Interview: Steve McQueen talks naked bodies and "Shame"

The British artist-turned-filmmaker on his NC-17 drama starring Michael Fassbender as a sex-addicted New Yorker

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 1, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

Michael Fassbinder and Steve McQueen at the Venice Film Festival   (AP/Andrew Medichini)
Michael Fassbinder and Steve McQueen at the Venice Film Festival (AP/Andrew Medichini)

If you know about Steve McQueen as a legendary race-car-driving 1970s movie star but not as a British artist-turned-filmmaker who's one of the hottest talents in contemporary cinema, consider this your introduction. The younger McQueen -- and yes, it's his real name -- was born in London in 1969, about a decade before the movie star's death. By the mid-'90s he had become a prominent gallery artist on the burgeoning British art scene, but began to move toward narrative films and videos with such black-and-white, minimalist shorts as "Bear" and "Deadpan," the latter a restaging of one of Buster Keaton's most famous stunts.

McQueen broke into feature-length cinema in 2008 with "Hunger," an extraordinary sound-and-vision experience that starred Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, a legendary Irish hunger striker who starved himself to death in a British prison. Largely a wordless, kinetic and almost physically grueling experience, "Hunger" was almost like a triptych built around an intensely talky scene between Sands and a visiting priest, in which the camera never moved. A movie that felt more like a transmission from an alien planet than a conventional historical drama, "Hunger" won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes (for best debut film at the festival) and went on to collect many more awards.

So expectations in the film world could hardly be higher for "Shame," McQueen's NC-17-rated film that again stars Fassbender, this time playing a sex addict in 21st-century Manhattan. His character, Brandon, is an executive in some unspecified financial or I.T. profession who measures his days and nights by anonymous sexual conquests, not to mention dates with hookers, online chat sessions and regular old porn-fueled masturbation. As you may have heard by now, Fassbender is stripped naked in “Shame,” but the physical full-monty nudity (while likely to be of interest to many viewers) is honestly the least of it.

Here's what I wrote after first seeing the film in Toronto:

“Shame” hints at a conventional movie narrative a fair bit more than “Hunger” does, but it’s first and foremost a visual and sonic symphony, and a Dante-esque journey through a New York nightworld where words are mostly useless or worse. (The credits say the movie was “based on a screenplay by” McQueen and Abi Morgan, which suggests that what we see on screen was largely improvised.) I would say we get 12 or so minutes into the film before anyone says anything, and most of that is a tense and powerful scene of Brandon trying (and apparently failing) to pick up a married woman on the subway. Even when someone finally speaks, it’s only Brandon asking a co-worker what happened to his computer, which is infested with viruses from all the hardcore porn sites he visits. (A man has to have his priorities straight.) Whatever garbage in their past has driven Brandon and Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his drunken, slutty and suicidal sister, onto their self-destructive paths, we never learn about it and don’t need to. (Can we revise Tolstoy’s famous maxim so it observes that all unhappy families are alike?)

A bottle-blond cabaret singer who shows up from L.A. to camp on Brandon’s couch, Sissy somehow catalyzes a crisis in his life of unrepentant, beyond-compulsive horndoggery. Again, we don’t exactly know what specters Sissy's arrival conjures up, and I would argue we don’t need to. Perhaps because of his career working in largely or entirely nonverbal media, McQueen feels no urge to overexplain. Sissy sings a killer cool-jazz rendition of “New York, New York” that reduces Brandon to tears (and may well do the same for you). Then she goes home with his married boss, who’s way more of a loser than Brandon is. Brandon tries to go cold turkey, stuffing all his porn — and even his laptop — into trash bags and going on an actual date with an attractive woman from work who actually seems to like him. But he can’t even fake an interest in the normal rituals of courtship. When his date (the African-American actress Nicole Beharie) asks him about his longest relationship, he says it lasted four months, but we suspect it was more like four hours, or $400.

Fassbender and Mulligan both give massive, irresistible performances (the former won the acting prize in Venice) as people drowning in a hostile sea of commodified sexuality and self-hatred. For all the nakedness and all the screwing, much of it framed by views of Manhattan at its most anonymous and terrifying, "Shame" is more a clinical spectacle than a prurient one. McQueen combines ’80s disco-pop and 19th-century Romantic music brilliantly, in one of the best soundtracks of the year, and cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, uses the antiseptic New York interiors as no one has since Mary Harron’s “American Psycho.” While “Shame” isn’t an easy film to sit through, to describe or to figure out, it’s riveting, spectacular, passionate cinema.

