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Steve McQueen: Portrait Of An Instinctive Director

The Oscar-winning film director, known for Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, is back with Widows, an action film at odds with his early productions. 

It's Tuesday evening. At the MK2 Grand Palais cinema in Paris, the audience is buzzing. The final credits for Widows, the new heist film from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave), are rolling before a crowd still shocked by the spectacle they've just seen. But there's no time to take a breath: the director enters the room. 

Although the thunderous applause seems like it's never going to end, the director's face changes quickly from a broad smile to a frown. With a certain professionalism, Steve McQueen answers the audience's questions, before interrupting himself, as if in a hurry to talk about the cinematographic experience which has just come to an end: "I'm sorry, but did you just watch the movie with all that noise? It's awful". The noise at fault is coming from an exhibition organized not far away in the depths of the Grand Palais. The director is clearly a perfectionist, convinced that the cinema should be sacred. 

Following on from a question asked by a viewer, he explains that his film was made to be watched at the cinema, with the idea that viewers would react in unison. It wasn't made to be watched on a computer, and to be paused every five minutes while the viewer goes to get food from the fridge – take that, Netflix.

Steve McQueen is a true artist and it doesn't take long to understand that. 

A genuine artist

However, if we look back at the beginning of the director's career, his mastery appears obvious. His first cinematic works, numerous short films, can only be seen in a few museums here and there. The most famous, or at least the film which made a name for the director in this difficult scene to break into, was entitled Bear. The film explores several of the themes which interest Steve McQueen, such as racism, the body and violence. 

It portrays two black wrestlers (McQueen plays one of the sportsmen) mid-combat, filmed subjectively. Close to the bodies, in black and white, a 16mm camera in the middle of the duo: that's the format. There is something almost erotic about these violent entanglements. McQueen plays with the codes underpinning combat sports films, transforming the whole thing into a sensual work of art. 

Although the sensations sought by the director are clearly apparent, we are also able to observe the style used by Steve McQueen, who prefers to act without thinking too much. Because this film, which became a talking point in the art world when it was first screened at the Royal College of Art in London in 1993, was filmed in just one day.

The artist explains his approach, looking back 25 years: 

"I can't remember how long it took to film... A week? A day? A day! I filmed it in a day [laughs]! Can you believe it? I was a kid, I was 22 or 23 years old, no more than that! It's a film for a museum, a gallery, a work of art. So it's filmed in a specific way, and it's made to be screened in a specific way, not on a classic screen." 

The difference between Bear and Widows is pretty striking. The latter is a "blockbuster" in which Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and a gang of women decide to compensate for the errors of their husbands – played by Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal. In the background, local elections, shoot-outs, explosions, suspense and threats. It's far from being an art gallery film. 

Numerous critics have unfairly commented that Widows isn't a "real" McQueen film. But this is to underestimate the director in question, who claims not to have changed his methodology since Bear:

"I always come back to this procedure. I would even say that I've never abandoned it. It's like writing poetry, then a novel. It's the same thing in the end. Because they aren't two different exercises. You do both things at the same time, in the end it's the same exercise. I always come back to that, even in a film like this." 

And the director's favorite themes? Widows is a lot smarter than it might seem. Against the plot of the famous heist, McQueen also succeeds in addressing issues such as corruption, the racism which is omnipresent in US society, police violence and domestic violence, while offering a more general reflection on mourning. 

"It's like jazz, you have the harmony and the melody, but in the end you're improvising"

In any case, it's best not to suggest to McQueen that he has favorite themes. Not only does he hate to categorize himself, but he thinks that it's the job of the critics to put him in a box. Even though he isn't a fan of the idea at all. Nonetheless, it seems clear that he enjoys focusing on the body in his films, and the way in which it can be mishandled. But there's none of that with him: to think in this way would be to go against his whole artistic approach. 

"If I were to follow a path, pay attention to every step, every stage, it would be far too stressful and tiring", the director explains, amused that anyone could think the opposite about his work. He prefers spontaneity. This can be detected at almost every stage of the filming process, starting with the initial planning stage. Spoiler: there isn't one. 

"I don't make a story-board. I talk about the scenes with my cameraman shortly before we shoot, and we think how we can film each scene. But that can change two seconds later. 

