Before making his feature debut with 2008’s Hunger, director Steve McQueen was already firmly established as one of Britain’s boldest young visual artists, having produced short experimental films, sculptures, and a commission project called “Queen And Country” that commemorated the deaths of British troops in Iraq through 155 sheets of stamps. With Hunger, winner of the Camera D’Or for best first film at Cannes, McQueen addressed the 1981 Irish hunger strike in the Maze prison with a striking confidence and style that’s rare for debut directors. He also found his De Niro in Michael Fassbender, an actor who had bounced around in various TV shows for several years before his performance as IRA leader/martyr Bobby Sands in Hunger won him critical attention and subsequent roles in Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method.
In Shame, their second collaboration (a third, an adaptation of Twelve Years A Slave, is due next year), McQueen and Fassbender coolly dissect the stigmas and misconceptions associated with sex addiction. Fassbender stars as Brandon, a New York corporate wheeler-dealer who secretly harbors a sex addiction that demands near-constant gratification—from one-night stands, from hookers, from online pornography, and from wherever else he can get it. As he attempts an intimate relationship with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a co-worker, Brandon’s wayward sister (Carey Mulligan) adds more instability to his life, reminding him of a dark past from which they’re both desperately trying to escape. McQueen and Fassbender recently spoke to The A.V. Club about shedding light on a little-acknowledged addiction, New York City as a “character,” and shooting complicated scenes on the fly.
The A.V. Club: What did you know about sex addiction going into this project?
Steve McQueen: Nothing. When I first heard about [sex addiction], I laughed, of course. I thought it was hilarious. But when you find out more about it, you realize that it’s not funny at all. People’s lives are ruined and wrecked by it. It becomes a different kind of story. It was one of those things where myself and [co-writer] Abi Morgan, we were almost like Miss Marple and Colombo, to start off. We were people not knowing what we’re walking into and finding things out as we walk along, eyebrows raised higher and higher and higher as we got more into acknowledging what this thing was. We discovered that [its temptations are] something that surrounds us every day. It’s in our everyday and we have to somehow negotiate our way through it. It was very, very eye-opening.
AVC: Ideally, addicts are forbidden access to the source of their addiction—like you wouldn’t take an alcoholic to a bar. But Shame suggests that this has become impossible, particularly in the age of the Internet.
SM: You can give up alcohol, but sex is meant to be part of our lives. You can give up alcohol. You can’t give up food. It’s like the air that we breathe. It’s something you have to negotiate. It’s very difficult to deal with. It’s just a difficult addiction and one that’s not been accepted. For me, people who have sex addiction or are being treated for sex addiction, it’s almost like they’re being treated like they have HIV or AIDS in the early ’80s. People just don’t want anything to do with them. They’re almost like lepers. It’s a huge embarrassment. That’s why we were interested in making this film, to give this thing some sort of acknowledgement.
AVC: Was there a lot of research on your part too, Michael? How did you develop this character?
Michael Fassbender: Just by really sort of trying not to, as Steve was saying, disconnect him from me—not looking at him as something else, as “one of those.” There’s a stigma around [sex addiction], maybe because we’re scared of our own sexuality and our relationship with sex. So what I thought when I initially read the script, “This is a really beautiful story. It’s thoughtful and respectful. And it’s also accessible.” All these characters are looking to try and connect to something, trying to navigate their way through life. And that’s difficult. That’s how I approached Brandon, by keeping him close to me and then living with the script, reading the script an awful lot, living with the character in the world. I had to opportunity to meet somebody that was suffering from the same affliction, and the crux of that affliction had to do with intimacy and that difficulty in dealing with emotional content in a relationship and emotional responsibility. That’s how I went about it. And then, of course, talking with Steve. And then trying things out but essentially not disassociating and judging, trying to understand and relate.
AVC: How did the script take form? You admit to not being knowledgeable about sex addiction going in, so how did you catch up on it a subject?
