Steve Mcqueen talks to Donald Clarke about his new film Shame
Intense, private, and fiercely committed, director and artist Steve Mcqueen talks to Donald Clarke about sex addiction, nationality and how Michael Fassbender finishes his sentences
STEVE MCQUEEN has made only two features. But the British director – originally a gallerybased video artist – already has a reputation for delivering material that drags viewers through the emotional mincing machine. Released in 2009, Hunger was a hugely uncomfortable portrait of Bobby Sands’s last days in the Maze Prison. Now, with Shame, Mcqueen presents the grim experience of a sex-obsessed neurotic in an icily stylish version of New York City. Both films feature unsettling performances from Michael Fassbender. Both feel like the work of a fiercely committed film-maker.
The last time I met Steve Mcqueen, a few months after he’d finished work on Hunger, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever make another feature film. He did not approach the subject of the Republican hunger strikes lightly.
“No, no, no,” he says in his nervy style. “I really wasn’t thinking of making another feature. We were all depressed. You digest all that research. You talk to people. You think about the people who were killed and the people who did terrible things to one another. Afterwards, I developed two huge rashes on my arms. That was a reaction to the stress. You just don’t know what it takes out of you.”
Yes, Steve Mcqueen is an intense piece of work. A large man, who speaks with Gatlinggun rapidity, he listens very closely to your questions and analyses every phrase for signs of latent hostility. He cares deeply about what he is doing. Shame never sounded like an obvious follow-up to Hunger. Having made a profoundly troubling film about prisoners starving themselves to death, the director moved on to a drama about a privileged urbanite laid low by his inability to keep his genitals to himself. Fassbender plays some sort of high-ranking creative – possibly an advertising wonk – with a pathological addiction to sex. He hires prostitutes. He relieves himself repeatedly. He eyes up women on the subway.
Some critics have been wary of using the phrase “sex addiction” when describing the film. That term has, after all, become somewhat debased in recent years. Movie stars too often drag it out as a way of justifying their casual promiscuity.
“There is a huge difference between being a sex addict and being promiscuous,” McQueen says. “You are a prisoner of that vice. There are loads of promiscuous people. Good luck to them. This is different. We did research. We talked to people. It’s like the guy who drinks a bottle and a half of whiskey a day. These people sometimes need to relieve themselves 25 times a day.”
To gain a full understanding of this extraordinary, unsettling film, it is important to understand that Mcqueen profoundly believes in the concept of sexual addiction. You could see the picture as depicting a contemporary version of hell. You might think of it as a morality tale. But Mcqueen is serious in his assertion that the protagonist is suffering from a class of illness. I casually point out that one of the film’s notable achievements is to bring a real sense of unease to the sex scenes. It seems like a very moral film.
Nobody could accuse Shame (note that title) of celebrating sexual promiscuity. “If I made a film about a drug addiction you wouldn’t be saying that,” he bristles. I might. “No you wouldn’t! Because you would already think that drug addiction is not good. You would think being an alcoholic is not good. Because you think sex is a good thing you think differently.” He might have a point.
“I do have a point! People are saying: how can you make a film about sex and not make it sexy? Because it’s an addiction! It’s very obvious. And it’s something people don’t want to recognise. Why are you putting us through this? Because it’s a phenomenon.”
Of West Indian descent, Steve Rodney Mcqueen grew up in west London as the son of a hard-working builder (not a London Transport employee, as too many articles still suggest). He studied at Chelsea School of Art before moving on to the increasingly voguish Goldsmiths College. Mcqueen, who beat Tracy Emin and her bed to the Turner Prize in 1999, never convinced (nor wanted to convince, I suspect) as a paidup member of the annoying Young British Artists clan. He spent much of the 1990s abroad. A private man, he has none of the addiction to self-promotion that drove the likes of Hurst. And he clearly has an equivocal relationship with his own Britishness.
Early this year, his OBE was converted into an even more prestigious CBE and one of his most admired early works, featuring postage stamps honouring individual soldiers killed in Iraq, was, with only mild irony, entitled Queen and Country. Yet his first feature film dealt sensitively with volunteers for the IRA.
Shame is a little bit closer to a conventionally structured feature film than was the often wilfully abstract Hunger. There is something like a story arc on dis
play: the protago
nist’s sister, played
“People are saying: how can you make a film about sex and not make it sexy? Because it’s an addiction! ”
by Carey Mulligan, turns up and disturbs his squalid lifestyle. But it still looks like the work of an avant-garde artist. Some takes last a delicious eternity.
Does he see making gallery-based art and shooting features as the same job? “Yes, it’s just a different language – like speaking English and Dutch. Making features is more to do with narrative. The art is not so much about that. It’s like poetry and the novel. You are often saying the same thing but in very different ways.” Steve’s key collaborator in the novelistic strain of his work remains that ubiquitous Kerryman Michael Fassbender.
“We just like each other – which is great. The first time I saw Michael was when he auditioned for Hunger. It was his first lead and my first feature.
“Sometimes I finish a take and, as I approach him, he will say: ‘I know, I know’. He doesn’t need to hear what I was going to say. He finishes my sentences.”
Having picked up the best actor prize at the Venice Film Festival and received ecstatic reviews, Shame looks to have confirmed Steve’s position as a member of the artistic establishment. He’s bristling again.
“All I can say to that is: look at the work. At the end of the day it is just about the work. If they want to give me something then thank you very much.” Agitated and jittery throughout our chat, he begins looking nervously about the hotel room. “How much longer do we have left?” About five minutes, I think.
“Less than that, surely.” Am I wearing him down? “No. I am enjoying it. You’re doing well. Don’t get me wrong? But I just want to save something for the next interview.”
We exchange a few more pleasantries before Fassbender, sweeping in to say goodbye to his chum, rescues him from any further interrogation. The two men leave with relatively warm goodbyes.
What a peculiar genius this Steve McQueen is. Somebody should give him a medal.
Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in Shame