From the moment it debuted at the Venice Film Festival, everybody has been talking about Steve McQueen’s “Shame.” The follow-up to his universally acclaimed directorial debut “Hunger,” “Shame” follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender, who deservedly won best actor in Venice for his performance), a thirtysomething sex addict incapable of sustaining any emotional connection with another human being. His life takes a turn when he receives a surprise visit from his equally troubled younger sister (Carey Mulligan), which forces him into some raw self-examination.
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today we’re revisiting an interview with “Shame” director Steve McQueen from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dark, honest, and very explicit, the film has been one of the critical darlings of the past two weeks, with McQueen making it clear that the praise he received with “Hunger” was nowhere near unwarranted. Following Venice with stops in Telluride and Toronto, the film rode a wave of buzz to become one of the fall festival circuit’s most notable acquisitions as Fox Searchlight picked it up in something of a surprise move given its certain-to-get-an-NC-17 content. McQueen discussed Searchlight’s plans for the film – and many other things – when he sat down with Indiewire in Toronto earlier this week. [This interview was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.]
So tell me a bit about the genesis of “Shame.”
It started with a conversation between myself and [‘Shame’ co-writer] Abi Morgan. We didn’t know each other at all. It was one of those situations where we had a meeting that was supposed to be scheduled for an hour but it turned out to be three hours. And even then we were still talking. From that conversation, the seed was planted. It was really about the internet, and how much that affected us. But also pornography on the internet, and from there we got into the idea of sex addiction.
After that, we went to New York and we spoke to some experts about people that have this addiction. We talked about their daily lives and things just snowballed from there. It’s all about the research. If the research hadn’t gone anywhere, the movie wouldn’t have been made. But somehow the research took us to certain places, and that was fascinating.
In terms of writing the actual script, was it collaborative in that you’d sit and write it together? Tell me how that process worked.
I think what happened with myself and Abi is that we became very close friends. And we were very direct. That kind of honesty is so important to the script and how you work together. There’s no ego. We disarm each other in the conversation. We talk and talk and talk and talk. Abi writes… I look it at it… I change it… She looks at it… And then there’s a conversation and we get somewhere. ‘That doesn’t go there, it goes here.’
The physical act of writing, Abi does. And then the whole idea of talking through it is my thing and through that we change it to how it is. It’s a collage. But it’s also research and being aware of what we hear. A lot of writing is about research. I don’t want to go into something where I’m writing about something I don’t know about. It’s all about how we learn from them. It’s wonderfully scary.
How many people did you talk to in the research?
Lots. We talked to three top experts, and we spoke to seven people with sex addiction.
In terms of Michael Fassbender’s character Brandon, did that come from one person? Or was it a bit of a collage itself?
A multitude. A multitude of people and experiences and stories.
I felt like the film itself was also clearly about a multitude of things. Yes, it’s about this man and his sex addiction, but it also felt like a social commentary on this intensely hyper-sexualized world we live in.
It’s a very intense world. Sex sells, that’s why we use it. I remember being in Venice and talking to a journalist asking a similar question to you and there were these two girls walking around in white mini-skirts selling beer. That was literally in the room when I was having this conversation. And that happens constantly in billboards and so forth. We’re all taken. We’re all involved in it. It’s just a case of being aware of it, that’s all.
And on top of that, while sex addiction has been around forever technology has really drastically changed the magnitude of possibilities surrounding it.
Precisely. It’s like obsesity. When there’s more food choices available and more carbohydrates available… That’s why people are fat. People are fat are because there’s these advertisements on TV telling you eat this, eat that. It’s the same thing with sex addiction.
“Shame” is one of the first films I’ve seen that really depicts that in a genuine way.
That’s, for me, what cinema should be. That’s what cinema is about. For me, it’s got to be about an urgency, a necessity. That’s why I liked the response to the movie. Because beforehand people were saying ‘you can’t make this film.’ But the response from the audience to me has been so heartwarming and heartfelt. It was like a dog whistle going off in the cinema. It’s the elephant in the room. All you need is an hour and a half. You don’t need twelve one hour episodes to do it. You can just hit people on the head right there. And that’s the power of cinema. Cinema’s amazing, isn’t it?
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It is indeed.
And of course, we have to craft it, we have to make it… And also take a chance. Take loads of chances, experiment. Fall down and pick yourself up again. I mean, Carey [Mulligan] singing “New York, New York.” What the fuck, do it. Whatever is closest to real life. That moment with Carey singing and Michael watching, it’s a conversation. She’s talking to him. She’s talking about their past and where they’ve come from and where they want to go. She’s talking also about New York, the environment they’re in. And the situation that most people find themselves in there.