SM: There was one day where Abi, I didn’t know her, we had lunch and I ended up with a lot of time and we ended up having a conversation for three and a half hours. First we started talking about the Internet, then we got onto pornography, then we got on to sexual addiction. We wanted to speak to people in London. That didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen. For some reason, people were not responsive to want to talk about sexual addiction. At the time there was a lot of it in the press. I think people were suspicious of talking to people about it in London. We couldn’t get in, so myself and Abi flew to New York, spoke to people, experts in the field, and then they introduced us to people who had the addiction and people who were recovering from the addiction. I thought, “Why not make this film in New York?” It was the situation where both of us, Abi and myself, were like fumbling detectives. We had no idea where the trail would lead to. We didn’t want to put a stencil on to this subject. We wanted it to tell us what it wanted and what it needed. It was very important for that to happen. You don’t go into a situation where you’re already planning the action on how it’s going to work out. You’re receptive to it.
AVC: You mentioned the city of New York, and obviously the song “New York, New York” is featured very prominently in the film, but to what degree did you want Shame be a New York movie? What did you wish to evoke about the city?
SM: I had no intention of making a New York movie at all. All this talk about it being a New York movie is great, but that was never the intention. What’s interesting about that may have to do with the height. A lot of the time we were shooting scenes high up in buildings like the 22nd, 23rd, or 27th floor. You have Brandon’s apartment and his workplace, the place where Sissy sings “New York, New York,” and the hotel in which Brandon and Marianne attempt to make love. Everything’s happening with a perspective on the city, so you are in the frame and the city is your backdrop. That maybe is what people are talking about in some ways. It’s kind of interesting in a way that that is almost like a painting. You’re putting people within this sort of landscape. I think that is the key to this whole idea of what people are talking about as far as New York and this constant referencing of this city as a character in the film. Of course, there are lots of scenes underground, on the subway—there’s another system that very interladen. So possibly those kind of environments give it that New York feel.
AVC: Michael, these siblings have a dark history, but the film is very careful of what it chooses to reveal. Was there a lot of building this character off the page? Did that involve a lot of interaction with Carey Mulligan?
MF: The three of us [McQueen, Mulligan, and I] would discuss that, where these people are coming from, history, stuff like that. That’s sort of mapped out. That’s something I would do anyway, if I’m dealing with a fictional character. You build a biography from the information you’ve got in the story and what logic informs his actions, motivations, in that hour and half that you’ve got him. And then you just bring that to work. And of course it’s in the script. There’s gaps that will allow the audience to also fill in the gaps about what’s not being said. That’s something you always do. You work on the history. The three of us talked about it, and we all had our own details within that idea.
AVC: You two have collaborated on Hunger and this, and there’s Twelve Years A Slave coming up. What is the nature of that collaboration?
SM: It’s beautiful. It’s one of the most important relationships I’ve had in my life. My mother, my sister, my wife, my twin children, further friends, and Michael. That’s how deep it is, really. You don’t know how actually important it is. It really is because we’re meeting as a team, and we want to do the best we can. It’s just amazing. I’m very lucky.
MF: I feel a great deal of strength on set. You feel like you’re being supported. You’re walking into unknown territory and trying things out. It can be sort of scary, for sure, but you feel like you’ve got the best people around you, to go in there and root around and see what comes out. I think we’re passionate people, and we’re sensitive people and we care, you know? It’s like, again, dealing with the characters in a respectful way and embracing them in terms of really trying to dig in. Nothing is bad is good, it just is there. We’re all responsible for all of our actions.
SM: We don’t take our relationship for granted, at all, whatsoever. If I’ve done a script and I want to give it to Michael, it’s got to be fucking good, as in it’s got to be the balls. I think we both know, as well as a good friendship, this is a professional relationship where we both have to bring our game. If I don’t bring my game, guess what? He’s going to tell me. If he doesn’t bring his game, guess what? I’m going to tell him.
AVC: Let’s get into the mechanics of this film. There are some long takes here, and in Hunger, that require a lot of blocking and precise choreography, specifically the restaurant scene. What is it like to choreograph a scene like that?
SM: We never rehearsed that scene at all. We got to shooting it and the dialogue I thought was rubbish. Okay, maybe not rubbish, but by the time we got to it, Michael’s character had moved on from that particular scene. Marianne’s character had moved on. On the day we’re shooting, we had to rewrite it with Michael and Marianne, and we did take after take to fix it—not to fix it, to get it.
