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Hunger - Steve McQueen interview

Steve McQueen at LFF premiere of Hunger

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TURNER prize-winning artist Steve McQueen talks about making his directorial debut with Hunger, working with his actors, why the story of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike struck a chord with him and why he’ll leave it some time before re-engaging with another film…

Q. This is your debut feature film. Is it fair to say you were you always looking to do a film at some point?
Steve McQueen: If you have the opportunity to make a film you’re very lucky. I liked the idea of the film but I loved the opportunity, so when Jan Younghusband from Channel 4 asked me if I was interested in making a film I was very happy. And when I spoke to her two weeks later about making a film about the hunger strike and Bobby Sands, she didn’t blink, she didn’t flinch, she was very generous and allowed me to get on with it and put some money behind it to develop it. That was five years ago. At the end of the day, it’s about making interesting projects.

Q. But you must have been aware that the project would upset some people…
Steve McQueen: I think it’s one of the most important historical events of the last 27 years, so we have to look at it. It’s one of those situations where everyone knows about it. Upset people? Maybe so, but it happened and one has to look at it and deal with it.

Q. What do you remember of the coverage at the time?
Steve McQueen: Not much. I was 11-years-old. But on the TV screen there was an image of Bobby Sands every night. My parents used to watch The 9 O’Clock News religiously, and there was a photograph and underneath it was a number that increased every day. My parents may have told me what it was about, and that it was a hunger striker, a man not eating. But it was just one of those funny things that stayed with me. It was the same year as the Brixton Riots, and the same year that my team won the FA Cup. It was a strange coming of age.

Q. But what particularly stuck with you then?
Steve McQueen: The maths didn’t add up! I didn’t understand the idea of someone who didn’t eat, but gets louder, and somebody who doesn’t eat, but could be heard. It was very strange.

Q. How did you enjoy the writing process?
Steve McQueen: I wrote it with Enda Walsh. The wonderful thing about that was that for the first two years I was going to make it as a silent movie and then Enda came on board. I wanted to work with a screenwriter, preferably Beckett, but he’s dead… We basically auditioned some writers and Enda came out of that. My situation was like a musician who doesn’t know how to write music, but who has the orchestration and the melody in their head and needs someone who can write music to translate it and change it and basically bring out the feelings and the ad-libbing and write it. But the script is always just a guide: you have to find it. The architecture dictates the position of the camera and the content gives you the reason to use your camera in a particular way.

Q. How extensive was your research? Was there anything that came out that shocked you again about Bobby Sands life and death?
Steve McQueen: I don’t know if it shocked me again because actually a lot of people know very little about that period of history; there’s 90 seconds of TV footage that exists on ITN with two men saying we want political prisoner’s rights status. That was it – 90 seconds. Everything was new – the maggots that they woke up to next to their bodies, which then turned into bluebottles, how they disposed of their urine. There were more details we couldn’t put in the movie but all these details helped push the film forward. It was never a case of let’s do a pretty picture. Take the moment where the guy plays with a fly on the grille, for instance. Two days earlier, he wouldn’t look at the fly twice but when incarcerated the fly is so much more about his own incarceration and freedom. The details are extraordinary – like the crumbs on Raymond’s lap; they add up to the magnitude of the film.

Q. Was Michael Fassbender your first choice?
Steve McQueen: No. But at the same time he was [laughs]. We had several ideas about certain people in conversation but what’s interesting about this kind of project is that I’m much more interested in life than I am in film. What I mean by that is that by meeting people you get a better idea of what you can portray on film. Movies, or movie stars, or movie people – it’s fantasy and it becomes so detached from reality that to translate that onscreen is odd. You have to have first-hand experience. With Michael, meeting him and working with him you know he’s an amazing guy. Liam Cunningham was also a great, great actor. But all the small parts – from the hospital orderly to the assassin – were played by great actors.

Q. How many takes was the extended conversation between Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham?
Steve McQueen: Four takes – which is remarkable. The tension was remarkable… even the boom man collapsed, it was that sort of focus on set. This was a very intimate conversation about the reasons to live and the reasons to die and on film that tension comes across in how it’s shot. Am I too serious? Sorry. Oh, I’m too serious… I try not to be but it’s difficult, you’ve got to shut me up… edit me please!

Q And how many takes for the urine-sweeping scene? You didn’t go all Kubrick for that one, did you?
Steve McQueen: [Laughs] Just one… can you imagine? But I just want to add that what was important for me was that this was about human beings. It’s not about left and right, or right and wrong. It’s more about you and me. The prison officers were just as brutalised as the prisoners in a way, so for me it was about the human situation. Politics make situations but people have to deal with it, whether they are prison officers or blanket prisoners.

Q. Can we assume that you won’t be making another film for a while?
Steve McQueen: Absolutely. It’s not like spending five years on a project then moving on to your next chick. I don’t know how directors do that. I’m not used to that. I don’t know how people can just move on; I’m still living this and it will possibly take a couple of years for me to get over it. I’m not interested in movies, I’m interested in real life.

Q. But it’s not a one-off film?
Steve McQueen: [pauses] It’s where the idea leads me. If an idea wants to be manifested in paintings or photographs, then that’s where it goes. It dictates its shape to me. It has to be like that. The medium can’t dictate to me, it’s the idea that has to dictate to me. You are the orchestrator but at the same time you are the facilitator. The idea dictates its shape to me, rather than the other way round. I’m not in love with the 35mm camera any more than I’m in love with the paintbrush. It’s the idea I’m in love with.

Read our review of Hunger