On the Chicago set of Steve McQueen’s electrifying thriller, aka Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Break-in.
ith its magnificent mosaic-patterned dome, the Chicago Cultural Center has welcomed royalty, presidents and diplomats. Today, it’s playing host to Widows, the hugely anticipated fourth movie by Britain’s Steve McQueen
– and his first since the Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. Three-hundred extras, all dressed in tuxedos and gowns, are gradually filing in to the Preston Bradley Hall to sit at 20 immaculately laid tables.
Joining them will be Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, playing father and son politicos Tom and Jack Mulligan
– part of the old money elite in a multi-layered story co-scripted by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. “This film is tackling so many subjects, it really is,” marvels Farrell, when he greets Total Film.
“It’s about the heart of Chicago, the heart of America. But it’s about the heart of the civilised world.” He pauses. “There’s a lot of ugliness in this film.”
There’s also a lot of empowerment – “Buzzword of the day,” laughs Farrell’s co-star,
Elizabeth Debicki. But it’s true. As the title suggests, this is not about the men in charge, but the women left behind, after their criminal husbands are killed in an armed robbery. McQueen refers to the quartet of lead female characters as “fingers”. He clenches his hand shut. “Together they make a fist.”
Intriguingly, Widows is based on the ITV series by Lynda La Plante that ran for two series in the mid-’80s. “I had this connection with the women,” remembers McQueen. “They were being judged by their appearance and deemed as not being capable. A 13-year-old black child in London… I was having the same kind of impressions put on me and therefore it just stuck with me – these four women and their journey.”
The idea to adapt Widows came to McQueen after first being courted by the studios. “I remember going to Hollywood and noticing these amazing actresses were not working.” Here was a chance to rectify that. Alongside Debicki, there is Fences Oscar-winner Viola Davis, Fast & Furious star Michelle Rodriguez and British newcomer Cynthia Erivo.
“We could not be any more different,” says Davis.
“We could not be any more unapologetic.”
It’s Davis’ Veronica, a teacher’s union rep, who instigates the meet-up with Debicki’s Alice and Rodriguez’s Linda. Unbeknown to the women, their husbands all worked together, led by Veronica’s partner Harry (Liam Neeson). But when a robbery goes wrong, leaving the men dead and the money up in flames, Veronica is confronted by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree
Henry) – a local gang boss running for election against Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, whose $2m campaign funds were stolen by Harry.
Facing violent recriminations, the only way to repay Jamal, reasons Veronica, is to pull off Harry’s next meticulously planned
$5m job – the blueprints for which have been left in a safety deposit box. But Ocean’s 8 this is not. “The heist is almost like a metaphor for these women surviving and surviving really difficult circumstances,” says Debicki. “Surviving grief, surviving financial difficulties, then actually surviving a super-dangerous experience. It’s life or death.”
While such male-skewed stories would never focus on the characters’ domestic lives, Widows considers the economic realities its women are under. “It’s just interesting how people navigate these domestic worlds,” says McQueen. Linda has two kids to raise and a failing shop to keep open; Alice is so broke, her mother (Jacki Weaver) not-so-subtly hints she should join an online escort service. Even Veronica’s wealth is dwindling. “These are women who were married to men who failed them,” says Davis. “Completely failed them. Now they’re dead, they’re gone. So now they have to make their lives what they will. They have to make their lives. It’s not just about using their body parts or being cute in a scene; it’s about them using their intelligence, using their fortitude, and doing it in community with each other.” They’re also recognisable. “She is a woman that I saw a lot growing up in Jersey City,” says Rodriguez of Linda. “A woman who got pregnant young. Ended up staying with the husband, who’s a bad boy… this character is in many ways what could’ve happened to me very easily had I not been who
I am. I probably would’ve been attracted to the same things. Had a kid early and maybe decided to settle down, because of my life situation.” Newest to the group is Erivo’s Belle, a mother who lives in Chicago’s run-down South Side and works two jobs – as a hairdresser and as
a babysitter. “She doesn’t pull any punches,” says Erivo. “She’s the kind of a woman who has had more of a life than you would expect her to, even though she’s really young.” It’s through minding Linda’s kids that she gets brought into the gang as a driver. “I think she’s an intelligent and resilient woman.”
