Long live Mcqueen

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - By Guy Kelly Por­trait by Na­dav Kan­der

From Hunger to the Os­car-win­ning 12 Years a Slave,

Steve Mcqueen’s films are vis­ceral and punchy. As his heist thriller Wi­d­ows opens, he talks to Guy Kelly about de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions

From sex ad­dic­tion to slav­ery, Os­car-win­ning film direc­tor and Turner Prize-win­ning artist Steve Mcqueen has made a name tack­ling dif­fi­cult sub­jects. Next up, a re­make of Lynda La Plante’s gritty 1980s clas­sic Wi­d­ows.

As epipha­nies go, it came at as good a time as any. It was Wed­nes­day 16 March, 1983, and a 13-year-old Steve Mcqueen had started to no­tice the world didn’t have high hopes for peo­ple like him. Or, to put it in plainer terms, peo­ple who looked like him.

‘It’s a very crit­i­cal age, it’s when your com­pass sets,’ he says. ‘I have been un­der­es­ti­mated my whole life, that’s just how it is, [but] when you’re a black child grow­ing up in Lon­don, it’s what you learn to ex­pect.’

Mcqueen was at home af­ter school, in the west Lon­don sub­urb of Eal­ing, ly­ing flat on his stom­ach on the liv­ing-room car­pet. His hands were locked in a V-shape, prop­ping up his head. His eyes were fixed on the tele­vi­sion. And it was there, at 9pm, that re­as­sur­ance ap­peared in the un­like­li­est of forms. Namely, as four uber-permed women hell-bent on crim­i­nal re­venge.

The pro­gramme start­ing was Wi­d­ows, a six-part ITV thriller writ­ten by a then-un­tried writer named Lynda La Plante, and its premise was a sub­ver­sion of a fa­mil­iar genre: when some armed rob­bers are killed in a botched raid, their sur­viv­ing wi­d­ows band to­gether and de­cide to fol­low the plans left by one of the de­ceased, Harry, in or­der to com­plete the gang’s fi­nal heist them­selves. Bri­tish au­di­ences had never seen any­thing quite like it. Mcqueen cer­tainly hadn’t. He was en­grossed.

‘I saw my­self,’ he re­mem­bers. ‘I just iden­ti­fied with the women as peo­ple who were deemed to have noth­ing to give. Their value was in their ap­pear­ance and they weren’t seen as ca­pa­ble, just as I wasn’t. Here were some un­der­dogs, de­fy­ing every­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions. That had an amaz­ing res­o­nance for me.’

Steve Mcqueen is now 49, and the artist, screen­writer and film direc­tor re­ally, truly, joy­fully does not care what the world ex­pects of him. Since the late 1990s he has been based in Am­s­ter­dam, where he lives with his wife, the Dutch writer Bianca Stigter, and their two chil­dren, Alex and Dex­ter.

Mcqueen won the Turner Prize when he was just 30. Four years later he went to Iraq as an of­fi­cial war artist. His first fea­ture film, Hunger, about the 1981 strikes by repub­li­can pris­on­ers in North­ern Ire­land, won him the Caméra d’or (the prize for best first-time direc­tor) at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in 2008. He rep­re­sented Bri­tain in the Venice Bi­en­nale the next year. His sec­ond fea­ture, Shame (2011), about a sex ad­dict, was nom­i­nated for two Baf­tas. Three years later, 12 Years a Slave –the true story of a free man, Solomon Northup, who is kid­napped into slav­ery – earned three Academy Awards, in­clud­ing Best Pic­ture, mak­ing Mcqueen the first black direc­tor ever to win Hol­ly­wood’s most pres­ti­gious hon­our. He’s been named in Time mag­a­zine’s list of the 100 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple in the world. He’s been made a CBE…

But he never for­got Wi­d­ows.

