Steve McQueen, photographed by Jill Greenberg. Learn more about Jill's work and her initiative, Alreadymade., to hire more female photographers at jillgreenberg.com

Steve McQueen on "Widows": "It is an emotional awakening for these women"

Salon talks to the director and co-writer of the new heist film starring Viola Davis


Andrew O'Hehir
November 17, 2018 5:00PM (UTC)

Steve McQueen’s new movie “Widows” feels like a perfectly timed pop-culture expression of the 2018 Zeitgeist. It’s a dense and complicated heist thriller for the #MeToo moment, with a dazzling multiracial, multi-generational cast that keeps surprising you: A steely, wounded star performance from Viola Davis (no surprise in itself); breakthrough roles for Elizabeth Dembicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo; delicious supporting turns from Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya and Carrie Coon; and crucial near-cameos from Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall and Jacki Weaver.

One could go on, and after you see the movie you probably will. This is a story about strong women who trusted the wrong men and about powerful men corrupted by greed, lust and hunger. It’s a narrative of political skullduggery and sexual betrayal, of racial conflict and criminal turf wars. It’s about fighting the power, and about the fact that power corrupts everyone it touches.

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Even the best people in “Widows” do unforgivable things, and even the worst — and there are a bunch of really bad ones! — have other kinds of moments: Let’s not say moments of redemption or renewal, but moments of clarity or insight. Indeed, we can only wish real life in America offered this depth of moral vision. While the two opposing candidates in a Chicago alderman’s campaign that frames the tale of “Widows,” marvelously played by Farrell and Henry, are both thoroughly reprehensible and corrupt, they are more recognizable as human beings with understandable motivations than some figures I could name who currently command our national stage.

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But as is so often the case with movies and novels and other long-gestating cultural projects, the timing of “Widows” is at least officially an accident. This story wasn’t meant to be a parable about women’s collective power in the era of Donald Trump. It could have been told at some other point in history, and in a certain sense it was: McQueen and “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn adapted their screenplay from a mid-‘80s British miniseries by Lynda La Plante, who later became justly famous for the international hit “Prime Suspect” (a genre-defining work and feminist breakthrough in its own right). If you are wondering whether Flynn’s presence as a co-writer suggests that “Widows” contains one or more major plot twists you might halfway see coming but won’t be sure about, I have a one-word answer. It isn’t no.

During my Salon Talks conversation with McQueen, he talked about lying on the floor of his London living room as a teenager — a black male teenager, at that — and projecting himself into La Plante’s extraordinary story about a group of women widowed by violence who are forced to carry out their late husbands’ plan for their next big heist. It’s an outrageous, implausible crime yarn with considerable psychological and political depth, and I felt the same way about McQueen’s account of his simple-yet-complicated response. He was a fan of the original “Widows” because it was an exciting roller-coaster ride and because he found himself able to identify with characters who were officially nothing like him.

That bifurcated or layered vision, I think, is a big reason why McQueen has become such a signal and surprising filmmaker since moving out of the visual art world a decade ago. I suspect that many people who’ve only heard of him because of his painful, troubling near-masterpiece “12 Years a Slave” have a largely false impression of McQueen and his work. That movie carried way too much history on its back: It was the first major film in decades to depict American slavery in anything close to realistic detail, and became the first film by a black director to win the Best Picture Oscar. It was many things, but one thing it wasn’t was an agenda picture, or at least not one whose agenda can be neatly summed up in a catchphrase. It was about human beings trapped in an evil system, who refused to take responsibility for their own actions — which is arguably also what “Widows” is about.

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I’m not saying that McQueen had no personal or moral stake in telling the truth about slavery, or that his skin color was irrelevant to why and how that film was made. But he also had a personal stake in his riveting first feature, “Hunger,” which starred Michael Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and had no black people in it at all — as well as nearly no dialogue. (I remember McQueen at the Cannes Film Festival, growing increasingly irritated with all the questions about why a black director would be interested in that story.)

