The entire week leading up to my interview with director Steve McQueen at TIFF, I was constantly being asked if I was nervous about talking to a director who on the surface appears to be very serious and studious. After all, a man who makes films as topical and serious as Hunger and his most recent film, Shame – a look at a successful New York professional named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) coming to terms with his sexual addictions while being imposed upon by his visiting estranged sister (Carey Mulligan) – must be a difficult interview.
Nothing could be further from that statement. McQueen has a real appreciation for talking about his work in a succinct and no bullshit manner that rhymes with his films quite nicely. He’s candid, charming, animated and smiles a lot more than one would probably think. He’s still serious and studious, but he’s also a man keenly aware of where his strengths lie and what he feels comfortable talking about.
McQueen talked to Criticize This! about the challenges of putting a human face on sexual addiction, his work with actor Michael Fassbender, and how presenting movies in the simplest possible way can bring out the complexity of a film’s script.
Andrew Parker: Shame is very much a New York story. Why this particular vision of New York?
Steve McQueen: Well, it was all about the content really – the idea of the film. For this culture of access and excess that Brandon finds himself where you can get whatever you want 24 hours a day. New York was just an ideal location for this character to be a part of it. It’s this sort of epicentre of capitalism and you kind of needed the extreme of that, as such.
Photographing New York, I mean, I wasn’t very conscious of it at all, and I think that’s generally a problem when people become conscious of photographing something. You’re focused away from the actual reason why you’re there, which is about this bigger person. So by coincidence things are photographed the way they are, but this is really the story of Brandon and Sissy and they’re the ones that really dictate the look of the film.
AP: The backstory between Brandon and Sissy is generally left unsaid. Was it always a conscious decision to not focus on the specifics of their relationship?
SM: I don’t think it’s necessarily unanswered. I wanted to make it familiar to us by not being mysterious. I actually wanted to be quite contrary to that and make it familiar. So by leaving it open with the history and the knowledge of what could have possibly had happened, I sort of wanted to wanted the story to evolve within that. And I also think that you don’t always have to hit everything one the head or the tail. Sometimes you just need to present the story just like that. You don’t necessarily need a map.
AP: The film takes a lot of risks in its explicitness. Was it important for your actors to be completely open when it came to the material?
SM: You know, they’re actors and they want to act. It’s like how dancers use their bodies. That’s what they want to do and that’s how they approach their work. I don’t think there’s anything really incredibly brave or bold in that. I mean, if that’s truly the case then I find the acting profession to be rather weak. If you’re an actor you have to portray who we are and what we do and I think that Michael has an innate quality to do that. The whole question that people have to be brave to do this and brave to do that is a bit of junk.
I mean, I think he was really the only one who could do this. You know, we worked on Hunger for the first time in 2008 and we just connected and we had a relationship. I’m really happy for him and what he’s got going on because I don’t believe many actors. I don’t believe them. But I believe Michael. Michael is a real actor which is a different kind of thing altogether.
AP: How difficult was it to put a human face on something as taboo and hard to talk about in public as sexual addiction?
SM: That was something that was always really interesting to me. When I first heard about the idea of sexual addiction I laughed, you know, like you might do when you first hear about it. It’s similar in the way that you think about a drunk who might piss his pants. Then you realize that this is the same kind of guy who needs a bottle or two of whiskey or vodka just to get through the day, and you realize that it’s something that isn’t funny. And sexual addiction is the same way when you realize that this guy has to have sex every day. It becomes complicated and not really all that funny. You have to put that human face on it, like us.
We don’t have self will. I mean, if we did have self will, the world would be a fantastic place. But it’s not. We take things, break them, and find fixes, and that’s who Brandon is as a character. He’s trying, and I think that’s what’s so endearing about him. I don’t want to use this bollocks, but he’s sort of an anti-hero in that way. I think that’s why I appreciate people having such an affinity or connection with Brandon because on some level they understand him. I think that’s important.
AP: The film gets off to a fast start, thrusting the viewer into Brandon’s life, but other parts of the film seem to linger more naturally. How did you make those decisions for which scenes to do that with? Was it in the script or was that more thought up on set?
SM: Well, I’ll give you an example with the lovemaking scenes. Certain parts of that demanded that things be looked at a bit more in depth on the go, and if the circumstances demanded it. It’s not about being long, because if you’re long the audience will always see the negative in it. Long is long, but not unless it’s a necessity. But when he’s actually trying to make love, it’s something that’s very sexual and beautiful in a way, and that’s essential. But then there’s the theory of that where we have to see him try to make love or attempt to make love and he fails and it turns into fucking which takes about two minutes and it stops being about having any sort of emotional involvement. We have to be there to linger on his attempts to actually make a connection. The awkwardness of that and the first date and their conversation, and running through all that.
AP: You know there’s going to be a lot of controversy around the film, some people are going to love it and some people aren’t.
SM (smiling): Oh good. You know, again, if I make movies that everyone loves I have to question myself, like, “What the hell am I doing?” So if people do like it, then brilliant, and that’s great, but I do truly hope that they are passionate both ways. I think that’s far more exciting.
Shame opens in Toronto December 2, Vancouver December 9, Montreal December 16, and Ottawa January 6.
Top image: Actress Carey Mulligan and director Steve McQueen on the set of Shame. Courtesy Alliance Films.