The production designer worked closely with Steve McQueen in determining the visual imagery. “A big scene like where Solomon Northup [Chiwetel Ejiofor] has been drugged and wakes up in a set we called Birch’s Dungeon but it’s the trader’s cell; he’s in chains and is beaten for the first time. We talked about what it would look like. We came at it from the inside out. There is a particular type of a whip that Solomon describes called a cat o’ nine tails and we looked at what that is. That wasn’t a throwaway detail. Steve wanted to be specific and understand why it was so important that Solomon had described that exactly thing. What was it about it? We looked at that and said, ‘This is the historical object. How was it made? What was it intended to do to a person?’ We looked similarly at the specifics of the shackles that were used on these people. When we stepped a level deeper into it and started looking at the physical space then it became, ‘What was the brickwork like?’ We were looking at the reference photos together and literally looking at the patterns on the brick, the size and the shape of the cell, and where the window was and how high off the ground it was exactly. If Solomon is going to interact with the window in this little room how high should it be? We literally went through it all and were measuring how high his chin was off the ground when he’s standing on his flat feet and how high was it when he’s on his tiptoes. We were making the window to perfectly fit the relationship that Steve wanted. All of those little details add up to the little room that you’re in. This particular room was a little box of a room, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet.”
|Sean Bobbitt and Steve McQueen|
Recreating the 1840s and 1850s was not easy for Adam Stockhausen. “It was tricky because this was a location base film so we weren’t building everything from scratch and there’s a lot of out of period stuff that you have to deal with and try to cover up as best you can with as much time and money you have. From a research point of view there are a huge amount of etching and paintings from the period you can look at. Then there’s a huge amount of photography once you get into the 1850s and certainly when you get into the 1850s. You look at them and go, ‘This photo is from 1862 what’s in it that’s out of period?’ We were looking at these photographs that unions soldiers had taken of a slave traders’ building, I believe it was in Virginia, so these came from 1864 and you could look at it and say, ‘There are a couple of things here we don’t feel great about but the iron and brickwork in the cell is clearly 30 to 50 years old.’ We felt confident that we were being historically legitimate by pulling some details from it. You do that image by image and piece by piece. You try to find as much reference that you can and to make it as specific as possible.”
“A huge amount of props were found from different sources,” explains Adam Stockhausen. “Michael Martin [Now You See Me] was the property master on the job and did a great job scrounging around not just the New Orleans area where we were based but also up into Mississippi to the reaches of Louisiana, hauling from antique stores and peoples’ barns. The piece that came from the furthest away was a set of shackles that I had seen from a research trip. Months before we were making the film I went up to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and there are a couple of historical ships out there including a whaling ship. I was looking at minute details of how all of these ships were built and wandering around the area up there. I went into a historic and functioning blacksmith shop where people work on their projects and manufacture parts to repair these ships. I looked at a pile of parts and stuff that was sitting on the ground and there were a set of shackles that had been made in the exactly the means, methods, and ways that they would have been in our time period. They were modern reproductions but they weren’t reproductions in the sense in making a prop for something. They were manufactured with only traditional methods in mind and so the authenticity of them seemed important. We ended up calling the seaport and they worked with us and loaned us a few pieces.”
“We shot the whole film down in Louisiana,” states Adam Stockhausen who had to fabricate Saratoga Springs which is located in the state of New York. “We wanted Solomon’s house, a commercial street, and then we decided to add a scene in a park and that came directly out of the period. We researched these pavilion structures that were built over the natural springs by the different companies bottling and selling the spring water. We had beautiful stereoscopic images from the Library of Congress of a great specific detail to tie us to Saratoga and we tried to take advantage of that.” Solomon is transported into slavery by ship called The Orleans. “We decided to make it a coastal steamer and it was based on one that which was built in 1831. We felt that the steamers were new at the time but they had the right feeling of industry. The abduction and sale of Solomon was not personal malice it was business. It was serving this huge industry, primarily cotton production in the South at the time. The coal furnace and the churning of this mechanized ship felt appropriate for that. We were looking at this particular ship that we used as a primary reference. There’s incredible documentation on it so we were able to look at an awful lot detail in trying to recreate a version of it.”
“Patricia Norris [The Elephant Man] and I were trying to get the period details right and trying to making sure that the props always felt right with the clothing,” states Adam Stockhausen. “We had tons of discussions about the specifics of the props in the houses of the slaves. I remember us going through all the pieces that were going to be in Parker’s general store to make sure that economic level and the period of the clothes were all tying together and feeling right. There were a few big dance sequences where Solomon is playing for a party, once in Saratoga before he leaves and once in Louisiana. Because of the typical way that you make a movie we were shooting both of those in one location and trying to do our best with paint, details, dressing and costumes to separate the two of them so they worked as individual places so that was a delicate balance. The deeper richer colours that we were using in Saratoga versus the lighter bleached colours in Louisiana and making sure that they worked together. There were a lot of opportunities for that not to work but we worked for a long time together trying to coordinate it together.”
“The biggest challenge was the totality of it,” notes Adam Stockhausen. “It wasn’t a tiny budget film but it wasn’t a giant budget film. We had gigantic ambitions for the amount we wanted to accomplish with what we had so it was a struggle to figure out how to spend our pennies the best way and to get it all done in a quick prep and shoot. There was a lot of running around but making the whole of it work was the big trick on this one.” The production designer was impressed by what the director and his editor were able to accomplish when assembling the footage. “When I watched the film the one thing that was new and amazed me was what Steve and Joe [Walker] did with the edit; they broke apart the linear quality of the story and I thought it was astonishing.” Patricia Norris remarks, “I was pleased with everything. If I hadn’t have been I wouldn’t have let them wear it. I don’t think of things as good or bad. It seems right and they’re happy.” As for receiving her sixth Oscar nomination, Norris believes, “The picture got the attention. What I hear from people is that the clothes looked real. Other than that you never know what drives people.” Stockhausen is contending for first Academy Award in regards to his work on 12 Years a Slave. “[The fact] that the movie has been hitting so many people on a deep emotional level and been causing this type of response is overwhelming.”
Many thanks to Adam Stockhausen and Patricia Norris for taking the time to be interviewed.
Make sure to visit the official website for 12 Years a Slave.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.