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

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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

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