I met Steve McQueen in a SoHo hotel room that was alarmingly plausible as a place where Brandon might have sex with a woman (or man) he'd never see again. A gruff, fast-talking guy with an East London accent and the traces of what I suspect was a childhood speech impediment, McQueen doesn't crack jokes or engage in small talk. He did tell me, before I turned on my digital recorder, that he's had to abandon his childhood passion for the Tottenham Hotspur soccer team because of "too much grief, too much heartache." What struck me upon listening to the interview a second time was the intense earnestness, even idealism, of his vision to cinema, which is quite the opposite of the ironic or detached demeanor you might expect from someone with McQueen's art-world reputation.

I want to start by talking about your relationship with Michael Fassbender, which I already characterized as being a little like the one between Scorsese and De Niro, or maybe between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. You've made two movies with him, and I certainly hope you'll make more. Is it the kind of situation where you guys talk over the film a lot, or do you just get out there and do it?

Just do it. I'm not so keen on talking, I'm more keen on doing. It's often the case that when you talk about something, you talk yourself out of it. Or, you know, you think too much about it. Sometimes you've just got to jump. Michael has the capacity to do that; he's similar to me in that regard. You've got to find out through doing. It's a great collaboration, to work with him, but I don't write scripts for him at all. It's not that I have him in mind. But what happens is that he can transform himself into that situation.

What you get in "Hunger," with Bobby Sands, is a person who's very different from Brandon. He's using language, he's trying to find things through language. Once you push violence to its total, absolute extreme you push language, and that's what he's doing. He's trying to find things through communicating, through talking, as in the long scene with the priest. And this person, in "Shame," he hardly talks at all, you know, it's all internal. It's an incredible feat to communicate that to the audience, and I think within the first 10 minutes we put the whole sex addiction thing to bed, in a way. We understand it, we get it out of the way.

Right, well, we certainly understand that Brandon's sexual addiction is an extreme example.

This is not a person who's just in the situation of being promiscuous. It's a person whose days and nights are spent dealing with sex, in the same way some people deal with alcohol. To get through a day this person may have to relieve himself sexually 20 times, or engross himself in pornography for 72 hours at a stretch. So there's a big difference.

Both of these films, as I see them, are about the body. What Bobby Sands and Brandon do with their bodies is quite different, I guess. But they're both pretty extreme examples.

We all use our bodies, that's how we are. We hardly ever talk. In film, people are talking all the time about how they feel and whatnot, and in reality that's just not the case. We made "Hunger" in the way we did to reflect some kind of reality, and I feel the same way about "Shame." The whole idea of back story and what could have happened to them -- I wanted to make that situation familiar rather than unrecognizable. I wanted it to be about what we know, about what happens to them in everyday life. You meet someone for the first time and you have no idea who that person is really. What they do is present themselves the best way they can, and possibly through a period of time, after getting to know them, through the present you might see the past in them. And that's exactly what I wanted to do with Sissy and Brandon and the audience.

If you think about the way Bobby Sands used his body, he was in a maximum-security prison in Belfast and within that he created his own freedom by stopping eating. On the other side of the pond in a different decade, Brandon is living in Manhattan in this metropolis of excess and Western freedom. He has a great job, he's attractive, he has money. Within those possibilities, he creates a prison for himself through his activities with sex. So they are polar opposites, in a way, but they are somehow related. The situation of the body is very much in there. But, see, the body is what we do. In reality we are not Shakespearean actors having long conversations about how we live and whatever. We groan and grunt and get through a day. And often when we do talk, we talk a lot of shit, because it's a way of filling time, avoiding stuff. If we do talk, possibly to our best friend or our psychiatrist or whatever, most of the time people don't listen.

There's no explicit social commentary in the film, in the sense that it's a story about one guy and his sister and their problems. But you could definitely read it as a parable about social isolation, about family trauma, about sexual dysfunction, about consumer society and so on.

We're making a film about now. It's not a costume drama, it's not something that happened 40 or 50 years ago. It's about now, and for me -- I don't care what anyone says -- I think cinema has a responsibility. You've got HBO and AMC doing whatever they're doing, but cinema has another way of doing things, which can actually be closer to how we live today than any nine-part series on television. Absolutely. We can do that, and people are interested in seeing that and having a conversation about it.

