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Shame - Abi Morgan and Iain Canning interview

Shame

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER Abi Morgan and producer Iain Canning talk about some of the challenges of bringing sex addict drama Shame to the big screen and why they felt compelled to make the movie in New York. They were talking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. How did Shame come together?
Abi Morgan: Well, Steve [McQueen] and I met about two and a half years ago, initially for an hour, and I think both of us had our watches set thinking how long are we going to have to stay with each other. But three and a half hours later we were still talking, so I think that was the sort of starting point. I think we talked about love stories. It was interesting… my dad had died and we talked about the fact that I’d watched him, with only three days left to live, and I’d noticed he’d flirted with a nurse and I just thought that was incredible that he still had that life in him, even in the last few days of his life. So, we started talking about the energy, the sort of sexual energy that you still have as a human being.

Q. How challenging initially was bringing this material into a film?
Iain Canning: We found it challenging initially because we thought that we would be able to do all the research here. And then we found a couple of organisations through Steve and Abi’s previous work, who were just really reluctant. I think they felt that coming at this subject matter given what the term ‘sex addiction’ had become at that point was going to be… we were going to do some sort of, I don’t know, comedy or something which wasn’t going to look at the actual lives of the people that were in their groups.

So, then we contacted a couple of particular groups in New York and they were far more receptive I think and probably had a little bit more media involvement. So, the three of us went over to New York and met a number of people – Steve and Abi even more – and what was really interesting for us was that we sort of went into it thinking ‘well, who are we going to meet’? What type of person? Actually, it was almost the most successful or the person round the corner, or the person next door, and we sort of almost couldn’t talk for a few days when we all got back because the impact of the stories were quite intense.

Q. Did the title of the film emerge from your research? And you mentioned a lack of medical acceptance of the condition but is that something that sufferers want?
Abi Morgan: I think when you sit in a room with somebody who is suffering from the effects of this compulsion, the word ‘shame’ is just in the room. And it was very apparent from the people we met that that was really the kind of point, or the centre of the compass. It came back to shame. It’s interesting… one of the reasons we did go to New York was because we couldn’t get anyone to talk to us over here. You can talk about drugs, alcohol or gambling but for some reason you can’t talk about sex in the same way. So, New York allowed us to go there and talk to these people. And again it was Steve that found it, it was Steve who said that this is the word. Steve and I spent a long time with these people and then just quietly walking around the city together and that feeling of shame bubbles up in you and you relate to it.

Q. Was that why you then chose to set it in New York?
Iain Canning: I think primarily the sort of collage of stories from multiple people that we met were from that city, so it felt if we were going to be genuine and accurate about those collective experiences and what was common about all of them, then we had to make it in that city. It emerged from a lot of those conversations that the way that city worked had such a huge part in the geography of their days.

Abi Morgan: We also wrote it in New York. So, when you’re sitting in that hotel room looking across the Hudson it’s very rare you get the opportunity to actually write about the place you’re in.

Q. Do you foresee any problems with the censors, particularly in America?
Iain Canning: It was quite interesting as a process, especially for me, because I don’t think that we made one compromise in terms of ever looking at the film and thinking we needed to change something in order to make it more acceptable or accessible. As a result, we’ve had a number of high profile American companies wanting to buy the film because they felt that it worked. So, I think as filmmakers that’s all you can really do – try to put out your best work and hope that people will like it or be affected by it or come and see it. Certainly, from our conversations with Fox Searchlight there may be a slight reluctance to see the film in certain areas, but in the majority the anticipation and interest in this film is fantastic. So, I’ve been very buoyed by their reaction and the reaction of the exhibitors over there.

Q. Gwyneth Paltrow is reportedly playing a sex addict in a new romantic comedy. Does this suggest the subject matter is something Hollywood is waking up to and would you have any advice for how they should deal with it sensitively?
Abi Morgan: I think probably it reflects the fact that we’ve commodified sex and we’ve sort of deconstructed the etiquette of dating now. So, how immediate and how accessible… Steve talked about access and excess [of pornography] and I think we’re kind of fascinated now by the way we choose to interact sexually – be it through web-cam or texting or Skyping. We have a different access point for sexual relationships and in some ways maybe that’s taken us further away from intimacy. So, I think you could see that as a hot subject in a way. I know little about Gwyneth’s film except from seeing photos of her looking sweaty in Central Park. But other than that, no I don’t know.

Q. How did you leave the character – with a bleak future of with hope?
Abi Morgan: I think that’s really for an audience to have a take on. In a way, what I love is that you leave that question hanging. It’s also a moment that Steve very much found. I wouldn’t want to answer that or give a conclusion. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own conclusion but I prefer the fact that the question is open-ended for an audience.

Read our review of Shame