“12 Years A Slave” Wins Audiences (And Oscar Buzz)


12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in Toronto Saturday.

In one week, 12 Years a Slave - the new film by Steve McQueen - has become an early frontrunner in the Oscar race, but the British director is keeping his expectations in check. 

"If anything else comes our way then it's going to be great," McQueen said today at the Toronto International Film Festival, "But the happiest thing for me is that it's made."

12 Years A Slave won over audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival just days after stirring buzz at the Telluride Film Festival. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who is also a producer on the film, which follows the true story a free northerner who is abducted into slavery in the American south in 1841.

Following its Toronto premiere here Friday night and the a press and industry screening on a wet Saturday morning, both professional and amateur prognosticators alike - via Twitter and blog dispatches - said they think it could win the top Oscar next March. A Vulture article today even ran under the headline, "Your Best Picture Winner Will Be 12 Years a Slave."

Asked at a discussion Saturday about the early awards season chatter, U.K.-born Steve McQueen mostly ducked the inquiries, instead saying he was satisfied to be at TIFF with the film.

"My expectations have been met - I made the movie," Steve McQueen said today at the festival, "That's it for me. I did the best I could. Every muscle and I sacrificed being with my family. This is it for me and I'm in Toronto with these amazing artists...

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley began working on a fictional script about a freed man who is abducted into slavery, but faced hurdles developing the story. Inspiration came via a close source, however, when his wife turned him onto an existing book.

"I got together with John Ridley to write the script  and things weren't going as well as I wanted. I was talking to my wife and she said why don't you do a true story and then she put this book in my hand, Twelve Years a Slave which is Solomon Northup's autobiography. It was just remarkable. Each turn of the page was such revelation."

Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free violinist from New York who is abducted in 1841 while in Washington, D.C. and taken to Louisiana and sold into slavery. Badly beaten, he is forced to adapt his personality with the loss of freedom. Horror turns to complete hell when he is sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Edwin Epps (Fassbender).

"It's a fight for the soul," noted Ejiofor. "There's a war in his head and heart. Hope is complicated and certainly it is in that kind of scenario. But to lose hope would be to lose his mind."

McQueen likened discovering the book that spawned the film that will have its U.S. debut at the upcoming New York Film Festival, with another autobiography written a century later by a girl in McQueen's adopted home city in Amsterdam.

"I live in Amsterdam and the comparison for me was Anne Frank, because it was 100 years earlier and there was this book around," said McQueen. "But nobody knew about this book. And then I knew I wasted to make this movie and then Brad Pitt came on board and things got rolling…"

Fassbender, who also starred in McQeen's Hunger and Shame, credited McQueen for creating a magical dynamic on set, which translated onto the big screen.

"There was a lot of love on the set. A lot of support and challenging each other but also looking out for each other. Steve creates a trusting environment. I think it's important to fall on your face a few times. Instead of just acting by numbers, this is the real deal…You go to the limit and then you go beyond it."

"This film is about love," concluded McQueen Saturday. "It's a funny word love…That's it. It's a journey he goes through, but he went through it to get back to his family."

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