Steve McQueen—the British artist and director, not the American movie star—likes to tackle subjects nobody wants to discuss: the death of British soldiers in Iraq (for “Queen and Country,” a recent art installation); and the Irish prison riots of the early 1980s (in “Hunger,” his first feature film). His latest film, “Shame,” which opens on Dec. 2, centers on a seemingly high-functioning business executive played by Michael Fassbender with some devastating intimacy issues: his character, Brandon, is addicted to sex.
Initially, McQueen says, he wanted to shoot the film in London, but “nobody would speak to us there,” he says. After locating experts in the field of sex addiction, he and screenwriter Abi Morgan traveled to New York and met with them and some of their patients before working on the script. “The research told us what to do. I don’t want to put a stencil on the subject matter,” he says.
The resulting film offers an unflinching look—with plenty of full frontal nudity—at a disease that people often dismiss as a joke. Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights after the Venice Film Festival, knowing full well that “Shame” would likely garner an NC-17 rating, the first major studio release in four years to do so. [For more see “Shame’ Tries to Seduce Audiences—With an NC-17.”]
Speakeasy caught up with McQueen, wearing jeans, a navy mock-turtleneck sweater and vintage-style glasses, for coffee at the Bowery Hotel and talked about free will, the director’s close relationship with Fassbender, and why “New York, New York” is really a blues song. Excerpts:
This film seems to be about people who, outwardly at least, look like they’ve got it together, but deep down they’re falling apart.
The film is about ritualization, the whole idea of here’s somebody who has an apartment, a job, and this deep dark secret. Through our research—mine and (screenwriter) Abi Morgan’s—we found a lot of that was happening. There’s this kind of self preservation, a delusion of control.
This brother and sister, Brandon and Sissy (Carey Mulligan), are obviously extremely dysfunctional. Yet you never get the full backstory about their upbringing. Why did you decide to leave it ambiguous?
When people come to the cinema and sit down, they bring their history, their present and their past with them. So when they see something on the screen they have an idea of what it could possibly be, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a respect for audiences: an audience member has an idea of what might have happened, and I think that’s enough. Sometimes you come into a story in the middle of someone’s life.
You wrote the screenplay after you and Abi Morgan did your research?
Yes. This was all about receiving shit. It is not about history or a costume drama or something that happened yesterday. To me, the film was like a dog whistle going off in the cinema.
Sex addiction is something you hear about in the media, typically when a male celebrity cheats on his wife and then goes to rehab. Was it something you had thought about a lot?
When I first heard about it I was really laughing, thinking “What is this?” But it’s similar to a person who is an alcoholic, and you see him at a Christmas party and he’s a great drunk having lots of fun. But when you realize this person has to drink two bottles of vodka to get through the day, you see it’s not fun anymore. It’s the same thing with sex addiction. There’s a wonderful line that sexual addiction has as much to do with sex as alcoholism has to do with being thirsty.
What attracted you to this subject matter?
It all started with a conversation with Abi Morgan about the Internet, really, and pornography. It was about access and abundance. It was the drama of it—in order to sustain this addiction you need another person. It was interesting to me. I started thinking about the “Lost Weekend” by Billy Wilder, which was a revelation at the time…and “The Man with the Golden Arm” with Frank Sinatra.
There’s one scene in the film where Carey Mulligan’s character, Sissy, sings “New York, New York” but in a very sad, wistful way. Why did you choose that song?
I liked the idea that she was a performer and I love the way that she uses this song to communicate. I read the lyrics and thought, “This is a blues.” It’s not Liza Minnelli6 or Frank Sinatra singing in an up-tempo fashion. If you read the lyrics, it’s the blues. So that was it. It’s the only time in the movie when Sissy has a direct communication to Brandon. His barriers start to drop. He’s a very locked person, and that lock begins to sort of open.
“Hunger” made about $154,000 at the box office in the U.S. “Shame,” which was acquired by Fox Searchlight after the Venice Film Festival, is perhaps a little more commercial, though I wonder how they will market a movie about a sex addict.
I have never been interested in whether a movie is commercial. All I think about is, “is it good or not?” I am happy that Fox bought it and I am extraordinarily grateful, because it means that more people will get to see the movie.
There’s a lot of nudity in this film. What are your views about an NC-17 rating?
The only reason people are talking about that is because of Michael [Fassbender’s] nudity. If it was a woman in full frontal nudity, nobody would even raise an eyebrow. But it’s a man. The whole thing is a bit ridiculous. This is a serious movie. It’s not a movie about people blowing each other’s heads off with AK-47s. I never held a gun in my hand in my entire life, but apparently that’s more acceptable than people showing their private parts.
You’re credited with reviving Michael Fassbender’s career, and bringing him to a mainstream audience.
When we made “Hunger,” it wasn’t even a low expectation, there was no expectation. So I think we in some ways came through this situation together. That has been a very good bonding experience. I definitely feel like I am on a journey with Michael. It’s a lot like falling in love. When you fall in love with somebody, you want to hold onto it and keep it. Because it doesn’t happen every day.
Are you making another feature film now with Michael?
Yes, I’m making another film, but I don’t know if he’s involved or not. It’s called “Twelve Years a Slave” and it’s produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. it’s about a native New Yorker in 1875 who was kidnapped into slavery. It’s a period drama, so slightly more expensive [than previous films.]
What was it about him initially that made you want to cast him in “Hunger”?
Well, initially I didn’t like him at all. After the audition, I thought, “Who is this guy?” Being an actor, you need to get rejected a lot. And he had gone through a lot of rejection by the time he came in. He was sulky. I called him back because I wanted to see him with other people, and then during the second audition I saw the spark. And that was it. By the time he was in “Hunger” he was already 31. A lot of people felt like he should have made it already as an actor.
You have a reputation of being extremely detail oriented. How did that manifest itself in this film, about a man who is in many ways totally obsessive?
Brandon’s character liked Bach, particularly the Goldberg Variations—this whole idea of these kinds of mathematical equations to impose order. When we put the film together there’s a scene when Brandon puts Bach on the record player. But the music sounded too clean. I realized it was a digital format of this record. I said “No, no, no, no! We’ve gotta buy the vinyl online and re-record it on a record player.” I had to get that specific sound.
You went to NYU film school but dropped out during your first semester, right?
Yes, I was there for three months. It was like a tiny circus. I came from art school beforehand, was used to much more experimental techniques. It was really difficult for me to be in a situation of an industry, and not of art. It wasn’t compatible with me. The reason I went to NYU was because of people like Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. I remember talking to Jim, and he got into NYU through his poetry and photographs. You can’t do that anymore. What it did to me was to demystify the whole idea of American filmmaking. I thought, “We’re just as good as them.”