In 1981, a deadly serious battle takes place in the infamous H-block of Belfast’s Maze Prison. Republican inmates, led by Bobby Sands (Fassbender), refuse to eat until the British government acknowledges the IRA as a legitimate political organization. Steve McQueen’s commanding direction captures the phsyical details of their struggle. Is it suicide or martyrdom?
Steve McQueen is one of Britain’s most influential artists. Over the last decade he has opened up the ways in which artists work with film. Born in London in 1969, he attended Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmiths’ College, after which he spent a year at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. In the last decade, McQueen’s work has been shown extensively in museums around the world and his work has been acquired by major institutions including the Guggenheim, MOCA, Tate and the Centre Pompidou. He won the Turner Prize in 1999. In 2002 McQueen was awarded the OBE, and received a commission from Artangel. The same year he participated in Documenta XI and since then he has been the subject of several major solo exhibitions, including those held at the Fondazione Prada and the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the Manchester International Festival, the art work Queen and Country by McQueen commemorates the British service personnel who have been killed in the war in Iraq. The work was created in response to a visit Steve made to Iraq in 2003, following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. The project takes the form of a series of postage stamp sheets featuring photographic portraits of individual men and women who have lost their lives in the conflict so far. Each stamp also bears the standard profile of Her Majesty the Queen, the sovereign in whose name they went to fight. The Art Fund is supporting this project; until real stamps are issued the work is incomplete. McQueen was commissioned by Robert Storr to create two new films, GRAVESEND and UNEXPLODED, for the Italian Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Steve McQueen is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York/Paris and by Thomas Dane Gallery in London.
Bijan Tehrani: You have been a painter, which is a very individual kind of art. Getting to filmmaking from painting is very challenging. How challenging was it for you to make a film?
Steven McQueen: It was not challenging at all. It is more difficult to make artwork than a feature film. With artworks you have to invent and create the form, and at the same time try to communicate what you are doing, in a way. With a film it is much more of a situation where the formula is there, and what one can do is subvert the formula. As far as making the movie, you have all these people who want to help you make the film. Sometimes they have ideas that are better than yours. It is a wonderful experience. The challenge in some ways is convincing people that you can do it differently and people understand what you are trying to do.
BT: How did you come up with the idea to make this film?
SM: Channel 4 asked me what feature I would want to make. And I went away and came up with the idea Bobby Sands and the hunger strike. It was a situation that happened when I was eleven years old. It was a situation of my surroundings not seeming as I thought there were when I was eleven years old. I saw something on TV where this guy was on television with a number underneath his name, and I didn’t know what it was and my parents told me it was a hunger strike. At that time the whole idea that someone would stop eating to be heard was strange to me. And as an eleven year old I started to see the cracks in the walls that my reality was not what it seemed to be. It was something that stuck in my mind. When I had the idea it was not necessarily a feature film.
BT: How did you go about casting this film? It is such an essential issue for this film for us to believe these characters as real people.
SM: What is wonderful about Belfast is that there are a lot of great actors there who have never had an opportunity to be on screen. It is just a rich oasis of actors where you can actually pick which ones are the best ones. I just wish that a lot of them were on screen for longer. It was a wonderful pool to choose from. As far as Michael Fassbender is concerned, Michael auditioned. At first I wasn’t so keen on him because I thought he was a bit arrogant. But that was my naiveté because I had never done casting before. Often it is the case that actors are nervous, and they use their nervous energy to buff up their confidence. The second time I saw him I thought ‘this guy is interesting’. Liam Cunningham was the only actor who didn’t audition, everyone else did. Michael is a star now.
BT: How did you work with the actors on the set? Did you guide them in detail, or did you let them have space to use their own ideas to play the part?
SM: It is a conversation. I was working with actors for the first time, but for me it was a conversation, which has to inspire, which has to let them go to where they don’t know where they are going, where the character takes over. A situation where it is not about acting but being, and where whatever they do is right. It is about rehearsing and talking and focusing. Going to a state of mind, which is very focused and concentrated. It is all about the possibilities of being the part, rather than acting.
BT: Why did you decide not to use a professional writer for the screenplay?
SM: Because I was writing it. I was co-writing it, and wrote the form and content. I hadn’t written a screenplay, but I wanted to work with a theater writer because with a screenplay writer, as soon as they start writing the scene they want to finish it. The whole outlook is to finish the scene. With a theater writer they are investigating the scene. So for me, working with Enda Walsh I basically made the form and structure, and he wrote some things and I said yes or no. I knew everything I wanted and orchestrated everything in my head, but needed someone to translate it.
BT: I watched this film with two film critics who had no idea about your background. Both of them remarked to me that the film has the feel of a painting. Did you do this intentionally?
SM: It’s what you can fit into a frame. It is not about the aesthetics, but about the context and the content. You can do so many things in the frame, you can tell three stories in the frame. What I am doing is an economy of means. It is not just about telling a story. When you are structuring a frame – especially in the wide format – there is always a relationship going on in that frame. There is always an opposite of the thing that you are watching in the frame. That was what I was interested in. It is not about pretty, because the film is not pretty. It is all about how you use a frame, and how you use space within it to tell three things at the same time. That is what filmmaking should be, and what it was before television. This is all about cinema and not TV.
BT: What was the response of the people who watched the film in Northern Ireland?
SM: It was quite overwhelming actually. We did the premier about three weeks ago. We thought there would be protests and so forth, but… What this film has become in some ways is a thermometer to test the temperature of Belfast and Northern Ireland. It is a film that has actually become an object to help to find out what the situation is there now. It’s starting to create a bigger conversation. I am very proud that we made this film, but am even more proud that we can have people have conversations about that part of history, which was underneath the carpet for twenty-seven years. People can actually now deal with it, because it was an extraordinarily sensitive subject in Belfast and Northern Ireland.