"NC-17? Thought it was a rap group"
INTERVIEW: Steve McQueen
Published: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 15:12
In anticipation of the release of his much talked about 2nd film, "SHAME", British visual artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen spoke to a roundtable of journalists about the work. What follows is a transcript of the conversation.
QUESTION: So this is going out with an NC-17, and congratulations for it. I think it's time for more films like this, for adults, to release this way.
Steve McQueen: I mean I didn't even know what NC-17 was. I thought it was a rap group, give me the CD. I'm trying to make movies, I'm trying to make films, about the way we live today. I think it's a responsible picture. I think we were very responsible with this picture. I'm not chopping people's heads and arms off. I've never held a gun in my hand in my life.
I have had sex. I have seen the opposite sex naked, and I have seen the same sex naked. And I think the majority of the people reading this have, but I imagine the majority of them haven't held a gun in their hand, and I imagine the majorities haven't shot someone in the head. Yet that seems to be the norm with film, and distribution.
QUESTION: And speaking of New York, I've never seen the city shot that way. Can you talk a little bit about your strategy in that?
SM: Well for me, it's very strange as a European that a lot of New Yorkers live and work in the sky. It's strange to me – you live and work in the sky. And I imagine a New Yorker would look at me and sort of tilt their head sideways, but it's true. You live and work in the sky, it's kind of amazing. But what's interesting about that is that you always have the perspective of yourself and the city in that situation. You're always framed by the city. So there's always this perspective of you and this huge metropolis, this vista. So what does it do, mentally? It must make you feel insignificant in a strange way. So of course when you put the camera on this, it's like "oh, yeah, I get it."
QUESTION: One of my favorite scenes in the movie was the "New York New York" scene, which holds on Carey Mulligan's singing performance for an incredibly long time. Can you talk about coming up with how you shot that, and why that song?
SM: I had this idea… it was all about Sissy really, and what she was telling me: who she was as a character. They both come from this background, and they deal with whatever they're dealing with very differently: Brandon is imploding, she's exploding. She's an extrovert, he's introverted. So what does she do, what's her job? I was working things out… she's a singer. So I'm thinking about her act… well, "New York New York". Ok, so I'm thinking she's a cabaret singer, she sings "New York New York." So I'm reading the lyrics of "New York New York". Well, actually, it's blues! It's not a triumphant song.
When I was researching the song, I had no idea – I thought it was from the 50s or 40s – I had no idea it was written in 1977 for Martin Scorsese's movie "New York New York." And then of course taken from Liza Minnelli and recorded by Frank Sinatra and made into this amazing, world famous song. So I thought ok, similar to the turn of the century where Jazz musicians would take standards and turn them on their head, do something different with them; I thought that was very interesting. We could turn this into a blues. And the lyrics, I mean it's about this vagrant, a homeless person, who wants to make it in the city of bright lights. But it's not there yet; it's the dream of it. "If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere."
So for some reason that song was telling me a lot about Brandon and Sissy's history, somehow. And you can translate it with lyrics. So what happened was Brandon had to sit there. And listen to this, I imagine he wanted to bolt and get the hell out of there, but he couldn't, because he invited his boss David to the club. So therefore he couldn't move, he had to sit there and listen – the first time he ever listened to his sister – and through that his defenses, his barricade, his drawbridge, everything was broken into pieces; his drawbridge is open to his heart. He has to be receptive to what's going on, and of course we see the reaction. So it was the first time we see his guard, his sort of fortress down, and of course when the song finishes all his defenses come back up again.
QUESTION: The writing credit states the film was "based" on a screenplay by you and your writing partner [Abi Morgan.] Were there significant changes from the page to the screen?
SM: I don't know why they did that, actually. Someone else told me that, ‘based on a screenplay'. But yeah, it is a screenplay. But also, what happened within the script, a lot of things we wrote in America before we had location. So we look at it, ‘this is different from the script, we better change the script!'
And sometimes we'd have a situation where we'd have some dialogue that you know, it just didn't feel right. So we thought we had to rewrite this. I wouldn't tell the actors, it would just be ‘forget the script'. And then sometimes things came out better than the f***ing script! So possibly, it might be that. But a lot of it, I would say 90% of it, was written.