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I've Read Steve McQueen's "Shame" Script, And, Well, It's A Lot Like "Hunger"

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by Tambay A. Obenson
May 11, 2011 3:20 AM
19 Comments
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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.

Stay tuned...

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19 Comments

  • Lenore Norrgard | November 14, 2013 8:48 AMReply

    Thanks for this review.
    I'd love to read any of his scripts, especially 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Any tips on where to find them? Thanks!

  • Jarand Breian Herdal | August 8, 2012 2:59 PMReply

    Oh wow, give the guy some credit, he wrote something you read through, so it must have been a little interesting- and the whole dying thing; we're talking about McQueen, a guy who's not a very literal. So "Death" can mean a whole lot, in "his language".

    Just watched Shame for the 4th time, and admire it out of this world. I have yet to see Hunger, which I'm looking forward to ;)

    Anyway, it's nice to hear thoughts from people who have just read a script. Did you end up liking it?

  • Peter | April 17, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    I've read some pretty awful scripts that have plenty of dialogue- and attempt plot for the sake of it. After which, nothing is gained, a glamorous romantic story has failed and is pointless- like so many films that fill our cinemas. Shame is a wonderful example of a film maker telling a story through the power of film language, and this is evident in the script. The lack of conventional pace is enthralling, and I really cannot bear it when script readers and fans do not understand that this is an important progressive style for scripts, and suggest cutting scenes because they, mostly, cannot fault anything else.

  • Farrah | October 3, 2011 11:41 AMReply

    Fassbender likes ethnic women. That is probably why his love interest is black in the movie.

  • octavio | September 13, 2011 9:25 AMReply

    Vanessa, not everyone have seen Inglorious Bastards or Hunger. Films don't need to have a "best before date" like the products on the supermarket, where you have to consume them until that date and after they are thrown out and stop existing to the public. These films do exist in the market. They are out there in DVD, reruns on film theaters, online, Tv, etc...

    And also, why he is talking about Fassebender and how he dies in both films? Isn't something implied there...?

  • tmack | September 13, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    I loved Hunger and have watched it quite a few times. McQueen is one of the few directors who can marry art with narrative to create a compelling drama. He uses the visual where other directors rely on music to tell a story.

    I'm not surprised that McQueen's script would be somewhat boring for the reason that speech is used so sparingly while the visual supplies the cues.

    Does anyone know when this film will be released?

    And about that spoiler--you know, sometimes people have to grow into their curiousity to see a film. I watched Bladerunner for the first time this year! And I'm middle aged. Another thing--what does the resolution of Fassbender's characters in those films have to do with Shame? Or anything else, for that matter?

  • Vanessa Martinez | September 1, 2011 11:23 AMReply

    @Octavio and @John

    I'm confused...what spoiler? the Fassbender characters dying at the end of "Hunger" and "Inglorious Bastards"? He's NOT talking about the Shame script. Please read thoroughly before making these assumptions.

  • john | September 1, 2011 2:23 AMReply

    Thanks for the spoiler--NOT.
    Damn.
    I'm looking to see the film at TIFF and I stopped reading your post as soon as I saw the first spoiler...

    You could warn us or something!

  • Kate Taylor | August 24, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    Does anyone have a good link to the script? I'd like to take a read, but i can't seem to find a decent link. Please and thank you! :)

  • octavio | August 14, 2011 3:09 AMReply

    Yes, you are spoiling when you revealed that both characters die in the end. Or do you think that everyone saw the films???
    I find that disrespectful of your readers, and so you just lost one.

  • Tamara | May 17, 2011 2:49 AMReply

    Had to return to this thread and say that I watched "Fish Tank" this weekend and was/am blown away by the quiet intensity and uncomfortableness of that feature. I'm so looking forward to "Hunger" (up next in my queue). I'm on a Fassbender kick and I also want to observe Steve McQueen's directing/aesthetic/etc.

  • Neziah | May 13, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    "Hunger" was a powerful and disturbing film that was unique and different, so I'm looking forward to this.

  • ladyb | May 12, 2011 3:51 AMReply

    @Lynn ...If one is doing a sex scene especially in a movie that is likely to be Rated R, I think Its pretty much expected.

  • Lynn | May 11, 2011 11:24 AMReply

    U said, Nicole Beharie will be in one of those sex scenes.

    I hope she doesn't take off her clothes and turns into a slut. I would be really disappointed she is actually a great actress Juilliard graduate and everything.

    I hope she doesn't go the Halle Berry "Monsters Ball" path in choosing roles.

  • Vanessa | May 11, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    @Chris : “I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying he dies in the end?” Jesus.


    He was talking about Fassbender in both Hunger and Inglorious Bastards NOT the Shame script.

  • chris | May 11, 2011 9:21 AMReply

    "I don't think I'll spoil anything by saying he dies in the end?" Jesus.

  • Tamara | May 11, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    (as I already noted, McQueen is a strict adherent of the Film School 101 approach of showing and not telling)

    I love this approach in film. In narrative.

    Thanks for the summation. I haven't seen Hunger, but I will and other McQueen features... And this Fassbender character, *cough* actor. Intrigues me. *off to Netflix*

  • L | May 11, 2011 5:53 AMReply

    I disagree with you on the parallels. There are some similarities to Hunger but it's a very different story. Hunger wouldn't have worked without strong actors and Shame has the same component.

    Michael Fassbender doesn't need much screen time with an actress to create heat. I don't think McQueen making the woman he falls in love with another race is a big deal in the scheme of things. I'm looking forward to seeing what Nicole Beharie brings to the part and it could definitely be a good boost for her career. Plus it's always great to see some diversity in a movie. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, New York City is not lily white and multiracial dating does occur in America.

    Carey Mulligan will definitely be a scene stealer and I agree about the actors elevating the material. I'm sure there have been changes made to the final script, but I hope they didn't change too much.

  • Vanessa | May 11, 2011 5:17 AMReply

    Being a fan of Fassbender, Mulligan and Beharie, this film will be treat to watch. Fassbender is engaging on screen. Loved him in Fish Tank. Great movie Tambay, check it out.

    I think Marianne's character having a child had a purpose. It freaked out Brandon a little more, since he wouldn't know how to have a family let alone a relationship with a woman.

    It served to show more of his inner conflict, especially when he thought of father/son relationships given his childhood past. That's what I got from that.

    Anyways, If this was played by someone else, I wouldn't care so much. I like Fassbender and his acting. Also, this will be major Oscar bait for Mulligan at least. I am soo curious how this film will turn out visually. ;-)

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