Steve Mcqueen, the Oscar-winning dramatiser of slavery and hunger strikes, is back with something most unexpected: a remake of an ’80s Lynda La Plante heist thriller that ran on TV. But as he explains, Widows couldn’t be any more up his street
Steve Mcqueen makes a boringly conventional move after winning an Oscar for 12 Years A Slave by remaking a Lynda La Plante drama from the ’80s.
When Steve Mcqueen’s 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, he jumped for joy. It was the celebration of a man who took a risk, who told a story without knowing whether anyone would be willing to listen, and found himself vindicated on the world’s biggest stage. The next day, the phone started ringing with offers from Hollywood. “‘Do you want this or that?’” he remembers. “Yeah. That’s alright. But I had an idea what I wanted to do next during the production of 12
Years, before I started shooting. I think I’ve got my own path, and I would like to follow it, if possible.”
So with the Oscar wind behind him Mcqueen set out to make another personal passion project — even if, when he announced his next film, it sounded like the Serious Artist had sold out. Mcqueen wanted to make a heist movie, updated from a 1983 TV drama. The original Widows was a Lynda La Plante mini-series that became a runaway hit, garnering a bigger audience than Coronation Street in the UK at a time when soaps reined supreme. The story of four women whose armed-robber husbands are killed on a job, it sees the men’s victims demanding restitution while the widows are still negotiating their grief. The quartet see only one way out: they team up to complete the men’s next planned break-in, hoping to buy themselves out of trouble.
And unlikely as it might sound, the director has a deep personal connection to the story. While the original is a dark drama about (mostly) middle-aged white women, something about it chimed deeply with the then-13-year-old Mcqueen. “I was having a tough time at school and I identified with these women who were not deemed to be capable of anything and actually were. It resonated, as a black kid in London.
It stuck with me.”
That “tough time” Mcqueen refers to saw him hived off into a non-academic track in school, destined for a life of manual labour in the judgment of the school administration. It’s hard to fathom such an assessment of his abilities, talking to Mcqueen today, as his words rattle along trying to keep pace with the speed of his thought. And it was a decision due, a school official told him decades later, to institutional racism. But that experience is why the young Mcqueen took heart from a tale where people overcome the low expectations of others to succeed.
He’s been talking to Sean Bobbitt, his regular cinematographer, about the possibility of making his own take on Widows for over a decade, during which time his films verged on body horror. His first feature, Hunger, the story of the IRA hunger strikes, and the overwhelming sexual urges of Shame reflected the same themes as many of his art installations: physicality, imprisonment, frustrated communication. The equally tough-to-watch 12 Years A Slave feels of-a-piece in some ways. And for Mcqueen, Widows is just as much a personal work, but also a chance to reach beyond his existing audience to say something about the state of the world right now.
“I would label the film ‘political pop’, because there are things that are a little bit over the top. It’s a movie!” he explains. “I wanted on this picture to [be] something that would entertain, and at the same time enlighten. It’s exaggeration because you’re trying to fit everything into two hours and ten minutes, trying to fit the reality within that. That’s where the pop comes in.”
So Mcqueen relocated the action of Widows from London to Chicago and brought in Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn as his co-writer. “Setting it there was very important to me,” he says. “I’ve been going to Chicago for 20 years. And Gillian knows Chicago. If it was [still set in] London, it wouldn’t work. What happened in the ’70s, that sort of Wild West, it doesn’t occur. But in Chicago, we spoke to clergymen, politicians, policemen, criminals. You speak to someone in the FBI [and] when you walk out the door it’s like The Matrix. You see the city totally different than you did before that conversation. It’s crazy!”
Chicago also came with a legacy of gangsterism (“those Jimmy Cagney movies”, and Al Capone) that added texture, as well as a mixed, but deeply segregated, population. In the film, those divides are represented chiefly by a political race rumbling between the establishment figures of Irish-american family the Mulligans, Tom (Robert Duvall) and his candidate son Jack (Colin Farrell); and gangster-turned-contender
Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry) and his thoroughly gangster brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). But the titular women also reflect the city’s deep divisions, with different ethnic and class backgrounds that make them distrustful of one another.
It’s a rich stew of elements to be stirred into a supposedly simple heist thriller. The final background ingredient was the current, tragic epidemic of gun violence in Chicago that sharpens the environment the widows must negotiate.
“We set the environment in order for them to have a reason, a want and a need. The environment is our present. Our story is very local, but it’s actually global; it’s like looking in a microscope but turning it around to make a telescope.” Then Mcqueen had to find the women to bring it to life.
As his lead, Mcqueen’s first and only choice was Viola Davis. She is, he says, a classic star. “When we think of these movies, we think of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, these amazing heavyweight actors. I don’t even want to talk about female and male. You went with them because there was brain, courage, vulnerability. This is the kind of actress who I wanted to lead this picture, and this one would not have been hired if it had been made in the ’40s or ’50s or whatever, but how times have changed.”
