Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Artistry Of Shame, By Steve McQueen

Filmmaker Steve McQueen, director of "Shame", which opens in New York, L.A., San Francisco and other select cities on December 2. 
Omar P.L. Moore


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 15, 2011

"I WISH MY ROOM WAS LIKE THIS," jokes Steve McQueen as he walks into a suite in a swanky hotel in San Francisco.  The British filmmaker strides to a comfortable sofa seat and expresses mild surprise that someone has asked how his daughter is doing.

"Have we met?", Mr. McQueen says quietly and politely.

It is this British reserve and manners of the London-born and bred filmmaker that is the first thing one notices, more so than his sturdy bulldozer physique.  Mr. McQueen is a serious man but as you speak to him you glimpse a humble, sincere soul who possesses gentle humor and a genuine curiosity about people and the world they inhabit.

Mr. McQueen, who splits time between Amsterdam, where his wife and two children are based, and London, has probably answered two thousand questions so far about his new film "Shame", which opens in select U.S. cities (San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are among them) on December 2.

The new drama is Mr. McQueen's second feature film.  ("Hunger", the 2008 film about the 1981 hunger strike lead by Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands, was his first.) 

Mr. McQueen is known for the visceral language in his films, language that operates both as subtext and surface.  A deeper emotional truth is borne out of the naked bodies and carnal desecration of his characters in "Hunger" and "Shame", as well as in such earlier work in such short films like "Bear" (1993), a black and white film in which two naked men stare at each other several different times without saying a word.  There's anger, tension, fear, flirtation, humor -- or all of the above, between the men -- the kind of emotional ambiguity that makes the director's work palpable and real.  Mr. McQueen is one of the naked men in "Bear".

Michael Fassbender has been naked before the camera in both of Mr. McQueen's feature films.  The German-born Irish actor has said many times that Mr. McQueen "changed his life" with "Hunger" when he casted the then-unknown actor as Bobby Sands, in a performance that would gain heavy critical acclaim.  Mr. Fassbender has recently said that he would work with Mr. McQueen script unseen, "any time, anywhere." 

With just over two weeks until its U.S. theatrical debut ("Shame" played at Telluride in Colorado, in Toronto at its annual film festival and in Venice, where Mr. Fassbender won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor) Mr. McQueen's latest film has already struck a chord with many audiences at pre-release screenings in the U.S.  Much of the publicity surrounding "Shame" is in its stylish, unblinking look at the descent of a lost soul wallowing in shame, guilt and self-destructive behavior.  Some people are admittedly fascinated with Mr. Fassbender.  Others are curious about Mr. McQueen, whom, to some in the U.S., is conflated by, or with, his namesake, the late iconic actor.  At a film festival in Northern California last month, one patron, after watching "Shame" was heard saying, "I thought there was only one Steve McQueen!"

Only one Steve McQueen could have directed "Shame", an intense film that harnesses urgency, tragedy and raw power.  At a recent critics' screening of the film in San Francisco, the audience was completely silent during a number of scenes, particularly in the film's second half.  "Shame" resonates, and even for the most nonplussed viewer it will be an experience they will think about beyond the film's closing credits, if not talk about extensively thereafter.

Set in New York City and shot there in a mere 25 days earlier this year, "Shame", written by Mr. McQueen and Abi Morgan, explores a lonely but successful man's sex addiction and intimacy phobia.  Brandon Sullivan (Mr. Fassbender) is consumed by his hunger for sex.  He just cannot get romantically close to a woman.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan in "Shame", Steve McQueen's new drama opening on December 2. 
Fox Searchlight

"Brandon is this person who is living in this cosmopolitan, this mecca of a city -- New York.  Access, excess any time of the day.  Within that sort of holiday of freedom -- western freedom at least -- this is a guy who has a great job, is quite attractive, has a great apartment.  But what he does, he limits himself through his activities of sex.  And those kind of situations are very interesting to me because it's often about what we do physically more than what we say verbally.  I think -- as often is the case these days -- is when we speak it's not necessarily what we mean or what we actually feel, it's just to sort of make people feel comfortable or it's just to, you know, to get through a day," Mr. McQueen, 42, said, speaking in a soft but hurried cadence.