MF: To get it, yeah.
SM: There’s a difference. We finally did get it. We had all the ammo, but we had to find out what order to put things in. It was a great day. It was difficult, but at the same time it was wonderful because you saw this thing growing take one to take two and it was like, “Okay, don’t go to the bathroom. Stay at the table.” It was very fast. I think we more likely should have taken our time with it. We got it in a way, which was so beautifully organic. I think it was great. The grip who was pushing the dolly with [cinematographer] Sean Bobbitt and the camera… it was like a beautiful dance. You’ve got Michael and Nicole doing their thing. You have Sean and the grip pushing the dolly. You see in the scene it starts wide and it goes in and you hardly notice it. Extraordinary. The dance was like, “Only get to that point in the dialogue by the time the dolly and the camera get there.” It was an interesting dance, much more tense then people realize. We got it [snaps] bang accurate.
AVC: It’s surprising to hear you say that so much of that scene was done on the day, because both this film and Hunger, strike me as very worked out.
SM: The dolly shot was worked out before. The dialogue and what was—
MF: The timing of both wasn’t.
AVC: Is true of both films, where you allow yourself a little bit of room to improvise on the spot?
SM: I think you have to. I couldn’t do a concrete script, because it doesn’t excite me. I want to be excited. My uncle’s a musician. He’s riffing, he’s improvising the situation, of course he knows his lines, and they are lines you want, but at the same time you want more. When he does exactly what’s written on the script, possible not, you know.
MF: It’s a thousand words that do the same thing. If we knew all the answers, then what the heck?
SM: [Claps.] Exactly.
MF: That’s the great thing. That’s what he touched on earlier. You have Steve’s side, and I know this guy’s a serious guy. He’s special. You can’t go investigating with everybody like that. That’s why I sit in the dark. We have flashlights we use every now and again, but essentially you’ve discovering stuff. That’s what makes it exciting. That’s what makes it scary—and essentially, I think, rewarding. We don’t entirely know what’s going to happen. We have an idea; we’ve prepared really hard. But when we arrive on the day, we keep it open and keep it unsure. Through that, that’s when you really start to discover stuff. And you’re like, “Whoa, shit, okay. That was a surprise.”
SM: A pause within dialogue can say a thousand words more than anything else. That’s something. One of my favorite examples in terms of the action is when Brandon is going out with Sissy and David, Michael’s boss, and Sissy and David get on the elevator to go up to Brandon’s apartment. When they leave the cab, he falls behind, sluggishly. He presses the elevator door and he just stands there. The elevator door finally opens, he just stands there and he watches and he watches. And I’m thinking, “Michael, go into elevator! Why isn’t he in there going in the elevator?” He watches the elevator doors close. He turns and he sits down and waits for the next one. It’s beautiful. It’s a dance, a beautiful dance. That’s what you want, that’s what you want, that’s what you want. In the moment. You can’t have a moment in the script; the script is not in the moment.
AVC: How familiar are you with the history of the NC-17 rating here in the U.S.? Has Fox given you a sense of how they intend to challenge it?
SM: I’ve never had a conversation with Fox about NC-17.
MF: [Laughs.] I never knew what that was!
MF: You said you like it was a rap group! [Laughs]
SM: [Laughs.] It’s true.
MF: I was like, “Over 17, that seems reasonable enough.”
SM: Fox has been absolutely phenomenal about this.
MF: Yeah, legendary.
SM: We’ve had not one conversation about cutting the film more or altering the film in any way. I literally have never had a conversation about any of that. They’re great supporters of the movie, and I’m very grateful.
AVC: There’s no thought about, “Who’s going to put this thing out?”
MF: No. Rating are ratings, but the people that have been going to see it so far are very open to it, honest with it, and are participating with the film as should be. They’re not putting up defenses and shutting themselves off from it. They’re engaging it and investing in it.
SM: Embracing it, absolutely.
MF: Which is really, always what I believed in. Look at the films that came out of here in the ’70s. There is an intelligent audience out there that—you leave the cinema and you have discussion about it. In a lot of ways, this was the country that influenced me to get into this game, from those films in that decade.
SM: Most of people in the film industry—the ones that are running it now— are in it because of those films.