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Q&A: STEVE McQUEEN, director of Hunger

An online exclusive interview

Director STEVE McQUEEN

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Friday, March 27, 2009

By Steve Dollar


In Hunger, the award-winning British artist Steve McQueen revisits the 1981 hunger strike that led to the death of Irish Republic Army activist Bobby Sands, and nine others, in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison. The film’s stark, minimalist treatment, with its sparse but piercing dialogue and acute sensory structure, frames a powerful performance by Michael Fassbender as Sands, whose 66-day campaign made him a martyr.

McQueen, a thick-set West Londoner who took the prize for best first feature at Cannes last year, was at once affably self-deprecating (“My brain is fried”) and surprisingly intense for someone running on two hours sleep. I met the 39-year-old director at the Standard Hotel in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District on the day of Hunger’s New York premiere.

Stop Smiling: For a film that is in many ways about deprivation and withdrawing from the pleasures of the world, it’s an incredible sensory experience. The sound mix in particular had a hyper-vivid intensity. How did you arrive at that approach?

Steve McQueen: For me, sound makes up for so many things we can’t experience in a film; smell, geography, and whatnot. It gives you a lot of scope to play with. Film allows you to place people in the now and then as they’re watching the film, and that’s what I wanted to do with that particular device of sound, and image, but particularly sound. It’s one of those processes I’m interested in. Like switching off the lights in the room and finding your way around the room in the dark. Touch and feel have to guide you to the sofa, to the coffee table, to the mantelpiece. You find the geography of the room through another sensory device.

SS: The film often feels abstract.

SMcQ: I disagree. What do you mean?

SS: I think in the way the shots are set up, you see these tight fragments of space and activity.

SMcQ: The geography of the actual prison dictated the movement of the camera. It was one of those situations where we were refused the opportunity to film in the actual H Block [part of the prison], but we made the cells to the precise measurements and we didn’t use breakaway walls. The camera movement was dictated by the geography of the H Block itself. There’s an interesting history behind that building. It was originally designed by the Germans to house the Baader-Meinhof. Then it got sort of brought over to house the Unionists and Irish Republic prisoners.

SS: So since you couldn’t use the real H Block, you built a facsimile?

SMcQ: We had a great set designer, Tom McCullagh. In a roundabout way it’s a blessing in disguise that we didn’t actually try to go and film it. The history of that place and the weight of the place would have affected the cast and crew.

SS: What someone responds to so strongly in the film is the absolute quality of immersion. It’s not so much a verbal explication of the experience, but rather the exposure to its overwhelming visceral nature.

SMcQ: It gives an essential awareness to what you’re looking at — not just a narrative experience, but an essential one. You’re aware physically of yourself while you’re watching the movie. It’s very, very important for me as a filmmaker that people experience that, because I want people to feel the weight and responsibility for an hour and a half of that time in history. And then they can go outside and do whatever they want. For me to do that, one has to enable the viewer to look and to observe in a way that is impartial but very engaging.

SS: Was that the initial conception?

SMcQ: It was a period of time. I didn’t want to dictate my feelings about any aesthetic on the actual piece itself, on that part of history. I wanted my research to dictate to me the best way to portray that period of time. It was all about research, really. But my real help with that was speaking to prisoners and prison officers first hand.

SS: It really does build up for all the small details. The first thing you see when the camera enters a cell is the shit-covered walls.

SMcQ: Those walls were made by former prisoners.

SS: That must have been an experience for them to recreate.

SMcQ: Yeah. I suppose it was, yes.

SS: What response did you get from former prisoners and their families who saw the film?

SMcQ: Oh, it’s gone down a storm in Ireland. As far as the families are concerned, they didn’t want to be involved. And I respect their wishes.

SS: So none of the families had any interest?

SMcQ: They wanted to be left alone.

SS: You said that as a child, Bobby Sands’ hunger strike made an indelible impact on you.

SMcQ: I didn’t know much. All it was, I saw an image on television and a number. I didn’t know who it was. And every day watching the news, the number would increase. I thought it was his age, at first. But, obviously, my mother told me it was the number of days this person was on hunger strike. The whole idea that this person, in order to be heard, stopped eating, the whole idea that he got louder through refraining to eat, had a very big impression on me. I was 11 years old. In some ways it was the beginning of the end of my childhood — 1981 was a strange year anyway. The Brixton riots. The Tottenham team winning the FA cup. It was an odd year.

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