Material similar to Shame, to use an immature and simplistic description, could easily falter into emotion porn. With a story that’s, on the surface, about a self-loathing sex addict, overwrought drama is easy to get into, even with the slightest lack of subtlety. This could be one of those films where characters are emotionally tortured for the sake of torture, with no greater meaning.
Co-writer and director Steve McQueen, who is surely aware of the dramatic trickiness of Shame, takes a more sensitive and observant approach. McQueen uses his cold and perfect framing to create the atmosphere and world Brandon’s created, not to draw attention to himself as a filmmaker. This, among many other topics, is what I recently discussed with the press tour-exhausted filmmaker.
Here’s what Steve McQueen had to say about internal writing, powerful expressions, capturing beautiful butterflies, and why films can be important:
To start, both Hunger and Shame both kind of throw audiences into the middle of the characters’ story, with there being no big intro or typical set up. What’s the intention behind that?
In some ways, when you’re racing to catchup with the protagonist, I think it’s interesting. It’s more stimulating. You have to make yourself aware of your surroundings in a very quick way, and I like that. It’s for the audience. I prefer throwing people into the deep end, rather than having the birth and long yawn sort of a beginning. [Laughs]
You also don’t seem to be a big fan of spoken exposition. Where’s the desire come from to express ideas facially and visually?
Well, I wouldn’t say I’m not a fan of exposition, since there is a moment in Hunger that’s like a fifteen-minute conversation. In the reality, when we’re speaking, we’re not telling each other about where we come from and why we behave the way that we behave. We don’t want to let everyone in our background and our private life, that just doesn’t happen. What I wanted to do with Shame, as a film, was to look at this character, Brandon, to show who he was and how he was. There was no best friend or shrink he could confide in and talk to, and a lot of writers use that to tell the audience more about the character. I wanted to, as you said, throw the audience into the deep end. In the narrative, the past comes into the present – who he is somehow arrives within the present.
With moments where characters are communicating through expressions, like the “New York, New York” sequence, do you write down what those expressions mean, or do you let actors interpret scenes like that?
Oh no, I write it. You want to let an actor know what you’re thinking and when the character’s emotion appears. For example, when she does the a cappella stuff, when the camera falls back and you hear her voice, that was in [the script] too; it was meticulous. Also, sometimes it’s difficult to write things in the abstract — you have to put it out there on paper. It just makes people imagine better what it possibly can be and how they can actually interpret that.
You even give minor characters, like David, their own story with expressions. When David leaves the room, after discussing his computer, you see him stare off sadly. Is a character touch like that in the script?
No, that’s James Badge Dale. What it is, sometimes you have to leave the actor hanging. It’s not about me saying cut, it’s about what happens afterwards. They’ve been wound up and compelled, so what happens afterwards? It’s very important to allow the actors to imagine. It’s a simple expression, but a very powerful moment.
To capture those type of moments, what type of atmosphere do you try to give the actors?
It starts with the staging, starts with hair and makeup, starts with wardrobe, starts with the grip, starts with the cinematographer and the sound department, basically the whole crew. It was such an amazing experience being with this crew. Of course, actors come to a situation and tend to know what’s going on. If the environment is collaborative, warm, and has a certain kind of unity to it, they are allowed to take risks because they’re in a safe environment.
What happens, even with that safe environment, when an actor does not feel comfortable or is having a hard time finding honesty?
I think that whole process has to happen before we get on the set. You’re talking, talking, talking, and talking. For Michael [Fassbender], it was like that on Hunger. This time, when we were on set, we wouldn’t have to talk; we knew each other. For Carey [Mulligan], there was a lot of talking, reassuring, and reading, to get to that place. Again, [same with] James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie. When you’re on the set, they know what’s going on. If there’s a problem, we go back to where we started and retrace those steps. The homework has to happen, obviously, before we get on the set. It also comes down to rehearsals, but we don’t rehearse too much, because you want to bring freshness to it.
Are you very tied to your words on set? If an actor has an impulse that differs from your idea, will you let them run with it?
Oh yeah, goodness gracious. Of course, if it’s wrong, then… [Laughs] I’m all about experimenting, and that’s what film is. Of course, it has to come within the confine of the story. I feel like a bandleader in some way: I write a song and a harmony, and then they jump on the train. Within that, they improvise within the harmony or the melody. If they go out of it, then it’s wrong. It’s not all improvisation, since they’re interested in the script. In fact, 90% of the script they found improvisation in.
The idea of a film being about sex-addiction could make it distancing to a good amount of people, but I think there are some universal and relatable themes in the film. Was it important to make a film that thematically went beyond being solely about sex addiction?
