Steve McQueen Talks Shame


An Interview with Steve McQueen

By Wilson Morales

November 28, 2011

Coming out this week is the controversial, yet provocative and well acted film, ‘Shame.’

Directed by Steve McQueen, ‘Shame’ revolves around Michael Fassbender’s character Brandon, a 30-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment, Brandon’s world spirals out of control. Carey Mulligan plays his sister Sissy, while James Badge Dale plays his boss.

The film was recently given an NC-17 rating for its explicit sexual scenes.

For McQueen, the film reunites him with Fassbender, whom he directed in the critically acclaimed film, ‘Hunger.’ Among the many awards McQueen won for that film, he also received the Caméra d’Or (first-time director) Award at Cannes.

A director who’s stock is rising in the film industry, the London native is slated direct ‘Fela,’ a biopic about the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. His next project will be ‘Twelve Years as a Slave,’ starring Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Brad Pitt.

In speaking with, McQueen spoke about working on ‘Shame,’ casting the talent and shooting in New York.

How did you come to decide that ‘Shame’ would be your next film after ‘Hunger’?

Steve McQueen: It sort of happened from a conversation between me and Abi Morgan, the co-writer of this film. I was also developing another film at the time and one thing led to another where this one was before another one. I didn’t know Abi at the time. We started talking and the topic of sex addiction came up and the internet pornography. I thought it was interesting and we did some research in London and no one wanted to speak to us about it. I think at the time there was a lot of media attention on sex addiction. We went to New York to meet with two women who were experts in this field and they were great. These were two women who were recovering sex addicts. I then said “Why don’t we make this film in New York?”

Not much is known about Michael and Sissy’s relationship as siblings. Was there a challenge to include the back-story of their characters?

SM: Not at all. I was more interested in including the reality of the situation as opposed to the movie reality. When you are shooting a person for the first time, you have no idea who that person is, and as often is the case, people will present the best side of themselves to you of course. Over a period of time, you get to see the past in the present and that’s how I wanted the movie to be. I wanted her to be more familiar than mysterious. In reality, we don’t talk about what could have happened to them in the past.

Having worked with Michael (Fassbender) before, what did want him to bring to this character?

SM: The film is all about Brandon really. I don’t write specifically for Michael at all. I don’t have to. I’m interested in the character and the story. What Michael brings to the film what he could is inhabit the character in a way which it speaks like Valentino in a strange way. Brandon’s imploding, but you’re seeing this front that he’s putting for everyone around him. I wanted that connection with Brandon although he doesn’t say much. It’s a huge contrast to ‘Hunger,’ where he was very much verbal. In this film, things are being said without being said.

Can you talk about casting Carey (Mulligan), Nicole (Beharie) and James (Badge Dale)?

SM: Well, Carrie found the script and I don’t know how she found it. It was hunt for Sissy. It was like casting the role of Scarlett O’Hara. I was thinking hard as to who could play Sissy and I met her. I could tell she really wanted to spot like Sissy wants something, so I gave her the role on the spot. As far as Nicole, she was hot. I had seen her in a play at Lincoln Center called ‘A Free Man of Color’ and I was like, “Whoa! Who’s that amazing person?” I had to see her and see if I could audition her. She was difficult to get for an audition. She was in the play, and it was initially hard to get a ticket for the play as well. Finally, she did audition and she was amazing. Nicole is pretty special. She has the capacity of being a great actress. Absolutely. It’s just about opportunities. That’s all she needs. It was a similar thing with James. I actually offered him on the spot as well. He was introduced to me by Amy Kaufman, the casting director, and that was it. I spoke with him and that was it. He had the role. End of story.

How did you choose the song ‘New York, New York’ for Sissy to sing?

SM: For me, the song is a blues song when you listen to the lyrics. It wasn’t as triumphant as to when Frank Sinatra sang it originally or when Liza Minelli sang it. It has a history. I thought of it as a blues song and I worked with Carrie and a vocal coach. In the scene where she sings the songs, it’s about the past and the present. She’s communicating with Brandon through the song. He can’t move as he’s listening to her sing. We see the reaction of the past in his face.

How was shooting in New York and picking out locations?

SM: I never thought about that before. I wanted to get to know Brandon and where he goes for his dry cleaning and where he goes for his Chinese food. When he travels by subway, what route does he take? Where does he work, and where’s his apartment located? With those things, I was really meticulous about. I know New York very well. I’ve been coming here since I was seven years old and a lot of my family lives there. I still wanted the film to be on the characters and the daily life of Brandon, and the surroundings just happened to be in New York. The people who live there are always in the perspective of the city. As if they want to be near the sky. It makes you feel very small in a way. It points you in a position where you are always reflecting on yourself. For Brandon, he’s always up and by windows, such as in hotel room where he takes Maryann, his office, and in his apartment.

What do you make of the NC-17 rating the film was given?

SM: I don’t see the rating as a death penalty. Of course, there is some content that shouldn’t be seen by certain people but we are living in a time where two clicks on your Iphone, you’re seeing the most explicit images you can possibly think of. Pornography has never been prolific in the history of existence on this planet. The majority of use on the internet is for pornography. I think what we are doing here is pretty tame and I also it’s a responsible movie about how we live today and how people are struggling to cope with certain things today.

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