(NEW YORK) — As the cast and crew of 12 Years a Slave shot in 108-degree heat on a centuries-old Louisiana plantation, a place which once bore witness to the same atrocities of America’s original sin that they were now re-creating, filmmakers couldn’t help but feel the eerie alchemy of their work.
“It’s sort of like dancing with ghosts,” director Steve McQueen told ABC’s Nightline. “You’re in the presence of a time and place which had a lot of pain, but at the same time it had a lot of beauty…it was perfumed with the scent of the past.”
“We felt that we were right there where these things happened,” added Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has just been Oscar nominated for his starring role in 12 Years a Slave. “We felt that the place was alive with the energy of that, so in that context, it becomes something slightly more heightened in a way.”
Just five months since it was first shown to an audience, 12 Years a Slave is already being called a defining film about slavery. Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, the film tackles a subject overlooked throughout much of Hollywood’s history.
“For me, it was a hole in the canon of cinema,” said McQueen, who is also nominated for an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave.
There had been the racist Birth of a Nation in 1915, the lurid ’70s potboiler, Mandingo, the serio-comic vengeance fantasy, Django Unchained, last year. But McQueen, 44, wanted to tell a slave story from a new perspective.
“Eventually, after tossing and turning about it, thinking about it, for me, it was a free man who was kidnapped into slavery,” McQueen said. “The story of an African being kidnapped and taken to America had been done before in Roots, very effectively, but for me what was interesting was that this person was actually American, was kidnapped and dragged into slavery.”
Much of the narrative and dialogue in 12 Years a Slave come directly from the memoir of Solomon Northup, a northern musician cruelly dispatched to a series of southern slave owners, beginning in 1841. About 170 years later, the brutality of his story has been chronicled in 12 Years a Slave.
But some of what was in Northup’s memoir had to be toned down for movie audiences.
“There’s no way on earth we could have made the original into a film,” McQueen said. “The violence was so bad that we had to sort of introduce it in a way where we could…somehow not push people away but to sort of be drawn into the narrative.”
From the start, McQueen knew he wanted Ejiofor to play the role of Solomon Northup, but the 36-year-old actor initially resisted McQueen’s entreaties.
“I never had seen a film inside this experience, inside this slave experience. It took me back,” Ejiofor said. “I felt the responsibility of it. I knew I needed to have a moment to work out how to get there.”
Ejiofor’s character, crushed by intolerable circumstances, fights for more than freedom. “He’s having a battle with his soul,” he said.
“He’s trying to hold himself together,” Ejiofor continued. “When you come into the environment as someone who has a wider understanding of what life is, it’s very difficult to hold on to your mind. It was a fight for his mind.”
One poignant moment in the film surrounds the fate of a young slave woman named Patsey. McQueen considered hundreds of actresses before choosing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, now also nominated for an Oscar.
“There were days I never thought we were going to find someone,” McQueen said. “What I wanted was like that breeze that comes on the back of your hand and you feel the presence of something beautiful. I’m asking for something that doesn’t exist. But we found it.”
As the film vies for Best Picture honors, its stature already suggests that 12 Years a Slave may become part of the film canon it was meant to redress.
“I just want to be useful, sorry to be tragic, but we die and I just want to be useful, that’s all I want to be,” McQueen said. “I just want to go out with two guns blazing because I have nothing to lose.”
Watch the full interviews with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen, and find out why McQueen said the movie wouldn’t have happened without Brad Pitt, on Nightline TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET.
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
Eric Levenson, CNN
Natalia Hepworth, EastIdahoNews.com
Madison Park, Keith Allen and Andreas Preuss, CNN