Absolutely. Again, it’s from the starting point, of course, with the story. This is also about me. What I want from movies – and why I’m interested in doing them – is creating a screen, which is a mirror. When you’re in the cinema, I want you to see yourself, so you can reflect on the screen and totally understand it. That’s very important to me. I see cinema as important, and it can be important. I know a lot of people may laugh at me, but, no, I find it important. Sex addiction isn’t focused on enough, but hopefully people will start talking about it. There’s hardly any movies made about it. If there have been, it’s played as a joke. There’s a stigma attached to sex addicts; they’re ostracized. If people start talking about the subject because of the film, that’d be great. I think that’s what movies can do – they can be important and start conversation. Of course, it’s not specifically about addiction, it’s about how we live today. The majority of people who use the internet look at pornography. Show me someone who says they haven’t looked at pornography on the internet, they’d be lying. Everyone does it, but nobody talks about it. It’s strange that no one talks about it — how is that possible? It’s all around us. My goodness, it’s the elephant in the room.
There’s a very relatably human aspect of sex addiction, that feeling of self-loathing and regret.
Yeah, it’s very human. The film’s not about freak-shows, it’s about human beings. I love Brandon very much. He’s trying and he’s doing his best. You know, I think that’s what we’re all doing, in our own way; they’re human beings. It’s one of those things where – if I had self-will, then I’d have a six pack. I don’t, and why don’t I? We’re sometimes fighting against ourselves.
You do see that Brandon is trying, and he never does anything inherently bad. Did you and Michael always see him as a genuinely good person?
He’s not a bad guy, at all. He’s just in a situation where his addiction…he’s terrible to his sister, in a way, but we’re all terrible to our siblings in one way. What Cissy does is bring the past to the present, and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with. He is a good guy, totally. He’s like you and me; he’s trying. We’re not all angels.
Sissy’s presence also seems antagonistic because she’s the only person who sees his problems. Is she aware of the pain she’s causing him or is she oblivious to it?
I think she’s oblivious to it, in a way. A lot of the time people are just about, “Me, me, me, me, me,” and Sissy is one of those [people]. At the same time, she thinks, through her love, he’ll open up his love. She thinks her love is enough, like, “I’m only giving you love.”
When Sissy sings “New York, New York,” she seems to be finding some sort of catharsis in expressing herself. As an artist yourself, do you relate to that idea?
[Pause] No, it’s not therapy. Art is not therapy, at all. At the same time, it is an outlet for her, absolutely. I saw her as an extrovert, and Brandon as an introvert. As a performer, she lets herself out, in that way. For me, it’s all ideas, really. It’s about we than me, that’s for sure.
Does art ever affect you in a personal and unintended way, though?
It does take a toll. When I finished Hunger, I had this huge rash under my arm. I was talking to murderers and people who have done horrible things to each other. I block them out, because making a movie is about focusing on all the information about making a movie. When you stop, the world of the merry-go-round stops, and you sort of confront what you took on and and what spoke to you. There will be a reaction. I’m not sure what the reaction will be once Shame is finished, so we’ll see.
You mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter roundtable how, when it comes to finding a beautiful moment, it’s like trying to capture butterflies. When you do capture one, do you know it right away?
Yes, everyone does. It’s like you capture it, then move on. You feel it with your goosebumps, and that’s when you move on. The duality that comes with Michael, ‘New York, New York,’ and the threesome, which I like to call a foursome, you just know.
Is there ever a case, when you’re editing, where you find a moment you didn’t even notice on set?
When Brandon comes out of the cab — and David and Sissy go up into the apartment — what happens is: Michael is supposed to go straight up into the elevator, but Michael stands outside of the elevator. Of course, the elevator goes up and he sits on the cushion behind him. It’s a wonderful moment. It’s not an accident, at all, but it’s a wonderful moment of Michael being so much in character.
It’s a very precise shot. If I recall correctly, you didn’t storyboard on Hunger. Was that the same case here?
No, I didn’t storyboard, at all. I never storyboard. Ever. I have to find it; I never storyboard. The idea you bring up of storyboards offends me. [Laughs]
[Laughs] At first, I was going to say you sound angry.
[Laughs] No, no, I’m joking. I never storyboard.
Visually, do you usually know what you want, though?
Yes, but sometimes no — sometimes I gotta find it.
Can you give me an example of, in Shame, where you had an image in your head, and you then captured it?
For example… you know what? Sometimes when you’re in the environment, you sometimes find something better than what you had in your head. I rely more on half of an idea than a whole idea. I don’t want a whole idea. Otherwise, what’s the point? I really want to be in the moment, which is very important.
Even though I said there’s a preciseness to the framing, I think the camera is always at an observant state. Are you always conscious of, no matter how good a shot is, not calling attention to yourself?
Absolutely. I don’t want to put a stencil on a situation, I want a situation to tell me what it wants. On Hunger and Shame, it had to tell me what it wants. You have to deal with it.
In the wrong hands, a director could be very emotionally exploitative with this type of material. Where was that line for you, where you weren’t reveling in showing Brandon and Cissy’s pain?
Well, that’s a very good question. Let me think. [Pause] It is a balancing act. If you fall down, you can fall down, in a big way. It’s also about responsibility, really. I have a responsibility to this movie, and a responsibility to show what you don’t show. I think we achieved that, and I hope we did that.
Shame is now in theaters.