Time Out Abu Dhabi - - THE BIG INTERVIEW -

YOU WOULDN’T NEC­ES­SAR­ILY ex­pect the di­rec­tor of 12 Years a Slave to fol­low it up with an adap­ta­tion of a TV se­ries Àrst shown in the UK in the 1980s, but artist-turned-àlm­maker Steve Mcqueen didn’t win a Turner Prize by be­ing pre­dictable.

Wi­d­ows is a Chicago-set crime drama about four wives who plot a heist af­ter their hus­bands die. It speaks elo­quently about grief, pol­i­tics, gen­der, race and more – as does Mcqueen. Se­ri­ous, strong-minded and pas­sion­ate about his work, he strikes you as a man who wants to com­mu­ni­cate with his au­di­ence, mind­ful of art’s po­ten­tial for change.

Why did you choose to tell this story?

When I was 13 years old I saw this TV show, Wi­d­ows, and I iden­tiàed with these women. I was a black child in Lon­don and these were women who were deemed in­ca­pable. They were judged by their ap­pear­ance. I was judged by my ap­pear­ance, but in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way. It stayed with me for 35 years.

It’s won­der­ful to see Vi­ola Davis in a glam­orous cen­tral role.

Think about Katharine Hep­burn, think about Joan Craw­ford, think about Greta Garbo, these in­cred­i­ble icons of cin­ema. I think Vi­ola is the same. I didn’t have a race in mind when I was think­ing of Wi­d­ows. I just spoke to a few peo­ple and Vi­ola was the one I wanted to work with on this project.

Why did you move the story from Lon­don to Chicago?

I wanted to put it in a mod­ern, height­ened city, and that was Chicago. Crime was never far away from us. Within 15 min­utes, you go from rich to poor.

How was co-writ­ing with [Gone Girl author] Gil­lian Flynn?

Gil­lian’s very mus­cu­lar, a great artist, and I wanted to col­lab­o­rate with her. It was easy from day one, it was like that [snaps Àngers]. It all had to re­fer back to the women. If in doubt, go back to the women. That’s what the movie’s about. More broadly, it cov­ers race, cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics, re­li­gion – all kinds of power and po­lit­i­cal de­vices. I was al­ready de­vel­op­ing things when Gil­lian came into the cre­ation, and she was just amaz­ing. We’re each as tough as the other, so that was great, hav­ing a per­son to throw things at and for things to be thrown at me. We were grap­pling and com­ing up with ideas. It wasn’t a case of what this per­son could pro­vide and what the other per­son would pro­vide; it was ac­tu­ally, have we got some kind of syn­ergy? And we did.

Did you talk to Lynda La­plante, who cre­ated the orig­i­nal se­ries, as well?

I did, I did. The funny thing about Lynda La­plante is that I met her at Buck­ing­ham Palace – as you do! There was an event for the Queen, and then some of us were taken for a sort of pri­vate au­di­ence with the Queen, and she was in the line-up. I asked her, “What hap­pened to that project called Wi­d­ows?” That was in 2014.

So it took an­other three years from that point be­fore you were shoot­ing in Chicago. Yes. I knew I wanted it. The idea popped into my head in 2011, af­ter Shame, be­cause I was in Hol­ly­wood and it was a sit­u­a­tion with all these ac­tors I knew, who were around but weren’t work­ing. I thought, wow. Okay, you’ve been car­ry­ing this for 35 years, this TV pro­gramme, but you had no idea you were go­ing to be a Àlm­maker. You had no idea this would be a Àlm you wanted to make. But then it ob­vi­ously was a big idea and I thought, okay, this could be a pos­si­bil­ity, and that was in 2011. So I started go­ing to Chicago, talk­ing to peo­ple like the FBI, for­mer mem­bers of the crim­i­nal world, politi­cians.

How easy was it to cre­ate the world of Wi­d­ows once you got to Chicago?

It’s re­ally or­ganic. If you take a char­ac­ter like Jatemme [Daniel Kalu­uya], who is so steeped in vi­o­lence he’s numb to it. The Àrst thing you see of him, with those two gen­tle­men he shoots one and the guy is paral­ysed. In the third sit­u­a­tion, you see him, he’s so numb to vi­o­lence that he doesn’t par­tic­i­pate; he just watches TV. So that is a reáec­tion of how vi­o­lence has af­fected so many peo­ple in Chicago.

Let’s talk about the Wi­d­ows them­selves. You’ve lo­cated them all in dif­fer­ent so­cioe­co­nomic lay­ers. How long did it take to place them all in their re­spec­tive worlds?

It was long be­cause, again, the char­ac­ters have to be be­liev­able. I think Belle was the

Àrst one, that was Cyn­thia Erivo. As far as Veron­ica was con­cerned, I didn’t know what race she would be. I had to Àgure that one out. And then Vi­ola was the per­son. She has this grav­i­tas, like those movies that were made in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and were the norm, but now ap­par­ently it’s weird that these peo­ple can carry ma­jor, epic pic­tures. I thought, that’s great, okay, Vi­ola. With El­iz­a­beth, that again was a jour­ney in how this Pol­ish-amer­i­can girl had not been deemed clever, just been used, and that was how that de­vel­oped. It’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause Michelle [Ro­driguez] said no to me at Àrst. So then I had to au­di­tion other women, over 100 of them, and I couldn’t Ànd any­one. I had to go back to her and say, “Can I please meet you?” She said yes and we got on like a house on Àre.

Did you tailor your di­rec­tion specif­i­cally to each ac­tress?

Each is dif­fer­ent and you move to­wards them. Some peo­ple said, “Don’t deal with Michelle Ro­driguez, she’s difàcult”, and I was like, no, I want to meet her and see. Never, ever, ever take what peo­ple say [at face value].

Cyn­thia Erivo is quite a find.

I loved work­ing with her. My cast­ing di­rec­tor brought her to my at­ten­tion and I went to see her in The Color Pur­ple [on Broad­way] and I thought she was amaz­ing, a nat­u­ral. She’s got a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy al­ready. It won’t be too long un­til she gets an Os­car.

You di­rected a Kanye video. What’s he like? Kanye is won­der­ful. Look, like all of us he is a Áawed hu­man be­ing. He’s a guy; he’s a geek; he has ideas he’s bounc­ing off the wall. He tries not to cen­sor him­self and it lands him in trou­ble, but he’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily tal­ented. But yes, he does make big gaffes.

What are your pas­sions, aside from film?

My fam­ily and lit­er­a­ture. I’m read­ing Miles Davis’s [auto]biog­ra­phy for the third time.

He’d al­ways ex­per­i­ment, take risks, and I think that’s the only way one can ac­tu­ally grow. What’s the Sa­muel Beck­ett quote? “Fail again, fail bet­ter.”

→ Wi­d­ows is in cin­e­mas across the UAE from Novem­ber 22.

The fe­male cast of Wi­d­ows

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