April 22, 2014

Oscars: Steve McQueen opens up about Internet sex, the NC-17 rating and the power of “Shame” – AWARDS ALLEY


By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: It was the last film I managed to see at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

“Shame” reunites director Steve McQueen and his “Hunger” star Michael Fassbender for an intense study of a sex addict coping with his own unique hungers in the city that never sleeps. Fassbender’s performance earned him the Coppa Volpi prize for best actor at the Venice Film Festival, and Fox Searchlight – which acquired the film for distribution at TIFF – hopes to push “Shame” through the Oscar circuit.

I pray they are successful, for while the film’s NC-17 rating might frighten away potential audiences, those who see it will be rewarded with an honest, unflinching portrayal of sexual addiction in the Internet age. McQueen spoke with me at length about his devastating drama, which remains one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Here’s Steve McQueen on “Shame”:

HollywoodNews.com: I apologize for starting with such an obvious question, but I’m genuinely curious about the source of your inspiration. What made you want to explore such a complicated character, a person we rarely get to see portrayed on screen?

Steve McQueen: It started kind of a while ago. There was a film that I had heard about [from the 1960s] that followed a guy who basically moves in with a family and sleeps with every single person in the family – the father, the mother, the daughter and the son. That was a story that really interested me, but went nowhere for a while. It planted a seed in my head a while back. Then I met [co-writer] Abi Morgan, and we had a conversation where we were talking at length. Previously I’d already spoken with Michael [Fassbender] about a rough idea that I was pretty sure I wanted to do. But I wasn’t sure what it was, just that it had to so with sex. There were things that Abi Morgan mentioned about the Internet and about pornography. And that was it. The alarm bells went off. Sometimes that idea can take three or four years to properly grow, but once I heard it, I thought, “That’s it. That’s the thing.” So I threw myself head first into it.

HollywoodNews.com: Did the story of the guy sleeping with every member of the family strike you as odd?

In what way?

HollywoodNews.com: I guess I’m wondering what it was in that story that you felt you could relate to?

Well, it’s sex, isn’t it? It’s communication. It’s the most intimate form of communication that you can have with another human being. I certainly was interested in that situation where someone could just do that, and what did it mean. But of course, this was a movie made in the 1960s. And that was just a starting point for me.

The ultimate idea was that of sexual addiction, because the situation was that in order for Brandon to satisfy his addiction, it’s all encompassing. It takes over your life. It’s like alcohol or drug addiction. The actual addiction dictates to you what it wants and what it needs, and you usually have no way of stopping it. It takes over your life, and I wanted to do something with that.

It’s very much a contemporary story that’s happening now, and it’s being enabled by the Internet. The majority of the use of the Internet is pornography, and this film is all about now, about being enabled.

HollywoodNews.com: And sex appears to be the one thing that, no matter how much we may be exposed to it, we never actually become numb to it. You never reach a point of saturation, and it generally remains taboo.

Yes and no. I’m from Europe, so there’s a slight difference. I mean, I live in Amsterdam. But I do think that, as adults, it is very important to set up this discussion in our world.

HollywoodNews.com: Would you ever revisit Brandon for another film?

No, I think it’s done. I think Brandon is Brandon. He either stepped off the train or he stayed on it, and that’s it. The movie continues, really. It goes somewhere else.

HollywoodNews.com: You have a trusted collaborator in Michael Fassbender, but I’m curious what you saw in Carey Mulligan when casting.

She got a hold of the script. And I don’t know how! At the time, it was almost like trying to cast Scarlett O’Hara. We were looking for Sissy. So she got a hold of the script and we held a meeting, and it was just a strange thing because she was desperate to get the role. What was interesting about her desperation is that it reminded me very much of Sissy. She was very demanding! So I offered her the role on the spot.

HollywoodNews.com: Did you choose “New York, New York” once you settled on the film’s location?

Of course, of course. That was one of those things where we hadn’t written that part of the script yet because we were still developing the story while we were in New York. And that song just felt like the right thing to do. When you read the lyrics, it’s a Blues. And the Sissy character … Brandon’s imploding and she’s exploding. He’s an introvert and she’s such an extrovert. I figured that she was a performer who needs to get things out. I figured Sissy was a singer, and the lyrics of that song are about a person who’s homeless and wants to make it in the big city but isn’t quite there yet. It’s not a triumphant song like Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra sing it. It’ the Blues. So I thought it would fit great.

I think it’s like Jazz. When you take a standard, you immediately want to turn it on its head. You’ll take “When the Saints Come Marching In” or even “Stardust Memory,” and then you do something else with it. It was very organic. It was natural. It was a process of thinking about Sissy and what she does.

HollywoodNews.com: At what point do you feel you and Michael figured Brandon out?

Actually, it all came down to Abi Morgan and I, and our research in New York. Originally, I wanted to make this film in London, but nobody in London would talk to us about being a sex addict. I think at the time, the media was swamped with sex addiction. It was a major story at the time, and people were very wary about speaking about it. No one wanted to share information about it. So I had to come to New York to speak with two experts in the field. And they were two of the pioneers, to a certain extent, of studying this affliction. In speaking with them, they introduced me to addicts and recovering addicts. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I make this film in New York?” And that became the starting point of figuring out Brandon.

HollywoodNews.com: That’s interesting that you bring up a hesitancy of people to talk about sex and sex addiction. Because of that, could you almost predict the headlines “Shame” is generating over the NC-17 rating?

No, no. As a filmmaker, you just have to try and portray reality and humanity. Sometimes what we see isn’t particularly attractive and pretty, but it’s something that we have to look at to have some kind of idea who we are and where we are. We can’t just put our head in the sand. We have to gauge from where we’ve come, and where we want to go.

“Shame” opens in limited release on Friday, Dec. 2.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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