In the accent of his West London birthplace, he speaks very quickly, almost unnervingly fast, except when a slight stammer brings the torrent to an abrupt halt, a brief silence before the next outburst. His conversation, as befits an iconoclast, is peppered with words like "edge" and "subvert" and "urgent." In short, Steve McQueen speaks exactly as he directs, with an eloquent fury punctuated by periodic silence. And what he has directed, in 2008's Hunger and now in Shame, rank among the most intense, provocative and disturbing films ever to haunt the silver screen.
On the surface, the two couldn't be more different – Hunger follows a starving Bobby Sands, the IRA activist, through his dying days in the Maze prison; Shame tracks an affluent New Yorker, a thirtysomething man, through the existential despair of his sex addiction. Look more closely, though, and resemblances emerge. Both movies feature opening sequences that are nearly wordless, later followed by long scenes of pure talk shot in a single take. Both benefit from a superb performance by Michael Fassbender, not to mention his vulnerable and often naked body. Both deal with forms of imprisonment, one literal and the other emotional, and both are as hard to watch as they are rewarding to ponder.
But why, in Shame, this particular prison? The movies, of course, have always been addicted to sex, yet a movie about sex addiction is another matter entirely. So why the subject matter? McQueen, whose conservative appearance – cotton blazer, crisp jeans, glasses, cropped hair, clipped beard – belies his anarchic aesthetics, offers a typically circuitous (yet oddly revealing) response: "At first, I just wanted to make a love story but put down the gun, without violence. Then my co-writer, Abi Morgan, and I got interested in how the new access to pornography, through information technology and the Internet, has influenced this idea of sex addiction. But, obviously, it's an addiction that has to do with another person. So there's drama right there."
There was also research, a lot of it: "The research took us to where we needed to be at the start. It was amazing. We met the most sophisticated people who just couldn't manage their lives. After a while, you start questioning yourself." Hmm, in what way? Sorry, but a man who keeps his personal life private isn't about to rise to that bait, and the confession goes no further than a small smile with a generic add-on: "Oh, you know, in the way that counselling always does."
Anyway, that preliminary study gave rise to the script, although, for McQueen, a script is no more than an early signpost. The final destination is far off: "The script is just a starting point. It and the film are two very different things. The film cannot be an illustration of the screenplay. No, you've got to find it. Look, look, look. I make the film while I shoot it, not before or after in the editing suite. The film is made on-set, where the dialogue has to fly. If it doesn't, it's theatre, and I'm not interested."
So his choice of intense subject matter is married to, and inseparable from, an equally intense method of working. He continues the flying analogy: "Rehearsal is very key for me, but not too much of it, because the actors are too good. Sometimes, the plane is already taking off, and you've got to put it back down on the runway."
Obviously, McQueen has sufficient faith in his cast to make large demands on them. To his credit, he affords us the same respect. Here's his signature take on the audience: "I want to gain their trust. I want them to feel involved, to participate." Two examples. In Hunger, a pivotal scene – the crucial colloquy between Sands and his priest – unfolds in a single 18½-minute take. In Shame, a similar fixed shot, eavesdropping on a dinner date between the addict and a woman he actually likes, lasts over eight minutes. In each case, then, we're being asked to listen closely with no visual distractions. Says McQueen: "I like to keep the audience in an awkward, difficult situation. Don't cut."
Now two contrasting examples. Both Hunger and Shame open on virtually silent sequences, with the camera moving fluidly and continuously. This time, we're being asked to watch closely with no verbal distractions. McQueen: "It's not for me to tell the audience what to think. They can observe. I'm not a slave to silence but audiences are so intelligent you don't have to spell it out for them – just a gesture, a glance, can communicate far more than people talking about themselves. You get more insight into what the character is. You get more edge."
Indeed, he's long had a love of silent films, which are the cinematic equivalent of that classic cotton blazer – proof that his iconoclasm has traditional roots. Now 42, McQueen came to feature movies relatively late. He has an art-school background, and enjoyed vast success (including a Turner Prize) creating film installations in gallery settings, most memorably in Deadpan, a restaging of that iconic Buster Keaton stunt with the collapsing house. And if Keaton seems like an unlikely inspiration for a guy whose chilling work cuts to every bone except the funny bone, how about this: "I'm a big fan of Valentino too. The key for me, with silent pictures, is how they express so much with so little."
That duality – arty experimentation combined with classic reverence – is precisely what makes McQueen's style unique, and helps to unravel another of his enigmatic comments: "At the end of the day, all you can do in cinema is subvert the form, which is limiting. But it's a beautiful form." When he's asked to expand, his already quick speech turns rapid-fire: "If you see the same sort of trajectory, the same sort of narrative, it gets extraordinarily boring. That's what's going on in most movies. So to subvert, disrupt, challenge, stimulate is necessary, or it grows tiresome and people won't go any more."
"But, still, it's a beautiful form, isn't it? You go to a cinema, you're sitting with an audience, you're anticipating and watching together, the curtain slides open, the projector is turned on, you're into a world. It's the most beautiful form anywhere, I think. But … ."
But what? It's the stammer again, putting a stop to his lovely effusion. There's suspense in the silence, and in his eager struggle to break it. But what? The struggle ends, the dam bursts and the five short words that pour forth say everything about Steve McQueen, and about the raw eloquence of the films he makes: "… But it has to be urgent."
Hollywood's addiction to addiction
Although the movies have always been hooked on sex, a movie specifically about sex addiction is rare and (hypocritically) frowned upon. Other addictions, however, are common fare on the big screen, with many fine treatments available. Here are a few of the best. Addicted:
Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), Blake Edwards's The Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas (1995) are the reigning triumvirate in the land of the lush.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971), with Al Pacino hooked in New York; Trainspotting (1996), with Ewan McGregor going cold turkey in Edinburgh; and H (1990), a lesser-known but equally potent Canadian film from Darrell Wasyk, all rank high on the need-a-hit parade.
Just one will do: Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950), a scathing tale of ambition that, far from blind, sees all and stops at nothing.
Of course, Citizen Kane (1941), where the tyrant wants to be a populist, but also All the King's Men (1949), where the populist proves to be a tyrant.
Optimism, decency and the possession (not the pursuit) of happiness aren't dramatically interesting as a rule, but Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is the wonderful exception.