Michael Fassbender & Steve McQueen Interview For ‘Shame’
‘Shame’ is the mesmerising second collaboration between Michael Fassbender and ‘Hunger’ writer/director Steve McQueen. The film follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a thirty-something man, closed from emotional contact, lonely, unable to manage his sex life and moving towards self-destruction. When his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment stirring memories of their shared painful past, Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control. ‘Shame’ is a compelling and timely examination of the nature of need, how we live our lives and the experiences that shape us. The likes of Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie and James Badge Dale co-star. ‘Shame’ is out now in the US while it’s set for release January 13th in the UK.
Your first collaboration with Steve McQueen, ‘Hunger,’ really shone a light on your work…
Michael Fassbender: I said to Steve at the end of ‘Hunger,’ “You changed my life.” Literally, in terms of a professional point of view. I was getting to the point, I was 30 years old, the recession was just around the corner, which meant as in any other industry, less jobs for less actors. And then for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, and to take the risk to play a lead in the film, there was less and less of that happening. When I was 17 and I started off doing this my dream was to meet a director, and to have a relationship with a director, like Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that, and to be on a wave-length that powerful with somebody, and that’s what I was so lucky to find with Steve with ‘Hunger.’ With Steve it’s just when and where, I don’t even need to see a script. There’s a huge amount of trust between us.
What was your reaction when Steve McQueen first approached you about this film and role?
Michael Fassbender: Steve McQueen first told me that he had this idea in 2008. We were going to a dinner in the Houses of Parliament in London, it was a celebration of Film4 and their contribution to film, and Steve mentioned it over the dinner to me. I was like, “Just tell me when and where.” It’s really that simple. And just the working relationship is a very honest and exciting and scary and rewarding one, so I jumped at the opportunity.
‘Shame,’ much like ‘Hunger,’ warrants participation from the audience, you ask questions and are involved…
Steve McQueen: I want to earn the audiences trust, you really want people to trust you as a filmmaker. When people sit down to watch a movie, they’re kind of sceptical anyway, but then once you gain their trust they are open to what you will offer them. I always hope they come away with an experience where they feel involved, they feel a part of it. One of the aspects of that was the back-story of Brandon and Sissy, not having it spelled out exactly what happened to them. The reason why I did that, I think, was that I wanted to make it…not mysterious, but actually familiar, to everyone in the audience. That they would know, or have an idea of what possibly was the problem in the past. By not actually spelling it out, in some ways the audience are involved in what possibly it could be.
This kind of affliction seems extremely taboo. How was it for you researching the role, speaking to various people to get into Brandon’s psyche?
Michael Fassbender: Like with everyone this seems to be kind of a grey area, this idea of sexual addiction. I suppose because all of us were introduced through celebrity stories, there’s a certain public perception of self-indulgence within that world. What was interesting to discover was just how many people were claiming to suffer from it, and how it wasn’t being treated as an official mental illness. Then it’s just the factors. It’s very important to Brandon’s character in what Abi Morgan (co-writer) and Steve McQueen had really put at the core of his character, it was this problem with dealing with intimacy and emotional content in any sort of relationship. Trying to find that was I suppose the hard part, because everything would stem from that. So I was very grateful, and I am very grateful that I got to meet somebody who’s suffering with exactly that. I think it’s very difficult when you’re talking to somebody like that, in that your essentially trying to extract information out of them. So by asking them direct questions it’s not really so effective, people tend to be on-guard a little bit more. So I just asked them to tell me stories, and from those stories I could get an idea of where certain motivations were born within a personality like that, and how somebody suffering from this condition deals with it in the situation, how it manifests itself physically – even in an embrace, the idea of that you just want to squirm your way out of it. That really helped me get a physical life for that inner life, if you like, it really helped speaking to somebody. And then I just worked a lot with the script.
Do start with your own characteristics and then work around the script and these other sources?
Michael Fassbender: Yeah, I just dive into the script and find the person in the script. You ask a lot of questions in your own personal way that I go about it. It’s just about relating your character back to yourself, asking honest questions to yourself, and then just finding a list of characteristics and ticking the boxes of the ones you’ve got already, and then working on the other ones. I don’t know where it starts and ends, but it’s just about being honest with yourself.
What is the collaborative experience like with Michael Fassbender?
Steve McQueen: It’s a little bit like Jazz in a way, you write the music, the melody, the harmony, and then within that piece of music you can improvise. There’s a roof, there’s a ceiling, certain notes can play within that space. You know, I don’t hire robots, I hire actors, just like great players – and of course Michael Fassbender is a great great player. So you write the song and then there’s chance for him to improvise, and in that frame he improvises. There’s many great examples, my favourite example is a very simple example you see in the film, when Michael is standing outside the elevator – it’s a shot being used for the press image, he presses the button for the elevator, he was meant to get into the elevator, but he presses the button of the elevator, and he looks at the elevator, the elevator door closes, then he went back and sat down. That was beautiful because as a brother, in the scene, not wanting to confront the situation of what could be going on upstairs with his boss, it was beautiful. A perfect example of you writing the music, then the person improvises and does his thing. It was much more beautiful than him going into the elevator, it was wonderful. A genius moment, simple, but that’s what it’s about.