While Widows has been in development for years, its arrival feels apt at a time when gender rights are high on the social agenda. McQueen is pleased it’s part of the conversation, but calls it “bittersweet” that the film is coming out now. “When I saw this TV show 35 years ago, you expected things to change. But they haven’t. If this film could help in a way to pay attention to this time for women… [then] great, fantastic, excellent.”
Even so, assembling this diverse group was anything but easy. For Veronica, when McQueen cast Davis, he told her to wear her hair naturally. “There is an element in cinema that has erased the dark-skinned woman with the natural hair,” the actress says. “They don’t find her feminine or attractive or sexual or viable. So it’s great he has a 51-year-old dark-skinned woman with her natural hair in the forefront of a movie.”
It’s with these small but ground-shifting moments that cinema can change; McQueen simply wasn’t interested in trusting conventional wisdom. “Michelle Rodriguez, I was very interested in working with her but people were telling me, ‘Don’t work with her, she’s difficult.’ I was like, ‘What’s that about?’ I thought: ‘It’s like me being described as difficult which I often am.’ I’ve been deemed to be a perfectionist. And because she’s a woman who speaks her mind, she’s been deemed as difficult.”
Rodriguez initially turned McQueen down, unconvinced by Linda. “That person reminded me of my mother,” she says. “I was judging her. When I spoke to Steve, he’s like, ‘I really think you have more colours to show the world than what you’ve been doing for most of your career.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I know but I like those colours because they’re strong. And these colours look weak and I don’t like weak.’ We have enough weak in the real world.”
Sweet home Chicago
Back on set, the evening scene – as Duvall’s character is being honoured by the Chamber of Commerce at a glitzy gala dinner – is just beginning. When Duvall arrives, taking his place at a podium to give a speech, the extras spontaneously applaud.
Hunkered down over a monitor, McQueen watches Duvall intently as he runs through Mulligan’s speech. “He turned me down three times!” the director reveals later (it took Francis Ford Coppola to change Duvall’s mind). Fortunately, he takes less persuading to speak to Total Film. “For me it’s a love-hate relationship between father and son,” Duvall explains, “[set] against this city of Chicago, which is one of the most corrupt cities in America, they say.”
McQueen is familiar with Chicago; his first museum show was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art there in 1996. He calls it a “fertile ground” to explore politics, economics, race, religion and gender, a city where the one per cent live in gated communities just round the corner from the deprived. “It doesn’t just reflect Chicago but reflects how we live today,” he says. “We were taking Chicago under a microscope, but if you turn it around, it’s a telescope reflecting the world.”
Nevertheless, Widows shows a city where those in power are desperate to keep it from those that crave it. “I have a line where I say, ‘We made this city. We can’t have it taken away from us by people who come here illegally or people who can’t stop making babies,’” says Duvall, who can’t stop waxing lyrical about a scene he did earlier with Farrell where father and son “fight like crazy”. The Irishman smiles on hearing this. “Oh that’s beautiful. I’m glad he enjoyed it but I shit myself!”
Violence is also sewn deep into the film. For Davis it’s been a guilty pleasure. “I’m not going to lie. I love it!” she cackles. But from Alice suffering domestic abuse to cold-blooded executions handed out by Jamal’s brother Jatemme, played by a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya, the reality isn’t pretty. “Violence brings violence,” shrugs McQueen. “Again, look at Chicago – and how the cops treat black males. It’s a sickness. An epidemic.”
Somehow, McQueen has stirred all of these elements into a “roller-coaster” heist story that’d make Michael Mann proud. Take the opening robbery. “We go from zero to 60 in four seconds! I wanted to throw things around… and just shake up the audience.” Yet amid all the adrenaline, “It’s a lesson for men and women,” says Davis. The housewife “who had your hot meal on the table as soon as you came home and waxed her private parts… she doesn’t exist”. The times, they are a-changing.
‘These are women who were married to men who completely failed them’ Viola Davis
What Women Want Elizabeth Debicki, Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez fend for themselves after the deaths of their husbands, and are joined by single mum Cynthia Erivo. end run Liam Neeson (below) plays the ill-fated partner of Davis (above, left).
open fireSteve McQueen (above) had no problem with Michelle Rodriguez’s ‘difficult’ reputation.