‘You carry things in your pock­ets as you go along your jour­ney in life,’ he says. Over the years, it kept re­cur­ring. In Hol­ly­wood in 2011, he no­ticed how many tal­ented ac­tresses weren’t work­ing, and thought again about Wi­d­ows. Then in 2013, while work­ing on 12 Years a Slave, he de­cided he wanted to make some­thing about women next (his first three films had male leads, in­clud­ing Michael Fass­ben­der twice). As luck would have it, the fol­low­ing year he met La Plante in per­son at Buck­ing­ham Palace, dur­ing a re­cep­tion.

‘As you do,’ he says, with a laugh. ‘We had an au­di­ence with the Queen… and Lynda La Plante was lin­ing up – so I said, hello, I’m Steve, all the rest, and I asked what­ever hap­pened to the rights to Wi­d­ows, telling her I’d like to make it into a film…’ He throws his head back to laugh again. ‘Buck­ing­ham Palace! Meet­ing the Queen! True story. Hey, you’ve got to take the op­por­tu­ni­ties when you can, right?’

And he did.

We meet in a suite on the first floor of Clar­idge’s. Mcqueen – head freshly shaven, thick-framed glasses in his hand – wears a pur­ple T-shirt, two-thirds-length track­suit shorts, train­ers, and the kind of navy French worker jacket that’s be­come some­thing of a per­sonal trade­mark. Be­fore en­ter­ing, he pauses at the door to ad­mire a poster for his re­make of the 1983 TV se­ries. It shows the glit­ter­ing cast he as­sem­bled, in­clud­ing the women who an­chor the film: Vi­ola Davis, El­iz­a­beth De­bicki, Michelle Ro­driguez and Cyn­thia Erivo.

‘Looks pretty cool,’ he mut­ters. In the room, he re­moves his jacket, or­ders a cof­fee he will drink within three min­utes, and shakes his arms loose. His wrist­watch is still on Am­s­ter­dam time. ‘OK, all right, let’s do this. Let’s go.’

Liam Nee­son – who plays Harry, the gang leader whose plans his wife, Veron­ica, fol­lows, in the new Wi­d­ows – re­cently said ‘you find your­self want­ing to please Mcqueen’. I can un­der­stand that. He is fault­lessly po­lite, open and cheer­ful, yet he has a way of lis­ten­ing that is so en­gaged, so hon­est, it leaves you feel­ing you’d re­ally bet­ter say some­thing smart or say noth­ing at all.

When Mcqueen hears some­thing he likes, he nods vig­or­ously, stares at the ta­ble, mut­ters that it’s in­ter­est­ing and im­plores you to de­velop that thought (‘Please, con­tinue, go on, that’s good’), re­gard­less of whether you can. When he hears some­thing he doesn’t like, his face will crunch into a scrib­ble of deep frown lines. Com­bine this, in your mind, with

a voice that climbs from es­tu­ary to Ian Mckellen at mo­ments of high emo­tion, and you can imag­ine the ef­fect. It’s both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ex­haust­ing. He would make an abysmal poker player.

When Mcqueen won the Turner Prize in 1999, beat­ing Tracey Emin’s bed, the jury ‘ad­mired the po­etry and clar­ity of his vi­sion, the range of his work, its emo­tional in­ten­sity’. Nine­teen years on, the quote could eas­ily ap­ply to Wi­d­ows, which is as en­ter­tain­ing as any thriller of re­cent years, but shot with more panache than the rest put to­gether. He has an in­nate abil­ity to build ten­sion from noth­ing, play­ing with the rhythms and move­ments of film, then land­ing on still, strik­ing tableaux – a hall­mark iden­ti­fi­able in ev­ery­thing from the early short film Ex­o­dus, shot in 1992, which fol­lowed two men walk­ing down Brick Lane in east Lon­don, to Hunger in 2008.

Like the orig­i­nal, Mcqueen’s Wi­d­ows cen­tres on women bound by the loss of their hus­bands, their grief gal­vanis­ing them to take on an armed rob­bery. In­stead of Lon­don, though, the ac­tion takes place in Chicago in 2018, and Mcqueen some­how finds room around the one-lin­ers and ex­plo­sions for themes as heavy­weight – and rel­e­vant – as struc­tural racism, po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, child­care (rarely has there been a thriller in which armed rob­bers have a babysit­ter short­age), po­lice bru­tal­ity and, above all, misog­yny.

