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Shame - Steve McQueen interview

Shame, Steve McQueen

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEVE McQueen talks about the development of sex addiction drama Shame and why he wanted to work with Hunger star Michael Fassbender again.

He also discusses his surprise at the ‘controversy’ surrounding the film’s graphic sexual content, his decision to shoot long takes and why he feels drawn to certain subjects.

Q. How did Shame come together? Abi Morgan has talked about an early conversation in which you discussed love stories?
Steve McQueen: Yeah, I think it was just a case of… I remember first meeting Abi and thinking: “Oh blimey, we’ve only got an hour!” But we ended up speaking for three and a half hours on various topics. I also remember that I wanted to put down the gun. I didn’t want to make a film again with a gun in it in any way. I wanted to make a sort of love story. So, we started talking. We talked about the Internet and pornography and sex addiction and that put alarm bells in my head. We also discussed the accessibility of sexual content. I remember when I was a kid pornography was on the top shelf of a newsagent and now it’s just two clicks of a mouse. That’s not saying that sex addiction is a brand new affliction… no, I don’t think so, but the accessibility of pornography amplifies it even more.

Q. Can you talk about the decision to work with Michael again on this project?
Steve McQueen: He wasn’t so bad in Hunger so I thought: “OK, I might as well ask him again.” That was it. He’s a good actor, isn’t he?

Q. There are several scenes in the film that are sparse but no less absorbing. How much of that is tackled at the writing stage? For instance, the scene where Michael watches his sister sing in the bar?
Steve McQueen: Well, I think it’s more atmosphere. I think one has to trust performers and one has to trust the atmosphere. Like I say, there are certain things you can talk about but which are difficult to write about in a way. The ambience, the feeling, the emotion has to come from performance… it has to come through the camera, it has to come through trust, and that particular performance… I spoke about wanting to have the idea of making New York, New York into a blues. Lyrically, it’s a blues. It’s not Liza Minnelli, it’s not Frank Sinatra, it’s not a triumphal song. It’s a very sad song.

So, I thought, OK, this could be one of the few times where Brandon is confronted with Sissy and she can have a direct communication with him and he can’t get out. He’s taken someone to a club, he’s in a situation where he can’t leave, and he’s basically trapped and he has to listen. He’s confronted with his past in a way through his sister’s performance. So, you have to trust in things like that. It’s film as cinema. This can only happen in cinema. It can’t happen in novels or plays or anything like that; it’s just cinema, so you have to trust what the possibilities can be. And sometimes it’s scarier for sure but you have to have a little faith in cinema and that’s it.

Q. How did you make Michael feel comfortable during some of the more explicit scenes?
Steve McQueen: There’s been a lot of talk about this but I think as an actor, you’re more like a dancer, and you have to use your body. I don’t understand all these questions about nudity. It’s a nonsense. He’s an actor, an artist, so get on with it.

Q. You don’t give much away about Brandon and Sissy’s back story. Do you know about it going into the project?
Steve McQueen: What I wanted to do with that part of it was to make a situation where it was familiar rather than mysterious. When we go to the cinema, we all bring our history, our baggage and we sit down and we look at the movie. So, we have some kind of idea of what possibly could have happened and I didn’t want to give you a long yarn about what happened to Sissy and this is what happened to Brandon and this is a terrible [past]… no, we all have an understanding of what could possibly have happened and there are tells in the film where the past comes into the present and you’re not too sure but you can have an idea of that.

Often it’s the case when you meet someone brand new in your life, you have no idea who that person is. You’re just given that person in that moment in time and from your relationship with that person you get an idea of possibly who or what that person is or where they’ve come from. So, I want people to bring their own sort of history to the cinema at that point in order to make it actually much more familiar rather than mysterious.

Q. This is your second feature film. What were the challenges this time around and how did they differ from Hunger?
Steve McQueen: Well, I always feel I’m an amateur. I don’t most of the time know what I’m doing, so this is a continuation of Hunger really. It’s one film as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a case of trying things out and failing and trying them again and hoping they work. What often is the case when people think it doesn’t work, it’s often the case that it does. So, it’s one of those situations of really sort of experimenting and collaborating with great people and getting it done and trying to do something that has some kind of meaning. It’s very simple really.


