Steve McQueen has a reputation for not suffering fools lightly; fiercely intelligent, and with a background in visual arts rather than the film ‘industry’, he can come across in interviews as a bit stand-offish. So when a journalist opens my Venice Film Festival round table interview by asking him if he ever thought about changing his name (“no really,” she pushes, “because of, you know, Steve McQueen!”) you can see the circle of journalists visibly wince, ready for the implosion of our interview. It’s not as if this towering black man, a video artist, is going to be confused with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed American action star (who is, besides this, dead). “No, no…” the director says, nonplussed. “Next question?” And it seems almost miraculous that he goes on to give such a considered, open and even vulnerable account of himself, the film, and his process.
McQueen shot to cinematic prominence a few years back with his debut feature Hunger – a stylishly executed, visually stunning and profoundly moving portrait of the last days of Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands, starring Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender. His follow-up, Shame, inhabits the other end of the cultural spectrum – decadent uptown New York – and tackles a very different kind of torment: sex addiction. The film’s protagonist, Brandon, is attractive, virile, successful and charming; but like an alcoholic, he is completely at the mercy of his addiction. Whereas Sands uses his body as a vehicle for protest, Brandon (also played by Fassbender) uses his body as a weapon against himself, in a joyless cycle of sexual self-abuse and shame.
“Both these men are antiheroes,” says McQueen. “I was interested in that – and also interested in what’s going on with technology, and sex. It’s interesting how things are changing how we are introduced to sex. It’s all around us. I did an interview in the [Festival] tent the other day, and there were two girls walking around in white mini-skirts, selling beer. And that’s the norm, now, of course. And that’s obvious – but in some ways I wanted to investigate how it’s affecting us as individuals.”
McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan did intensive research into sex addiction, including interviews with addicts. “Shame was the word that was cropping up all the time through interviewing people who had this kind of affliction,” says the director. “What would happen is they would go on a sort of ‘sexscapade’, and when they came out of it they experienced a wave of shame. And then what they would do to get out of the shame was do it all over again. I think we all have our own shame, in a way… and I wanted the film to be almost like a silent dog whistle going off in the room – everyone knows but no-one’s actually going to talk about it…”
Shame received the NC-17 rating (often deemed a box office kiss of death) for its US release, and a R18+ in Australia. “Hunger wasn’t released in Spain and it wasn’t released in Italy; the reason it wasn’t released in those two territories was male frontal nudity. I mean, you know, how many sculptures, how many paintings in both those countries…? It’s ridiculous...” McQueen protests. “As long as it’s not irresponsible in what it’s trying to do – I mean, I’m not interested in trying to do slasher movies or snuff films or pornography – but if it’s not irresponsible, what’s the problem? I mean we’re all adults.”
Speaking of male frontal nudity – McQueen says there was never any question about casting Fassbender. “[My relationship with him] is very special. There’s a real kind of understanding, and a close-ness, and I’m extraordinarily grateful for it. It’s one of those things, it’s like falling in love – it doesn’t happen very often. He’s extraordinarily generous; when he’s on set, he gets on with everyone – he has a wonderful way of putting people at ease. And as an actor? Personally in this film I feel that he’s moved acting on – he’s not ‘acting’, he’s doing something more than that. You believe him.”
Casting Brandon’s sister Sissy, however, proved more difficult. “Somehow [Carey Mulligan] got hold of the script, and then she met me and I had a conversation with her where I wanted to get away as quickly as possible,” McQueen admits, wincing. “But then she forced me to stay, and we had a conversation – and I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s go for it.’ On the spot, I gave her the role. I did that with James Badge Dale as well. Actually the casting of Nicole Behari (the woman who Brandon has an affair with) was very difficult, because they didn’t want me to cast a black woman in the film. They said it ‘wouldn’t happen’, and that ‘that doesn’t exist’. I said, ‘Well I exist!’ It was a very odd situation.”
“I love working with actors,” McQueen enthuses. “I love being their supporter – making an environment for them that is safe, so that they can be free [to experiment]. … You want it to be like a sphere – so that whatever happens, it doesn’t matter which way they roll, it’s perfect. You have to work to get to that situation [but once you’re there] whatever they do in that take is perfect – because they’ve worked to create this character, and their situation.”
BY DEE JEFFERSON
Shame is out now on DVD through Transmission Films.