The visionary British writer/director talks Shame, sex and cinema.
In just two features, Steve McQueen has established himself as one of the UK's truly visionary filmmakers. A creator of extraordinarily passionate and incendiary movies, in person he's every bit as fiery as we'd hoped, as we found found out when we sat down with McQueen recently to chew the fat on sex, Shame, and cinema.
LWLies: How’re things?
McQueen: Good. I’m very pleased with how we’ve been received, starting off in Venice. Of course when you’re showing something for the first time to people, for an audience, you’re petrified but that was interesting to see the public’s response, which was great. And also seeing Michael [Fassbender]’s response, because that was the first time he’d seen it. Then of course Toronto, which again was amazing. And New York... Bringing the movie home to New York was amazing because that’s where it started really. It was similar in the way that going back to Belfast was special for Hunger, it was like going back home.
New York is a good place to start. Why did you decide to make Shame there?
Well, actually, what happened was that it was never my intention to make a movie in New York. Never. What happen was, I had a meeting with [Shame co-writer] Abi Morgan... somehow we got together. I looked at my watch knowing we only had an hour and suddenly it’s three hours later and we’re still talking. And, um, you know, the conversation started off; we started talking about the internet and from there we got onto pornography and then sexual addiction. Alarm bells started ringing in my head, I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind, and I came back to London and attempted to speak to several sex addicts, but no one would talk to me. So then I went after experts in the field, and it just so happened that the experts we found were in New York. They introduced us to sex addicts, and from there it just made sense to make the film in New York. The wind had carried us there.
So it was circumstance that led you there?
Yeah. But, you know, some things happen by accident and you’re happy for that.
New York is such an important character in Shame, in Brandon’s life...
Sure. I’ve been going to New York since 1977, since the blackout and Elvis dying, I fell in love with the place then. The majority of my family live there and my work as far as my art is concerned revolves around New York. I’m there virtually every year, if not twice, three times a year. So there’s a familiarity to it, specifically to Manhattan which is where most of the film is set. I’d say after London that’s the place I’m most familiar with, even though I live in Amsterdam. It wasn’t alien to me, but then this character, Brandon, was. So we had to find out where he would live, what job he would go to, how much salary he’d have, which led to what kind of apartment he’d have – his apartment’s kind of small. And, of course, what was interesting to me is that a lot of New Yorkers live and work in the sky. For a European that’s quite a weird thing to get your head around, and when I was making the movie, for three months I was living 24 or 25 floors up. Often there’s a huge panoramic view from these apartments, but what it actually does is it makes your own perspective on life quite lonely. It’s almost like a funnel; you’re standing at the small end and there’s a whole world out there but you’re very far away from it. It’s like a cinema screen in your house, but it isolates you...
The scene where Carey Mulligan sings ‘New York, New York’ is set in a high-rise bar. The scene belongs to a different world from the rest of the film, a less grounded place.
Uh-huh, absolutely. It’s the lack of space, that’s the thing. In order to get an illusion of space you make buildings with massive windows; that’s why New York is all skyscrapers and glass and steel. Otherwise it would be so claustrophobic. But there’s always this sense that you are one in a million, you have no significance.
Going back to before Hunger, we’re interested in how you and Michael bonded. Not how you met, but how the relationship began.
Initially we didn’t get on at all. I thought, ‘Who is this arrogant person?’ In the audition [for Hunger] he came in ad asked questions about the script and my immediate reaction was, ‘Who’s this guy?’ What happened was, I was seeing other people the next day and I decided to bring him back in and seeing him that second time I realised he was the guy. That was it. After that we got on like a house on fire. I don’t really know how it happened to be honest with you. It’s not something I asked for but I’m very grateful it happened. It’s a lot like falling in love in that the most unexpected moments can be the ones you cherish the longest.
You can’t go out looking for it?
