You compare your film 12 Years a Slave to Pinocchio. Can you explain?
Well, it’s one of the films I compare it to. At the beginning of Pinocchio, these two men trick Pinocchio into the circus. That’s similar to what happened to Solomon Northup [when he was kidnapped]. And Solomon’s story is almost like a dark fairy tale–unimaginable, unbelievable, except it actually did happen.
One scene shows slave children playing while not 20 feet away, a man struggles to not be strangled by a noose. Were you trying to make them seem heartless?
During slavery, people lived under the possibility of violence happening to them at any moment. I had to find a way of depicting the normality of it, to show the physical aspects of slavery as well as the psychological.
Your three motion pictures have been about starvation (2008’s Hunger), sex addiction (2011’s Shame) and slavery. Why do you choose such dark subjects?
They’re just fascinating stories. You have Bobby Sands, who died on a hunger strike in a British prison cell over 30 years ago. Sexual addiction is heightened right now because of the Internet. And of course slavery. These are huge, important stories, which, yes, possibly happen to have some kind of element of being, you know, troubled. But that’s it. I don’t chase the shadows.
Are you surprised that these subjects have not been represented more in film?
Yeah. “Why?” is the question. Because, you know, the hunger strikers were the most important historical recent event in British politics. There seems to be a huge amnesia when it comes to slavery. That’s why I made the movie. There was a hole in the canon of cinema.
As an Oscar-nominated director, you’re going to have more influence. What will you do with it?
Hopefully, make better movies. I don’t know if I’ll make a more important one, but I’ll make a better one.
Do you make a distinction between the work you make as art and the work that’s entertainment?
No. They’re interchangeable. Regardless of who you try not to be, it’s all entertainment. Art for me is like writing poetry, and feature film is like the novel, the yarn. One is abstract and one is narrative.
You’re dyslexic. Has that influenced your work?
I suppose it has. I just get on with it. I use whatever muscles I have to do what I have to do.
In 2003 you went to Iraq as an official U.K. war artist. Afterward, you made stamps. Why stamps?
I liked the idea that it wasn’t some sculpture catching dust in a museum, that the work could be put within the bloodstream of the country. What appeared on the stamps were soldiers who had died in the Iraq War. If you were pro the war, you would use the stamps through your patriotism. If you were anti the war, you’d use the stamps as a protest.
Did they ever get issued?
The Royal Mail was not in favor. We never got an answer why.
Will the Oscar nominations change your life in Amsterdam? Can you still walk down the street there?
The wonderful thing about Amsterdam is that it’s full of hardworking, down-to-earth people who don’t really give a damn.
This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.
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