After his startling debut feature Hunger, a brutal yet poetic evocation of the 1981 Northern Irish hunger strikes, Turner Prize–winning filmmaker Steve McQueen has returned with Shame, a character study that’s at turns explicit and elliptical. The film centers on a handsome young executive, Brandon (Hunger star Michael Fassbender), who’s in the grip of sexual addiction and tormented by unseen memories of unknown trauma; his closely circumscribed life starts to unravel with the arrival of his unstable younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The below exchange is extracted from a phone conversation with McQueen from his part-time home base of London and a follow-up chat at the Crosby Street Hotel in Manhattan’s Soho.
I read that you laughed when you first heard about sex addiction as a phenomenon, but what made you overcome your skepticism and decide that it was a viable topic for a film?
Because it’s the elephant in the room. Sex is what the Internet is most used for. For me, growing up in England, finding pornography meant going into the newsagent’s and it was all on the top shelf. I remember craning my neck trying to see up to that top shelf. Now it’s just a few clicks away on a computer, and for some people, it’s going to dictate how they want to have sex. And that’s odd. Maybe in a way it’s a good thing, because sexuality was so suppressed before.
There’s a lot of silence in Shame, a lot that’s left unsaid. How do you direct silence?
I was thinking about guys like Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino — actors who are astonishingly good at not saying anything. If you fast-forward to the present day, guys like Brandon don’t talk about their feelings. The film is more about what people don’t say rather than what they say. It’s about undercurrents, internalization. People generally say things out loud that are designed to make other people feel comfortable. So it becomes like poker — you have to look for the tell. And you’re relying on the audience to pick up on things that are recognizable but at the same time unfamiliar.
Some films are about films, like, “That’s the movie world and we live in the real world.” It’s fantastically interesting to me if we put the real world onscreen instead. And what happens sometimes is that it’s like a dog whistle goes off in the cinema. The cinema screen becomes a mirror, and the audience can see themselves on screen. That’s exactly what I wanted from Shame.
How did you first find Michael Fassbender?
I never saw him in anything before Hunger. When he came in to audition, I thought he was cocky. It was a strange mixture of bravado and “I can’t be bothered.” It was my first time directing, and I didn’t understand that actors have to deal with a lot of rejection. At that point in Michael’s path, what if that door gets slammed in your face again? But he came back twice more, and he just shone through. Like, “That’s the guy.” After I told him he had the part, I jumped on the back of his motorcycle and we went off for a drink. It was kind of romantic. [laughs]
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when, after a lot of turmoil and drama, we sit and watch for a few minutes while Brandon goes for a nighttime run across Manhattan. It’s almost like an intermission, but it also underlines the idea of this man’s body as both his escape hatch and his prison.
It’s also about ritual, and the compulsive aspect of ritual. His morning routine is a ritual. Jogging is a ritual. Listening to Bach is a ritual. His vinyl records are a ritual — taking the record out of the sleeve, putting it on the player, putting on the needle, lowering the lid — and almost a fetish. The jogging was to lull the audience, to give you a chance to digest all you’ve seen up to that point. I don’t want to bombard the audience, and I want to respect their intelligence. Everyone comes into the cinema with their own baggage, their own history. They have all this knowledge that they can apply to what’s they’re seeing on the screen. You can allow the audience to participate.
[Spoiler alert] In the last movement of the film, when Brandon is hitting rock bottom, he ends up having sex with a guy in a seedy gay nightclub. The way it’s shot, it almost feels like Brandon is going into hell.
Well, it’s about sex, isn’t it. It’s not about heterosexuality or homosexuality. It’s like a drug addict or an alcoholic—they’ll polish off whatever they can get at the time. It’s not hell for the gay men who are participating in sex. They’re having a great time. It’s Brandon’s hell, not their hell. That’s the difference.
Did it concern you at all that we see gay sexuality portrayed so rarely in movies, and when we do it tends to be negative—
It wasn’t negative at all. It’s not judgmental, there’s no judging. Brandon is the intruder.
You ask a lot of your actors in this film. They’re exposed both literally and figuratively. Do you feel a great sense of responsibility because of that?
Absolutely, and I accept that responsibility with both hands. I want that responsibility. But it’s not about taking advantage. It’s the same as it would be with an artist or an athlete, or anyone who uses their body in their work. It’s what dancers do and it’s what actors do, using every part of the body as a tool. So my job is to ask how you can reach your full potential. For Michael and Carey, you cannot have a safety net playing these characters. If you fall, you fall hard. But what’s the point of doing it any other way?
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