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

Empire (Australasia) - - Contents - WORDS HE­LEN O’HARA

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.


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.

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