'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Steve McQueen ('Widows')

The ‘12 Years a Slave’ director and producer (the first black producer ever to win a best picture Oscar) opens up about how his work in art led to his career in film, his close collaborations with Michael Fassbender and why he followed his big Oscar night with an elevated heist flick he has been mulling for 35 years.
Miller Mobley

"I was struck by these women and the fact that they were being looked upon as not being capable and were being judged on their appearance, similar to how I was being judged as a 13-year-old black child in London in the eighties," the filmmaker Steve McQueen tells me as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast. We were discussing Widows, a TV series about a group of women mounting a heist that ran on British TV from 1983 through 1985, which inspired McQueen's new film of the same name. "I put it in my pocket for 35 years, but it just always stayed with me," continues the 49-year-old, who, for his previous feature, 2013's 12 Years a Slave, was nominated for the best director Oscar and became the first black producer ever to win a best picture Oscar. "It's kind of bittersweet, because in 35 years not much has changed."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 16:17], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Matthew Heineman, the 35-year-old filmmaker best known for his 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary feature Cartel Land, about how he came to make his narrative directing debut A Private War, a new film about war correspondent Marie Colvin.

Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.

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McQueen was born in England in 1969 to blue-collar parents who had immigrated from the West Indies. Because of his race and class, as well as his dyslexia, stutter and weight, he says he grew up feeling "underestimated" — which drove him to prove himself. "As a child, I could always draw," he says, and he began to excel, in and out of school, at art, geography and history. He eventually went off to study art at the Chelsea College of Arts and then Goldsmiths College, University of London; while at the latter, a girlfriend introduced him to art house cinema, with which he also became enamored. After graduating, he wanted to attend film school, and briefly studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, but dropped out — "It just wasn't for me," he says — and instead began making three-dimensional objects and experimental films of his own.

In 1999, McQueen, not yet 30, won the prestigious Turner Prize, which honors the best British artist under the age of 50, and came away with both a $60,000 prize and instant art-world credibility. "Things just took off from there," he says. He was subsequently granted a sum of less than $2 million to make his first narrative feature; he decided to focus on the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, with whom he had long been fascinated. "I never had been on a movie set in my life before I stepped on my own," McQueen notes, but he "loved" the experience of making what became 2008's Hunger. The project, which had a very limited theatrical release but garnered rave reviews on the film fest circuit, marked the beginning of a close friendship and collaboration with the actor Michael Fassbender. "When I met Michael for the first time," McQueen recalls, "I thought he was a bit cocky," but he nevertheless brought the actor back for a second audition, at which things were different. "We got on like a house on fire," McQueen says, and he grew to love working with not only Fassbender, but actors, generally. "To collaborate with them is one of the greatest joys of my life."

It would be three more years before McQueen's sophomore film, 2011's Shame, a study of sex addiction that reunited him with Fassbender and was shot in just 25 days. The MPAA labeled the film NC-17 because of its no-holds-barred depiction of the affliction — but it overcame that rating to gross nearly $18 million, more than any other NC-17 film save for 1995's Showgirls. Thereafter, McQueen's wife, hoping that he would adapt a film from literary material for the first time, suggested that he read 12 Years a Slave, the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was forced into slavery for a dozen years. "I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of Solomon Northup before," he remembers, and decided to make it the basis of his third film. This time, he teamed up with Fassbender, as well as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt and a newcomer named Lupita Nyong'o, who wound up winning the best supporting actress Oscar and becoming a star. "I just thought she was absolutely amazing," he says. "There was a long search for that character. It was similar to looking for Scarlett O'Hara." McQueen, who was a credited screenwriter on all of his films before and since 12 Years a Slave, would have shared the best adapted screenplay Oscar with John Ridley but for a guild ruling that did not come out in his favor, to his evident frustration on Oscar night. "There's a thing called the WGA," he says, "and [based] on the WGA, John Ridley wrote that script." Still, McQueen took home an Oscar of his own when the film won top honors.

Indeed, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen, Nyong'o and Ridley all were awarded Oscars — but, in each of the next two seasons, none of the 20 acting Oscar nominees were people of color, sparking outrage in some quarters and spawning the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Interestingly, the film that would break the #OscarsSoWhite spell — Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, which won the best picture Oscar three ceremonies after 12 Years a Slave's — came about as a result of 12 Years a Slave. The Q&A that followed the world premiere screening of 12 Years at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival was moderated by none other than Jenkins, a long-dormant filmmaker who volunteered at the fest. After the Q&A, the producers of 12 Years, Plan B's Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Pitt, asked Jenkins what he was working on, learned about Moonlight and signed on to produce it. "Plan B did tell me 12 Years a Slave had a huge impact on getting Moonlight and [Ava DuVernay's] Selma made," McQueen says. "They wouldn't have gotten made otherwise because the fact was, at that point in time, people were saying [of 12 Years before its release], 'You're an impossible movie.' They were saying that this film would do nothing internationally and that it might make a little bit of money in the United States. But, of course, that was all sort of turned on its head with this movie. [12 Years grossed $188 million worldwide, $131 million of which came from outside of North America.] That's when Hollywood realized, 'We can make money out of working with predominantly black characters.'"

It would be five years between 12 Years and Widows, not because McQueen was on a hiatus, but because his first post-Oscar project was an HBO pilot that didn't ultimately came to fruition, after which he returned to doing art shows until things came together for Widows. McQueen would follow his best picture Oscar with a high-intensity thriller (which he and Gone Girl novelist Gillian Flynn adapted) from a decades-old TV program on a budget of $42 million (twice what 12 Years cost), but this time Fassbender wasn't involved. ("It was scheduling and whatnot, so it was unfortunate," McQueen explains, before cracking, "But not really [unfortunate] — oops, sorry, Michael.") Transplanting Widows from 1980s London to Trump-era Chicago, McQueen proves as adept at heart-stopping action sequences as high drama, and as capable as ever at coaxing magnificent performances out of his cast, some of whom are reliably great (such as Viola Davis), while others have rarely, if ever, been entrusted with such meaty parts and/or so risen to the occasion (like Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki).

Like McQueen's other films, Widows is bold, dark and essentially about a person trying to break free of a form of imprisonment. Though it has earned back its budget domestically and grossed another $31 million abroad, it is not considered a commercial triumph, due to high marketing costs. But, with a 90 percent favorability rating on RottenTomatoes.com, there is no mistaking it for just another heist movie. It's a Steve McQueen film through and through.