Steve McQueen on Shame, Sex Addiction, and Self-Imposed Imprisonment

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Filmmaker Steve McQueen
​A prediction: One day soon, when we enter "Steve McQueen" in a web search, the results will be equally divided between the iconic Hollywood star and the rising English filmmaker. Despite any confusion the filmmaker may yet experience, he has already established a bracing, distinctive voice that calls attention to the darker corners of our world.

As a fine artist, McQueen has worked in photography and experimental film, winning England's prestigious Turner Prize as well as knighthoods in 2002 and 2010. McQueen's debut feature, Hunger, was released in 2008 and won the Caméra d'Or at Cannes. It is a harsh, unflinching depiction of Bobby Sands' 1981 hunger strike in a Belfast prison. McQueen's second film is Shame, which releases today (Friday). Like Hunger before it, Shame stars Michael Fassbender. He plays Brandon, a materially successful New Yorker and sex addict who lives his life as an attractive husk, unable to connect with other human beings beyond the sheer physicality of sex. His younger sister (played by Carey Mulligan), who wears her personal problems on her sleeve, moves in with Brandon, and all emotional hell breaks loose.

We recently spoke with Steve McQueen -- who apologetically informed us that he was operating on just a few hours' sleep -- at a hotel in the city.

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You're bringing genuine discomfort back to the cinema. In the best sense possible, of course.
Thanks -- that's my job.

Where did this character of Brandon come from?
It was a conversation with Shame's co-writer and playwright Abi Morgan. Abi wanted to meet me, and I didn't know who she was. I think maybe she had seen Hunger. And I only had like an hour and 45 minutes, but three and a half hours later we were still talking. We had started talking about the Internet, and pornography, and then we got onto sex addiction. It was just one of those things where it was like, "Okay, great, this could be an interesting idea." And that was it -- that was the seed of Shame.

What makes this an American story? Why did a group of filmmakers and actors from the British Isles make this particular story here?
No one wanted to speak to us in England. I had wanted to make the movie in London, but no one wanted to speak to us about sex addiction. I think maybe at the time it was very much in the news or something. I wanted to speak to experts in the field, and there were two in New York. I and Abi flew off to New York to meet them. They introduced us to people who were recovering sex addicts -- and we were right there, and I thought, "Why don't we just make it in New York?" And that was it -- the wind sort of blew us over the Atlantic.

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Michael Fassbender in Shame
There seems to be a thread running through Hunger and Shame that concerns the debasement of people. In Hunger, Bobby Sands' strike is instigated by debasement at the hands of the British criminal justice system, and in Shame, Brandon's behavior is self-debasing, with his employer, a large American corporation, in the background. Is there a connection between large institutions and the dehumanization of people who are a part of those institutions?
In some ways, Bobby Sands and Brandon are polar opposites, but they're actually quite related. Bobby Sands is in this British prison cell, and in this cell, he stops eating to gain his own freedom. In prison, he transforms the situation into one where he can control his environment. On the opposite side of that, there's Brandon, in New York, the Mecca of democracy and capitalism -- access and excess. But in that town, through his actions, he puts himself in a sort of prison. He has everything -- he has looks, a great job, money -- all the trappings of freedom, or Western freedom. But he puts himself in a prison through his sexual activities. So they are opposite in some ways, but also very much related. It's what happens after the revolution, I suppose.

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Carey Mulligan in Shame
Given your background as a visual artist, at what point do you start to visualize the palette of the movie? Is that automatic for you once you start working on a script?
The script is just: "How can you tell the story?" I've been working with Sean Bobbitt, the DP, for 11 years. So talking with Sean was important -- we talked about ritual a lot. And our designer, Judy Becker, who did Brokeback Mountain, gave us a book about New York that had really interesting colors. The colors were very mundane, boring colors, but they looked real, as if you were walking down the streets of New York. And I love that sort of honesty. So I talked to Sean about that, and how to light the streets, to get that authenticity.

Shame opens today (Friday, Dec. 2) at Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Center (at Davis), S.F. Admission is $8.25-$10.

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Embarcadero Center Cinema

1 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA

Category: Film

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