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Steve McQueen Discusses His Short-Hand With Michael Fassbender, The Influence Of Pasolini On 'Shame' And His Fela Kuti Biopic

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 1, 2011 at 12:03PM

Not every filmmaker has a background as a controversial, award-winning artist. But film has always been intrinsic to Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen's work  -- 1997's "Deadpan," for instance, recreated Buster Keaton's legendary collapsing building stunt in "Steamboat Bill Jr." -- so his movement into feature filmmaking always felt like a natural shift, and it was no surprise that when it came with 2008's "Hunger," it would be one of the most indelible films of that year.
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Steve McQueen Interview

Not every filmmaker has a background as a controversial, award-winning artist. But film has always been intrinsic to Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen's work  -- 1997's "Deadpan," for instance, recreated Buster Keaton's legendary collapsing building stunt in "Steamboat Bill Jr." -- so his movement into feature filmmaking always felt like a natural shift, and it was no surprise that when it came with 2008's "Hunger," it would be one of the most indelible films of that year.

His sophomore feature, "Shame," has caught the popular imagination to an even greater extent, despite the specter of some fairly explicit sexuality and the albatross of an NC-17 rating around its neck. But with distributor Fox Searchlight working hard to strip away the stigma of the Adults Only tag, the film is looking like it'll reach an even wider audience than "Hunger," and should figure into the awards discussion in a big way as the year comes to an end. We spoke to McQueen a few weeks back about his film, its difficult subject matter, and his relationship with star Michael Fassbender, who he'll be working with again on his next project, the Brad Pitt-produced and starring "Twelve Years A Slave," with Chiwetel Ejiofor. Check out the highlights below. "Shame" goes into limited release starting December 2nd.

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The film was inspired, in part, by Pasolini's "Teorama"
After the tough, grueling experience of "Hunger," McQueen had no particular desire to rush back into making a movie. But a meeting with playwright/screenwriter Abi Morgan ("The Hour," "Brick Lane"), fired him up again. "I didn't know Abi, she wanted to meet me. We had maybe 45 minutes, and three and a half hours later, we were still talking," he said. "It's one of those things where you meet someone and you just hit it off, it's actually quite a rarity. I wasn't meeting a writer, that's not my thing, but Abi was so great, you could just vibe. We started talking about the internet, about pornography, and arrived at sex addiction."

Furthermore, McQueen was reminded of a favorite film, from a very different director to himself. "Before that, I loved that Pasolini film, with Terence Stamp, where he sleeps with an entire family (1968's 'Teorama'). I liked the idea of that concept. This was the first thing I got passionate about after 'Hunger,' because I wasn't really looking to make a film again. The subject matter has to really ignite you, if you're going to give two years of your life to something, it has to be something that gives you passion."

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While he was attracted to the subject matter, he didn't come in with any preconceived ideas.
Many directors begin projects with specific points-of-view, or a statement that they want to make about a subject. For McQueen, however, it has to derive organically from the material itself. "What I don't want to do, in any situation, is come along and put my stencil onto a subject. I don't approach something with an intent beforehand. The subject must give me what it wants. It was just a very intriguing thing about human beings, something that we're all related to in some degree. For most people, it's something exotic, but it's very familiar in other ways. "

Despite the pre-release hype, it isn't merely a film about sex addiction.
Ever since its Venice premiere, "Shame" has raised eyebrows for its unusually frank and explicit depiction of sexuality. But the film's riches go far beyond that, as McQueen explains, it's not some piece of titillation. "Sex addiction is as much to do with sex as alcoholism is to do with being thirsty. And people are picking up on that. Because the first initial thing is 'What's the scenario?,' but when people see the movie, the screen becomes a mirror, reflecting the people in the cinema. In some ways, you see yourself. I'm interested in making movies about a certain kind of reality. What we've done, in some ways, is have a dog whistle go off in the cinema. It's the elephant in the room, basically."

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This reflection extends to the characters' obliquely-drawn backstory.
It's clear from the way that Brandon (Fassbender) and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) behave that they share something troubled in their past, but McQueen and Morgan never give concrete answers as to what it is. This was deliberate, again allowing the film to shed light on its audience. "It stimulates the viewer," the director says of his refusal to provide easy answers, "because they recognize it. When we talk about the background of Sissy, or Sissy and Brandon, you can imagine. You walk in with your history, your baggage, and you could have an understanding of what happened. It doesn't make it an excuse for doing what he's doing, but obviously something's happened in the past. The reason I wanted to do that was to make it familiar, but not recognizable. When you meet someone for the first time, most of the time they present their best to you. But sometimes the past is reflected in the present. When Brandon discovers Sissy in the bathroom, you see some kind of past in the present, when Sissy sings to Brandon in the club, you see the past in the present."

