Plenty of posh European directors make a breakout movie but fail the transition to a commercial Hollywood picture. Oscar-winning British filmmaker Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) is defying the odds by fashioning a smart hybrid genre movie that combines his sophisticated sensibility with an accessible, aspirational story that’s enriching and fun. What’s harder to gauge: Where does “Widows” fall on the awards spectrum?
The Fox movie wowed critics and audiences at its Toronto debut and played the international fall festival circuit, winding up at AFI FEST before it opens wide November 16. Impeccably crafted by such Oscar perennials as McQueen and Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker, composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and lead actress Viola Davis, the ensemble movie is a crowdpleaser nourished by its provocative gender-bending plot and social realism. It could be a factor in several Oscar categories.
Back in 1983, McQueen was 13 years old and he adored a Lynda La Plante (“Prime Suspect”) TV series, “Widows,” in which four criminals die and their last job is carried out by the women they leave behind. While everyone underestimates the widows, they prove to be more than capable of pulling off a complicated heist. “It left an impression,” he said, “following these women and how they overcame their hurdles and the assault-course of the every day to achieve what they did. It was heartening to me as a black boy in London.”
Some 35 years later, McQueen updated the series to contemporary Chicago, collaborating with American novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects”), who impressed him with her adaptation of her page-turning dark thriller “Gone Girl.” “We took the A to Z narrative of Lynda La Plante and steeped it in the reality of modern contemporary Chicago,” said McQueen.
The filmmaker never forgot a story his father told him about jazz great Ornette Coleman. While walking down the street in Harlem, someone told him: “I don’t understand what you are doing.” Coleman responded, “Let me think about that. How can I bring people in?”
“You can have your cake and eat it too,” said McQueen. “Have an elevated intellectual discussion about it and drag the audience with you. It can be gritty and at the same time affluent.”
“There’s no use talking about important things if no one goes to see the movie,” said Flynn. “I don’t want to make a movie that’s pure guilty pleasure.”
Flynn and McQueen spent weeks in Chicago researching the FBI, organized crime, and the city’s disparate neighborhoods, adding multiple new characters and layered subplots, including the rivalry between corrupt racist politician Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his rising-star son Jack (Colin Farrell) and equally ruthless gangsters the Mannings (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya), who run their side of town.
“We stuck the fiction onto Chicago,” said McQueen. “Everything crisscrosses: politics, gun crime, policing. You’ll notice in the picture the police aren’t really present. The catchphrase of Chicago is, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ Someone is always doing something dodgy. That’s how it is.”
Pages flew back and forth between McQueen’s home in Amsterdam and New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. “We surprised ourselves with what interested us,” said Flynn, “grabbing back and forth from each other.”
“It’s like writing music,” said McQueen. “You know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.”
The script attracted a superb cast, led by Davis, who met McQueen on the 2013-14 Oscar circuit. As she rose to TV stardom, Davis was so dismayed by the scripts presented to her that she launched her own production company to develop projects about the likes of Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Harriet Tubman. With “Widows,” however, she was delighted to sign on. The “Fences” Oscar-winner was eager to dig into Veronica, a beautiful and powerful middle-aged woman who surprises herself as she does what she needs to survive.
In a central scene, grieving Veronica stands alone in the deluxe apartment that she does not own, listening to music and staring out the rain-soaked window, conjuring up the ghost of her lost husband (Liam Neeson). “At the core of the story is this love she has for this man,” said Davis. “That spoke to me. Liam comes up from behind and I’m imagining him just holding me. That cost me something — at first I tried to suppress it, then I tried to use it. There’s a certain woman who gets relegated to love scenes and that’s not me. I am a woman in love with a beautiful man. Why would she be with a man who lives a life of criminality? She probably felt like, ‘Wow, here’s someone who loved me.'”
Davis had one note for her director: “I felt this movie was rooted in drama. Why would these seemingly normal women pull off a heist? I have to believe there’s a reason why.”
The propulsive narrative is driven by three disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo) who are pushed into action by Veronica, a ringleader who is more fragile than she appears. All the characters juggle public and private personae. “That’s what we do in life,” Davis said. “We put the mask on. Alice, Linda and Belle are being liberated from the confines that kept them from living their full life and take ownership and pride from tapping into their intelligence.”
Before the director juggled a massive ensemble (81 speaking roles, 75 locations, 150 shot scenes), he mounted rehearsals. He was “an actor whisperer,” said Davis. “Those elements in yourself that you feel shy or insecure or feel a little shame about, he coaxes out of you, gives you permission to just be, to dare to fail. His famous mantra is ‘Leave it all on the floor,’ meaning, ‘Just put it out there.’ And it was the ride of a lifetime.”
Chicago was a prime character, Davis said: when they filmed over the 2017 July 4th weekend, there were over 100 shootings and 14 gunshot deaths. “Why is that?” she asked. “With any Ibsen or Shakespeare story, it’s born from what is happening in the culture.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth
On the set, McQueen sees himself as a Tai Chi master who works without a shot list and confers with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt to figure out “what the scene wants to be.” In one stunning long take (invisibly trimmed by editor Walker), McQueen and Bobbitt mount the camera on the hood of Jack Mulligan’s town car as he traverses Chicago from the Mannings’ rough-and-tumble 18th ward to the leafy suburban neighborhood where Barack Obama used to live. We hear Farrell in voiceover, but never cut inside the car. “You see the journey visually,” said McQueen. “You have the audio of what he is saying in the car, the public and the private.”
“It’s painting a picture of Chicago,” said Walker. A trained musician who cuts without temp tracks, he tries to make a rhythmic edit with dialogue and sound effects that works on its own before composer Hans Zimmer applies his aural magic. “It gives the film a tough workout, massive liposuction,” Walker said. “We’re on a planet; Hans has to land the spacecraft at the right angle and provide music at exactly the right temperature.”
Davis’s character provided the editorial spine as the editor built up the tension toward the heist. “I always concentrate on the eyes when I’m cutting,” said Walker, “the dance between the actors’ eyes. Viola’s real on every take. With only a few actors I’ve worked with is every single take authentic and heartfelt and on the money. She lives every emotion.”