Yeah because if you do it’ll never happen. That was never my intention. Love is the only thing I can compare it to. Sometimes we’ll be on set and I’ll just grunt and I’ll get a grunt back and we’ll know what each other wants. Other times he’s finishing my sentences and I’m finishing his. It’s odd because I don’t really question it. I’ve never questioned it. But one of the things I’ve found is that not everyone can do what Michael does, and I didn’t know that. I came from working with actors in a very different way and... I don’t know, it’s very difficult to put my finger on it.
Hunger was a political film in the more overt sense that it centred on a political figure. Shame is about sexual politics. Do you see much cohesion between the two?
Yeah, I think it’s about how we things affect us. Of course, Hunger was overtly political and, as you say, Shame focuses on sexual politics. But the important thing there is that it’s not a political film, it’s not a comment on modern life. You know, sex addiction was around a long time before the internet, it didn’t start just because technology facilitated it. It’s just about how we live. We don’t have choices often, we’re given choices through by surroundings we live in and we have to work out the best ways to deal with that. Um, you know, again, it’s how things work. Everything’s political: love is political, this bottle of water in front of me is political. Tell me it’s not.
Going back to the research into Brandon’s persona, did you find that most sex addicts you spoke to where normal nine-to-five kind of guys?
Well, again, yes, they were very normal, and the ones who paid for therapy maybe had a bit more money than some of the others. There’re all kinds of people who suffer from that addiction in all kinds of shapes and forms. But just to focus on, um... we met a few guys that were young and had disposable incomes. That’s the sort of people we were looking for, the people that we knew we could be faithful to when it came to telling their story.
Brandon is a very ritualistic creature.
Sure. Well, I’m very interested in ritual, especially the commute and the food he eats, the way he eats it. That was very important to me. He’s a busy guy, like we all are, and he relies on services to get things do; whether it’s order his take-out or getting his laundry done. You know, he jogs in a very ritualistic way. But the thing I love the most about Brandon’s ritual is the music. The whole idea of him listening to Glenn Gould records and him having a connection with vinyl, with records, was very important to me. There’s this great tactility to it, the tactility of music where you take a record out of the sleeve, place onto the record player, bring the arm across... that’s such a beautiful ritual. I wanted him to have a physical connection to the music.
Talking technology, we don’t know when Brandon’s addiction started, but there’s a sense that the internet isn’t solely to blame. A lot you people point that finger, but you don’t. Why?
I think sex is more accessible now just because of the internet. I mean, when I was growing up the nearest thing I got to pornography was the top shelf of a newsagents. Now you click twice on a mouse and it’s up on the screen. So the internet has definitely facilitated sex addiction, but it’s not to blame. Brandon uses prostitutes, he uses magazines, he fetishises collecting them, so he has more than one way to get his rocks off, which is often the case. Few sex addicts are just addicted to internet pornography.
Shame is a snapshot of Brandon’s life, we don’t see the start or the end point of his journey.
That’s exactly it, we come into it without a head or a tail. It’s a moment, we don’t know him before and we don’t know what will happen to him after. When we present this situation with Sissy and Brandon we don’t explain the past, and the reason I did that was because I didn’t want it to be familiar. Everyone when they go to the cinema brings their luggage and their baggage into the theatre and they can gauge what could have happened. It’s up the audience to make their own mind up, I’m not going to spin some long, tiresome yarn for their sake. Also, I didn’t want it to be an excuse for what Brandon is doing.
Sex addiction is regarded as taboo, whereas alcoholism, smoking addition, etc, have been stripped of much of the stigma surrounding them. Why do you think sex addiction is not as commonly depicted in popular culture?
Look, you can go back 50 years, before Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, and people didn’t even talk about it then. It’s being taken seriously now. It’s the same with sex addiction. When I first heard about it I laughed, but when you realise that in order to get through a day this person has to relieve themselves 10 or so times it ceases to become funny. Sex is everywhere so it seems to be okay, and if you’ve got a healthy sex life then it’s fantastic, but when sex becomes something that you need to get you through a day it becomes dangerously unhealthy.
Is Shame social observation?
