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On Wednesday morning, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Steve McQueen, one of the most exciting and eccentric young filmmakers in the world. McQueen, of course, shares a name with the great anti-hero of sixties cinema (not to mention a similar independent streak), but the similarities stop there. This Steve McQueen is black, British and alive — and when he makes a film, he’s less concerned with being cool than being provocative.
It seems that McQueen, 42, has always been artistic, serious, and a bit counter-culture. He grew up loving art; came to the U.S. to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts; but quickly concluded that it was not for him and left to pursue more unconventional sorts of filmmaking on his own. Before long, his unusual work — such as Bear (1993), a black-and-white silent short in which he and another man appear naked and exchange glances; Deadpan (1997), another black-and-white silent short in which he reenacts Buster Keaton‘s famous house collapse stunt; and Drumroll (1998), for which he mounted cameras to the side of a drum that he rolled down the streets of New York — was being noticed, appearing in galleries, and garnering acclaim. His greatest recognition came in 1999, when London’s Tate gallery awarded him the Turner Prize for best visual artist under the age of 50.
He says now that he long harbored a desire to make a feature-length film, but struggled to settle upon a fitting subject. By the mid-2000s, however, he had one: Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker whose story had captivated him decades earlier. He co-wrote and directed Hunger (2008), a gritty film that was never widely seen beyond the festival circuit, but received rave reviews (it wound up at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes); provoked a great deal of interest from the industry in McQueen (whom film critic Roger Ebert described as “an artist who employs merciless realism”); and introduced the world to Michael Fassbender, the Irishman who he chosen to play Sands, and who looked shockingly gaunt after losing nearly 40 pounds for the part.
Though McQueen had his pick of opportunities after Hunger, he took three years before embarking on his next project, a film about a subject that is arguably the hardest to sell in prudish and puritanical America: sex… more specifically, sex addiction. The more McQueen learned about sex addiction, the more it reminded him of what AIDS had been like in the eighties — a real, widespread affliction that is all around us, but that few of us are aware of and/or choose to acknowledge. And once he decided to make the film, there was no question how he was going to make it: realistically.
He cowrote a script with Abi Morgan (who also penned The Iron Lady) that chronicles the lives of and relationship between Brandon, a successful 30-something New Yorker who is secretly a sex addict, and Sissy, his emotionally-unstable younger sister who moves in with him when she loses her apartment. Having made full disclosure in the script that full-frontal nudity would be required of the actors who played both characters and explicit sex scenes of a wide variety would need to be simulated by the male, he secured committments from Fassbender and Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan, and the ball was rolling. After 25 days of filming in New York City, the film was in the can, and on its way to the world.
Shame was never going to be an easy sell. With that sort of content, it was inevitable that it would receive an NC-17 rating, which has historically scared away distributors, since few exhibitors have ever been willing to screen NC-17 films (due to their inherently limited audience) and few publications have ever been willing to feature advertisements promoting them (for fear of offending their readers with sexually-suggestive materials). But when the film began playing on the festival circuit, winning rave reviews and stirring up all sorts of provocative conversations about the world in which we live today, Fox Searchlight, arguably the most daring of the indie distributors, decided to take a flyer on it. They may have been motivated by a desire to foster a long-term relationship with McQueen; or a sense that, with the help of their famously creative marketing team, they would almost certainly make a return on their investment; or a genuine desire to bring a first-rate film to a larger audience. The truth is probably a combination of all of the above. But the bottom line is that they have lined up a significant number of theaters that are willing to show the film; are widely publicizing it; and are optimistic about its prospects in the market and with awards voters (especially for Fassbender as a best actor contender).
As for McQueen, he’s only mildly interested in how the film does at the box-office. Spreading awareness about the issue of sex addiction is, for whatever reasons, infinitely more important to him, and the degree to which his film does that will define, for him, whether or not it is a success. In the meantime, he and Fassbender are already getting set to work together yet again. (The actor has said that he hopes to have a Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro-like relationship with the director, and the director seems to share that desire.) For their next film, Twelve Years a Slave, they’ll be working with a considerably bigger budget and costar — Brad Pitt — but if what’s past is prologue, I wouldn’t expect a film any more mainstream or less critically-welcomed than Hunger or Shame.
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