Spinning Platters Interview: Steve McQueen on “Shame”

by Jason LeRoy on November 30, 2011

Michael Fassbender (actor) and Steve McQueen (writer/director) of SHAME at the BFI London Film Festival

In the several months since its premiere on the film festival circuit, Shame has quickly become one of the most talked-about films of the year. While this is certainly due in part to prurient interest in its more lurid aspects – its nudity and sexuality were deemed explicit enough to warrant the dreaded NC-17 rating from the MPAA – it is also because of universally ecstatic reviews for the brutally fearless performances of stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, as well as the hauntingly artful direction of today’s exclusive interview subject, Steve McQueen.

Fassbender stars as Brandon, a Manhattan yuppie privately struggling with a voracious sex addiction. His life is all about ritual and routine – until the arrival of Sissy (Mulligan), his needy, profoundly messy younger sister. When Brandon returns home one night to discover that Sissy has moved in, he reluctantly agrees to let her stay with him for a few days. But despite Brandon’s genuine affection for his sister, he can only truly feed his addiction in privacy; the loss of that privacy in his home – and, in turn, the loss of his sense of control – leads to a volatile buildup of resentment between himself and Sissy, as well as increasingly desperate behavior outside of his apartment.

It is a chilling and mesmerizing film; it is also remarkably self-assured, given that it’s just the second feature-length directorial effort by the London-born McQueen (his first, Hunger, starred Fassbender as Bobby Sands, an IRA activist who died on hunger strike while imprisoned in 1981; the film won McQueen the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes). Before transitioning into narrative film, McQueen was known as an accomplished visual artist; in addition to being a Turner Prize recipient, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year.

Watching Shame, it is not at all surprising to learn that its director has a background in the visual arts; the unsettling harmony created by the cinematography (by Sean Bobbitt), editing (by Joe Walker), and original score (by Harry Escott) is meticulously orchestrated. Many of the scenes are done as single takes with a stationary camera, a technique McQueen also used in Hunger. The script, by McQueen and Abi Morgan, is in no rush to explain Brandon or his addiction. We get only fleeting glimpses for much of the film, allowing the audience to make their own observations and contemplations. Similarly, we gather that Brandon and Sissy have a troubled background, but the film never spells it out; instead, we must study the virtuosic performances to infer what could have happened in their pasts.

Spinning Platters recently sat down with McQueen, who is currently in pre-production on his next film, Twelve Years a Slave, in which he’ll direct Fassbender, Brad Pitt, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, while also finding himself on the most exhausting promotional tour he has yet encountered. “It’s tiring,” he laughs. “It’s actually been enjoyable, because the journalists have been so receptive to the movie, so that’s obviously made it easier. So it is tiring, but vastly enjoyable.”

How did you arrive at the title of Shame?

The title came through interviewing people who had this affliction. To start off, I had no intention of making the film in the United States. I was going to make it in London, but unfortunately no one in London would speak to us [about sex addiction]. So we flew over the Atlantic and spoke to experts in the field, and then sex addicts and recovering sex addicts started to talk to us. So I thought, “Well, why don’t we make the film here?” During that process, this word “shame” kept coming up. People would say it all the time. In situations where people sort of go on these sexcapades and come out the other end, they have these feelings of shame and self-loathing, and then what happens is they go back into the cycle again. So I thought that was the perfect word for it.

I was going to ask if you think the term “sex addict” is accurate and appropriate for Brandon. Every piece written on the film seems to refer to him as such.

Well, I think yes, for his case. Look, this is not about someone who’s just promiscuous. This is a character who has to have sex at virtually every hour of the day, and that’s something different. It’s almost like drinking a bottle of vodka every day. It’s not being promiscuous, it goes beyond that. In cases of people who are doing this, it damages them. It effects their work life, it effects their friendships, it effects them every day. And they know that they would like to stop, but they can’t. That’s when it becomes an addiction, when it becomes something that can’t be controlled. It destroys your life.

You mentioned that you were looking in London and no one there would talk to you –

I think what happened was it was very much in the news at the time, sex addiction, and people were very shy or just didn’t want to talk about it. And we tried very hard, but we couldn’t get anyone to talk. I wanted to talk to experts in the field, and they happened to be in New York, so we went over and they were great. We just wanted to find people who were willing to talk.

Were there any films that modeled sexual frankness in a way that inspired your work on this film?

No, it’s not about film. It was about the research. Research inspired me, and talking to people inspired me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When I first heard about sex addiction, I laughed, as you do when you first hear about it. But when you learn what a person does throughout the day to maintain this addiction, it’s devastating. It ceases to be funny.

Looking at Hunger and Shame and your next film, Twelve Years a Slave, there seems to be a theme of imprisonment in your films.

You could call it that, but I think it’s about freedom. I think Bobby Sands transcends himself with what he does, when he stops eating in order to be free. I think Brandon is looking for some kind of freedom. I mean, it’s such a broad wide word, whatever freedom is. It doesn’t necessarily mean from incarceration and having bars in front of you or behind you. It’s something else. And also the whole idea of self-will, that we do not have self-will in that way. Humans, that’s what makes us interesting, I suppose.

How did it feel to be making this film more in the public eye than your previous work? There were paparazzi photos that leaked online when you were filming at the Standard.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and then a couple of days later I saw some shots. It wasn’t that many. I guess it was a bit annoying, but that’s just the way it is, I suppose. It’s one of those things, especially with the subject matter. People are maybe more curious.

There’s a lot of curiosity about the back story between the characters of Brandon and Sissy. What kind of work did you do with Michael and Carey to flesh that out?

We just talked about it. We talked about ideas of what their background was, and I gave them notes and stuff like that. Each of them had an idea of what it was. I wasn’t interested in hearing it. I was interested in portraying the past in the present, and that was it.

And for the actors that played Brandon’s sexual interests, I read that you were looking for specific things in terms of what they could communicate without necessarily speaking.

I think the girl on the train [Lucy Walters] is almost like a silent movie star. One or two too many blinks of her eye and that magic would have been broken. It’s almost like a silent courtship on the train; you see it build and build and build. So that was a wonderful interaction. For me, that is one of the finest moments of acting. They could not verbalize it, everything had to be said through expression. And she was great. Also, the woman who Brandon has sex with up against the window in the hotel [Amy Hargreaves], she was amazing. Pretty strong stuff. Working with actors is what I love.

You made a short, Drumroll, in which you attached a camera to an oil drum and rolled it through the streets of New York. And now in Shame, there is a mesmerizing tracking shot that follows Brandon as he jogs across many consecutive city blocks. Is there something about the streets of Manhattan that speaks to you?

Not particularly. [laughs] What I was interested there was ritual. That scene in particular when Brandon is running, it’s all about lulling the audience in a way – allowing the audience to digest what just happened. It’s pretty heavy up until then, so we’re giving them a respite. And also, Brandon needs that too. He’s playing his Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations, doing mathematical equations over the music. He needs something to hold onto while he runs.

When she was recently asked about the film’s NC-17 rating, Carey said, “You know, so many of the teen movies will have so much sex and so many people walking around in bikinis and bare-breasted and that all seems to be okay. And then the minute you show it and its not funny, and it’s not sexy, and it’s actually unattractive, then it becomes a problem, which seems so odd.” Do you agree?

When I first heard someone say “NC-17,” I thought it was a pop band. So I thought, “Oh, they’re giving me a CD?” [laughs] It doesn’t matter. As long as people see the movie, as long as they’re allowed to see the movie and they’re able to see the movie, it doesn’t bother me.

Shame opens in San Francisco on Friday, December 2.

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