‘It’s us­ing genre to talk about big­ger things,’ he ex­plains. ‘You can ask in­tel­lec­tual ques­tions, but when you put them into the genre, it’s Pan­dora’s Box. You open the door, then BAM. “Where am I?”’

Some were sur­prised when Mcqueen an­nounced the film. ‘I saw an ar­ti­cle say­ing, “Bril­liant direc­tor slums it.” Well, no – it’s rais­ing one’s game and bring­ing it to a broader au­di­ence,’ he says. ‘I want peo­ple to leave still think­ing about the pic­ture. If you’ve got them think­ing even for 30 sec­onds, you’ve won.’

Mcqueen en­listed the best­selling au­thor Gil­lian Flynn (who adapted Gone Girl from her own novel) to co-write the script. Their bond ‘was in­stan­ta­neous… it was like jam­ming’, he says. (He’s a Miles Davis fa­natic; jazz ref­er­ences crop up fre­quently.)

Flynn lives in Chicago, a city Mcqueen first vis­ited with Stigter, when she cov­ered the 1996 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion for a Dutch news­pa­per, and has re­turned to ever since. ‘It’s steeped in pol­i­tics, and it’s also one of the most seg­re­gated cities in the United States. It was a kind of per­fect mi­cro­cosm of the world.’ To pre­pare, they spent weeks speak­ing to the FBI, church lead­ers and lo­cal politi­cians, in­clud­ing the un­pop­u­lar mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and Va­lerie Jar­rett, Pres­i­dent Obama’s for­mer se­nior ad­viser. One of the film’s 60 lo­ca­tions was the hous­ing project on which Michelle Obama grew up.

‘The day be­fore we got there, two peo­ple were shot and one per­son was killed there, so [au­thor­i­ties] erected these 10ft spiked fences,’ Mcqueen re­calls. The de­ci­sion to tackle crime in the area by en­clos­ing the whole space af­fected him deeply.

‘Peo­ple were be­ing caged in, rather than pro­tected. Kids used to run around and now it’s like a prison, with trees cut down for CCTV cam­eras. We vis­ited the area months be­fore, and we could hear the voices of school­child­ren hav­ing a good time play­ing, but they were scream­ing when the fences were go­ing up. It was very heavy, I was very up­set about it.’

One morn­ing, Mcqueen’s nine-year-old son, Dex­ter, joined the other chil­dren. ‘This se­cu­rity guy came up to me and goes, “You need to get your child off the swing, peo­ple are very ter­ri­to­rial around here.” There was an idea about peo­ple there that just wasn’t true.’

He ended up giv­ing a talk to the young peo­ple in the area ‘to learn about what they were do­ing’, and works with var­i­ous in­ner-city char­i­ties. ‘I did what I could do,’ he says, with a shrug.

Wi­d­ows has many fine male per­for­mances – Lon­doner Daniel Kalu­uya (star of last year’s Os­car-win­ning Get Out, though Mcqueen cast him be­fore its re­lease) is par­tic­u­larly men­ac­ing as a vi­o­lent hench­man – but it is the four women who shine.

‘When we first met, we all had din­ner to­gether,’ Mcqueen says. ‘Every­one just let rip, eff­ing and blind­ing. It was like speed dat­ing, in a nanosec­ond every­one was them­selves.’ Cyn­thia Erivo, a Bri­tish ac­tress who won a Tony Award in 2016 for her per­for­mance in The Color Pur­ple , had no pre­vi­ous film ex­pe­ri­ence. Mcqueen had never seen El­iz­a­beth De­bicki act, but bumped into her at a film pre­miere he didn’t want to be at, then heard she was in a play he ad­mired (Jean Genet’s The Maids, in 2014) and of­fered her an au­di­tion. Mean­while Michelle Ro­driguez, a vet­eran of ac­tion movies like the Fast and the Fu­ri­ous fran­chise, had a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ‘dif­fi­cult’ that he found ap­peal­ing.