For Davis, the chance to work with Mcqueen was a no-brainer — especially after reading the script. “Veronica is formidable,” she says, “but she has vulnerability also. There are certain women who are closed off to other women, especially if they’re with men who are very powerful, very sexually charismatic like Harry [her husband, played by Liam Neeson]. Because of what her husband does for a living and because of her pain, that can make someone distant. I think someone like that would probably move through their life numb.”
It takes a lot to make her reach out, however reluctantly and often angrily, to a group of other women. But desperation forces her to talk to Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda, a shop owner, and Elizabeth Debicki’s abused Alice. A fourth widow, Carrie Coon’s new mother Amanda, declines Veronica’s summons, and is replaced by Cynthia Erivo’s Belle, the babysitter to
Linda’s two kids.
“It’s one of those strange experiences,” says Debicki, who auditioned for Mcqueen shortly after finishing her turn in The Maids in London. “I get really star-struck with writers. When you sense that there’s some great big juicy brain somewhere,
I get really flummoxed and can’t function. I was really like that when I met Steve, because his films are extraordinary, and all of them have stayed with me so strongly.”
For Michelle Rodriguez, it was a welcome chance to stretch her wings beyond action films, but also to tell a political story with a rich theme of “people who know taking advantage of people who don’t”. What she didn’t expect was how much she liked Mcqueen himself; by the end of their lunch she’d decided she wanted to hang out with him, movie or not. “I thought,
‘Hey man! Let’s go make history.’”
The final piece was Erivo, who makes her film debut here but is already three-quarters of the way to an EGOT, having won an Emmy, Grammy and Tony for her work on Broadway in The Color Purple. “The power she gave was almost like a religious experience, and she definitely brought the energy,” says Mcqueen. He made her first film a welcoming experience: there were flowers when she arrived at her hotel, and periodic phone calls to thank her for her work. “I’m like, you don’t have to say thank you, because you gave me the job. But he wants to make sure that people are okay. It’s nice,” says Erivo.
That relaxed atmosphere was obvious when Empire visited the set in Chicago in June 2017, on shooting day 19 of 51. While their characters were brought together only by necessity, the four actresses spend a lot of time together between takes. It’s a night shoot, the heist itself, and each take is a mad scramble towards a getaway van, heavy duffel bags of loot weighing them down. But when the camera stops, the four-way conversation picks seamlessly back up. They’re all lounging in black combat trousers and work boots, listening to pop music and putting the world to rights. “It’s been surprisingly awesome,” says Davis of their bond. “Not that I didn’t think it was going to be awesome, but I didn’t think it was going to be this awesome. I mean, what a connection of great broads! Just people who are unapologetically themselves. No-one has any filter whatsoever.”
“In a way it’s mirrored these women’s journey,” says Debicki. “When you meet someone, you peg people. I guess we probably all did it, in that way that you do when you start a new job, first day of school. Then that gets torn down and you realise how much more you have in common, and that’s exactly what happens with these women. Art mirrored life, in a funny sort of way.”
“I was having a tough time at school and I identified with these women who were not deemed to be capable of anything and actually were. It resonated, as a black kid in London. It stuck with me.”
Earlier that day, on South Ellis Avenue in the Kenwood district of Chicago, Empire got a close look at the political context of the story, in a large, ivy-covered family home that plays host to the film’s Mulligans. This political backdrop is a Steve Mcqueen addition to the story, a way to examine corruption, racial tribalism and the way that gangs sometimes morph into big-business dynasties. About two blocks in one direction is the Obamas’ Chicago residence (on a barricaded street), and perhaps three blocks in the other is deprived public housing, its proximity demonstrated in one stand-out, unbroken shot of a car journey from a photo op to Jack Mulligan’s campaign base.
Farrell’s Jack is standing for city alderman, a sort of district mayor, after his father Tom’s ill-health has forced a by-election. But Manning’s opposition campaign is gathering steam, and Tom is frustrated that his son isn’t as enthusiastic and ruthless an operator as he’d like.
In their living room, as workmen remodel the house, Jack runs through the laudatory remarks he has prepared for a banquet in honour of his father, as Tom keeps up a steady stream of criticism. “Get to the part where you say that you learned everything from me, and then we can watch the room vomit in unison,” grumbles Tom. It’s a funny, bitter-tinged scene, with Farrell’s Jack increasingly exasperated as he tries to please his father and Duvall cynical beyond reason (“Win the fucking election and quit screwing around!”).
It’s only the second or third day on set for the actors. Farrell’s in smooth-operator mode in his grey suit, grey-peppered temple and sombre politician’s tie; Duvall in an invalid’s cardigan and check shirt, leaning heavily on a cane.
“At one point I said to Robert, ‘Bob, could you please act as if you’re, like, 86?’” laughs Mcqueen. “He said, ‘I am 86!’ I said, ‘Yes, but can you slow down?’” The director takes a minute out to fine-tune a background performance (“He can’t plaster there; there’s plaster already on the wall”) before conferring with the two actors.
