Steve McQueen on Shame: It’s About Giving Audiences Something to Think About

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

BAFTA-nominated director Steve McQueen, whose NC-17-rated Shame was a darling of the festival circuit, speaks with senior West Coast editor Krista Smith about the online-porn epidemic, casting Michael Fassbender, and why today’s cinema is pretty lily-livered. Highlights from their chat:

Krista Smith: When I first saw Shame, the era struck me—it’s almost like it could’ve been 80s-era New York. The bars you chose, it could be in any decade.

Steve McQueen: I wanted to make a movie about now. There’s a kind of selfishness—no, the word is entitlement: there’s a certain amount of entitlement going on. It’s in the air. You point a camera and you catch it. My intention was to hopefully make a movie which sort of was about now, so if you see it in 20 years time, it’ll still be about 2011.

The figures we see today about the number of online-porn addicts are just staggering.

Yeah, it’s crazy. And kids [watching] pornography has never been as terrific as it is now. Never, ever. Kids keep getting iPhones—two clicks on that iPhone and they get the most exquisite pornographic images you can think of. The time is very different. I mean, [compared with] the early 70s—that’s a different ballgame completely. In order to see moving images then—sexual moving images—you had to go somehow to a theater, or maybe a private club with a 16-millimeter projector where you could rent dirty movies.

Meanwhile, tell me about your relationship with Michael Fassbender.

I met him at an audition [for 2008’s Hunger], and at first I thought to myself looking at this guy, Well, he’s a bit cocky. Why is he here? You know, there was a certain kind of fed-up-ness about him, and it was interesting, because when we were doing the second round of auditions, my casting director Gary Davy said, “Look, just give the guy a second chance.” I actually didn’t want him. But [I said,] “O.K., O.K., let’s just put him into the mix.” And the second time I saw him he was a totally different character.

That evening, I was drunk on the back of his motorcycle. We rode off to have a pint. It was great. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

He is so good in this movie.

He’s a different class. There’s nothing else like him, for me at least, Fassbender. There’s a femininity to him, a fragility, which is so beautiful in a way that it speaks. You get a lot actors right now that are very macho, very manly, and whatever that is, I don’t know, it’s alien to me.

For me, Brandon’s relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is so profound. She’s just so needy, she wants company, but the actual act of familial intimacy is so repulsive to him.

Sissy, she is so demanding of him—so “I want your love”—and I think that’s what she wants of Brandon. She brings the past back with her, and he didn’t want to be reminded of that. I think that sort of sibling relationship is kind of loaded. And I don’t know if you’ve got a brother or sister, but, you know, we can be extraordinarily mean to each other. And that was interesting to talk about with Michael and Carey, because they both have a sibling of the opposite sex.

I love that we’re not hearing any backstory—we just know that it must’ve been fucked up wherever they came from.

You know, I’m very disappointed with how people make movies these days. And I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be saying this, but I’ll be honest—I think they’re rubbish. It’s almost like they’re treating audiences like idiots. Every movie is a cliché. . . . And nothing this year, ever, has surprised me. I think the response to Shame—you know, we got the Critics Prize in Venice and we were the best-reviewed movie in Toronto—just shows you the thirst and the want for something [that] they don’t know where it’s going to go. And I think a character like Brandon—we’ve got a deep sympathy for him, a love for him, just because he’s trying. It’s difficult; it’s just difficult being a human being right now.

But for me, this film is not about judging anything; it’s not about morality. It’s about someone who is just in this world and who deals with what he’s got. Here you are, deal with it. The whole idea that God put us here or whoever put us here on this earth—it’s absolute nonsense.

That’s why I think people respond to it—you recognize parts of us in him.

Absolutely. I like to think that when you go sit down in the cinema, you see yourself. There’s an acknowledgment. I remember when I met with Abi [Morgan, co-screenwriter], and we were talking about writing it, and she said, “I think a dog whistle will be going off in the cinema for the audience.” That’s exactly what I wanted. Also, when I see other movies these days, it’s sort of, what’s the point?

Right, those that placate the audience.

This was an urgent picture for me. It’s all about the urgency and that was it. Not judging—just the urgency of “Look at this, look at this.”

And why now? What was your personal sense of urgency for wanting to do this now?

We can’t be ostriches putting our heads in the sand—sometimes you just have to see what’s out there. A lot of people don’t want to, absolutely. What’s amazing about this film, for me at least, is that the best response we’ve had [is from] women. The men are much more sheepish. I get the impression because they know they’re pointing fingers. The spotlight is on them . . . once the cinema goes to life. It’s a difficult thing to sort of have a conversation about, of course, at first. And then men will say, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s exaggerating. It’s not true”—but they just do not want to talk about it. That’s exactly like Brandon. Brandon doesn’t want to talk. He cannot communicate. I love men, unfortunately, but that’s how we are. It’s indicative of a lot of guys. He’s not going to a shrink.

He’s trapped; he can’t go anywhere.

I love it in movies when people talk or whatever, but I want it in kind of reality. For me it’s very important that I don’t cheap-ify my audience by having him go to a psychiatrist, or talk to his best friend. We have to find it out through the narrative. Sometimes you see this with your friends or people that you know, little “tells” that you see, and you say, Oh, O.K. Audiences are bright. It’s food for them. It’s substance.

And what happens to Brandon, do you know?

I don’t. I hope he’s O.K.

What are you working on now?

A film called Twelve Years a Slave. And it’s starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s a British actor. He’s amazing. And of course there’s Michael [Fassbender] and there’s Brad Pitt in it.

Well, with Shame, we’re all glad you made it, and the fact that it’s NC-17—that’s what it should be. This isn’t child’s play, this is a real epidemic.

I think that people don’t realize it. They say people are exaggerating—[but] I think I’m underplaying the damn thing. All the people we’ve sort of interviewed, it’s crazy. There’s a service now where if you’re married or in a relationship and you want to have an affair with someone else that has nothing to lose, you can get on it.

It’s crazy. Well, I’m so happy you made time to talk about this with me.

No, I’m grateful. I’m extraordinarily grateful. The fact of the matter is it’s time I think we are grown-ups—movies have to grow up.  Audiences are grown-ups. It’s not a case of sex or all this kind of stuff, but it’s a case for giving audiences something to fucking think about.

Steve McQueen on Shame: It’s About Giving Audiences Something to Think About | Blogs | Vanity Fair.

Comments, Comments Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.