‘Some peo­ple told me not to work with her, but Michelle was the glue. I think what hap­pens, of­ten, is that peo­ple who are per­ceived as dif­fi­cult are ac­tu­ally just chal­leng­ing.’

And then there was Vi­ola Davis, holder of the ‘triple crown’ of act­ing – an Os­car for Fences last year, an Emmy, a Tony – to lead the gang. For Veron­ica, the wife of Nee­son’s Harry, Mcqueen ‘wanted some­body who had com­mand and grav­i­tas, but faults we can re­late to. I met Vi­ola and it was like it was meant to be.’

Ac­cept­ing his Os­car in 2014, Mcqueen thanked his mother, Mary, for her ‘hard-head­ed­ness’. His fa­ther, Philbert, was a brick­layer, and Mary worked two jobs, in­clud­ing in a ma­ter­nity hospi­tal, to sup­port Mcqueen and his older sis­ter, Deb­o­rah. Both par­ents came to Bri­tain from Gre­nada, but it was Mary who engi­neered the fam­ily’s move from

the White City es­tate in west Lon­don to the sub­urbs in Eal­ing , buy­ing a house with­out her hus­band’s knowl­edge.

‘She was the one do­ing things, run­ning back and forth, mak­ing things hap­pen. So was my fa­ther, but when you come from a work­ing-class fam­ily, you try to make things work, and she re­ally did.’

Mcqueen is dyslexic, and as a boy wore a patch for a short time to cor­rect a lazy eye. At his sec­ondary school – the motto of which is ‘hard­ships do not de­ter us’ – his grades were dire, and he was dumped into a class for chil­dren ex­pected to achieve lit­tle. But he had a tal­ent for art, and it was his mother who en­cour­aged him to study at Chelsea Col­lege of Arts, then Gold­smiths, be­fore he took up a place on a film-mak­ing course at Tisch School of the Arts in New York (alma mater of Martin Scors­ese and the Coen broth­ers). He quit af­ter a few months, later ad­mit­ting the teach­ing pre­vented him from be­ing able ‘to throw the cam­era up in the air’, but he was on his way.

One of Mcqueen’s first dates with Stigter, in the mid-’90s, was to see Al­fred Hitch­cock’s North by North­west. He re­mem­bers see­ing the au­di­ence stand up and ap­plaud at the cred­its. ‘He isn’t the most emo­tional direc­tor, but what I love about him is his com­mand,’ he says. ‘Some­times you can have both. What I want to do is re­flect the world, but at the same time hold on to it. If peo­ple trust you, they don’t mind where you take them.’

So far, it’s an in­ten­tion Mcqueen has made good on. All of his pre­vi­ous fea­tures have fo­cused on sub­jects many direc­tors wouldn’t go near, but the bru­tal­ity on show was made ac­ces­si­ble by the films also look­ing beau­ti­ful. 12 Years a Slave was par­tic­u­larly praised for ed­u­cat­ing au­di­ences about a chap­ter of his­tory of­ten sugar-coated. It may be too early to know its legacy, es­pe­cially since it was so much a film of the Obama era, but that is not Mcqueen’s con­cern.

One per­son who doesn’t seem to have heeded that film’s mes­sage is Kanye West. In May, the rap­per slipped from his usual provoca­tive ground into grossly of­fen­sive ter­ri­tory when he ap­peared on gos­sip site TMZ and said, ‘When you hear about slav­ery for 400 years – for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.’ West has been a good friend of Mcqueen’s for years, and Mcqueen di­rected the video for his All Day/i Feel Like That (2015). He called West af­ter the TMZ in­ci­dent.

‘I said to him you shouldn’t… Well, I just told him that I loved him, and that TMZ is not the best plat­form for that con­ver­sa­tion, and that’s it re­ally,’ he says, smil­ing in a way that sug­gests a cer­tain ‘Kanye will be Kanye’ at­ti­tude is needed in or­der to be friends with West. ‘I was slightly dis­ap­pointed, to say the least. But I still love him.’