It's like jazz, you have the harmony and the melody, but in the end you're improvising. As long as you stay within the tone, the harmony and the melody, you can do what you want. The important thing is that it allows you... to live. Do you see what I mean?" 

To be honest, we do. Take one of the most impressive scenes in the film, which isn't a particularly technical shot, but which succeeds in summing up the entire movie. We see a candidate, played by Colin Farrell, leaving a meeting and heading home in a car. Instead of showing the conversation between the candidate and his communications director inside the car, McQueen instead opts to film the hatchback from the outside while the discussion takes place, formalizing the contrast between the poor black district in which the character finds himself and the bourgeois white district where he lives. A simple idea, which highlights the discrepancies between what he claims to experience and what he actually experiences, between his daily life and those of his voters. Not to mention the dialogue itself, which is crucial. 

Do you get the idea yet? Yes, more improvisation: "When we saw that, when we saw the journey, we said to ourselves 'Wouldn't it be more interesting from the outside?', and the decision was made."

A contemporary filmmaker

His creative method is an art in itself. McQueen isn't like the others: he knows it, and he plays on that fact. When asked how he goes about shooting without much preparation, he says that he plays on energies, and lets them dictate his work. Filming is like tai-chi for him – and it always has been. It's a bit hard to understand what that means, besides the fact that he acts based on instinct. 

"I don't make films about films, I make films about reality, about what we are experiencing today" 

McQueen claims not to have a role model. When we watch the film, we can't help but think of Michael Mann and his superb Heat. But no. He's inspired by nothing more than his own imagination.

"I went to film school for four months. I hated it. The first time I set foot on a film set, it was mine. Because I didn't want to copy other artists' methods, I wanted my own way of doing things. I especially didn't want to pick up bad habits from bad people. […]

My inspiration here, in fact, were these women, these characters. […] My film has nothing to do with Heat! For me, there's no interest in watching other films to get inspiration. What is useful is to think alone. To think about the way in which I'll film the scene, in order to remain present. I don't make films about films, I make films about reality, about what we are experiencing today." 

It therefore appears logical – despite the fact that it's an adaptation of a 1980s TV series, with few substantial changes – that Widows should be deeply contemporary. Showcasing strong women in such an intelligent way, with a wonderfully diverse cast, seems like a big two fingers up to a conservative, male-dominated industry. 

Something which is still all too rare. Michelle Rodriguez almost refused the role, because she was tired of playing the "Latina" woman who is little more than a victim. It took McQueen three tries to convince her.  

Nevertheless, the film is not really a response to #MeToo, regardless of what some people might think.

"I thought of adapting this story for the cinema seven years ago. […] At that time, it wasn't really #MeToo, but rather #OscarsSoWhite. But then, […] I consider myself a feminist, so the film is likely to be so too."

The director recalls the first time he watched the HBO series Widows, on which his feature film is based. It's 1983, and Steve is just 13 years old. He lies on his stomach on the living room carpet, watching the adventures of these women trying to escape trouble with his mother. He gets caught up in their adventures, and says that the story remains with him even today. 

It's not surprising that the teenage Steve McQueen identified with these characters. We're talking about protagonists who are judged because of their appearance, mocked, discriminated against and marginalized. He explains that he had the same experience as a "young black guy in London". Yet although he doesn't complain about his fate, he is quick to remind us that the situation of these women has changed little in the last 35 years. 

To tell this adventure, the director called upon the best screenwriter in the thriller genre at the present time, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects). Yes, a screenwriter for an action film. A smart move which has borne excellent results. He says: "I wanted the best screenwriter, and it was her. What's more, she's a woman and she's from Chicago, so bingo." 

That's right, the tale is set in Chicago, the city where Al Capone's criminal empire first took root. A city which represents political corruption and criminality, as well as diversity and mixing. "A perfect reflection of the current world", according to the director. 

As well as a city with personal meaning for him: 

"The first time I came to Chicago, it was for an exhibition. My first as an artist, in fact. And my wife went to a Democrat convention for Bill Clinton. A first visit which was both artistic and political, so... [laughs]."

Art is at the heart of Steve McQueen's work, both past and present. We told you so at the very beginning. 

By Arthur Cios, published on 07/12/2018