Dialogue: 'Shame' Director Steve McQueen on his Writing Process and the Sexual Context of Shame

Dialogue: 'Shame' Director Steve McQueen on his Writing Process and the Sexual Context of Shame

Dec 02, 2011

2008’s Hunger introduced two major talents to the international filmmaking community: Michael Fassbender, who’s seemingly been in every other Hollywood movie released in the subsequent years, and Steve McQueen, a British artist and director whose work is markedly different than that of his late American namesake. McQueen accomplished something remarkable with Hunger in that he successfully captured the physical, social and psychological realities of the hunger strike spearheaded by Bobby Sands without any of them overshadowing the other. And in Shame, his latest film, he does the same thing again, reuniting with Fassbender to portray the troubled lifestyle of a sex addict whose ritual-oriented existence begins to deteriorate after his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) pays him an unannounced visit.

Movies spoke to McQueen last week at the Los Angeles press day for Shame. In addition to talking about some of the film’s tougher scenes, he discussed his development and writing process, and examined his general approach to artistic expression, and choosing the appropriate means for each of his projects.

Movies.com: What is your writing process like? Does it come easy to write only what needs to be communicated, or do you have to overwrite and then pare things back?

Steve McQueen: We rely on the audience’s intelligence, because in a way I think they are intelligent, even though a lot of filmmakers don’t feel as though they are, and I think an audience appreciates that. And also in terms of not specifically seeing Brandon and what possibly could have happened in the past, I didn’t want to tell a long yarn about what could have happened to them in the film. I respect audiences to come in and have an idea of what possibly could have happened to them, and it’s a situation where you actually just meet someone for the first time, you have no idea of who that person is. Obviously everyone presents the best of themselves when they meet you for the first time, but over a period of time you might possibly get to see their past in the present, and that’s what we presented the audience now with Shame. For example, when Sissy walks in on Brandon in the bathroom, you sense a part of the past in the present, and that’s what I wanted to have, really, and for the audience to decide what could possibly have happened. It’s much more interesting for audience, and much more exciting.

Movies.com: Is that why maybe it isn’t made totally clear until the next day that Sissy is his sister?

McQueen: Well again, it’s like life – you have no idea unless you find out through the process or something that that’s it. It as a process unfolds and tells you what’s going on, and in everyday life, this is what happens. Maybe for me the film is more about reality than a film reality.

Movies.com: What was the original impetus for this story? What intrigued you about the subject?

McQueen: What was interesting to me was you think of films like Man With the Golden Arm or The Lost Weekend, I was just interested, me and Abi Morgan, the cowriter, we were just talking one day about pornography, we were talking about the internet, and then we were talking about sex addiction. We stumbled across the idea that this person, a lot of the time his addiction needs someone, needs another person – obviously not all of the time, of course, but I just liked that idea of having someone who was there about a physical act and that was it. There was no emotional depth.

Movies.com: Why was this particular moment in these characters lives the focus of the story? It seems like it could easily have included plenty of other details about their background or other moments of their lives.

McQueen: Well, it was just because of the whole idea of Brandon having this ritual. We see his work space, we see what he does, he’s rich, and there’s this routine he has. And I like the idea that someone could disrupt that routine – of course, when his sister Sissy comes to stay unnannounced. And the whole idea of what she brings with her is the past, so then again you have this other sort of [development], disrupting this other time – meaning that what we see is who Brandon is and where Brandon possibly comes from, and that he and Sissy possibly come from a place that is damaged. And that was sort of intriguing for me; that was a cause for a great narrative for me, at least.

Movies.com: How do you create a cohesive psychology for each character? Do you simply follow what the characters would do, or if you’re not necessarily diagnosing them, you look at what kind of behavior they might exhibit and build the story around that?

McQueen: It was a little of both. I did a huge, hell of a lot of research on this, a hell of a lot, and then we spoke to specialists in the field who deal with people with this affliction. And then me met people who were obviously sex addicts – we met a lot of them, and just talked, and talked through it, and talked with the specialists. And we talked and talked and talked until we got some kind of idea of what we possibly wanted and went away and did our own thing. So it was kind of an organic kind of situation, really; I didn’t know what we were going to find – I had no idea. I don’t put my stencil onto things; I allow things to happen, and at the same time, when they do happen, you have to sort of shape them. So I went something like that, really.

Movies.com: How easy is it to eliminate a sense of judgment or intention in depicting these sorts of experiences? In particular, how do you make sure that hitting bottom for him and going where he does is just a reflection of him and not, say, a comment on homosexuality?

McQueen: I didn’t understand the comment on homosexuality. What do you mean by that?

Movies.com: I feel like someone could look at the film and think that it was a critique of homosexuality.

