Steve McQueen doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A large, contentious British black dude who appears to have just wandered over from a Guy Ritchie movie, the former video instillation artist also co-wrote and directed Shame, one of this year’s most indelible films. Even within the cozy confines of a hotel room junket interview, I didn’t dare ask a single question about why he never changed his name. “I speak very fast,” McQueen chuckled. “Fifteen minutes become 10.”
PW: I lived in New York City for years, so I’m fascinated by your depiction of Manhattan as a shimmering, steel palace of isolation.
Steve McQueen: For me it’s very strange, as a European. A lot of New Yorkers live and work in the sky. What’s amazing is that you always have a perspective of yourself and the city in that situation. You are always framed by the city. There’s always you and this huge metropolis. So what does it do, mentally? It must make you feel insignificant in a strange way. I love that the higher you go in a building, the price of the apartment goes up. That was interesting. So there’s always the character’s reflection in the glass, but also his reflection on the city. Who am I within all this?
PW: I’ve also gotten so used to seeing Carey Mulligan as a mewling kitten in most movies. Did she surprise you here the way she surprised me?
SM: No. I worked with her to get those surprises. Sorry, I don’t hire actors. I work with actors. Some actors are so fucking lazy—don’t use the “fucking”—but if you spin them around you can get them to perform. I think people have cast Carey as this sort of English Rose. I don’t think she is. I think she’s much deeper. There’s a very deep well. What happened was I wasn’t even thinking of Carey, but she got hold of the script and desperately wanted the role. There’s a real desperate quality to her, and I like that. It reminded me of the character, so I offered her the role on the spot.
PW: There is a lot of backstory in this film that is only hinted at, but never elaborated upon.
SM: A lot of movies, what they do is that people start talking to you about their past, where they come from, how they got here and whatnot. In reality this never happens. I like the idea that within the journey of the film we get to know the people’s past through the present. To me it was a much more attractive proposition and I hope much more stimulating for the audience. We do it all the time. And again, as an audience member myself, when we come to the cinema we bring our past, our present, our history, then we sit down and project it onto the screen. We’re not stupid, but most movies treat us like idiots. One doesn’t have to do that, one can bring the audience in.
PW: Your distributor, Fox Searchlight, is taking a fairly unprecedented stance and going out uncut with an NC-17 rating. Congratulations, and do you think it’s finally time for more movies like this, aimed at an adult audience?
SM: I didn’t even know what NC-17 was. I thought it was a rap group. When they said we got an NC-17, I said: “OK, give me the CD.” I’m just trying to make movies about how we live today. I’m not chopping people’s heads off. I’ve never held a gun in my hand in my life. I have had sex. I have seen the opposite sex naked, and I have seen the same sex naked. I think the majority of people reading what you print have, too. The majority of people have never held a gun in their hand, and the majority of people have never shot somebody in the head. But that just seems to be the norm with film and distribution.
PW: So you started out in the art world, how is the transition been from—
SM: I’m still an artist. I haven’t started and I haven’t finished. There’s no transformation. It’s the same thing, just different forms.
There’s normally nothing I find duller than films about addiction. Of course, such things are catnip for actors, custom-engineered with plenty of Oscar clip moments during the inevitable bottoming out sequences. But how many times can we as an audience travel the same trajectory of torment, relapse and recovery?