A lot has been made of the nudity and sexual content, what were your thoughts on this going into the film?
Michael Fassbender: My imagination was much more devious than what actually appeared in the script (laughs). Unless you have exhibition tendencies, which is cool (laughs), but I don’t, I don’t feel that comfortable parading around naked in front of essentially, at the beginning, a room full of strangers. But it just had to be done, it was an essential part of getting inside the psyche, there was various stages where you see what exactly was going on in his head. It’s my job, I’ve got to facilitate these things, forgot about “Michael Fassbender” or whatever that image is, I’m there to tell stories, to facilitate my part in the story. You just roll up your sleeve, but I didn’t have any on (laughs), then you’ve got to just go for it.
This film is very political, different to ‘Hunger,’ but political in a different way – the sexual politics.
Steve McQueen: You’re quite correct, the sexual politics. I think how a sex addict as such, or a person who has an affliction to this disease as such – pornography, the internet, the access of pornographic images, the access to sexual content is quite prevalent, it’s everywhere. I think that was the sort of starting point to explore someone who has this affliction. In my day pornography was on the top-shelf of a newsagent, it was a far away thing. Now the access to it is much more prevalent, and therefore it has an influence to the amount of activity to a sex addicts state….if that makes any sense.
It’s societal and political…
Steve McQueen: Yes, politics as well because of the sexualisation of images to sell anything, it’s prevalent all around us. But it’s done in a way, a very commercial way, as pornography is, you pay to go online, it’s active in our everyday. If you are aware of it or not, its prevalent, it’s very very active. And of course to navigate your way through this world is difficult. I think everyone’s involved.
It’s a situation people may know about, but they see it for the first time and are aware of. It’s extraordinarily important, what’s going on right now, but no one’s speaking about it, it’s a huge phenomenon in a way. But it’s not just about sex addiction, it’s about addictions in general. It’s about not even having addictions but being in a world where we don’t necessarily have self-will. It’s difficult to be a human being right now. In order to portray them this way, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to show us as being fragile. Often it’s the case that it’s not beautiful or pretty to look at. I just wanted to take the ostrich head out of the sand and have a look at ourselves in a way. It’s difficult, but at the same time, Brandon is really trying.
I really enjoyed the sense of the shared history between Brandon and Sissy, that brother and sister dynamic….
Michael Fassbender: That was a really clever decision from both Steve and Abi, to have siblings. There’s a real honesty to siblings I think, and a real cruelty as well. Although there’s a very strong bond, there’s also an awareness of all the weak points and how to hit them and how to really strike home. We sat down, the three of us, and talked about where these people are coming from, where they are in their lives when we meet them in the film, what’s happened before? A biography is always an important thing to do anyway. We discussed a lot of that, how far we wanted to go with it, a little bit of work shopping with the scenes. Then I also didn’t want to spend too much time with Carey, I wanted to keep that element of awkwardness, I don’t know how to describe it, a certain element of tension, of unsurety, I wanted to preserve that. Steve felt the same, we did a couple of workshops and then it was like, “That’s enough.”
What was the genesis of Carey’s character singing ‘New York, New York,’ that particular scene?
Steve McQueen: I thought Brandon is an introvert who is imploding, while Sissy is an extrovert who is exploding. These two people come from the same background, but obviously, what’s happened in their background has effected them differently. I imagined Sissy is a performer, she’s very expressive, she wants to give, she’s an artist. She wants to be expressive, to get it out of her, what’s inside as an artist. The location was just amazing and I read the lyrics and thought, “This is the blues.” When you read the lyrics, it’s about a person who’s a vagrant, who’s a homeless person, who wants to make it in the big city and is not there but sees the bright lights and wants to be involved in that, wants to make it there. I thought, “Okay, let’s turn it into the blues.”
The song, in its original state, sung by Liza Minnelli in New York, the 1977 Martin Scorsese film, that was its original state. But of course the lyrics were changed for Frank Sinatra, a verse was dropped, and he obviously sang it in a very different way to Liza Minnelli. Therefore, to use it again, I thought, “Well, I have the authority to do that.” Also, when you think of the jazz from the early part of the last century, they were always taking standards and changing them, and doing something else with it. The original version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ to Louis Armstrong’s version is extraordinarily different. I thought we had license to do that. But I think what’s beautiful about it is also Carey’s delivery, but also Michael’s response to it. Within the abstract of the song, you hear and see where they’ve come from, their background and who they are. I just loved that whole idea that, through verse, you get a huge sense of the past, in the actual present.
Michael Fassbender: With the back-story of Brandon, one thing that really describes tragedy, for me of Brandon, is that we had discussed and came to the conclusion that he’s a really good piano player. And it’s something he doesn’t have in his life anymore – why? Why has he given it up? That was something interesting to draw on the fact that they had this history of music together, and for whatever reason he doesn’t want to be brought back to that memory, or that place. So he sort of abandoned and left that part of his life behind, she sort of brings it back into his world again. Both of their ways in terms of dealing with what happened to them is very different, Sissy is very explosive, while Brandon is essentially imploding. He numbs away emotional contact.
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