You Use Your Body To Die: An Interview With Steve McQueen

Above: Steve McQueen (left) directs Michael Fassbender's performance as Bobby Sands.

As I wrote in my 2008 year in review piece here on The Auteurs, Steve McQueen's Hunger is one of the best films that I have ever seen. For the uninitiated, Hunger is a fiercely formal retelling of the 1981 IRA prisoners' hunger strike, led by IRA member (and later, elected MP in Parliament) Bobby Sands.  Steve McQueen’s understanding of politics, and specifically, how politics can effectively be dealt with by cinema, has moved the cinematic language forward. Filmmakers have been given a new set of tools with which to work, a new mode of understanding political cinema. I could elaborate on this theme further here, but it’s best to let the man speak for himself; my interview with Steve McQueen more passionately (and perhaps more articulately) deals with my thoughts on the film than my own review, found here. I sat down with McQueen last Friday, the day of the film’s release, in the lobby of his hotel in the Meatpacking district.

  • The Auteurs: How do you conceive of the relationship between bodies and physicality, and politics?
  • Steve McQueen: It’s the whole idea of people incarcerated in a cell 24 hours a day, for four and a half years, and what they did to protest – using their excrement, using their urine, not washing. Using their body as a weapon – if that’s all you have, what do you do with it? Maximizing your resistance as such. That was interesting for me to show, visually, because it had never actually been filmed. The only videotape which actually survived of it is 90 seconds of footage. 90 seconds. So reconstructing this as film was very fascinating to me, and of course the political aspect was huge. Also the personal – what was it like to be naked in the cell for four and a half years – at what point do you get used to the excrement on the wall? At what point do you get used to waking up with maggots all over your body? The filth and the stench. These are the questions I wanted to raise, the images I wanted to look at.
  • TA: Do you see a connection between the prisoners reverting to these physical means of protest, and the idea of politics, on an elemental level, being ingrained into your own body?
  • SM: I don’t know about that, because often elements of physical struggle turn out to be violent. It doesn’t always end up peacefully. Now, these were extremes, the front lines of the struggle between the British government and the IRA. When the words had been exhausted, they picked up guns and bombs and whatnot. When that was exhausted, and you’re in prison, you’re pushed to the absolute extreme, and you use your body as a weapon not only to protest, you use your body to die. It’s an extraordinary situation, and I wanted to put a light on that because it had been brushed beneath the carpet for 27 years.
  • TA: It’s interesting, that the body is the last resort.
  • SM: It’s the ultimate. And it’s unfortunate, you see it in the present day, people using their bodies for suicide bombs, which is quite different from a hunger strike. Regardless, they’re using their bodies as a weapon. One has to talk. It’s difficult to understand, really, but that’s why I made a film about it.
  • TA: Some have said that the film deifies Bobby Sands, say that the film is a deification of a terrorist. But the film does seem to grasp the concept of victims all, especially in that shot where you get the split screen of the beating, and the riot squad member crying –
  • SM: Well, you have lots of examples. You have Raymond, the prison guard. It’s a tit for tat. It’s not about glorifying anything, just about showing a part of history that happened. Think of the conversation with the Priest and Bobby – if people think, after that, that I’m portraying him as some kind of martyr, they should really see the film again.
  • TA: I think that if there is anything that is really deified, or celebrated –
  • SM: I wouldn’t call it celebrated –
  • TA: Right – anything that the film is in awe of, let’s say – I would say that it’s not Sands, the man, but what he does towards the end of the film, the level of political commitment his actions espouse.
  • SM: Hmm. Well, I don’t know if awe is the word I would use.
  • TA: What would you say?
  • SM: It’s a situation of – desperation, as well. The desperation, that someone would use their life in that way, in order to be heard. And you see it happening. As a human being, anyone you see who is ill, you want to help, of course. It’s only natural. So there’s all these conflicting emotions. Some might be in awe of it, but others might say, it’s a desperate act. There’s no straight yes, no straight no – again, this film is not about right-wing and left-wing, wrong and right – it’s about you and me. That’s what’s more important to me than anything else.
  • TA: It was fascinating, the way that loftily discussing politics, talking about politics, was placed in such marked contrast with the actual physicality of the struggle. Specifically, the Thatcher speeches – the clips from those speeches felt so hollow when juxtaposed with seeing the physicality of the struggle.
  • SM: I think what had to happen was, you have to have – there had to be the reason why they were in prison. Her voice was the key. At the same time, I wanted it to come in as vapor, rather than a physical person. She was the lock and key of that prison. That was the doctrine of those times, we don’t talk to terrorists.
  • TA: Bearing that in mind, I thought it was interesting that the politics of the situation were very much backgrounded, vapor, like you said. Did you have to make a conscious effort to temper down the politics at any point?
  • SM: No, because it’s not my job to do that. I was focusing on the human element, the elements that could grab an audience. What can grab an audience, and me, is the tactile elements of the everyday, of the prison officers and prisoners. That’s going to bring you much closer than someone telling you what’s going on and whatnot, in a kind of cold manner, as you said. What I wanted to do was give the audience the weight of those times, to say, here, hold this for an hour and a half. I wanted them to feel and experience that situation. Then, once that happens, you can work in a way that is much more effective.
  • TA: How did you decide to begin with the prison guard?
  • SM: I wanted the audience to be led into The Maze. I wanted it to go from outside to inside. Having breakfast, putting on his clothes, checking his car for bombs, and also the prisoner being led into The Maze – so you get an idea of the rituals, the manners of that particular kind of institution. And then we end up with Bobby.
  • TA: The film is so aesthetically, formally consistent. How did you arrive at your style for this film?
  • SM: Well, the architect of The Maze dictated the camera. Unfortunately, we couldn’t film in The Maze – well, I say unfortunately, but that really would have affected our crew and cast – so instead we constructed a set, with no breakaway walls, and that really dictated the camera. That kind of institution – the whole idea of how the prison was designed – it was a prison like a Russian doll, a prison within a prison within a prison. One thing, as far as the camera was concerned, was that there was only one source of light in the cell. That’s interesting, in terms of how you can play with that. You work with what you have, and that’s it – one cannot impose their intentions on the situation, one has to embrace the environment, accept it.
  • TA: Even though you were working with what the environment gave you, there is a very specific style that had clearly been chosen.
  • SM: Yes, the choice to respect what you have. I didn’t want to come up with some queasy idea to put something into a situation. It’s the geography and the light – that’s all we had.

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