“What was wonderful,” says Mcqueen later, “was that I was working with Cynthia Erivo, who’s on her first movie, and at the same time I’m dealing with Robert Duvall, 86 years old. Both of them were nervous, and that was beautiful. Duvall still wants it. Once that fear is gone, that would be the end of it.”
Duvall and Farrell go at each other again. “He’s incorrigible,” Jack shakes his head as Tom hobbles away. It’s a good scene, but one that won’t make the final film.
“I cut that,” Mcqueen says briskly later, by phone. “That speech, we don’t really need that. But those scenes that don’t make it, they set up the actors for other scenes we were building to. Those scenes help people get to that relationship.”
After all, Farrell and Duvall are not the protagonists here (though you’d watch that movie, with its acid father-son bickering); they are the environment. Mcqueen, through shooting and editing, had a simple mantra: “When in doubt, go back to the women.” With so many moving parts — Jacki
“I was working with Cynthia Erivo, who’s on her first movie, and at the same time I’m dealing with Robert Duvall, 86 years old. Both of them were nervous, and that was beautiful.”
Weaver, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal and Garret Dillahunt also have roles — such a focus is the only thing that can hold together this huge narrative. These women have to become an effective gang to survive and, hopefully, more.
In his Best Picture acceptance speech, Mcqueen said, “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live.” It’s that spirit that seems to drive the widows’ crime. The heist is a matter of survival, first, but for each of them the money could also offer a path to a better life. “The heist is a means to an end,” explains Debicki, “and the end is so much more meta than money.” The money could allow her Alice to escape her mother’s influence and be independent for the first time in her life; it would give Belle and Linda enough to provide for their children.
Despite their racial, cultural and class differences, then, the quartet eventually snaps together. “All of us coming together at first makes no sense, and then makes complete sense,” is how Davis sums it up. It’s people in truly dire straits, with human responsibilities and needs, working reluctantly together to steal some money. This couldn’t be further from an Ocean’s film.
“I don’t want to call it a heist movie because I don’t even know what that means,” says Mcqueen. “I can’t even think in those terms. They have to achieve this. That’s what makes an amazing pressure cooker for a movie. In fact [the genre] was quite helpful. There was a train that was leaving the station, and it had to end up over there. So you had a destination. How do I do this, and this? It’s a wonderful puzzle in a way. It felt like it was making itself.”
That’s an idea that Mcqueen keeps coming back to. Before each shoot, he has a tradition of giving his regular DP Sean Bobbitt a book that sums up something about the film that he wants to convey. This time, it was a book on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the art of finding joy in the moment and beauty in imperfection. It’s a philosophy that contributes to the sprawling connections of the story, the many tendrils of family, class, race, religion and politics that shape the women, but it even links to the decision to use some 60-odd real locations rather than the controlled environment of sets.
“What’s beautiful about that is that I’m not going to put my stencil onto any situation,” enthuses Mcqueen. “I’m going to allow it to happen. To me it’s a tai chi picture. I have an idea but if it’s telling me something else I’m going to do that. So these locations actually dictate the film to you. Maybe tomorrow if I reshot the picture it would be a totally different picture. You have to trust.” That idea of trust, and respect, and a light hand, are also recurring themes when talking to his cast. Rodriguez says he “walks into something with respect before… ego — and I know egos! I make macho movies.” Debicki talks about him being “creative and supportive”; Davis simply says, “He honours us because he listens to us.”
Perhaps his lightness of touch reflects a certain wariness, even now, about calling himself a filmmaker — a fear that even now, someone will deem him incapable, like the widows. “I’m an amateur,” he claims. “I’m an amateur. I’m not professional at anything. I’ll have a go. I’ll do my best.” From another Oscar and Turner Prize winner it might seem like false modesty, but Mcqueen doesn’t seem the type.
Yet as he reaches out “to engage with everybody” and venture into more apparently mainstream territory without losing the seriousness of purpose that always informed his work, Mcqueen’s path is taking him somewhere new. He’s stepping on to a bigger stage and, in his choice of cast, genre and political subplots, reaching out to a wider audience with a louder message than ever. The decision to make Widows was not selling out: it’s as much a passion project as anything he’s done before. But following his own path through the mean streets of Hollywood, living and not just surviving as a popular filmmaker, is going to be his biggest challenge yet.
WIDOWS IS IN CINEMAS FROM 22 NOVEMBER
Clockwise from main: Sisterhood: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Veronica (Viola Davis), Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) formulate a plan; Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson); The masked allies are ready for action; Director Steve Mcqueen behind the camera.
Clockwise from left: Belle goes undercover; Corrupt politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) tries to hold on to his seat; Veronica pays her last repects to her deceased husband; Violent crook Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya, right) gets down to a threatening level.