"What's really happening is through impulse and instinct and ritual.  And that's what I wanted to cover with Brandon," the director says, proceeding to go into some detail about what Brandon does in the film's opening minutes.

"Shame" stars two actresses with crucial roles in the story; Carey Mulligan, who plays Sissy, Brandon's drifter sister who drops in unannounced to her brother's West 31st Street Manhattan apartment, and Nicole Beharie, who plays Marianne, a work colleague of Brandon's.  Both characters are indispensible in helping to round out the arc of Brandon's character and his suffocating odyssey along the way.  James Badge Dale plays David, Brandon's boss.  (Mr. McQueen likens Mr. Dale to "a modern-day Jack Nicholson", and there's a scene in "Shame" in a bar that hits this nail on the head.  In the past Mr. McQueen has also spoken of Liam Cunningham, who played the priest in "Hunger", in the same reverential way.)

There's lots of history between Sissy and Brandon, much of it conveyed in a look, or in body language or in just a few sharp, terse words and exchanges.  In silences between Marianne and Brandon, a lot is being said.

"I'm interested in how we sort of work things out through our own being.  What we have is two arms and two legs and it's interesting how we try to break the circle sometimes."

The circle that is the relationship between Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender is unbroken.  If the term "that special relationship" is overused, then so be it, for it aptly describes the close relationship they have on and off screen.  They are like brothers.  When Mr. McQueen is told this he doesn't object.  The two of them are happy in each others' company.  One can merely look at photos of them together to confirm this.  Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio have a comfort zone.  Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon.  Sidney Lumet and Al Pacino.  Spike Lee and Denzel Washington.  Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz.

"I'm extraordinarily grateful for this sort of journey," said Mr. McQueen.  "You know, it's like falling in love in a kind of strange way.  I mean, you don't know when it's going to come.  When it comes what you do is you hold on to it, and you do when you least expect it," the director said of his relationship with Mr. Fassbender. 

"And what I mean by that is it's a relationship one has to work on because it's one of those situations where we have no second hand.  Absolutely.  But at the same time we respect each other.  And I don't take him for granted.  If I've got a script and I go to Michael for a script, it has to be a damn good script.  It's one of those things that like any relationship you have to maintain it.  You can't sort of rest on your laurels."

Mr. Fassbender, 34, is the talk of the movie world these days.  There's every likelihood he will receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination in January for his work as Brandon in "Shame".  He has also starred in three other films in 2011 ("Jane Eyre", "X-Men: First Class" and the forthcoming "A Dangerous Method", directed by David Cronenberg.)  It will be a busy 2012 for Mr. Fassbender, who will star in a film that marks fellow Irish actor Brendan Gleeson's directing debut.  He will also star in Jim Jarmusch's next film and appear on the big screen as an android in Ridley Scott's highly anticipated 3-D drama "Prometheus".

From Mr. McQueen's perspective, in his close friend Mr. Fassbender there's something deeper that evolves on the big screen in his work.

"But also what Michael does is something very different.  I think he's . . . it's not just a commitment -- and people use the word 'bravery' -- he's not brave in a way.  What he is is -- he is an artist.  That's what artists do.  There's a difference between an actor and an artist."

Next summer the director and actor will team up a third time for Mr. McQueen's next feature film, "12 Years A Slave", based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a man who was kidnapped in New York City in the early 1800s and sold into slavery in the American South and enslaved there for 12 years.  Chiwetel Ejiofor will star in the title role, and Brad Pitt will also star and produce the film.  "12 Years A Slave" is expected to be released theatrically in the U.S. in 2013 or 2014.

                     *                                         *                                                         *

"Shame" isn't about sex per se but rather the pervasiveness of sex, and the absence of love in the Internet age (online bullying, suicides, abductions) and a saturation of instant, quick-fix orgasmic highs. 

