen said of the scene. “I love the idea of just being in real time, being present, being there. That was the key for me in the way that I wanted the audience to be there. And if you put a cut in there, it would be ‘film time.’ It would have taken the air out of the pressure cooker.”

“It comes from the emotional content of the scene itself,” Bobbitt added. “You’re not let go. At no point are you reminded that you are watching a film. … Hopefully you were just drawn into the action, and its effect is heightened by the fact that you were given no escape.”

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Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, said the approach helped him get into character.

“You want to slip down the rabbit hole,” Ejiofor said. “You want to get as close to the experience as you can possibly do. So in a way it’s the same thing, it’s that you don’t want the break.” He continued, “When you’re doing sequences like that … you are so far into the moment of it that you just sort of allow it to happen.”

For more from the cast and crew of “12 Years a Slave,” including actress Lupita Nyong’o, watch the video above.

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