Wi­d­ows cer­tainly sees Mcqueen ‘re­flect the world’, and piti­lessly. It is drip­ping with con­tem­po­rary is­sues – one scene, fea­tur­ing Colin Far­rell’s crooked politi­cian de­liv­er­ing a vile rant in the pri­vacy of his car, was in­spired by Don­ald Trump’s Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood tape – but per­haps most per­ti­nent is the story of women seiz­ing in­de­pen­dence from vi­o­lent men. Pro­duc­tion be­gan long be­fore #Metoo or Time’s Up, but those move­ments ap­peal to the ac­tivist in Mcqueen.

‘I’m just happy that my daugh­ter [Alex is 20, and a stu­dent in Lon­don], and women in gen­eral, can be lis­tened to se­ri­ously now. Years ago peo­ple wouldn’t think about rais­ing their voice be­cause they’d be deemed dis­rup­tive, sim­i­lar to black peo­ple if they raise a com­plaint about racism. So this dis­cus­sion is im­por­tant.’

Mcqueen ded­i­cated Wi­d­ows to Eva Mot­t­ley, one of the stars of the orig­i­nal TV se­ries, who com­mit­ted sui­cide at the age of 31. She had left the pro­gramme af­ter al­leg­ing racial and sex­ual abuse by the pro­duc­tion crew.

It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Mcqueen off-duty. ‘I have to work, I don’t have a choice,’ he splut­ters, in­cred­u­lously, when I ask how he switches off. (Though when I call him two weeks af­ter our meet­ing, he’s at home, clean­ing a fish tank. ‘Yeah, we bought new fish,’ he says brightly.)

Af­ter 12 Years a Slave he was ‘of­fered ev­ery­thing, su­per­hero movies, all that kind of stuff ’, but he is in­stead do­ing pre­cisely what he wants. There is a se­ries about the West In­dian com­mu­nity in Bri­tain, made for the BBC, ‘be­cause I want my mum to see it’. There is a video in­stal­la­tion about Gren­fell Tower, which started with some film­ing from a he­li­copter last win­ter. He also hosts a pod­cast for Bri­tish Vogue, and there is a plan to cre­ate por­traits of all 2,410 Year 3 classes in Lon­don. Mcqueen has briefed 30 pho­tog­ra­phers to use the same struc­ture: the chil­dren stand­ing or cross-legged, teacher in the mid­dle. The re­sult­ing art­work will go on dis­play at Tate Bri­tain and around Lon­don in 2019.

‘The form is in­ter­est­ing, be­cause it will be a reg­i­mented thing where every­one is equal, but from there the in­di­vid­ual will emerge,’ he says. ‘I’m very ex­cited.’

He may be a worka­holic, but it is a good time to be an artist, Mcqueen be­lieves, es­pe­cially with the world as unset­tled as it is. He knows he has a plat­form, an ever-grow­ing one, and feels ‘a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity’ to use it wisely.

‘Look,’ he says, stretch­ing his arms wide. ‘We’re sit­ting here on this planet, and of­ten we can­not do a damn thing about our en­vi­ron­ment. But whether it’s Brexit, Trump, taxes or what­ever, one doesn’t have to feel paral­ysed. You can get de­pressed, or you can try to change the course of your en­vi­ron­ment.’ His face re­laxes at last.

‘The way I think of it is like this: it may be pour­ing with rain out­side, but you know what? At least you get to choose the colour of your rain­coat.’

Wi­d­ows is re­leased on 6 Novem­ber

Mcqueen withDead­pan. The four-minute film was part of the ex­hi­bi­tion that won him the 1999 Turner Prize. ´ With his mother, Mary, and fa­ther, Philbert, at the award cer­e­mony that year. With rap­per Kanye West in 2013

Mcqueen with his wife, Bianca Stigter, and their chil­dren, Alex and Dex­ter, in 2014.Meet­ing the Queen dur­ing a re­cep­tion for the dra­matic arts at Buck­ing­ham Palace in the same year.At the Os­cars af­ter 12 Years a Slave won Best Pic­ture

Vi­ola Davis and Cyn­thia Erivo in Wi­d­ows.Michael Fass­ben­der in Shame (2011). Chi­we­tel Ejio­for as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave (2013)

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