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Steve McQueen • Director

Intimacy and distance


- Interview in Paris with a remarkable British director and contemporary artist who masters the narrative film form with undeniable originality and force

Born in London in 1969, Steve McQueen has, over the past 10 years, become a leading international figure in contemporary video art, amassing awards and distinctions. We met in the Paris offices of MK2 – the French distributor of Hunger [+see also:
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interview: Steve McQueen
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– with this lively character, who is as talkative as he is observant, as he retraced for us his film debut.

Cineuropa: When did you first hear about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike?
Steve McQueen: I was 11 and at that age the idea that someone would voluntarily stop eating seemed very strange to me. Every evening, Bobby Sands’ picture appeared on television along with the growing number of days since the start of his hunger strike. Emotions ran high that year as it was also the time of the Brixton riots and my whole world literally opened up during that period.

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Why did you choose this subject for your debut feature?
I believe it’s the most important event to have happened in the UK over the past 27 years, for this type of situation continues to occur all over the world today. But it was more the human situation than the political context that interested me. I wanted to explore that strong impression it gave me at the time and find out more. I thought it was a very powerful subject for a film. My decision to make a film about it didn’t stem from wanting to find a wider audience than for my work in contemporary art, but because the subject required a complex narrative approach.

What type of research did you carry out before writing the screenplay?
My co-screenwriter [Enda Walsh] and I did a lot of research. We viewed archive material and went to Belfast to talk with former prisoners, prison guards and the priests who used to visit the inmates. It was necessary in order to recreate the sombre atmosphere of the early 1980s. The interviews were also essential for beyond the historical event I wanted to capture the details: was it raining that day? what kind of rain? As a visual artist, these details bring me closer to the story.

Why did you create such an unusual narrative structure, with the delayed appearance of the main character?
What matters is how you tell a story. I believe the way you work visually leads to narrative creation. Sometimes, there’s no need for a “once upon a time” approach, you can do things differently and stop when you want. All that’s necessary is that the images and story reach a conclusion, in one way or another.

It’s like using the camera as a fingerprint, like blindfolding someone, pushing him into a room and leaving him to find his own way out. He reconstructs the story alone as he goes along, thanks to his senses. The only thing we can do in the traditional field of filmmaking and narration is play on the form. We can’t create this form because it already exists, but we can subvert it.

The film’s rhythm is particularly striking.
I had this idea that when you go down a river, you start by floating on a current. The scenery drifts by and gradually becomes familiar. Then you arrive at some rapids where reality is thrown into turmoil. You no longer feel secure in your environment and need to reposition yourself, but every time you do so you’re shaken up again. The third part is the waterfall, the loss of the sense of gravity. I knew all the contrasts and contours of the film, but as someone who doesn’t know how to write music and has the melody in their head. It was in this frame of mind that I worked with my co-screenwriter, Enda Walsh.

Why did you use a long take for the lengthy dialogue between Bobby Sands and the priest?
We owed viewers a full and in-depth conversation about the reasons to live and the reasons to die. We didn’t cut anything, so it’s like a discussion watched from the outside. For the two characters want the same thing, but differently. Up to this point, there is relatively little dialogue in the film and this moment arrives a bit like a psychoanalysis session, like an avalanche of water in a hitherto parched environment.

How did you work on the film’s strong visual style?
More than the setting, it’s the light that interests me for you can almost feel the walls with the tips of your fingers and feel the texture. The light can also give a certain depth. Working with natural light was fascinating for me, a real challenge, for the film’s setting is similar to a castle or monastery with a single window as a source of light.

Did you intend for your film to be so original and "revolutionary" or is it simply an expression of your artistic nature?
I wasn’t aware that I was making a radically different film, otherwise I would undoubtedly not have made it. I didn‘t do anything different for the sake of being different, but because it was necessary for the film, to help recount quite an extreme story.

To come back to the lengthy scene of dialogue, I filmed it that way because if I’d used a series of shots and reverse shots, the characters would have ended up talking to the audience. I wanted these two men to speak to each other, in a very intimate way. At the same time, I didn’t want their faces to be too visible, like silhouettes. The viewers thus sharpen their eyes and ears: they realise they’re not supposed to be in that room. This dynamic of intimacy and distance makes the scene very powerful.

Was it easy to secure funding for the film?
We were lucky because we shot the film in Northern Ireland, but we received funding from Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, Wales and England. It would certainly not have been possible to obtain funding from so many different sources if we’d shot the film anywhere other than Belfast. The shoot lasted three and a half weeks (with a two and a half month break so that Michael Fassbender could lose weight). This is apparently very short for a film shoot, but I wasn’t aware of this. What’s more, directors who complain even though they are lucky enough to be able to make films should be shot!

What type of films do you enjoy?
Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct is very meaningful for me. I used to go to the cinema a lot and I’ve seen all the classics. But when I think about how I’m going to film a scene, I don’t think of Fellini, Scorsese or Spielberg, but the best way for me to shoot.

Will you repeat this experience of directing films?
I don’t know. I hope so, but there’s no hurry. My new work will be shown at the Venice Biennale from June-November 2009.

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