There has always been an efficiency to filmmaker Steve McQueen’s visual storytelling, but the multi-layered and complex narrative of his new film “Widows” puts the director’s ability to quickly translate complex emotional and dramatic situations to the test. Beyond the effortless way McQueen rips through exposition to ground his film in a story with 81 speaking parts as it weaves through different socio-economic, political, and criminal worlds, “Widows” relies on the audience grasping the emotional and psychological depth of 14 principal characters.
“I wanted to have this canvas where you touched upon things like icebergs,” said McQueen when he was guest on IndieWire’s Toolkit podcast. “Where you saw the tip of it, but you knew the depth of it.”
As an example, McQueen points to the introduction of Elizabeth Debicki’s character Alice, whose husband will die in the film’s opening heist. The audience must understand, through a single exchange the morning of the crime, that she is a victim of domestic violence. McQueen offers little in the way of details, but the audience instantly grasps an essential element of the Alice character, both psychologically and in terms of backstory, which proves to be key to how her character arcs through the film.
“There’s a metaphorical understanding of what that is and just by certain things, what her partner says, and you can see the dynamic of that relationship,” said McQueen. “A lot of it has to do with the audience’s history, our communal history. In our own everyday lives, we have an idea of a person, in our daily lives we have glimpses of other people’s lives, an idea, an understanding, a metaphorical sort of nuance look. It’s Tai chi filmmaking – using the audience to help me finish that narrative because they know often what that’s about.”
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McQueen would rather give a sharp glance at a situation that stimulates the viewer’s ability to comprehend and fill in the missing pieces, rather than ever have to explain or show the whole. While McQueen enters each film with a clear visual plan, aided by working with longtime collaborators like cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and editor Joe Walker, finding his compositions or determining how the camera will interact with the actors is something he leaves until the very end of the process.
Instead, he puts the emphasis of finding the exactness of the scene and expressive staging during early rehearsals with his actors.
“We never have a shooting list,” said McQueen. “I don’t want to have a situation where I’m bringing my stencil, imposing myself on a scene or location. It’s all about embracing the situation in front of you and have a conversation with the actors. It liberates you, it liberates your camera and sometimes limiting whatever it is gives you a freedom.”
While McQueen and Bobbitt search for the most direct use of the camera to get to the heart of a moment, they often achieve complexity with stripped down simplicity. In one scene from “Widows,” Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is running for his father’s (Robert Duvall) city council seat, is rushed into the back seat of his town car after dodging questions from a dogged reporter at an event where was he promoting a minority empowerment initiative.
“There’s a sort of momentum and momentum of narrative because also there’s movement, but also you get five different levels of information from that one shot,” said McQueen in describing the decision to shoot the scene in one shot.
The location itself was incredibly important to McQueen and, once his team, after a great deal of initial struggle, found one that would work, he and Bobbitt knew that the camera should be mounted on the hood of the car. It’s an unorthodox shot, where the audience can hear but not see Mulligan and his staffer Siobhan’s (Molly Kunz) frank dialogue in the back seat. What the audiences ends up seeing is their driver and the neighborhoods they drive through as the car takes the politician home.
“You see the landscape changing from a predominantly African-American neighborhood, which is disheveled, and we move to a sort more affluent area which is predominantly white,” said McQueen. “[In] that journey we understand this particular person doesn’t really care about the people he spoke about. He’d rather not be in politics. He’s his mother’s son, as he says, and that Siobhan, this lady who doesn’t hardly say a word in the whole movie, is an instigator that pushes him because she wants to push him to become mayor. … There’s another aspect of the person who is driving the car, who is an African-American, and they are saying certain things in the back of the car which he doesn’t react to, because whose going to pay more than Jack Mulligan?”
He continued, “There’s all these layers of information which the audience, we’re not suckers, we understand what people say in private and public, and we don’t need the Access Hollywood tapes to understand, so it’s interesting how you move narrative along and have these layers.”
The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.