New York is essentially the third main character.
Yes. A lot of people in New York, they work in the sky. Isn’t that weird? They work in the sky. And what I mean by that is you always have these massive windows in office buildings or apartments or whatever. Which makes your perspective of the world always framed by the world itself. So there’s all these beautiful situations with the camera where you can get these relationships in the frame… Am I going on a bit?
No, no… That scene where Carey sings in the club that’s in the skyscraper. That’s the scene I really realized how involved I was in this film. All of a sudden I felt really affected and it was very much because of this non-verbal conversation between Michael and Carey’s characters, and between them and New York itself.
No, that’s the case. You have to trust. After that, you open up. At the beginning you might not be sure, but hopefully with that scene you open up and you can start trusting the filmmaker.
In terms of casting both Michael and Carey… Clearly you’ve worked with Michael before in “Hunger.” Was he your ideal choice from the onset of you considering this project?
Yes. It was the logical choice. We love each other. That’s not an “if,” that’s not a “but,” that’s not a “maybe.” We work in shorthand now, which is kind of odd. Never would I have expected that kind of collaboration. But I have it.
Did you know him before “Hunger” or did you meet him with that film?
No, never. He auditioned for “Hunger” and from there we got on like a house on fire. That was it. And since “Hunger” that was that.
This is how it is for me. It’s almost like jazz. You write the music, okay? So you’re the bandleader. And you bring in, say Michael is John Coltrane for example. And within that framework of the melody and harmony of the song, he improvises. And he improvises within the limits of the music that has been written. With Michael, it’s a case of working through ideas and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. Until he gets to a situation where becomes a sphere. Everything he does is right. He rolls this way, it’s right. He rolls that way, it’s right.
What about with Carey Mulligan?
I think she’s a revelation. You have to get to that point of trust. I think it was harder for Carey. Michael knows me. We gained that trust with “Hunger.” You have to create this environment where people are comfortable. We actually had such a laugh on set. Because we were doing such a tragedy in some ways. But the set was so warm and so friendly and people felt safe. So that they can do what they need to do.
That was my next question with regard to how to the environment was on set. Because if you don’t feel safe, you can’t expose yourself in the way that both Michael and Carey did.
Exactly. We had to work with Carey a lot. We talked a lot about the character and the nature of her character. We just went into it in very big detail. And basically, there are some people who will live until they are 110 years old who have compromised their life to get by. And then there are some people who refuse to compromise. And often these people die very young and it’s extraordinarily tragic. These people won’t survive. So we talked about that and we talked about people that we know. To work with an actor, I have to know the actor. We have to be open. I don’t hide people, I work with people.
And you wouldn’t have been able to make this movie if you did it the other way around.
No, I couldn’t. Because what we’re doing is dangerous.
And in terms of screening it this past week or so in Venice and here in Toronto, what has it been like seeing audience reactions? There was a report here that someone fainted while watching “Shame.”
Yes, I heard that. It’s the second time someone’s fainted in my movies. “Hunger” and this. Brilliant.
But I saw it for the first time here in Toronto. When it played in Venice, my heart was beating so hard I couldn’t hear it and Michael was sitting to my left and he hadn’t seen it before. It was just too much. So my first experience was in Toronto two days ago. Film is like a painting. You can step back from the canvas and you can look at it. Sometimes you can be the painter and the viewer too. Just because I made it doesn’t mean I can’t step back from it and look it too. Art has its own life. So I stepped back when I was in the audience, and I was kind of rattled by it. And when I came on stage after I was a bit nervous and shaky. Not because I was talking in front of hundreds of people but because of the effect the movie had had on me. You sit with a movie for months and months when you shoot it and edit it. But this was the first time I’d actually saw it. And it had an effect. I was shaken.
And now Fox Searchlight has bought it and audiences all over are going to get a chance to feel that same way.
I’m grateful Fox wants to release the movie. I mean, it just shows you that there is an audience for serious movies, and I think audiences deserve this cinema. We have to keep cinema alive. It’s very important to me. It’s not just superheroes and romantic comedies. We need a space for serious film. So I’m just so grateful.
And you’re getting final cut?
Absolutely, completely, absolutely.
Check out some audio from the interview on Peter Knegt’s blog.