An interview with Steve McQueen, director of "Shame"

One of the trickier things about interviewing Steve McQueen is researching him on Google. You tend to get a lot of references to that other Steve McQueen. But the director of "Shame" has his own impressive resume to offer.

He's one of the world's most celebrated artists, the winner of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 1999. In 2006 he was appointed official British war artist in Iraq. During that time he produced the art project "Queen and Country," a set of stamps commemorating each of the British troops killed while serving there. Since then he's been trying to get the Royal Mail to put the stamps into actual circulation.

But most recognize McQueen as a movie director. His debut was "Hunger," a brutally uncompromising account of IRA leader Bobby Sands's fatal hunger strike while he was in a Northern Ireland prison in 1981. This year he made the equally harrowing "Shame," the story of a successful Manhattan professional with a crippling sex addiction. It's hard to say which looks more exruciating, starvation in "Hunger"


or sex in "Shame."


The MPAA, however, thought the frontal nudity in the latter warranted an NC-17 rating.

Michael Fassbender plays the lead in both films, and one might be tempted to say that Fassbender is an onscreen persona for McQueen like John Wayne was for John Ford.

That is, if Ford had the Duke starve himself, smear feces on a cell wall, and walk around naked. as does Fassbender in "Hunger."  Or masturbate compulsively, have sex with prostitutes, and walk around naked, as does Fassbender in "Shame."

Maybe a more accurate comparison might be between how Ford uses Monument Valley and how McQueen depicts Fassbender's face and body; in the former landscape is almost a character and in the latter a character is almost a landscape.

Too bad I didn't think of asking about that when I spoke with McQueen a couple of weeks ago. Here's what we did talk about.

PK: As with "Hunger" you died a lot of research on "Shame," but you said you couldn't research it in Britain because no one would talk about sex addiction. Is that possible?

SM: Yes. At the time it was very much in the news and what happened was... the British press have such a reputation and I think that people just shut down. So I wanted to speak to experts in the field, myself and Abi Morgan [the co-screenwriter] and we went to New York to talk to these doctors in the field who were amazing. They introduced us to sex addicts and we spoke with sex addicts. Very, very intense.

PK: What did you learn about it?

SM: Well, it was quite a revelation. When I first learned about sex addiction I laughed. As most people do -- they can't believe it. But when you get to know what it actually entails you realize that it's just tragic. It's a tragic situation and you reach the darkest depths of humanity like with drug addiction or alcohol addiction.

PK: Is it actually a physical addiction?

SM: Not physical -- in what do you mean?

PK: Like with withdrawal symptoms? A biochemical connection?

SM: You can be addicted to food. You have obesity. I imagine you have withdrawal symptoms there. Food is an addiction. Sex is an addiction. Alcohol and drugs are things you can actually give up. Sex you have to negotiate with it as with food. People don't take the addiction seriously. That's the thing about it. So these people have been ostracized a bit. It's like with HIV and AIDS. People don't want to talk about it. People that has to do with sex as well.

PK: How widespread is it?

SM: They say 24 million people have sex addiction in this country. But of course there are people who don't believe they have sex addiction. They think they are just promiscuous. Promiscuous is one thing but having sex addiction is another. In the sense that people have to relieve themselves 20 times a day or be on the internet for 72 hours. People are dubious about it but it is a real affliction.

PK: Is there a cure? Do they know what the cause is?

SM: It's like AA. They take certain steps. There are lots of different causes to it like with alcohol addiction. Why do people drink? We don't know. It often has something to do with their past it could be hereditary or whatever. What do we know? A lot of people have sex addiction because they don't understand it. They think they're just having a good time. An addiction is when something takes control of your life. That's it. And then it can ruin it.

PK: It doesn't look like fun.

SM: At the end of the day, no.

PK: At the end of the movie you don't say, I'd like to have his life.

SM: No.

 PK: Did you have in mind a specific cause for Michael's addiction?

SM: I didn't want to have a specific cause for his problem. Of course they allude to it in the background. But I didn't want him to have a get out. There was a potential situation which it could have been. But it wasn't so pointed.

PK: The sister [Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan]: I'm no expert but I'd diagnose her as having borderline personality disorder. Am I close?

SM: I think she's bereft of love. We all know persons who are so demanding and you want to help but she's just too much.

PK: In your first film you have someone who denies their appetite and here you have someone who is controlled by it. Was this intentional?

SM: No, but it's interesting. In the way that is. You've got this situation with a guy who's in a prison cell in a maximum security prison cell in Northern Ireland. In order to be free he stops eating. Here on the opposite side of the pond 30 years later there is this guy who is living in this Mecca of a metropolis of access and excess, New York City. He's an attractive man, he has a good job, anf a good salary. He has all the privileges you can think of . But he builds a prison for himself through his sexual activities. So they are polar opposites in a way.

PK: In one the body is a prison, in the other the body is away to escape from prison.

SM: Precisely. You said it.

PK: What is his job, actually?

