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Dialogue: Producer Bill Pohlad on 12 Years a Slave and Working with Steve McQueen

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, […]

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso at the Walker.

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, McQueen’s film won Best Motion Picture-Drama at the Golden Globe Awards. Beside him as he received the prize was Minneapolis-based producer Bill Pohlad, who introduced 12 Years a Slave at its Walker debut. Following the film, Pohlad returned to the stage for a conversation with Sheryl Mousley, the Walker’s senior Film/Video curator and the audience.

Sheryl Mousley: Thank you so much for making this film. I think it’s a film that leaves you a bit overwhelmed. It might be hard for the audience to jump right into talking about it. It takes your breath away. I will ask the first few questions before we open the conversation up to the audience.

We know from watching the credits that it’s a true story based on a memoir by Northup Solomon written in 1853. How did you come to this story, and how did this film project start?

Bill Pohlad: The movie started with Steve [McQueen] really wanting to make a movie about slavery, and there was a lot of work done to come up with a fictionalized version of the story overall but nothing developed out of that that felt genuine enough. But then Steve’s wife found the book and gave it to him and it all started from there.

Sheryl Mousley: It’s such a beautiful film. The look of it is so cinemagraphically elegant and yet it takes you down a harrowing trail. I was amazed watching it tonight how you found that balance between this beautiful look of the film and this unbelievably difficult, painful life the characters were going through.

Bill Pohlad: I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time in Louisiana before the shoot, but it is beautiful in its own way. It’s haunting. The plantation was actually a real plantation where a lot of this occurred and you feel the ghosts of all that when you go down there. It’s always the director’s job to be a charismatic leader. And Steve really was that. In addition to having the vision for the film you have to bring everyone into this community to take on such a serious, heavy, and emotional subject. There was something very peaceful and graceful about [the set]. Certainly when we were shooting the scenes it was harrowing but there was also a sense that something great was happening here.

Sheryl Mousley: I think I read somewhere that when you were doing the cotton picking scenes it was 108 degrees.

Bill Pohlad: Nothing was fake in that regard. It was very difficult conditions to shoot under but you always related it back to what real people went through. We were shooting a movie, but they lived it.

Mousley then opened up questions to the audience.

Audience member: What do you want the world to do with this film?

Bill Pohlad: In the making of the movie you don’t want to be too conscious of what you want people to come away with because it tends to twist the way you’re making the movie. Everything becomes too logical. You try and make the movie on the very emotional level. Certainly now that we’re in distribution I’m hoping we’ll go beyond the cinema part of it, and let it become part of the dialogue in the mainstream so that we can face that part of our history and how it relates to our society today.

Audience member: I was wondering at what point in the development of the film did you get involved, and why did you choose this film?

Bill Pohlad: We were making The Tree of Life with Plan B and they had met with Steve and talked about what he wanted to do next. [Producers] Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt talked about doing something else together. I met with Steve and could see his passion immediately, and he already knew what direction the project was going in. I don’t want to say it was a ‘no brainer’ but with that kind of story and that kind of group forming around it, you know it has a good chance.

Audience member: It was a powerful movie that will stay with me, so thank you for making it. My question is, besides Solomon Northup’s book, what other research and documentation was used to adapt his story to film?

Bill Pohlad: We had done a lot of research before we found the book. When we brought [John Ridley] on as a screenwriter, he did his own research, and all the different groups involved (Plan B, etc) contributed their own as well. As we’ve gotten into distribution many more people have come into the equation to flesh out and give their blessings to the content.

Audience member: It seems to me for this film to have any effect, Americans have to really believe that this happened. My dad was the 15th of 16 children, only went to school until 5th grade, and was one of the smartest people I knew, but worked in a factory for 43 years because that’s all he could do. I’ve heard so much from so many people that tells me that this has a ring of truth to it. But I think we have a long history of people in this country saying “is that how slaves were really treated?” So my question to you is how have people been responding to this film?

Bill Pohlad: From everything I’ve read and the reactions I’ve witnessed, people have been taking it very seriously. But when you’re making movies you don’t overblow the effect it’s going to have. It’s not like one movie is going to change everything. But when you are able to put something like this film together and see the impact, you hope that maybe things just turn a little bit in the right direction. But I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking here. To hear your story, to hear everybody exchanging ideas on it—that’s what it should do.

Audience member: How much did the language of Northup’s writing help to paint a rich picture of the experience that he went through?

Bill Pohlad: We had the benefit of the book having his kind of musicality, his way of speaking. John Ridley and Steve, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor (Northup)] took that and blended it into the dialogue. I think it’s as honest as it could be relative to that sound from the writing.

Audience member: It seems some distant happening, and I just wanted to bring into focus that this is a current paradigm in America, it’s just undercover in many ways. My Question for you is who chained the “slaves?” What was the sensitivity on the set?

Bill Pohlad: I can’t answer that particular question, but generally the vibe on the set was really amazing. Steve has a very gentle way of being, and in the most difficult scene… you get those performances because the whole crew has a respect for everybody and for the subject matter. They create an environment where people feel safe to not only perform these very emotional scenes, but also deal with pretty heavy issues. How that happens is hard to break down, but you would walk around the set and know that everybody knew what was going on and that the vision Steve had would bring it across in a very genuine way.