With “Widows,” McQueen is clearly seeking to shift focus, in ways both obvious and less so. He told me he wanted to deliver a slam-bang popcorn movie that will grab the audience in the first few seconds, but also one that can carry some political and social depth and reward repeat viewings. He has also self-consciously made a film focused on the struggles of women; his previous three features, including the 2011 “Shame,” about sex addiction, have all featured tormented or self-tormented male protagonists. (Although I would argue that the plantation owner’s wife played by Sarah Paulson in “12 Years a Slave” is a crucial character, central to any understanding of that film.)

That self-consciousness may be a limiting factor in “Widows,” which sometimes veers too close to heist-movie formula when dealing with the quartet of desperate women led by Ronnie (Davis), whose criminal husband (Neeson) has left her with a massive debt to gangsters, a notebook of diagrams and instructions and a series of puzzling clues. Supposedly peripheral characters, like Kaluuya’s sadistic crime lord or Farrell’s crooked politician, heir to a Chicago family dynasty he doesn’t even want, keep pushing themselves forward as potential lead characters in their own movies.

But in an era when Hollywood movies have largely abandoned dramatic and thematic richness in favor of spectacle, “Widows” feels like both a throwback and a path forward. McQueen told me he wasn’t trying to emulate classic 1970s big-city crime films by William Friedkin or Sidney Lumet or the early Martin Scorsese. But to any lover of American cinema, that legacy is present in every frame of “Widows,” reshaped and repurposed to a new era.

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What makes Steve McQueen unusual in the overly self-referential world of 21st-century filmmaking is not just his immense ambition, because everybody who tries do to what he does has that, but his immense hunger—the title of his first film, remember?—to tell different kinds of stories in different ways, without repeating himself or respecting other people’s expectations. Is “Widows” the work of great pop feminism the fall of 2018 demanded? That’s up to you. Is it surprising that a black guy from London directed it? Not even a little.

"Widows" [has] been described as a heist movie and that's not completely wrong, right? It does fit into that sort of Hollywood tradition of the people who plan a robbery and carry it out. That's what happens, right?

Absolutely. I love the idea of when you go into a movie theater, once you sit down, the movie starts, the train takes off. And this is a rollercoaster ride through this current environment of Chicago.

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Without giving too much away, in the first 30 seconds if they're not grabbed, right?

Well I'm hoping that people's popcorn gets jolted out of their hands and sort of gets thrown in their chest. Hopefully it's not too much, and you know, 'cause you're propelled into the movie from the get go. That's what I wanted. I want to bring people immediately into the narrative. It's sort of a visceral experience.

I kind of hate to label things this way, and I know that directors don't usually like this either, but there is a way in which this feels more like a Hollywood film than some of your previous films are, in that sense that you're talking about. That it's meant as, I think there's lots of things going on underneath the surface, but it's meant to grab you from the first moment. It's meant to be an entertainment. People who want to see an action film will not necessarily be disappointed.

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No. Also I love that because I love pace. I mean, I saw "Some Like It Hot" the other day and it's fast, that picture. It's so fast. I mean Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, within I don't know, I can't remember, was it eight, nine minutes, I can't remember? They were on a train on their way to Florida.

It's incredible. So for me, the fact that from the get go it's a heist picture, you know, the train's left the station, as well as that there's another strand of narrative. There's the action and such, the heist, the other strand of narrative is the election.

Dealing with politics, you know, I wanted to deal with it within the election because you knew there was a pace to it.

It is, yes, it is in many ways a Hollywood heist film. But it also has all of themes packed into it. It addresses politics, there's a political campaign that's a major part of the story. It addresses gender relations, relations between men and women which we can certainly talk about. And even though it's hardly ever specifically about race relations, that's also very, sort of, a prominent element.

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I would say specific. I would say specific.

Well in the political campaign, of course, you're right, in the political campaign which is between a white candidate played by Collin Farrell —

Yeah, but not just that. We're talking about land, we're talking about some sort of creeping in, gerrymandering and land grabbing. Again, there's sort of a similar thing which is going on all over the world, not just here in New York or even in Chicago. This sort of gentrification which is happening.

I assume that this film, as most major movies, was a couple of years in development at least.

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Yeah.

And you can't really have known that this movie was going come out right at the time of an American political election that has mesmerized not just our country, I know people are following it all over the world because of the significance of this one. 

