British filmmaker Steve McQueen first found success with his movie Hunger which starred Michael Fassbender. His new film Shame also stars the actor who portrays Brandon, a successful New York businessman who is obsessed with sex, to such an extent that it’s destroying his life. He finds himself at a crossroads when his rebellious sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives on his doorstep with nowhere to stay.
Steve spoke with us about his controversial movie which received a NC-17 rating in the States.
You, your co-writer Abi Morgan and Carey Mulligan are British, Michael is Irish, so did you ever consider setting this in London instead of New York City?
Myself and Abi Morgan had this conversation. We were only meant to meet for an hour and we ended up having a three and a half hour conversation. We researched this and unfortunately we couldn’t get anyone in London to speak [about it].
It was the time when sex addiction was in vogue, people were talking about it, and in a way I think people shied away from being in the spotlight in England.
In our research we spoke to two specialists in the field who happened to be living in New York and they introduced us to people who had this affliction, and I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t we just shoot it in New York?’ It seemed to be the logical and obvious thing to do. So the wind carried us over the Atlantic to New York.
Can you talk about the graphic nature of many of the scenes that pushed this into an NC-17, as far as the American ratings board was concerned? From a storytelling point-of-view I wondered if Brandon’s story would be diluted by not showing the full physicality of what he does.
It’s sex. It’s a weird that what we do in our daily lives should be somehow censored. It’s very odd. I’ve never held a gun in my hand. And the things that we have no idea or no capability of doing should be viewed by the masses. So for me it’s just normal.
For example, Brandon waking up in the morning and going to the kitchen for a glass of water, putting on the voice mail. Maybe in 1951 he would have had pajamas on, in 2011 often people do not wear pajamas. That’s it, it’s normality. So there’s no big deal for me about nudity. There’s nothing graphic about it, it’s sex. There’s nothing which is unfamiliar to anyone.
Your actors just by expressing interest in wanting to do this film knew that they had to put themselves out there physically and emotionally to pull this off. Can you talk about what you did to enable them to do that?
They’re actors, you can’t show a bit of reality, you’ve got to show the whole of reality. You’re there to portray it, if you have the talent, so that we can see ourselves. It’s just like a dancer [saying], ‘I’m only going to dance on my left foot, I’m not going to dance on my right foot, that’s not going to happen.’
No, you have to be able to put yourself out there, otherwise you’re not an actor, you’re something else. For me it’s very simple.
There are several intensely intimate moments in the film, can you talk about the mood you established on the set when you shot those scenes?
From the catering to make up to hair to the camera department, to the sound department, electricians, grips, gaffers, you have to create an atmosphere that everyone knows each other, we’re working together. Great actors like Michael are like thoroughbred race-horses, they come into a room and they sense if anything’s wrong, they sense if there’s some kind of difficulty.
So you create an environment which is safe in order for people to take risks. That’s what one has to do.
So it starts from the bottom up, everyone has to be involved. Any interesting actor has to be in a space where they feel it’s safe in order to do what they have to do. It really is that simple. It was a great set to be on.
What was your main purpose for wanting to make this movie?
I wanted to see Michael naked! (he roars with laughter) No, it’s a situation where people think they know about [this affliction] but they’re seeing it for the first time. It’s extraordinarily important what’s going on right now, but no one is speaking about it, and it’s a huge phenomena in a way.
But it’s not just about sex addiction, it’s about addictions in general. It’s about being in a world where we don’t necessarily have self will, it’s difficult to be a human being right now. And in order to portray it in this way, that’s what I wanted to do, to show us as being fragile.
It’s not pretty to look at, but I just wanted to take the ostrich head out of the sand and have a look at ourselves. It’s difficult but, at the same time, Brandon is really trying.
Were you ever fearful that an American distributor wouldn’t latch onto this, that it might never been seen in the States?
I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking of trying to make the best [movie] that we could possibly make. So I was very happy that Fox Searchlight came in and wanted to distribute the movie. They never ever asked me about cutting the movie or anything like that.
They are just an extraordinary company and I was very pleased that they wanted to distribute the film. Thank God for that, because I imagine it wouldn’t have been shown here [in America].