“I’m going on a bit, aren’t I?”
That’s Steve McQueen, cutting himself off midsentence—midthought, really. We’re in a hotel room in Chicago on a gray morning two weeks ago, talking about the British filmmaker’s new movie, Shame. McQueen, 42, is a bundle of nerves. He fiddles with the room’s climate-control dial and props his feet up on a coffee table. When he speaks, the words seem to tumble over each other, as though the man can barely wait to get out of one sentence and into another.
McQueen, in short, is a talker. That’s something you might not guess from watching his films, which tend to privilege visuals. Certainly, the writer-director has more to say than the main character of his latest. In Shame, Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a suave but taciturn Manhattan businessman who, behind closed doors and open laptops, compulsively indulges his raging libido. He’s a sex addict, though it’s clear the character has never put that diagnosis into words. “Often in movies people are talking a lot about themselves and what they feel,” McQueen says. “But in reality that doesn’t happen. We don’t even talk to ourselves in our heads.”
McQueen and Fassbender’s previous collaboration was 2008’s Hunger, in which the latter played IRA member Bobby Sands, who went on a hunger strike behind bars. The two men envisioned this real-life political martyr as someone who found freedom through the willful desecration of his corporeal self. By contrast, Shame’s Brandon transforms his own body into a prison, seeking release through meaningless sexual encounters while finding true intimacy—with his vagabond sister (Carey Mulligan) or an alluring coworker (Nicole Beharie)—impossible to obtain. The film sometimes flirts with melodrama, though Fassbender, in another captivating performance, invests it with emotional honesty. “Michael is the best actor out there,” gushes McQueen. “I believe him when I don’t believe most other actors.”
Both the director and his star did extensive research. Remembers McQueen: “Myself and [cowriter] Abi Morgan were like Columbo, stumbling and blundering, following the trail but not knowing where it would lead. We didn’t know anything about sexual addiction.” Though he initially intended to shoot Shame in London, McQueen found New Yorkers much more forthcoming about their libidinous compulsions. “It was a very happy and fortunate accident,” he says of this discovery, which led the filmmaker to relocate his narrative to Manhattan.
Though he lived in the city for only a few months, during and directly after a brief sojourn as a student at NYU, McQueen claims it as a kind of second home. “I’ve been coming to New York since 1977,” he says. “Since Elvis died, since the blackout.” That clear familiarity with the city has led some critics to call Shame an essential New York movie. The film’s best moments—a gorgeous nighttime jog, for example, or any scene set inside a packed bar or restaurant—posit NYC as a character itself.
As for the MPAA’s decision to slap Shame with an NC-17—once considered a kiss of death—McQueen shrugs. “I’m just glad it’s being released in America,” he says, before expressing his gratitude to Fox Searchlight for not demanding he make cuts. There was never a need to discuss it. Even an impassioned motormouth like McQueen knows when to hold his tongue.
Shame opens Friday 2.