And also, in sort of the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo movement, which has focused attention on women's issues in a different way, you can't have known that —

No.

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But at the same time, it's not entirely an accident, right?

Well, I think history has a way of repeating itself. One doesn't sort of have to imagine too hard. It's one of those things where, things may be brewing but I saw "Widows" the TV show 35 years ago. The bittersweetness of that is nothing has changed since that time.

So, you know, as a 13-year-old black child looking at that TV show they were identifying with these women. You know, how they were being judged visually, similar to how I was being judged by my appearance and deemed as not being capable. And at the same time, we have a situation where the politics have had certainly kind of come about. We had Margaret Thatcher, don't forget —

We did.

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Who came into power in '79, so that changed the landscape. So these things are, history repeats itself.

I think probably most American viewers won't know that this movie is based on, basically it was a TV mini-series in Britain, is that right?

Yes, it was written by a woman called Lynda La Plante who you might know because she wrote "Prime Suspects," which had an amazing starring role. She wrote that. But her first TV show was "Widows." And I remember seeing that as a 13-year-old child and my relationship with that in some ways was seeing myself on screen. Before, as a young child, you project yourself onto Sean Connery playing James Bond or even Johnny Weissmuller playing Tarzan, but for the first time I saw these women who I could identify with because of the disadvantages they had within the broader, wider world, and having to surf and navigate that in order to survive and achieve in this drama.

And what you managed to build here is an amazing cast, and we can talk about that in a minute, and then your co-writer for this project is Gillian Flynn the novelist, best known for "Gone Girl," both the novel and the screenplay for David Fincher's film.

It's a natural fit, this material you and her, but did she find you? Did you find her? How did that happen?

Again, I found the material 35 years ago.

Yes.

So this was close to my heart, and I wanted to base the narrative in Chicago 'cause I'd been here, I'd first gone to Chicago 22 years ago when I did my first museum show. I'm an artist. My first solo show was in Chicago. My partner at the time, who was now my wife, was going to a Democratic convention, which was —

No kidding? Wow.

Yes. Bill Clinton was the president, of course.

So I always say my first footprint in Chicago was art and politics. So Gillian, I didn't know, actually was from Chicago at the first and I saw "Gone Girl" and loved the bit with Carrie Coon and I thought maybe she'd be a wonderful person to work with, and of course she's a great writer. So we got in contact and it was the house on fire basically. We got on like a house on fire. We're very different, but it's one of those things where difference is, that's the gel, that's what bonds. That's the thing to grab on to. I think we saw each other.

We did a lot of investigating into the FBI, like what is in Chicago. We went to see some people in the underworld and such. Private investigators, politicians off record, aldermen off record, police, whatnot. And I remember actually, coming out of the FBI offices after we spent three hours there, I don't think they wanted us to go, I think we were like a surrogate psychiatrist for them.

Yeah.

No, seriously.

I believe it.

'Cause I think we asked them questions, 'cause those guys don't go to see shrinks.

They probably should.

Well, you know. They're tough guys. And I think we're asking these questions, we're getting deeper and deeper and deeper. By the time myself and Gillian had left that building, it was like the numbers in the Matrix. We saw how the actual city actually worked. So it was just a great collaboration. It got to a situation where it was like two guitarists and you couldn't tell who was playing each other's note.

Despite the ways this is a very contemporary store and draws on the British miniseries, I can't help though thinking of certain classic American urban crime films: "The French Connection," or Sydney Lumet's movies, "Prince of the City," movies like that where you have these different strands of crime and politics and everything. Were you thinking of that kind of tradition at all? Did you see those movies?

No, I think our movie is not like that at all. I would say it's much more, you could equate it to that because of the politics, to a certain extent, but the politics is kind of fleeting 'cause we're mostly based on the emotional growth of the characters. The politics is not the heart and center of the picture. Like I said, there are three strands, I've already spoken about the thriller, action strand. But the other strand, of course, the second one is the politics; and therefore how I dealt with the politics was actually by making an election so that we knew there was a race already. That causes the speed as well. And then the third trajectory is that these women are forced after their husbands die to basically become criminals, do their husbands' last heist.