McQueen: How could we possibly think that? I don’t know how could anyone possibly think that. I’ve never heard that before – that’s the first time. And I don’t mean to push you on it, but I don’t really understand that, because I’ve never heard that before ever. Anyway, I’ll try to answer the question as best I can, but that part I just don’t understand how anyone could think of homosexuality. It’s about sex, of course, and it’s basically about the availability of it – how he can get it, and how he can get it at that particular moment in the evening. And he’s been beat up by some girl’s boyfriend, and he wants sex, and that’s it – that’s all. He’s heterosexual and he wants sex, so he goes to a gay club and gets sex; there’s no kind of differentiation from what he was looking for before. But what was you original question – have I answered it? Hopefully I have.

Movies.com: Basically, my question is how difficult is it to make sure that you present his behavior in a nonjudgmental context?

McQueen: Again, it’s just empathy for him. He’s struggling as a human being; I mean, sex is not a bad thing, and sex with other people is not a bad thing either. It’s just when your sexual appetite gets out of control, and you’re harming yourself by doing it – or it’s harming you. You know, you could be promiscuous and not be a sex addict; I mean, that’s cool – do whatever you want to do. I’m not a moralist – well, I am a moralist, but not a moralist in that. But as far as homosexuality, gay people have a great time in that nightclub; it’s not them who’s got the problem, they’re having a great time. They don’t give a shit about him, he wants to participate in a sexual act because he’s not getting it anywhere else. They’re having a whale of a time; they’re okay. There’s no criticism that they do what they want to do. But the sympathy is that he is obviously hurting himself in order to sort of get what he wants. Again, it’s like overdosing on heroin or alcohol or too much coffee or plastic surgery or any other sort of situation one might have, and we don’t even have to go that big. It could be, you know, somebody who’s slightly overweight, but you can’t help yourself but take that extra cookie. It’s all habit, and it’s all about a situation and not having that help and not being to help oneself. We’re all trying to have our heads stay above the water, really.

Movies.com: How well do you have to understand the choices an actor makes? In the scene where Sissy sings, we watch Brandon react – do you need to know why he’s reacting the way he is?

McQueen: The actors don’t just go on a tangent and do what they want to do; otherwise, you’re not a director, youre just facilitating what people walking out of the film walk away with. No, you’re giving the history of what happened between Sissy and Brandon at that moment where Brandon would love to leave that club, but he cannot; he’s invited his boss to the club to view his sister singing, and he can’t leave. He’s forced to sit and listen. It’s the first time Sissy can talk to him directly about how she feels, and about where they’ve come from and possibly where they want to go. And what happens is that Brandon, sort of all of his defenses are obliterated there – his drawbridge is dropped open. And in that moment, he is extremely vulnerable, and through that vulnerability, he responds, because the pureness of that vocal rendition of “New York, New York” gets to him for the first time. His defenses are down, and then of course as soon as it’s finished, his drawbridge is pulled up and his defenses are up again, but for that moment, we sort of have a glimpse into Brandon for the first time.

Movies.com: How do you create a character who we believe is sort of an effortless seducer? You can say he’s a great lothario but is it just a matter of juxtaposition with his boss or do you – or does Fassbender – have to do something in his performance?

McQueen: Yeah, that’s easy. I mean, look at New York – goodness gracious, or look at London. This is something that’s familiar to anyone. I mean, I guess to some people it is way off, but seducing women to sleep with them, that’s what a lot of men do. Absolutely. It’s not that unbelievable. He’s a very attractive man, he makes an approach, he goes to a nightclub or a bar, and he’s on the prowl for prey. Obviously sometimes he’s not successful, and then he looks for prostitutes on the internet, but he needs to facilitate this addiction all of the time. If he’s not lucky in a bar – well, sometimes he is, and sometimes he’s not – it’s just like anything else. There are other ways to facilitate that need.

Movies.com: Why was it important to set the film in New York?

McQueen: Well, at first actually I wanted to make the film in London, but no one would talk about it. Also, the time was such that conservatism was very much in the public vogue and we couldn’t get anyone to speak to us. So I went to speak to actors in the film that happened be in New York, and then I interviewed some people who are sex addicts, and I thought, why don’t we just sort of make the film here – and that was it. The wind carried us over to New York just by default, really.

Movies.com: How tough is it to balance the social and the psychological? In both this and Hunger you do a beautiful job of examining your subjects without making them either issue films or melodramas.

McQueen: I think we know more than we did two or three years ago. When they go to the cinema, they bring their own intelligence, and if you present something to them which is stimulating, you can cut a lot of fat off – you don’t have to spoon feed people. You just don’t have to. This is not television, this is cinema, and I think on HBO and AMC they’ve gotten out of having to explain everything to you, so they can tell you certain things in certain ways that you need, but otherwise it’s illustration. Film is a different kettle of fish. It can be kind of abstract, and still quite true and sort of close to what people know, so therefore it becomes sort of an experience rather than a picture.

Movies.com: Prior to Hunger, you were a successful painter. Has the success you’ve found in film inspired you to want to work more on film, or how do you decide or focus your creativity in one medium as opposed to another?

McQueen: It’s not either-either or either-or. Everything is just put in one pot. Of course, filmmaking is about storytelling, and obviously some art can be about storytelling, but there’s a time when it’s not. So for me, there’s no difference in form; it’s just one thing.

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