BY MARGY ROCHLIN
GAME PLAN: McQueen, on the set of 12 Years a Slave, sometimes wakes up and doesn’t know what scene he’ll shoot that day.
Prior to his 2008 feature film debut Hunger, about IRA activist Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike, British artist Steve McQueen’s cinematic oeuvre consisted of video installations whose audience might be a lone art gallery attendee or a noisy, distracted white wine-swilling crowd. But the most intriguing aspect of the Turner Prize-winning artist’s leap from directing (and occasionally starring in) short movies with a mini-cast, to a feature length film with a much, much larger budget meant to be shown at multiplex theaters, is how easy McQueen found the transition. “It felt like I had been doing it for years,” says McQueen. “Obviously, there are more people to talk to. There’s more money [involved]. But it felt very natural to me.”
Since then, McQueen has made two more films—the 2011 Manhattan-based sex addict drama Shame, and the upcoming 12 Years a Slave, which tells the true story of a middle-class black man living in mid-19th-century New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C. If each of McQueen’s productions share an austere quality—beautifully composed shots that reveal unflinching, you-are-there examinations of grim subjects—when the end credits roll you will find they also contain the names of McQueen’s three favorite collaborators: actor Michael Fassbender, editor Joe Walker and, perhaps most importantly, Sean Bobbitt, a Texas-born British cinematographer who got his start as a news and documentary cameraman and has been McQueen’s DP for more than thirteen years. “To have him by my side felt normal,” says McQueen, sitting on a sagging couch in a Beverly Hills postproduction house where he’s putting the final touches on the 12 Years score. “It felt like home.”
By that perhaps McQueen also means that Bobbitt doesn’t have to be told that a day’s work on a McQueen film might mean sticking to the plan or throwing the entire production schedule out the window. “Sometimes I wake up not knowing what scene we’ll shoot. I don’t want to restrict the situation,” says McQueen who thinks of storyboards as an instant spontaneity-dampener and never uses them. “Sometimes you’ve got to find [the center of a scene]. How does it work? What does the actor do? How do they want to move? How am I going to capture it? You need the unknown as such to make it sort of flow. It’s like being a musician.”
McQueen’s process seems less anarchic once you take into account his obsession with in-depth preparation. He and Bobbitt spend months together researching, poring over visual images and screening films. The scouting process is especially labor-intensive because in a McQueen film, physical locations are expected to communicate as much about a character as anything he or she says. “Every single scene we do, we’ve talked about way, way before,” says McQueen. “It’s like getting ready to prepare a meal and having all the ingredients, then changing it around a little bit. It is a discipline but it also gives you tremendous freedom. Also there’s a foundation to pull you back if you get lost, which is good. It’s exciting.”
It doesn’t hurt that McQueen is a fast, decisive director. “I’ve been interested in art since I was 14 years old,” says McQueen, who studied at Chelsea College of Art and Design and at the prestigious Goldsmiths College. “When I get to the set, I already have all this information [inside my head]. It’s almost like I’ve been training for this moment. All the hard work has been done already.”
Aware that his cast may not always know what scene is on deck for filming, McQueen spends preproduction time with each of his lead actors, discussing character and motivation, visiting key locations, then ultimately running through key parts of the script until they develop almost a dramatic shorthand. For example, one memorably terrifying bit in 12 Years—when Fassbender’s reflexively cruel plantation owner props his arm atop a man’s head—came from a simple piece of direction. “I told him, ‘He’s a horse. An animal. Lean on him. He could have been a footstool.’ That’s how people treated African-Americans then. He doesn’t think twice about leaning on a man’s head, using it as a rest for his arm. That’s how it was.”
McQueen’s fondness for intensive prep means rehearsal is also integral to getting a film into shape. “I like rehearsal very much,” he says, adding that before shooting Shame he almost spent too much practice time with Fassbender and co-stars Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale. “We were rehearsing incessantly. Then I was like, ‘You know what? I need to stop this before the plane leaves the runway.’ By that I mean that I wanted them to be warm, but they were too good. I needed them to save it [for the film].”
He credits a Swiss girlfriend with introducing him to the joys of binge-watching movies at London’s repertory cinema houses. “It was addictive,” says McQueen, whose film influences range from Andy Warhol to Jean Vigo to Buster Keaton to Billy Wilder. “We saw everything—French, Italian, Swedish, American, British, Taiwanese, Chinese. You could look at how other people fall in love in Tokyo. Other people fall in love in Gdansk. What people eat for breakfast in New York, what people eat for breakfast in Moscow. How we are all the same, but very different.”
NEW YORK MINUTE: McQueen, on the Shame set, has worked with Michael Fassbender on all three of his features and has developed a dramatic shorthand with the actor.
As much as McQueen’s films have varied visually—from the glittering nightscape of New York in Shame to the claustrophobic prison cells in Hunger and the humid lushness of rural Louisiana in 12 Years—the London-born director doesn’t shy away from dark, emotional subject matter. The technique that McQueen employs to keep the endless days of bleak material from getting to his cast and crew is to establish a vibe of “we’re-all-in-this-together.”
“I like the idea that everybody, from the electrician to the grip to the makeup and costume department, feels they have something at stake with the film—that they are a part of it like anyone else,” says McQueen, adding that even on a film like 12 Years, where slave characters are routinely shown being humiliated, horse-whipped, and in one scene, lynched, people would still show up on the set on their days off. “We’re a community,” says McQueen. “We are always talking together, discussing [the film]. On hard days, when you’re in an environment that is extraordinarily supportive it feels cathartic.”
When asked, McQueen at first resists categorizing his films as British or American. “I don’t know what that means,” is his flat response. “I make films in English.” But the truth is that Hunger and Shame were financed in the United Kingdom and 12 Years—produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B (Pitt has a small role in the film) and several other American companies—is his first full experience with the Hollywood way of making movies. “We don’t really have a film industry in England; this a real industry,” says McQueen recalling how distressed he was when he was informed that his excruciating portrait of the incalculable pain endured by slaves in Washington, D.C., and Louisiana was going to be shown to test audiences who’d be quizzed afterwards about their likes and dislikes. “The [first] two movies I made, I just made them,” says McQueen. “In America, I had to test them. Which is strange to me and I was a bit upset about the whole thing.”
Then, unexpectedly, McQueen found a silver lining in the process. “There were a couple of confusions [that we were able to clarify],” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know if I’d like to do it again, but it was interesting.”