SM: Viral marketing. He refers to it in the beginning. It's an obscure job. I didn't want it to be Wall Street, which is cliché nonsense. We researched this job particularly because I wanted to research this character in specific detail. Where he would live, where he would work, how he'd get to work, what job he would do. He's a guy in his early 30's, where would he work?

PK: If there was a villain in this story it would probably be his boss.

SM: Yeah, David. I love David. Because it's all about things that aren't being said. In most other films people are talking about themselves, about who they are, where they come from. In reality that never happens. I just met you, we just met each other, I don't know who you are, I don't know your past, and the same with me. But in a movie we would know everything in a half an hour. How is that possible? What I wanted to do in this film was to is to show how at some point in the present the past is illuminated. For example, when Brandon walks in on Sissy in the bathroom. That gives you some idea about their relationship. That's what I was interested in, stimulating the audience within the narrative.

PK: Make the audience do some of the work.

SM: Audiences are not stupid. When we come to the cinema we bring our history, our baggage, our knowledge. When we sit down at the cinema we have an idea of what probably happened with Brandon and Sissy. If you present in such a way it's kind of stimulating.

PK: According to the MPAA, some of what they think is stimulation in this movie is not appropriate for all audiences. Could you comment on the NC-17 rating you received?

SM: I never discussed with Fox [the studio releasing the film] the possibility of cutting the film. I never discussed with them it's getting an NC-17.

PK: Usually the MPAA gives reasons for their decision. Do you know what they said in your case?

SM: I don't care as long as people are allowed to see it.This is a very responsible film. This isn't about chopping someone into pieces into a frying pan or shooting people in the head. This is about people having difficulty with sex. But everyone has had sex. Everyone has seen someone of the opposite sex naked. There's a very small minority of people who have shot someone in the head but apparently that's the kind of thing that can be seen in the cinema. And what we are showing cannot be seen in a wider viewership. But that's fine. I don't have any problems with that.

PK: It's ironic that in a film like "Piranha 3D" you can have a penis cut off and eaten or in an Apatow or Farrelly Brothers comedy you can show one for laughs. But not in a serious film about human behavior. What do you think the problem is?

SM: I have no answer to that. You guys are the experts. Those are two great examples there. I could never do that.

PK: Maybe horror or comedy defuses audiences' discomfort?

SM: Horror movies or slasher movies are the most irresponsible movies there are. But apparently that's okay. But this is a responsible movie. That's the difference.

PK: Do you think the film could be construed as anti-sex?

SM: No. I mean drugs are meant to be good, or are meant to be fun. There are scenes in this movie where sex can be seen as having fun. Like when Michael takes a girl from the bar and has sex with her outside. He comes back with a swagger when and obviously has had a pleasant evening. His attempt to make love with Marianne [a woman at work whom he asks out on a date] which of course collapses because he can't follow through. It's the most erotic moment in the movie because he's actually sharing, he's communicating with the lovemaking. There's a give and take. As apart from just taking, which he does in other situations. It was the most erotic scene for me anyway. When there is communication within sex.

PK: Intimacy.

SM: Yes. And intimacy is his problem, of course. He can't deal with that.

PK: Is that common with sex addicts?

SM: Yes. They want to have to have control of the situation. One guy is married and he says he'd rather have sexual fantasies with other women than have sex with his wife. And his wife is very attractive. That's how it is. Again I think it's that people have been hurt and they no longer want to be hurt.

PK: Powerful people seem to suffer from this. Like JFK.

SM: Absolutely. It is a reality. Of course these are high profile realities. And different other communities have sex addiction as well. It's a way of getting over a loss,

PK: The current scandals involving Herman Cain and Sandusky at Penn State would seem to make this film more timely.

SM: This is a film about now. It's not a costume drama. That's where people are leaving cinema scratching their heads, and I'm very grateful about the response in festivals, people are still thinking about three or four days afterwards.

PK: NC-17 will keep a lot of people from seeing it.

SM: Possibly that's a good thing. I don't know. But as long as people can actually see I don't mind.

PK: What age do you think is appropriate?

SM: I'm not disagreeing with the NC-17. But it shouldn't limit its release, it should be allowed to advertise on TV and other places. I don't think there should be a ban on it on advertising on certain movies if it's a responsible movie. People under age shouldn't see it. But still it's a responsible movie. Those restrictions are a bit archaic. That's from a different. I mean pornography is the most prolific thing on the internet. Two clicks on a computer and you can see whatever you want. The most explicit porn sites you can think of.

PK: A situation that makes sex addiction all the more accessible.

SM: It's a facilitator. Like New York is a facilitator.

PK: Do you think porn on line should be restricted?

SM: No, I'm not interested in censorship at all. But at the same time, how you manage it, I don't know. It's a difficult question to answer. As I said, I don't disagree with NC-17.

PK: Before we go, can you talk about "Queen and Country?" What's holding it up?

SM: I don't know. They were afraid to see the faces of the people they sent to war for them and died the door has not been shut on that. We're still trying. But the families have been through enough. I didn't want to push that too much. My first responsibility is to the parents and relatives and next of king. Hopefully one day people will see the light.

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