Director Steve McQueen discusses latest film Shame
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan star in the former artist's story of sex addiction
‘When I first heard of the notion of sex addicts I laughed,’ says Steve McQueen. ‘Then I did a bit of research. It’s very similar to an alcoholic that drinks a litre of whisky a day.’ The artist and director is talking about his new film Shame, an unflinching look at the world of sex addiction, and he’s not laughing now. Rather he’s considered, thoughtful and to the point, much like the film he’s made.
This is only McQueen’s second feature, yet he won the Turner Prize as a visual artist in 1999, almost ten years prior to the release of his debut Hunger. In between times he was in Iraq as an official war artist. Controversy, darkness, and conflict are all themes that McQueen has made a career out of facing head-on. Now he hopes that audiences will overcome the same initial scepticism he had about Shame’s subject matter.
‘I just hope people will see it. It’s about sex but I’m not looking for controversy. This is a story that is happening right now, everyone who has a computer has looked up pornography, but at the same time not everyone is a sex addict. If it had been a movie about a drug addict or an alcoholic it would be different but because it’s to do with sex somehow we’re embarrassed about it or see it as being shocking.’
If there’s a reason why sex has come to fore it’s the double standard of a society that commercialises sexual imagery as much as it veils the reality of sex, though hardcore porn is readily available. ‘When I was growing up you had to go in the newsagents and break your neck looking at the top shelf to see anything, or that kid would come to school and you’d all be round the back of the bike sheds huddled round a magazine. Now it’s just two clicks on your iPhone.’
Shame marks McQueen’s second collaboration with actor Michael Fassbender, who takes the lead role as Brandon Sullivan, a man desperately searching for an unattainable sexual satisfaction, living a life littered with hollow sexual encounters. Fassbender also starred in Hunger, which told the story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and it’s proven a particularly fruitful partnership with Fassbender already signed up for McQueen’s forthcoming third feature Twelve Years a Slave (also starring Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor). ‘Michael is a great actor first and foremost,’ says McQueen. ‘I met him at the audition for Hunger, I gave him an opportunity and he gave me an opportunity. I love working with Michael and there’s a shorthand that exists so it’s quick.’
Sullivan is a role that asks a lot of the lead. Shame is a fairly explicit, extremely frank film with multiple sex scenes. ‘There’s always a difficulty when you think about it but once you’re in the scene it becomes very straightforward. The problem is the anticipation but once you’re involved it’s like swimming, it becomes very, very easy.’
Carey Mulligan plays Sullivan’s sister Sissy, adding a vulnerable human heart to this often bleak story. ‘Everyone thinks Carey’s an English rose but she’s a tiger with teeth and claws,’ says McQueen. ‘Very disruptive and very argumentative but for all the right reasons.’
McQueen also sees Shame as going beyond its core story. Asked what he wants people to take from the film he pauses and thinks, before answering. ‘I don’t think it’s just about addiction I think it’s a story about how we live now. Things are being constantly sold to us; it’s what happens when you are saturated with consumerism. I just like to tell stories, I have no agenda, I’m not a politician.’
General release from 13 Jan.