Steve McQueen
© 20th Century Fox

Steve McQueen: “It’s about what’s right, not what fits”

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Short Profile

Name: Steven Rodney McQueen
DOB: 9 October 1969
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Film director, artist

Steve McQueen's new film, Widows, hits theatres in Germany on 6 December 2018.

Mr. McQueen, what do you expect of yourself as a storyteller?

The truth. The whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. And that’s it! May it be ugly, may it be beautiful, may it be perverse, may it be all of those things. That’s it, I can’t lie; it is what it is, unabashed, naked. I expect that of myself, that’s for sure.

Is that a pressure?

We’re all going to die so it makes it very easy. (Laughs) I haven’t always thought that way but I’ve realized it’s the truth. I think age gets you there, questioning your mortality… When you realize that, it’s so liberating, it’s so free, you can fly! There’s no need to hold on to anything. Like, think of the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you; it’s probably happened to 500 million people as well. Who gives a shit!

“If the story is fantastic and it touches me in some way, I’ll do it.”

Does that philosophy make it easier for you to be experimental or adventurous in your film work?

Yes, because for me, it’s just about stories. I mean, tomorrow I could make maybe an underwater musical because it doesn’t matter — if the story is fantastic and it touches me in some way, I’ll do it. People were surprised about Widows, calling it a cinematic leap but I don’t know. If you see the original Widows, you would hardly even recognize anything in this picture. I took in loose elements from that. At the end of the day, I just love films. I love telling stories, I love actors, I love cinematography. I love being with my crew. There’s no constraints. It’s just about what happens on the screen.

I think it’s fair to say that given your reputation, you actually could make an underwater musical and we would all still watch it.

Well, for me it has to be brand new every time. It has to be. I respect people regardless of who they might think I am. If you’re coming to my movie, it’s got to be like the first movie of mine you’ve ever seen. I don’t take my audiences or people who like my work for granted. I don’t even take myself for granted, I cannot because I want to respect my audience.

Recently you explained that sometimes the audience doesn’t know what they want, and so you have to lead them. How do you know how to do that?

Trust. I think from the first few minutes of a picture, you want to get comfortable, you want to know where you are, but then all of a sudden, you trust where that hand is leading you. You trust — I think it’s established in the first 20 minutes of a picture. It’s not my reputation that guides people necessarily, it’s about: you see the movie, you see the narrative, and at a certain point, you trust a filmmaker, whoever he or she may be. Basically, I think the filmmaker must encourage and rewards one’s intelligence in order to earn that trust.

What do you mean?

I suppose when people are rewarded for their attention, they feel smart when they’re watching the picture. They’re challenged. They’re rewarded… That’s a theory I have, I don’t know if it’s true or not. But to be absolutely honest, I think of the audience, but at the same time, I don’t really give a shit because it’s me and it’s who I am and I can’t be anyone else. I’m not here to please. I’m here to do the best I can, so hopefully they respect what I do in that sense. I don’t neglect them — far from it — but at the same time, this is where I want to go. That’s it. And hopefully they want to come with me.

“Sometimes I go on set not knowing the scene! I don’t even do shot lists. I love that! I love being in the moment.”

Do you always know exactly where you want to go when you’re making a movie?

Right now, I am in 2013 because I plant seeds and I see what grows, what comes to fruition, and then that’s what I make. And then I move on. So, seven years from now those initial questions will come to fruition — or maybe they don’t. Like my friend David Hammond said to me one time, “I don’t shit on command.” But I guess when I’m actually on set, it’s a case of trying to be as accurate as possible; it’s craft. When I was a kid, a young person, I had a Super 8 camera and that film was very, very expensive. So, if I shot something, oh my God, that’s like 50 pence!

So you had to know exactly what you wanted to shoot before you shot it.

I would edit in my head! But these days, sometimes I go on set not knowing the scene! I don’t even do shot lists. I love that! I love being in the moment. Sometimes when you pre plan things too much, it doesn’t work because it becomes about trying to fit it into a situation that doesn’t fit. It’s not about that, it’s about what’s right, not what fits. When I’m in the moment, I can feel it. It’s quicker.

Has being in the moment gotten easier with experience?

It’s always been easy. The funny thing is that the first time I was on a film set was on my own film set. I never went on a film set before I made Hunger in Belfast. Never! And the reason why I did that was because I didn’t want to learn bad habits, I wanted to do it my way.

In an interview with The New York Times, the author wrote that if there was one word to describe you, it would be “particular.” Would you say that’s true?

It’s a good question — but as me being a black man, some people will think of that “particular” as being difficult. Particular for me is a negative term. Perfectionist is not! (Laughs) For certain people, they will call it perfectionist, and for other people, particular, difficult. So you know, depending on who you are and who you’re looking at, those words will be used in different ways.

So, are you a perfectionist?

No, actually, I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist. I think humans are very messy and disorganized. I do require total absolute commitment from every single department, may it be catering, may it be the electricians, may it be grip —because it’s our movie! I might be captain of the ship but it’s our movie. And when an actor comes into an environment like that, they feel that they can fly, that they can do anything. They can throw themselves around, they can experiment because they’re in a safe environment which is safe. They have the freedom to make mistakes.

“Some people who don’t look like me can make many, many mistakes before they have a success.”

Apparently after the success of 12 Years a Slave, you felt like you were allowed to go out and make one more mistake. What did you mean by that?

When we came out with 12 Years, I remember someone saying to me, “Your impossible movie.” At that point, Hollywood didn’t think that movies leading with black protagonists would make any money. And that was shattered by this film. 12 Years made $200 million. And as a direct consequence of that, Selma was made. As a direct consequence of that, Moonlight was made. As a direct consequence of that, long term, Black Panther was made.

Because they knew that these movies could sell.

Exactly. That’s Hollywood, that’s how it is. And this was before #OscarsSoWhite, before any of this. So, to answer your question, I think that depending on what you look like and how people perceive you, that dictates how many mistakes you can make. Some people who don’t look like me can make many, many mistakes before they have a success as such. Myself, I don’t think I have many lives as a cat. Not as many as they do, anyway.

Are you more conscious or careful with what you’re doing because you feel like you only have one mistake left?

I don’t give a shit, actually. I’ve actually done a good job in trying to ruin my career — whatever career that is!I made a good effort to try and fuck things up for myself, I mean, a movie about an IRA hunger striker, a movie about sex addiction, a movie about slavery, a movie about four women doing a heist… These aren’t the popular choices. I’m just grateful that people want to see them and that they’ve made them popular because without them, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.