Shame's director Steve McQueen

The filmmaker dives into an NC-17-rated tale of sex and the city.

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Steve McQueen, left, Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in Shame

Steve McQueen, left, Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in Shame

Waving his arms, Steve McQueen, 42, moves over to the windowed wall of his Crosby Street Hotel suite to make a point. "I have to stand up and say this," he insists. The part-time Londoner has brought his weather with him; outside, it's gray and rainy. "New Yorkers live and work in the sky," he enthuses, taking in Soho. "You're sort of always in the perspective of this metropolis, aren't you? There are these huge vistas. Who are you, in the context of this city?" Sitting down, McQueen regroups. "It can make one feel very small. Maybe it's just too much."

Shame, McQueen's latest, is a New York drama through and through, and not just because of its well-chosen Manhattan locations. (The crew touched down at sites ranging from midtown's grungy 31st Street to the cozy aerie of the Standard's Boom Boom Room.) Exquisitely neurotic, the film—starring a coiled Michael Fassbender as a loner and night crawler—is about sex addiction, a distinctly urban appetite.

"There's excess and access here," McQueen explains. "It's a 24-hour town where you can always get what you want, how you want it." In researching his edgy subject with coscreenwriter Abi Morgan, the director says he was all but required to come here. "Unfortunately, no one would talk to us about sexual addiction in London," he admits. "So we were like Columbo and Miss Marple: bumbling detectives, basically, interviewing Americans."

Their findings resulted in an unusually raw script—not just involving characters in the raw—one that presented sizable challenges to an actor and filmmaker hoping to shed light on an underdiscussed condition. "It's not about being promiscuous," says McQueen matter-of-factly. "When sex actually takes over your life and leads you to dangerous situations, it ceases to be funny." For its efforts, Shame has won acclaim and a Venice Film Festival prize for Fassbender, but has also been slapped with an NC-17 rating. Its maker is nonplussed. "This is a responsible movie," McQueen counters. "It's not about people killing each other. It's about people trying to navigate their way in a difficult world." (He says that his distributor, Fox Searchlight, never had a conversation with him about altering the film.)

You sense that McQueen, a renowned gallery artist who made his feature debut with the incendiary political statement Hunger (2008), has confrontation in his blood. He recalls New York's '80s art scene (he lived here as a teen with his immigrant family) but is quick to point out the lack of prominent black artists at the time. He mentions a brief spell as a student at NYU, which ended badly after three months ("Hated it").

But there is a love for the city that swells up, both in Shame and his comments to us. When prodded, McQueen goes to the place that his film only implies, in its ruination and yearning for release: "Of course 9/11 is an undercurrent in my movie. How can you make a film here without it? When we debuted in Toronto, it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and that really put the film in context. I'm a New Yorker, but at one time, we were all New Yorkers."

Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf

Read our review of Shame

A brief history of NC-17

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