"It's everywhere.  It's all around us," remarks Mr. McQueen about sex, as he is reminded about one scene in "Shame" where an advertisement in the background is prominent enough to reinforce society's oversaturation of sex, sexuality and of "sex sells".

"There's just no escape.  We're all taken by it.  It's basically . . . how (do) we negotiate our way within this environment.  I remember -- and I'm sure you remember -- when you were growing up in Britain, the nearest you got to pornography is sort of breaking your neck in a newsagent's looking to the top shelf.  And now it's two clicks on your iPhone, your iPad or your computer at home.  Pornography has never been as prolific as now.  So how do we navigate our way in this world?"

Mr. McQueen's question hangs in the air.

Carey Mulligan as Sissy in Steve McQueen's drama "Shame".  Fox Searchlight

A West Londoner, Mr. McQueen was educated at Hammersmith and West London College, with an A level in art.  He did further studies in art, design and fine art at Chelsea College of Art and Design and at Goldsmiths College, and had a brief stint at New York University's Tisch School Of the Arts.  A pure artist, Mr. McQueen and several other prominent British artists had once been the center of a debate fueled mainly by the nation's press about British artists who were supposedly leaving or deserting the U.K.  It was a furor that some, including Mr. McQueen, were puzzled by.

Steve McQueen is known in Britain and across Europe for his artwork and installation projects, which he has been doing for the better part of two decades.  He's regarded as one of the best artists in the world today.  Mr. McQueen is the 1999 recipient of the Turner Prize, a special award for artists under 50.  His work has appeared in art galleries around the world. 

Mr. McQueen is also a photographer and a sculptor, and was the official War Artist in Iraq on behalf of England.  His 2007 art project Queen And Country won lots of praise.  The project was a series of postage stamps with the faces of fallen British soldiers from the war in Iraq.  Mr. McQueen has been awarded two honors by Queen Elizabeth II; the Officer Of The Order Of The British Empire (OBE), and this year, the Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire (CBE), an even higher honor, for his service and work in the visual arts.

The director, happily married with a son in addition to a daughter, is asked if he can relate to anything in "Shame" (recently nominated for seven British Independent Film Awards) on a sexual level.

"It's one of those things which I can't talk about personally but I can talk about it in general.  I think that it strikes a core in men and it strikes a core in women too."  Mr. McQueen adds that he is "a very moral person."  He asks himself out loud whether he's ever been immoral, and for the second time during this interview a question the director asks dangles in the air.

Of "Shame"'s NC-17 rating (for some explicit sexual content) Mr. McQueen sees no problem whatsoever.  "I just hope that people go and will be able to see it.  I mean, I didn't even know what NC-17 was.  It's fine, as long as people go to see it." 

Hoping to gain maximum publicity (and they've already succeeded), Fox Searchlight Pictures, which is releasing "Shame" in the U.S., is wearing the Motion Picture Association Of America's NC-17 (formerly an X rating) for the film as a badge of honor.

Harry Escott's music score forms a memorable lament in "Shame", which is also punctuated by the piano of Glenn Gould and sounds of the 1980s including "Rapture" by Blondie.  Joe Walker, who edited both "Shame" and "Hunger", is a musician, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, with whom Mr. McQueen has worked for eleven years, also shot both of the director's feature films.  Mr. McQueen said he couldn't be more pleased about what they and the rest of the crew brought to "Shame".

In "Hunger" and "Shame" there are long takes which have been a staple of Mr. McQueen's work. 

"What I'm trying to do is put the audience in a situation in real time rather than film time.  Because sometimes if a person's been uncomfortable -- maybe it's a bit sort of scary -- then all of a sudden you break through and you're there.  It's just one of those things.  Certain scenes need that kind of tension." 

Mr. McQueen refers to one such scene in "Shame" between Ms. Beharie and Mr. Fassbender, one he dubs "the most erotic scene in the movie."

"It's the first time that Brandon is actually sharing, he's really giving . . . and of course when that collapses it's much more devastating."

"Shame" rated NC-17, opens in select U.S. cities including San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles on December 2.  The film opens in the U.K. in January.

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