TIFF 2018 Exclusive: Director Steve McQueen Talks ‘Widows’Posted by Wilson Morales
November 13, 2018
Hitting theaters on November 16 from Regency Enterprises and 20th Century Fox is “Widows,” a blistering, modern-day thriller from Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and co-writer and bestselling author Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”).
A remake of the 1980s Lynda La Plante mini-series, the film stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Adepero Oduye, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo with Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson.
Set against the backdrop of crime, passion and corruption, “Widows” is the story of four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
For McQueen, it’s his first film since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and making him the first Black person to win as a producer. His previous films included Hunger and Shame, both which starred Michael Fassbender. With Widows he co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn, who wrote the adaptations for the 2014 Gone Girl film and the HBO limited series Sharp Objects.
During the Toronto Film Festival Festival this past September, Blackfilm.com spoke exclusively with McQueen about putting this film together, from the script to the casting of notable names.
It’s been five years since 12 Years a Slave was released and Widows is more commercialized than your previous films. What attracted you to this particular project?
Steve McQueen: Well, as far as commercials are concerned, I love commercial ’cause that makes more people see the picture. I think with !2 Years A Slave, that wasn’t a commercial picture then it became a commercial picture. The fact that it’s about the audiences is fantastic. What I’m trying to do with this picture is portray the reality of the society we’re in but using a fiction, a heist picture.
And what happened was I was 13 years old living in London, and I saw this TV program called Widows. It was written by Lynda Laplante. And what was interesting for me was that I was relating to these women on the screen because they were being judged in a way that they were not capable, and they were being judged by their parents, similar to how I was being judged at that time.
At school, there were situations with people and they sort of set my compass. Similar to the women, they rebelled and rejected that, and it was just having this relationship with these characters on screen which really stayed with me for 35 years, strangely enough. And I made a film about it.
When did (screenwriter) Gillian Flynn come into the picture?
Steve McQueen: Gillian came in at a stage where I wanted to obviously collaborate with a writer and of course, Gillian Flynn, she’s great. We got together. Collaboration’s very interesting, in some ways, of can you work together? Will it work? And it’s not about what she could do or what I can do, or what she can’t do and what I can’t do, as such. It’s about how you can come together and make one.
It got to a point where I felt it was almost like having a situation where you’re listening to two guitars and not knowing who is playing what note. That was amazing.
How did Viola Davis come to be cast as the leader of the four? Was she the first one cast?
Steve McQueen: Well, sometimes things … you get the head before you get the tail, or sort of you get the tail before you get the head. In this case, no she wasn’t the first person on the page because I was looking for Veronica. I was looking for this character and I didn’t know who she would be. And what happened was that I was working with Francine Maisler and she mentioned to me this woman called Cynthia Erivo. I didn’t know Cynthia so I went to see The Color Purple, blown away by it, and cast her to play Belle. And then slowly but surely, I got to a point where I was wanting to speak to Viola Davis. We had two conversations. Both in the house, and that was it. She’s like an iceberg. She’s just so much depth there …
You’ve got Cynthia. You’ve got Michelle Rodriguez. You’ve got Elizabeth Debicki. Was it always a thought process of casting a multicultural female cast, between Hispanic, Black, White? As opposed to all Black, all White?
Steve McQueen: No, because if you come from Chicago, you come from London, and if you look outside our window here in Toronto. You see the world. And I want to reflect the world in this picture. It wasn’t a case of trying to flex my muscles, trying to, “Okay, I’ve got to really do this,” or like … No. It’s just that’s what would happen. That is our reality. That’s who we are. I wanted to see the cinema audiences reflected on screen.
How much of a challenge was it taking a British TV series and tailoring it for an American audience and set in Chicago?
Steve McQueen: Well, that was well researched. The reason why I took it out of early 1980s London and placed it in Chicago is that I wanted to set this narrative in a heightened western contemporary city. For me, that was Chicago. I’ve been going to Chicago for 22 years. My first art exhibition was in the Contemporary Art in Chicago. At the same time, the Democratic convention was going on, because my wife was a journalist and she was attending it. I’ve been going to Chicago for 22 years.
I thought, “This is an amazing, rich environment, to place this fiction.” I want to take the fiction and essentially steep it in the reality of Chicago. Because I wanted to deal with race. I wanted to deal with gender. I wanted to deal with politics. I wanted to deal with policing. I wanted to deal with gun crime. I wanted to deal with religion. With Chicago, there’s all this rich, competing elements.
The thing about this movie that appeals, besides the story, is the cast. You have Viola, you have Liam, you have Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell. Well established names. But then you have Elizabeth Debicki, who’s coming into her own and then you have Daniel Kaluuya, where if it was not for Get Out, he would just be like, “Oh, the newcomer.” Then you have Brian Tyree Henry, who people now are more familiar because of this TV show ‘Atlanta.’ How did these people come to you?
Steve McQueen: Okay. Cynthia we discussed already. Daniel I had cast him already before he did Get Out . Which is what I was so happy for him, obviously when that film came and he was getting so much attention, but I cast him before Get Out. I meet him in 2011 and he did a play at Royal Court which I saw. Which was amazing, so I cast him in that before. Brian came in. He auditioned and then we found each other. I hadn’t at that point seen him enter at that point, so that was that. Then Elizabeth again came in to audition. I had met her some time back, I think maybe it was some terrible party which I needed to leave or something. She was also in Macbeth. And I thought, “Okay, there’s that lady. Let’s bring her in.” And then that was it. Fantastic.
Michelle Rodriguez was a situation where everyone told me don’t work with her. Don’t work with that woman. Don’t work with her. She’s difficult and all that, but that’s the kind of thing I get all the time. Oh, he’s difficult and whatever. I mean, you know, if you’re white you be your own perfectionist as a director and if you’re black you’re difficult. So I didn’t listen to people.
I went to her and she said, “No,” after I actually gave her the script. Then I was auditioning other people, but I couldn’t find that person. I couldn’t find Linda, so I went to meet Michelle in person. We got on like a house on fire. It just showed you, don’t listen to people. And what people say about me.
How’s life been after 12 Years A Slave? Are you getting pitched a lot of projects, or are you taking your time as far as what you want to do next?
Steve McQueen: Well, I do get pitched a lot of project, yes, but I’m my own journey as such. I need to make my own way. I think we’re all going to die and I want to basically do … It’s almost like those women. You understand what’s going to happen, so therefore you need to be kamikaze about it. You need to be focused. You need to do what you need to do before time’s up.
It’s one of those things where let’s take 12 Years A Slave. I’m very proud of that movie because what it did to open so many movies, what it did to open up so many possibilities for movies, because I know, for example, some wouldn’t be made. Moonlight wouldn’t have been made. I didn’t expect Black Panther would have been made. Because they didn’t think that black films filled with black protagonists at the lead could make money, and especially money abroad.
For me, that’s legacy of 12 Years. Opening up opportunities for us as black people to push and dream and make the stories what we have to make. To tell it to the world basically. There’s knowing that. The stories are grand enough. You get the intimate story. And you get the grand story that could be given and shared with the world. It’s very important. I’m so grateful for that.
For 12 Years, you were nominated for Best Director and we’ve since seen a few more Black directors get nominated. Do you think someone will win sometime soon?
Steve McQueen: I think we have done already. I think Spike Lee, for me, with Do The Right Thing in 1989, he won that award. We don’t need a trophy to decide who won. We know he won that award. And so, there’s other people who have done it equally as great work. I think what’s important is that we make the stories that we want to make. That is a reward. And get it out there and get people seeing it. That’s the reward. And we’ll see what happens.
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Clip – Reap What You Sow