Veronica, the main character, played by Viola Davis, finds her husband's notebook with all these plans for his last heist. There's this emotional journey which they're forced to sort of go on, and of course a thing they have to learn fast. So yeah, these three strands. In fact, there's a fourth one, we won't go into that.

There's other ways we go. There's three strands which crisscross. They are rapids and of course they are waterfalls. So when those three strands are crisscrossing it is very stimulating cinema because you are asking for all this attention and rewarding them for it. But it's the rush, it's the excitement. It's like being on a rollercoaster ride because it's one of those things . . . the thing I'm very pleased about about this picture is that of course when you make a film, when you finish it, the missing ingredient of that film, you've done the mixing and the corrugating or whatever, is the audience.

And the response from the audience we had is so many people said, "I've gotta see it again." And of course, that's heartwarming but at the same time you're, "Oh, you wanna see it again?" Like, ah, I get it, 'cause it's like a rollercoaster ride. You want to see the audience, two the whole idea of anticipating twists and turns is half of the thrill this time, the second time.

Yes, I was thinking about that actually. I was thinking what I would understand differently watching it a second time, having seen it just once. So I think what we can say, since we just said this about the plot, is yes, this group of four women must decide to pull a heist because their husbands have been, what do you wanna say about it? I'll stop right there.

Well, because their lives have been threatened. Because they owe this rival guy the money.

Right. And their husbands are dead as a result of a heist gone wrong.

Absolutely.

And I will say, without giving anything away, is that those who know Gillian Flynn's work and wonder, is there some kind of a-ha moment? Are there moments when the audience is gonna go, "What?" What might occur?

Well, it's one of those things where, forgive me for being bold, it's not cheap in that sense of, there's a reason – cause and effect — for these things to happen. And within the narrative trajectory, and how you reveal and how you hold back and how you tell the story, is very very important, as you know. Two people tell your story in a pub. The one you fall asleep, the other one's like, "My God, tell me now. And then what? And then what?"

So that's what I wanted in some ways. I think Gillian has that skill. At the same time it's one of those things where it is an emotional awakening for these women, so the actual, what can I say, things which will sort of appear on screen which will maybe arise is organic. It's nothing to do with some cheap thrills and such.

I think it's organic. And again, without giving anything away, I will say that one of the plot twists in this movie I sort of halfway suspected, and then the other one I didn't. One of the others I didn't see coming at all. We won't go and give anything away beyond that. But that feels like a pretty healthy balance to me.

I think halfway expecting is good because you don't actually know.

And you'll see, one of the characters halfway expect it but doesn't really know.

But also, when you find out, well how, and how and how, who, why and what, and then you find out and the whole thing. So it's one of those things where, it's like life in a way. Again, a secret's kept from you for a long time and then you find out a little later, and then you unravel it, and then my goodness. For this amount of time I didn't know. So it's good. It's like it's Hitchcock in some ways. There's a situation where, I love the fact that it's exciting and audiences are rewarded for their patience.

This feels probably, you may disagree with this, but this feels like you're using plot more prominently than in your previous films. I think because you came out of the visual art world, and because "Hunger" was a film with very little talking in it, that people saw that perhaps as a film made by an artist, made by a visual artist, and thought that maybe you weren't interesting in the linguistic elements of the plot, elements.

No, I disagree completely because if they didn't know I was an artist they wouldn't be saying that. I mean, that's unfortunate. It's not true, it's just not true. If people didn't know I was a visual artist they wouldn't say that. As far as plot is concerned, it's how you use plot. Plot isn't always an integral sort of cat-and-mouse game. Plot is how you want to tell the story. How you as an individual would tell a story. Sometimes you will tell it fast, sometimes you will tell it slow, sometimes you wanna say it through only one strand, sometimes you wanna say it in one straight mind. It's a variations of way of [inaudible 00:14:48] and how you tell them.

The cast is so amazing in this movie. There's all kinds of, including relatively small performances from fairly big . . .  you know, you have Liam Neeson in the movie for just a few minutes and makes a terrific impact, I thought, as one example. But talk about the four women in the center of the film. We talked about Viola Davis, an amazing talent who really is the star, the magnetic center of the story here; but talk about the women that you surrounded her with.

