It may be should be somewhat of a coincidence that I found myself reading Steve McQueen’s script for his next film, Shame, currently in post-production, at the same time as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. I say that because these two filmmakers couldn’t be more different in terms of style – for example, when one considers how each chooses to use dialogue; Tarantino revels in it; while in McQueen’s universe, the images almost solely tell the story.
Another stark difference between the two lies in each filmmaker’s visual and tonal presentation; Tarantino’s panache, with music being practically its own character, versus McQueen’s quiet minimalism – both unapologetic and unrelenting in their opposing methods, with their assured hands being one of their few commonalities.
One other thing they have in common is that they’ve both worked with Irish actor Michael Fassbender – the star of McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, and one member of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds ensemble cast. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything by saying Fassbender’s character in both films (one based on a real-life person, the other fictional) dies in the end.
On his experience working with both directors, Fassbender contrasts them, noting, in a previous interview with Slant, McQueen’s directorial process as being much more loose and organic, compared to Tarantino’s intensity and precision.
Like Tarantino, McQueen is what we’d call an acquired taste; there’s rarely a middle, with both filmmakers dividing audiences between those that absolutely love their work, and those who don’t. And also like Tarantino, McQueen’s script for Shame doesn’t shift very much, in terms of style especially, from what he’s done previously. There are trademarks choices Tarantino makes that essentially travel with him from one film to the next – the aforementioned reliance on dialogue to help shape character and story for example.
And McQueen’s Shame reads very much like his debut feature, Hunger; so, if you loved Hunger, you’ll probably also love Shame; if you didn’t care for Hunger’s experimental, stark, minimalist style, then I doubt you’ll care for Shame.
McQueen is first and foremost a visual artist; that’s where his roots lie. You’re more likely to find his work, which, as I already noted, are experimental in nature, in art galleries and museums, than at movie theaters. That is the milieu in which he studied and worked for 15 to 20 years, winning awards along the way, before making his first film, Hunger, in 2007 – a film that, when it premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, was met with both walkouts and standing applause! Like I said, polarizing. And that was just his first film. I anticipate a similar simultaneous reaction to Shame, as already noted.
The 118-page script for Shame laconically tells the tale of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, in a re-teaming of the director/actor duo, a 30-something man, living in New York City, who has trouble controlling and managing his sexual compulsions. His almost minute-to-minute preoccupation with fucking is a concern – both for himself and the reader/audience as well. From prostitutes, to porn, to masturbation, to thinking about prostitutes, porn and masturbation, Brandon at first seems to be in some sort of lust-filled prison.
But then, you think about it a little further and realize that he’s really not all that different from the average young, virile male, is he? :)
However, it’s not quite what may seem like the carefree, jovial salacious thrill that all I’ve said thus far might suggest; far from it! There’s a definite melancholic undercurrent that pervades the script, from the beginning. You understand that there’s probably something else going on with Brandon, something which will be revealed eventually… at least you hope so; you hope so because, for much of the 118-page script, very little more than what I’ve already written thus far, actually happens!
Brandon has a corporate job that he goes to daily, but, that’s mostly peripheral to the core story. Although, he falls for one of his co-workers Marianne, to be played by Nicole Beharie, who happens to be a single mother of a 4-year-old-boy. However, she actually features a lot less in the story than I thought her character might, just so you know. In short, she likes him, and he seems to like her, but he’s struggling to make a connection with her, despite how available she makes herself to him.
The 3rd character that features prominently in the story is Brandon’s younger sister, Sissy, to be played by Carey Mulligan, an aspiring vocalist, who unexpectedly drops in for an extended stay in Brandon’s apartment, and the usual brother/sister peaks and valleys play out; although, she plays a vital part in the startling revelations that occur in the film’s denouement – something of a “surprise ending.”
So, as I said, much of the 118-page script captures the minutiae of Brandon’s daily life, as he, for the most part, travels from home, to work, to the bar/club, whether with colleagues or alone, and back home; moments are interrupted with impromptu flirting, fucking, watching porn, reading adult magazines, masturbating, all while angling on items, people and scenarios that may at first seem insignificant, and none-essential to plot/character development.
It’s plodding, moving at an unforgiving pace that’ll either turn you off after about 50 pages, at which point you’ll probably want to stop reading the script, or the expectation/hope that there’s an eventual payoff will encourage you to keep turning the pages until the end.
Obviously, I stuck with it all the way through, although, I’ll admit that it was a challenge. McQueen gives us little reason to really care for and invest in his lead character. In fact, there were moments when I was actually annoyed with Brandon (or how Brandon is depicted). His actions are repetitious, and mostly self-destructive, and I had no idea where it was all going, but trusting the writers, and hoping that there would be some moment of clarity; or maybe a shift in momentum; a swift kick in the ass to the story. But nothing; not for awhile anyway.
Since Brandon rarely speaks (as I already noted, McQueen is a strict adherent of the Film School 101 approach of showing and not telling), we are left with trying to understand him and what his raison d’etre is, based on how he acts and what he does, whether to himself or others. And since his life, as presented in the first 2/3 or so of the script, is really a series of, as I said, repetitious, mostly self-destructive actions, and very little changes in and around him that really energizes the story, it was a challenge for this reader to maintain interest.
The “shocking” (although it may not be for some) revelation that happens towards the end, which answers the “why” question wasn’t as satisfying for me. I had a “that’s it?” kind of reaction. Not to trivialize the gravity of what is revealed, but I guess I expected something else, or even something more, and sooner, given how much time I’d already spent in the previous 90-100 or so pages, with Brandon and his neuroses.
As with the last McQueen film, I’d expect this one to be well-photographed. At the very least, given his background, this should be beautiful and interesting to look at. The performances should also be strong, given the cast (Fassbender, Beharie and Mulligan notably); it’s also, maybe not-so surprisingly, quite frank in its depictions of sex scenes, with lines like “Brandon bangs the life out of a pretty honey, doggy style, her tits pressed up against the glass of the window;”
And, yes, Nicole Beharie is involved in one of those sex scenes, although, not the one I just referenced. But, as I said, she doesn’t feature heavily in the film; it’s really more about Brandon, his sister Sissy, and their shared history. In the script, she's not described as black, so I'm guessing McQueen and his co-writer planned on casting whomever they felt was the most suitable and interesting actress for the part.
So, overall, I think it could be about 30 pages shorter, making it a 90-minute movie, instead of nearly 2 hours, and I really don’t think it would lose any of its substance. The point of it all would still be made and understood.
Again, if you're already a fan of McQueen's style, you should love this film; and if you're not, it probably won't win you over. I'd suggest you first watch Hunger, his first film, if you haven't already, to give you an idea of what I'm talking about here.
It’s currently in post-production, and I hear that Shame will likely make its world debut at the Venice Film Festival in late August, early September. So, I won’t be surprised if we see our first trailer in the next couple of months.