Faster Filmmaker Q&A: “Shame” Director Steve McQueen on Sex Addiction, the Artist’s Job, and Getting People Talking
“Shame” is British director Steve McQueen’s portrait of a Manhattan sex addict (Michael Fassbender) who loses even more control of his life when his wayward younger sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him. McQueen met to discuss it last week.
Michael Fassbender also was at the center of your previous film, “Hunger.” As an artist, what does he do for you?
It’s quite extraordinary. What we’ve learned from each other is that we can communicate in a transcendent way. It’s about pushing the envelope. Michael is amazing in how he can translate humanity. Which is actually very rare. He’s an artist. He’s left acting behind. I’m just grateful that we found each other, really. It’s a little bit like falling in love. When you have it, you cherish it, and don’t take it for granted.
“Hunger” and now “Shame.” Do you have a thing for potent, thematically prescriptive but variously interpretable one-word titles?
Well, I’ve still only made two films! It’s great if people interpret it in various ways. This one started as a long conversation with Abi Morgan, the co-writer. We talked for hours about the internet and pornography and sex addiction. “Shame” came through when talking to a lot of people with this affliction — that word kept on popping up. It seemed like everybody we spoke to had something to say about self-loathing and shame. They’d have some sexcapade, and feel those feelings, and then, to erase that thought, they’d go on another sexcapade. It’s a circle. Our narrative is the guy’s sister comes and breaks it up. She brings the past to the present. Which of course he doesn’t want to have anything to do with. She’s exploding, he’s imploding.
The NC-17 rating has been a talking point. Coming from the UK, do you find American cinema to be uneasy with frank sexuality?
I think that’s a question for you to answer, honestly. It’s not for me to answer because I’m not thinking about that while making a film. I’m just trying to make the best film I can possibly make — within our own reality. As an artist, that’s your job. Sometimes the reality of what we portray is not particularly pretty. But in order for us to learn from who we are, we have to look at ourselves. I will say that at first this film wasn’t specific to New York. The idea was to make it in London, but no one there would speak to us about this affliction. So we had to come over here to get people to talk.
Had I seen this at a certain age — under 17, say — I might envy this guy, and miss the point.
There is a difference between him and somebody who’s just promiscuous. The situation with a sex addict is that he cannot go through a day — or, forget a day, can’t go half an hour — without getting off. Or having some kind of sexual stimulant. Most of us like sex, sure, and want it as much as possible. Some people lock themselves off. Your life, your work, your friends are affected by it. Then it becomes something else. You know, I think young people are interested in the film because it’s talking about now. It’s current. I get that impression from the response we’ve been getting. Especially from women. But in general people are interested in what’s happening now. If anything is to happen with cinema, it has to be relevant. There are all these costume dramas and what not, and it’s like, uh, here we go again.
The real explicitness in “Shame” is emotional. What was your approach to that?
It starts with the crew, an on this we had an amazing crew. It’s that everyone has to be involved. Everyone has to be together. You need an environment of camaraderie. The actors are like thoroughbred racehorses: they know when something’s up. They’re very aware. So once it’s a harmonious environment, they are willing to take risks. So that’s the first thing to get them involved, excited, experimenting. I don’t want to hire actors. I want to work with them. The only time I’ve been on a movie set is my own. I don’t know half the time what I’m doing. I’m bloody Mr. Magoo. So I do what I want to do and how I want to do it. You just try to be honest and truthful to what you feel is right. Sometimes it demands just being yourself. It’s very hard to be yourself on a movie set. People want to shout or to strut around and be the boss. But I’m not like that. I’m the person who says, “Actually I have no idea.” Once you make yourself human and approachable, then I think you get people who will bust their gut for you, and you wind up collaborating with all these experts in the field. With this, it was a family. It was a “we” thing. And I’m really honored.
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