Director interview: Steve McQueen

Artist Steve McQueen’s debut feature film, ‘Hunger’, the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, has been fêted at festivals and lauded by critics. But don’t dare call him a filmmaker: art is where his heart is, he tells Dave Calhoun

Steve McQueen has a reputation for being difficult, which, it turns out, is a little simplistic – if not entirely untrue. This Londoner-in-exile – he was born in west London, studied at Chelsea College of Art & Design then Goldsmiths, and now lives in Amsterdam – is supremely confident in a way that can encourage suspicion. As we sit down in the dining room of Amsterdam’s American Hotel, I notice both of us are removing our jackets and rolling up our sleeves. It feels as if I’m about to arm-wrestle this hefty, smartly dressed 39-year-old rather than talk about ‘Hunger’, his first work for the cinema and a stark, experimental portrait of life and death in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the early 1980s. His manner of speech is formal, verging on brash. It’s only later that the mood lightens and he reveals himself in a positive light. When I turn off the tape, he turns the tables and throws questions at me. What do I think of the state of British cinema? Is there much dialogue between critics and filmmakers? At Cannes this year (where ‘Hunger’ won the Caméra d’Or prize for Best First Film), how were the other films?

Questions, questions, questions – and all because McQueen is an outsider in the film world. He’s been a celebrated artist for years and won the Turner Prize in 1999 for a film installation inspired by Buster Keaton. But in cinema he’s still finding his feet, although he doesn’t want to be a full-time member of the film industry. He followed a recent trip to the Toronto Film Festival by visiting an exhibition at Newcastle’s Baltic gallery. It was, he says, ‘like diving into a swimming pool’, refreshing to be back among art and artists.

‘There are so many levels to art,’ he says (hardly flattering, particularly as he’s insisted on being interviewed by a film critic, not an art writer). He’s an artist who’s made a film – and that’s how he wants it to stay. ‘The first time I put a foot on a movie set it was my own,’ he remarks. ‘I’m not so interested in how other people do it. I’m interested in seeing their work, possibly, but that’s all.’

Hunger’ may be his first work for cinema but McQueen’s background in video art is very evident. Slowly, tenderly, albeit with moments of brutality, McQueen leads us through the corridors of the Maze, as Republican inmates campaign to be classed as political prisoners – first by refusing to wear uniforms, then with a dirty protest and finally by going on hunger strike. The film’s first half is silent and observing, but then we find a focus – Bobby Sands – and McQueen launches us into an intense 22-minute scene (17 and a half minutes of which are a single shot) in which Sands (Michael Fassbender) talks to a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plan to starve himself. The camera then moves into a hospital room with the dying prisoner and stays there. It’s impossible not to notice Fassbender’s physical transformation, although McQueen bristles at the idea of the actor being celebrated for fasting. ‘This wasn’t a vanity trip. It was necessary for the role.’

McQueen is not comfortable with analysis of his film. Several times he protests that he’s not ‘trying to be clever’, as if that would be a bad thing. I suggest to him that his film is balanced, that he’s careful to consider guards as well as prisoners. ‘I’m not concerned with balance,’ he says. ‘I don’t think people are bad in general, but circumstances make them do what they have to .’

Okay, I say, but he’s careful not to clutter his film with misplaced emotion: we’re not asked to view Sands and his fellow inmates as heroes or martyrs. ‘I’m not aware of that, and I’m not trying to be clever here, and I wish I could answer your question.’ I point out that some of the film’s most striking moments offer a space for us to think or a simple moment of beauty that should feel alienating or ugly: a circular pattern of shit on a prison wall, or a finger playing with a fly next to the sharp edge of a window grate. But he won’t be drawn.

I wonder what it was like for McQueen’s producers to work with him on ‘Hunger’, a film that was five years in planning – did they nurture and respect his vision and avoid interfering? ‘Oh, they did interfere,’ he says. ‘Especially when it came to the 17-and-a-half minute take. But I was adamant. We had a bit of an argy-bargy and then they agreed. Because they’re scared. They’ve never seen a 17-and-a-half minute take. But I knew what I was doing.’

McQueen is full of ideas – they’re just not neatly packaged in the way the commercial mechanics of cinema often demand. He’s more at home explaining his film in terms of images: he describes Sands’s spirit in his final days as like a balloon wanting to leave the room; he compares his interest in Sands to having a fascination with a child who refuses to eat as a way of disobeying his parents. He embellishes this by recalling something Jean-Luc Godard said in an interview with New Yorker critic Pauline Kael soon after Bobby Sands’s death: that people such as Sands are ‘important because they’re childish’.

Did ‘Hunger’ feel like a change of hat for McQueen? He’s quick to respond, saying contemporary art is ‘a more interesting tool’, suggesting a certain disdain for cinema. ‘I had to conform to some kind of protocol,’ he says. ‘At the end of the day, all you can do in cinema is subvert the form, which is limiting. But, still, it’s a beautiful form. And what’s beautiful about it is that everyone knows a story, from Beijing to Papua New Guinea. Everyone can tell you a story. And so all those people can come to your movie. Not everyone has grown up with contemporary art.’

Hunger’ is the Time Out Special Screening at the London Film Festival on October 19 and opens on October 31.

Author: Dave Calhoun. Photography Tim Mintiens





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