On the Chicago set of Steve McQueen’s elec­tri­fy­ing thriller, aka Women On The Verge Of A Ner­vous Break-in.

Total Film - - Contents - Words James mot­tram

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.”

Car­ry­ing on

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.

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