What happens when you make a film about now is that it does have an aspect of social commentary because it's urgent, there's an immediacy about it. Particularly about the Internet, about pornography on the Internet, and about how that affects us, how we navigate this maze of sexual content that's all about us.

Well, there's the environment in that sense, and there's also the physical environment of this film, which is a hyper-modern, anonymous, vertical vision of life in New York. You were obviously very careful about picking locations ...

I wouldn't say I was so careful. People have said that before, but I wasn't careful at all. What I was careful about was where Brandon lived, where he worked, how we would travel to work, where he would get his dry cleaning done, where he would get his takeout food. These things were basically about ritual, about following Brandon and his rituals. So something could be the ugliest building in the world, and I'd have to shoot there, and that's fine. Actually I love that limitation. It makes me happy to work with it to tell the story. It's all about the story. I don't make adverts, I'm not choosing wonderful locations. I'm choosing the reality that this character lives in and works in, how he gets from A to B.

One can also talk about the fact that a lot of New Yorkers live and work in the sky. It sounds corny and some people in New York tilt their heads and look at me, but it's true. It's amazing.

Well, a certain class of people in Manhattan, yes. Not me or most of the New Yorkers I know.

That's right. It's not everyone, but it's a lot of people. You get these huge windows, like we have right here [in this hotel room], and you're putting yourself in the perspective of the city all the time. It's interesting, isn't it? What happens is: Within this metropolis, you're always in the frame. What am I, in this huge sea of people? It's almost like reversing a telescope. It puts a microscope on you. Within the frame it's quite lonely, these huge apartment buildings and office towers, all these windows and reflections, reflecting the surroundings where you are. It's a lot of stuff to deal with, and it's a reality. Maybe I heighten it by putting the camera on it -- this is cinema -- but it's not a case of telling a story that's different from what's already here.

To the extent that we can't resist identifying a character's surroundings with his psychology, Brandon's psychology seems kind of horrifying.

Yeah, absolutely. It's like prison, in a way. A prison with no bars. Maybe it's too much freedom.

You had that intense conversation at the center of "Hunger," and you do something similar here, with the heartbreaking scene when Brandon goes on a real date and tries to have a conversation with a woman instead of just sex.

It's the first time he actually opens up verbally, as opposed to opening up emotionally, which he does with Sissy. I love that scene, with the waiter coming every five seconds. It's a bit comedic, but it's also something that happens in reality when you have dinner. It's difficult to have a conversation! The date happens in the walk-and-talk outside, and it's so awkward and sweet, these people trying to get to know each other.

Talk about the song, Sissy's killer rendition of "New York, New York." That totally destroyed me, and maybe it's just the way that Carey owns it, which is amazing. But it's also the way it's placed in the film, and of course how Brandon reacts to it.

What it does is that, in verse, it talks about the past and the present, and you can see what happens. Brandon, I imagine, would like to leave. He'd like to get out of that situation, but he can't, he's brought his boss to see his sister sing. So he's forced to listen, and it's the only time he actually listens. Earlier we were talking about listening, and people don't listen, man. It's difficult, isn't it? And people don't do it.

Sissy is communicating with him in verse, she's singing the truth -- it's all there in the lyrics -- and it evaporates his defenses. It opens doors which are locked inside him, and for that moment he's opened up, he acknowledges the past. As soon as she stops singing, the doors are locked and the drawbridge goes back up again. That moment can give us so bloody much. We recognize it, we understand. It's like setting off a dog whistle in the cinema; it's something we know about although it's not necessarily talked about or tangible. That's the power of cinema, that's what I'm talking about. That's what cinema can give us, it can go much further on emotional journeys.

I don't want to give away the ending, but you deliberately leave Brandon's fate undecided. I don't know what direction he's going, but I have to say I fear the worst for the guy.

There has to be some kind of glimmer of hope. I hope he doesn't get off that train! But of course he might stay on the train this time and get off another time. I don't know. All of us are trying, that's the thing. We're all on that train. I want cinema to be like a mirror, that reflects the audience, so we see ourselves on the screen. Sometimes people might not want to look at that, because it's not particularly attractive. But we have to look at it in order to move on, to engage with where we are, to reflect on what we are and alter what might happen.

"Shame" opens this week in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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