When editor Joe Walker worked with director Steve McQueen on the film, Hunger, about Irish republican Bobby Sands leading prison inmates in a hunger strike, the company took a break from shooting for actor Michael Fassbender to lose weight. During that time they fine cut footage that had already been shot. When they resumed production, McQueen went into the final week of shooting with a clearer notion of what he needed to capture. This included not only pick-ups that would augment the story, but also eliminating scenes from the script that were now unnecessary to shoot.
Having used that process on their previous film, they wanted to follow the same workflow on 12 Years a Slave. Additional shoot days were planned from the start with the idea of getting the film in as good a shape as they could and then shooting extra story-enhancing footage. “I’m not talking about extensive re-shoots, I’m talking about crafty one day pick-ups to see what images could help finesse the cut and inner life of the character,” explained Walker.
Working on the production in New Orleans, Walker felt the shadow of history over him, a history that is still alive in Louisiana. “They even use the word ‘Epps’ [the name of Fassbenders’s sadistic slave owner] in conversation. They’ll say, ‘Don’t be so Epps,’ as a way of saying don’t be so gnarly,” said Walker. “Until quite recently, they taught the book in school.”
Even the tree used to hang the two brothers in the film had actually been used to hang slaves. “It is in one of the most allegedly haunted places in the South,” said Walker. “It was quite present. I know the actors reported sometimes arriving on set feeling a pressure to do right by Solomon. They hoped that he was looking after them that day. The American Indians in the film claimed that they had contacted Solomon the night before in a ceremony and that Solomon was giving the film his blessing.”
Walker thinks that addressing the issue of slavery is long overdue, and timely considering all the racial tensions that have surfaced under America’s first black president. “In a way it is an international story even though it is a part of American history,” he said. “It was quite a weight on us to do this story justice. I felt that I was in the middle of something and that there was a duty to make this story really great.”
Walker is proud of ideas developed during the film’s fine cut that lifted Solomon’s internal emotional journey to the surface. Because Solomon is such a stoic character, and in many ways inert in the way he deals with his ordeal, Walker and McQueen needed to finesse the storytelling in the cutting room. One of the ideas that came out of the editing was to have Solomon scratch the names of his family into the neck of his violin in order to keep them alive. The pick-up shot was a very simple fix, but it meant that when he breaks his violin, it is more than just destroying his musical past, it is tied up with yearning for his family. It is a total break with his past. “It registers a moment where I feel he’s lost hope completely,” Walker explained.
McQueen shoots with economy, using one camera – no second unit or second camera – shooting only as many takes as he needs to get what he wants. Because of this approach, Walker believes, “Somehow the editing becomes more visible and a little bit more impactful than it would normally be.” Walker admits that the director is an easy man to work for. “A lot of editors have told me that they would love to cut with Steve and I tell them that he’s taken,” he quipped. “I am glad that I am working with a man that has such great enthusiasm for such great projects. In some incredible way, he gets the best out of all of us.”