Q. Both Hunger and Shame deal with extreme emotions and subjects. Are there any limits and borders that you wouldn’t cross? Or do you think as an artist you have to move further and transgress those borders? Is your third film about slavery going to be as tough with the human soul?
Steve McQueen: I don’t know about this toughness and nudity: it’s reality. It’s just how things happen. With Bobby Sands, this is actually what happened. For people who have this affliction, sex addiction, this is actually what happens. So, I’m not here to provoke or to scandalise at all… just portray. As an artist that’s what you do. One tries to do things or present things that reflect us and sometimes what we see is not particularly pretty. So, I’m not interested in pushing anything, I’m interested in exploring things. As far as the other project, we’ll just do the best we can and that’s it.

Q. The title of the film, Shame, brings forward the idea of morals. So, do you consider yourself to be a moralist?
Steve McQueen: Well yes I do actually. But I’m not moral at all. I think we’re all… morality is like socialism: it’s a great idea but it doesn’t bloody work. So, again, it is what it is. It’s been like that since growing up as kids, and reading our kids fairy stories with good and bad. It’s innate. In the world as a whole we have Christianity or Islam or Judaism… there’s a situation of good and bad. Morality is in our DNA. But are we? No! All we seem to do is break stuff and then try to fix it.

Q. Did the title of the film emerge from your research?
Steve McQueen: Yeah, the title came up through our interviews because that was the word that kept on coming up all the time. So, I thought it was a strong word to use as the film’s title.

Q. Are you conscious of adopting a painterly approach to filmmaking?
Steve McQueen: When I’m looking through the lens at a shot or a scene I’m not thinking about Goya or anyone. I’m thinking about what the best thing I can do is at this present moment. I think certain things are coincidences and other things are kind of… it’s different textures, different kind of aesthetics, and a different kind of feel with film and celluloid. I’m not thinking of painting at all, I’m just thinking of the actual content – the story and the narrative. Form will take care of itself. I think you’ve got to focus on what you’re looking at and how you portray that in the right way. The best piece of advice, or the best thing I ever heard about that as far as images and content, was from a fellow filmmaker who said the camera movement should be like a cat jumping onto a table – with just enough amount of effort and that’s it. That’s enough.

As far as art and filmmaking is concerned, I don’t see there’s any separation; it’s just one continuous thing. I mean, tomorrow if the actual content which I had wanted me to be a tap dancer, I’d be a tap dancer. If it wanted me to jump out of the aircraft, I’d jump out of the aircraft; if it wants to be a sculpture, then it’s a sculpture, etc. So, the content actually has to tell you what it wants rather than anything else. The form is there only to give it some sort of reality in our own reality.

Q. Why use very long takes? Does that come out of the script?
Steve McQueen: It comes from the actor and the environment. Abi and I write something and then you go to the locations and they are not what you thought they would be in your mind’s eye, so you have to adapt to the environment, you have to adapt to the actor, and their needs. There was one great time with Michael where we were shooting quite fast and he got quite angry with us, saying: “What is this? You’re putting me in this shot and telling me to do this but I don’t want to do that…” But that was the biggest wake-up call and it was very early in the filming and I thought: “OK, let’s see how he moves, let’s see what his ritual is, and then move the camera with that.” So, again, it’s all about the environment and the actor. Of course, there are things in that frame that you need but it’s almost like a dance in a way. How do you dance with that partner? Michael is Fred Astaire and the camera is Ginger Rogers. You have to be in unison somehow.

Q. Do you think we’ll ever see a time when something like male nudity will cease to raise eyebrows and make headlines as it has with this film and others?
Steve McQueen: I don’t know. Well, if it had been a woman, there wouldn’t be such a conversation to be had. I don’t want to get into that conversation, really, because it doesn’t make sense. Anything that doesn’t make sense, I don’t want to give too much of my brain to. I don’t want to talk about nonsense because it doesn’t help me.

Read our review of Shame

Read our interview with Abi Morgan and Iain Canning