It’s not in the sense that I’m not making a comment, it’s just the reality that’s out there. It’s got nothing to do with me waving red flag, it’s just how it is. I have no judgment on it, I’m just reflecting reality. I’m not interested in making a statement. I’m an immoral person who leans into the moral spectrum every now and then. What artists have done since the beginning of time is look at ourselves and put ourselves on canvasses or in sculptures or in the cinema... Are these answers okay, by the way, I have a tendancy to ramble.
Not at all, this is great. Just thinking about your career from a wider perspective now... Was there a moment before Hunger when you decided you wanted to focus on making films?
No. The subject matter tells me what to do. The next one might want me to make a sculpture, it might want me to do a print. The subject matter is the arse for the film, not the other way around. I want to make a feature film, doesn’t mean anything. Bobby Sands was crying out for a narrative, a feature film, same with sex addiction, but other times it doesn’t work that way. I did a film about Coltan which is the mineral that you find in everyone’s mobile phones, about five years ago, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the content, not the form. The content provides the form.
Inevitably with a film that handles such delicate subject material you’re going to get labels like ‘controversial’ and ‘brave’. How do you respond to that?
I don’t really care to be honest with you. I don’t really care. It is what it is, I’m not reactionary; I’m not trying to stir the pot. I’m just trying to make films that have a reason to be made.
Do you make your art for yourself?
No, no, I’m not that selfish. It’s not about me it’s about we. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people to make this film, and film is an immensely collaborative process. It was important to make Shame. Full stop.
Our tagline is ‘truth and movies’, what’s the single greatest truth you discovered while making these two features?
Be nice to people and you’re film will turn out better. It sounds corny but it’s true, the truth is that people in general are really nice and I believe that everyone should be respected. That’s the truth.
You clearly value the efforts of others.
Yes, but I’m a dictator. I’m an extraordinary, ruthless dictator, but I’m not stupid. As any good leader will say, you have to recognise other people’s talents in order to make your work better. Abi Morgan and Shaun Bobbit, who I’ve worked with for 11 years, Joe Walker, the editor, Ian Canning, the producer, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan... these are all extremely talented people, you have the cream of the crop. But they stimulating, they need someone who will arose and inspire them; allow their talents to come to the fore. That’s what being a leader is about; inspiring those around you. To inspire a performance, to inspire a cameraman, to inspire the catering to make nice food for us. It starts from the ground up. If the food’s shit on set it’s disastrous. Look after the chef and you’ll look after your movie.
Do you see filmmaking as your profession now?
No, it’s not a job. I’m lucky enough that I can pay my bills and my mortgage with it, it’s fantastic, but that was never the purpose.
What did Carey bring to Shame, how did she come to be Sissy?
Carey’s great, but she’s nothing like Michael Fassbender. Obviously Michael and I knew each other and there was a lot for her to work out before she came on set.
You mean in terms of the character?
Sure, but there are expectations as well that she had and she’s told me that it was tough in terms of the research that was involved with Sissy. She appreciated it because we went on a real journey together with Sissy. You know, I know Sissy, you know Sissy, everyone out there knows Sissy, it’s someone that’s very needy and uncompromising, very demanding on you. You love that person but sometimes you can’t take that person. That person can be extraordinarily exhilarating sometimes but other times they’re just too much. She’s an extreme, but she’s universal. Most of us get through life making compromises, but Sissy never compromises and because of that she’ll get hurt more. We did a lot of talking through that, a lot of talking.
Going forward, you’ve just announced your third film, which Michael will again be involved in...
What’s the hope for the next one?
Just to try to do the best film that I could possibly do. Right now I couldn’t do a better film than Shame. I couldn’t do better, but I hope the next one that I do will be better. It will be better.
Do you look back at your work much?
Nope. But then that was the best thing I could’ve done. Progress, that’s it.
Do you feel like a part of the British film industry now?
I’m not a part of any British nothing. I’m me. End of story. I’m not interested in nationalism, never was. The British film industry, being a part of it, doesn't mean a thing to me.