Well I can't talk about that without talking about Viola Davis and Veronica in her part, but I'll start with Belle. Belle is a can-do woman. She has a daughter, she is a single parent, she is a babysitter, and her mother looks after her daughter while she looks after other people's kids, as well she works in a salon. And as a character, she has no time for fear. Fear doesn't help her. She is a person who basically is a can-do person, you know, within the environment. She lives in the projects on the south side of Chicago.

She has to have her wits about her.

And that actress, who I —

Cynthia Erivo.

I've seen her before, but this is one of her bigger —

No, this is her first film. I think she was in "El Royale", there was an "El Royale" movie.

But this was her first film. And before that she has a Tony, she has a Grammy and a Emmy already because she was a star of "The Color Purple" on Broadway.

Right.

Then there's Michelle Rodriguez, she of course was in "The Fast and the Furious," who plays Linda. She owns a shop in the Latina part of the area, more Puerto Rican, Dominican part of the area.

And basically she has her own business, or at least she thinks she does, until her husband dies. And she has two children too, so she has to make ends meet when her husband dies. And then of course there's Alice. Alice is a Polish woman in the film who, she's dealing with domestic abuse. Her husband used to knock her about, and not only her husband but she's been used as a bit of a punch bag for a while in her life. So she has a sort of longer route to travel in this picture. She's a bit like a phoenix.

And this is the actress who I saw you describe the other night as the next Meryl Streep.

Absolutely, yeah.

Why do you think that about her?

She's that good.

Of course these are people who have done other roles, but this was a process of discovery for you with these actresses, right?

Yeah.

Viola Davis, obviously not so much. How did — 

I don't know. I feel it was a bit of a discovery. I mean, of course she's Viola bloody Davis, but what I mean by that it was a discovery because unfortunately she's never had a role like this before. And I think that the fact that you could give this sort of to grapple with. It was like throwing meat at a lion. She devoured it, and she gorged it, and she's so strong and at the same time there's depth, there's weakness, there's vulnerability, and humanity. Again, that's why she's one of the greatest actresses of her generation because she reflects who we are; male, female, whatever race you are. You look at her and you see yourself. That's the genius of a brilliant actor, that you see yourself through the person on the screen.

That's a wonderful way to put it, and it seems appropriate in a movie that is this much about women's struggle. That kind of flexibility, a lot of male stars get to do different kinds of roles. You play something more serious in a darker, independent film, and then you get to be the action star in a different kind of film. It's harder, generally speaking, for women to get to do that I think.

Yeah, I think it's less. There's not a lot of imagination, unfortunately. And that's it, because again, it's a picture with a lot of amazing male actors. You know, you've got Liam Neeson, the biggest action movie star in the world. You've got your Colin Farrell, a great actor. Daniel Kaluuya. I mean, you know — the depth. Brian Tyree Henry, Robert Duvall. I mean, what's interesting about this picture, people will say there's women in this picture, but the men are so strong. It's a great balance. You know, it's a great balance of masculinity and femininity and adventure and action and a thriller and very timely for some. I don't know, that wasn't the intention, but I'm grateful it happened.

The male actors really is an amazing ensemble. I'd almost forgotten about Robert Duvall, who's only the movie for a few minutes, but he's amazing.

Well, don't tell the plot point to that because it's true. As we all know, it's not about the time, it's about what you do with the time. And Robert smashes it.

Yes. And you have the Australian actress Jacki Weaver in a tiny little role, who's incredible in a very small part in this movie, right?

Yeah, I mean, look. Again it's not about time, it's about what you do with the time. And I think, you know, again, that's why ... for me what was very important was the so-called screen roles, the big roles, were occupied by people who had ability. And I was very fortunate people wanted to work on this project, regardless of the size, because without their impact it doesn't work. Without Jacki Weaver, there's none of that where we just talked about what Alice is going through as a character, her unfortunate being used as a punch bag. And who can do that? So it's very important in so much for me in this film that the ensemble is so strong. I was very grateful for actors that wanted to participate in this film.

 


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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