In fact, the only reason that the film has proven such a talking point is that so few films discuss sexuality in an open way.
The film's title, "'Shame," feels particularly appropriate -- with the MPAA so tough on sex and sexuality, McQueen sees it as a real taboo, particularly when it comes to the matter of addiction. "Everyone has difficulty talking about sex," the director told us. "For me, it reminds me of AIDS victims in the early 1980s. People didn't want to talk about it, people didn't want to associate themselves with it, there was a huge shame. And that's what happened here. Of course it's an addiction, like alchohol, or drugs, or food, or whatever. Because it's another high, another way to escape. But because of our relationship with sex, it's very difficult to deal with. It's not about being promiscuous. When you have a sitation when you have to relieve yourself twenty times a day, that's something else. When the thing controls your life, then it's an addiction."

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McQueen has developed such a shorthand with Michael Fassbender that the director didn't even need to speak to him to give direction.
"Hunger" was the role that pushed Fassbender's star to the fore, leading to his casting in "Inglourious Basterds" among others, and the Irish/German actor's Oscar-tipped turn in "Shame" seems to have cemented his presence on the A-list. As McQueen tells us, he was the only actor he considered for the part. "Of course, he was the first person I thought of. After 'Hunger,' we remained close, it was one of those things, he was the only one who could have done this movie. There's a lot of actors out there, but very few artists, and I think Michael is an artist. He just needs to have the right situation."

Indeed, between the two films, the pair have now developed something close to telepathy in their working relationship, with the actor now able to anticipate McQueen's direction before the helmer has said anything. "We do have a shorthand, which is weird, and weird to talk about. He would do a take, and it would be not exactly what I wanted, and I'd walk up to him, and as soon as I walked up, he'd be 'Yeah, I know.' We'd grunt and groan a lot, it's like falling in love, it's shocking and surprising. When it happens, you hold on to it, and it's something I'm grateful to have."

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The director cancelled a planned week of rehearsals after only two days, because he didn't want the actors to become too comfortable.
The ability to rehearse actors these days is a rarity, with the days of Sidney Lumet taking two weeks with his cast long gone. McQueen managed to book a substantial amount of time with his two stars, but, in even more of a rarity, decided early on that it wouldn't be necessary. "We blocked about ten days of rehearsal, but after the second day, I stopped it, because the plane was already taking off the runway."

Despite being the indie wing of a massive studio, at no point have Fox Searchlight asked McQueen to cut his film.
The first question that emerged after the film screened in Telluride was would any distributor pick the film up with an NC-17 all but certain, and would they try and cut the film down for a wider audience? Fox Searchlight won out, and McQueen says that the thought has never come up. "I have never had a conversation with Fox Searchlight about NC-17, I have never had a conversation with Fox Searchlight about changing or altering the movie in any shape, form, way or manner, and hats off to Fox Searchlight, they're amazing." Not that he would have relented had they asked: "I don't alter anything, what I do is what I do, and I'm grateful that they respected the movie."

As for the MPAA itself, McQueen is diplomatic, but does discuss the huge disparity between the level of violence in R-rated films, and the sex which is so often awarded an NC-17;  "I've never held a gun in my hand, ever, in my life, I've never shot anyone, but that is the norm, that can be put into cinemas not as an NC-17, but people having sex, which the majority of people in this country have done, is something which is not allowed to be shown. To be human, to be normal, to have a problem trying to exist in this world, is not meant to be shown, but the most extraordinary acts of violence are. It's not a criticism of the board, it's just how we live. This movie is a responsible movie, not an irresponsible one. You get movies at NC-17 which are totally irresponsible, but this is a responsible one."

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Steve McQueen still hopes to make his gestating biopic of Fela Kuti.
Announced a couple of years back as McQueen's potential follow-up to "Hunger" was an untitled biopic of legendary African musician-turned-politician Fela Kuti (already the subject of a hit Broadway musical) which would star the great Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role, and was set up at Focus Features. While "Shame" ended up going first, McQueen tells us that the Fela film is still an ongoing concern. "It's happening, it's going, it's just some things happen before others. I'm very, very, very, very -- and please write down how many verys I said -- very, very, very excited about the possibility of getting that happening with Focus. More than likely after 'Twelve Years A Slave.' We've done a lot of research, I'm dead excited about getting that done. It's just that sometimes these things take time, but it means you can get it right." We're just as excited as McQueen is about the project (which he also confirmed Ejiofor is still involved in), and hope that we won't have to wait too long. 

Interview by RP

This article is related to: Shame, Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan, Fela Kuti, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender