EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a daily December series that will feature new or previously published interviews and profiles of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses.
“It was one of those moments that just sticks in your head,” director Steve McQueen said of his earliest recollection of IRA member Bobby Sands, the subject of his film, “Hunger.” When he was eleven years old, McQueen was watching the news with his parents. “What happened was there was an image of this guy on the TV screen – a photograph. Underneath the image was a number and every night that number would increase. Slowly I found the reason this was going on was that this person stopped eating. And this image just got louder, resonating with me.”
“Hunger” dramatizes Sands’ story, in which he led the 1981 Irish hunger strike and participated in the “no wash protest,” whereby incarcerated Irish Republican members would be recognized as ‘political prisoners.’ The film follows events in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the six weeks prior to Sands’ death, including his rapid deterioration. The film took the Camera d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and is opening in Los Angeles this weekend for a one week Academy qualifying run.
At a press conference for the New York Film Festival earlier this year, McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning visual artist who had spent years working with film and video based installations, discussed why he felt a move to the cinematic medium was essential to tell Sands’ story.
“The narrative was very important for me with this piece,” he said. “What interests me is that everyone from Papua New Guinea to Alaska to Nicaragua knows a story – can tell you a story – but not everyone has been steeped in the idea of Western art. And that really interested me in making feature films – language and story that can actually translate and transcend.”
One aspect of making films that McQueen was skeptical about was working with actors. “I used think actors [were] over-bred racehorses. A bit tempermental, a bit too much actually.”
But then he observed, “I found out through the process that actors are sorts of people that can actually translate humanity and what they have to do in order to do that is quite remarkable.”
McQueen said his method of working with the actors was “just a case of conversation” and “getting our minds back to the early ’80s.”
“I go back to smell,” he said. “I always associate the early ’80s with a certain kind of smell – like a British Sunday. Where everything was closed and it was miserable. It was awful. And I had that kind of idea of the early ’80s… So going back to that time with the actors, discussing, talking and actually rehearsing – rehearsing, rehearsing… It wasn’t a case of acting. It was a case of ‘being.’ And that is what I wanted. I wanted the actor to almost be like a sphere which you roll ‘this way’ or ‘that way’ and wherever you roll it, it’s perfect… And with actors I get the impression that some directors aren’t necessarily honest with them. For me, it was a case of if you’re honest with them, they go as far as you and try to go further.”
One example of McQueen’s claim can certainly be suggested in the performance of Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands. Losing 35 pounds for the role, Fassbender’s remarkably inhabits the role physically and emotionally. Still, McQueen wasn’t initially sold on Fassbender.
“When we did auditions, Michael came in and I wasn’t hot on him at first,” McQueen reflected. “Again, it was my first time seeing actors walk in the door and doing their stuff. It’s difficult at first to get in that mode… But the main thing with Michael was that I got to talk with him. And when I got to talk to him I thought, ‘Yes, this is the guy. We can actually work together.’ And his commitment to the process of the fasting was very straightforward. He knew he had to do it. It was part of the piece… I mean, the film’s called ‘Hunger.'”