Director Steve McQueen had been toying with the idea of writing a script about slavery, featuring a black man who had been born free and was later forced into slavery, but McQueen was struggling with the script until his wife found Solomon Northup's biography and gave it to him. Shocked that he had never heard of Northup before, he decided to adapt the book instead.
In order to better portray an alcoholic, Michael Fassbender had his makeup artist paint his mustache with alcohol so that the other actors would react naturally to the smell, as they would to a man who had been drinking heavily.
Before filming their more brutal scenes together, Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender performed a ritual of "making nice." According to Nyong'o, "We wouldn't say anything to each other, just a look in the eye and a grasping of hands. Our characters are in such opposition, but we as actors needed each other in order to be able to go the distance."
At first, Chiwetel Ejiofor turned down Steve McQueen's offer to play the leading role of Solomon Northup, but then realized he had to get over his initial fear of taking on what McQueen thought would be the role of the actor's lifetime. Ejiofor prepared for his role by immersing himself in the Louisiana plantation culture and learning how to use and play the violin.
In the movie, Ford purchased Solomon Northup and Eliza for $1000 and $700 respectively. Calculating inflation between 1841 and 2014, the equivalent dollar amount would be $27,000 and $19,000, respectively.
Steve McQueen disclosed on The Colbert Report (2005) that when Solomon Northup's autobiography, "12 Years a Slave," was first published in 1853, it sold terribly due to other, more popular books released around the same time. He also said that the interest that the film has generated has put the book back on the bestseller list.
Michael Kenneth Williams had an emotional breakdown while filming what eventually became a deleted scene in the movie, as he related on the The Arsenio Hall Show (2013). The stress of recreating such painful material caused him to collapse to the ground after a take, where he screamed and cried for an extended period as one of the stunt coordinators comforted him.
On location, shooting in Louisiana took only thirty-five days with one camera, which prompted amazed laughter from an audience of Directors Guild peers, including interviewer Kathryn Bigelow, for the startlingly efficient direction of Steve McQueen.
Tibeats mocks the black men by singing a hopeful song, urging them to run away lest they be caught by the "patty roller." This word, also spelled "patter roller" among other variants, was slang for patrolman. The Patrols, also called the Regulators, were semi-official secret police who kept slaves in line in antebellum times. These groups also served as a model for the post-war terror society Ku Klux Klan.
In Italy, promotional posters for the film featured Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, instead of leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. When the media broke the story, with many organizations and other sources discussing the "racist" posters, the studio explained that Pitt and Fassbender are better known in Italy than Ejiofor.
In an October 2013 interview with NPR, Steve McQueen mentioned that Solomon Northup's 1853 book reminded him of "The Diary of Anne Frank" from nearly a century later. McQueen noted that he lives in Amsterdam and that Anne Frank is a national hero in his home country; when Northup's book resonated the same way with him, he then resolved he would not rest until he had turned it into a movie.
Taran Killam often impersonates Brad Pitt on Saturday Night Live (1975). Though both actors appear in this film, they never met nor worked together in it. Pitt's Plan B company produced the movie, and Pitt's role was only a small one.
Paul Giamatti, who played slave trader Freeman, also played 1st U.S. vice president / 2nd U.S. president John Adams in the HBO TV-series "John Adams". President John Adams was the only founding father becoming president who never owned a slave in his life.
Sarah Paulson was originally unable to accept the role of Mary Epps, due to scheduling conflicts with the second season of American Horror Story (2011). When series creator Ryan Murphy found out about this he rearranged the show's production schedule so that Paulson could work on both projects.
This movie marks the reuniting of Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis, both from Louisiana, where the film was shot, who had been acclaimed just months before for their first acting roles when they costarred in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). However, they do not share any scenes together.
Paul Giamatti was playing an unscrupulous slave trader, Freeman, who cared for nothing but money. In Planet of the Apes (2001), his character, Limbo, was portrayed as the simian "orangutan" human slave trader, who exhibited the exact same character features: greedy, unscrupulous and savage.
Four of the cast also appear in Arnold Schwarzenegger films. J.D Evermore (Chapin) and Douglas M. Griffin (Sailor) both appeared in 'Maggie' (2015), with Griffin also having a turn in 'Terminator Genisys' (2015). Scott McNairy (Brown) is appearing in '478' (2016), and Taran Killam (Hamilton) is directing and appearing in 'Why We're Killing Gunther (2017). In addition, Garrett Dillahunt (Armsby) played Cromartie in the spin off 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' (2008).
In a November 2013 interview with the LA Times, Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps) explained the sinister meaning behind a scene that occurs late in the movie: "When the slaves come back from Judge Turner's, Steve McQueen was like, 'What do you think if you don't have your pants on?' I was like, 'That's great, and maybe we should have something else, like the little girl. It says so much with him holding her hand, not wearing pants: He's priming the next Patsey. So you find those little elements that add to the character and tell things without any exposition."