Steve McQueen has quite a muse in actor Michael Fassbender as the pair has combined forces yet again for the astounding Shame. The duo worked together on 2008’s Hunger and will reunite next in Twelve Years a Slave. The middle part of their working together trilogy is Shame (don't miss the red band trailer), a haunting tale of sex addiction set in New York City where Fassbender plays Brandon -- a man spiraling out of control.
McQueen and Fassbender sat down with Movie Fanatic to talk about the joy that is their collaboration and how the issues at the heart of Shame could really be about any subject matter, not simply sex addiction.
Movie Fanatic: Michael, what were your thoughts watching the final product? And Steve, were you ever fearful that an American distributor would not latch on, given the subject matter of sexual addiction and its NC-17 rating?
Michael Fassbender: I have only seen it once, and it was all a bit sort of overwhelming, really. I think I watched the third act like this… [Puts hands over face peeking through fingers]. I need to watch it again, to be honest. And I will watch it back in London, hopefully with Steve, and not like a thousand people. I thought it was incredibly beautiful, beautifully shot. I was very moved by all the characters in there, and this idea that each character is trying to connect or is looking for human help. We are all fragile in our own way. We’re all trying to find our way. And what I got from it was that great sort of humanity that each of these people, they need somebody to help them. I thought that was quite moving.
Steve McQueen: The other half of the question, about the American distributor, was I worried? I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about making the best film that we could possibly make. I was very happy that Fox Searchlight came and wanted to distribute the movie. A discussion has never happened about cutting the movie -- or anything like that -- never happened. I never had a conversation like that at all. They are just an extraordinary company, and I was very pleased that they wanted to distribute the film.
Michael Fassbender: I think they are the best people we could have ever hoped to get.
Movie Fanatic: Steve, did you ever consider setting this story in London? What do you think setting the film in New York brought to your movie?
Steve McQueen: In our research, we spoke to two specialists in the field, who happened to be living in New York. They actually introduced us to people who had this affliction, and I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just shoot it in New York?” It seemed to be the logical and obvious thing to do. That’s how the wind carried us over the Atlantic to New York.
Movie Fanatic: Given that this is your third film together, what is it about each other that keeps bringing you back together?
Steve McQueen: This is like Abbott and Costello. We just pretend to like each other [laughs].
Michael Fassbender: In fact, I loathe him [laughs]. I don’t know. I think it’s a hard thing to put your finger on. It’s a chemistry that I’m very, very grateful for, and feel so blessed that I’ve come across it. It is something that, for me, for sure, I was always looking for -- a collaborator. We just formed a language, very quickly. When we started Shame, it was like we had just walked off the set of Hunger and onto that. We picked it up, immediately. It was amazing.
Movie Fanatic: Steve, what was your main impetus for wanting to make this movie and tell the story of Shame?
Steve McQueen: I wanted to see Michael naked!
Michael Fassbender: [Laughs]
Steve McQueen: Why? It is extraordinarily important, what is going on right now, but nobody is speaking about it -- and it is such a huge phenomenon in a way. But it is not just sex addiction -- it is about addictions in general. It is not even about having an addiction. It is about being in a world where we don’t necessarily have self will. It is difficult to be human right now. And all of this knowledge portrayed in this way that is what I wanted to do, to show us as being fragile. Often is the case, it is not beautiful or pretty to look at, and I just wanted to sort of take the ostrich head out of the sand and have a look at ourselves in a way.
Movie Fanatic: How did you deal with the many intimate scenes in the film? What kind of mood has to be established on set to make that work?
Michael Fassbender: We had a lot of fluffers around.
Steve McQueen: Don’t say that! [Laughs] I lost my train of thought with that. Sorry. From the catering to make-up and hair to the camera department to the sound department and to the electricians, grips and gaffers, you have to create an atmosphere that everyone knows each other. It’s a group that’s working together. Great actors, like Michael, if I may be so bold to say, are like thoroughbred racehorses. They come into a room and they sense if anything is wrong. So, you create an environment which is safe. In order for people to take risks, that’s what one has to do. It starts from the bottom, up. Everyone has to be involved. It really is that simple, in that way. Everyone is involved. And, it was a great set to be on. It was a fantastic set to be on. It was wonderful.
Michael Fassbender: The New York crew was amazing. They were amazing people. We were jumping around like kids, as well, because we were like, “We’re filming in New York!” That idea of being allowed to film in New York was really exciting.
Steve McQueen: Absolutely!
Movie Fanatic: Steve, do you feel that Brandon’s story in Shame would be minimized if you did not show the full physicality of what he is doing? That is what led to the NC-17 rating.
Steve McQueen: I don’t know. It’s sex. It’s what most people have done, if not all of us. I’ve never held a gun in my hand, in my life. It’s this weird thing, where what we do in our daily lives should be somehow censored. It’s very odd. And things that we have no idea about and have no capability of doing should be viewed by the masses. For me, it’s just normal. For example, Brandon waking up in the morning and going to his kitchen to have a glass of water, and putting on the voicemail, maybe in 1951, he would have had pajamas on, but in 2011, people often do not wear pajamas. That’s it. It’s normality. There’s no big deal for me about nudity. There’s nothing graphic about it. It’s sex. It’s nothing which is harmful to anyone.
Movie Fanatic: Can you talk about the genesis of the scene of Michael's onscreen sister -- Carey Mulligan’s Sissy -- singing New York, New York in the bar and specifically that arrangement of that song? It is simply gorgeous.
Steve McQueen: Well, I just thought that Brandon is an introvert, imploding and -- of course -- Sissy is an extrovert, exploding. I thought to myself, these two people came from the same background, but obviously what has happened in their background has affected them differently. I thought, "Okay, well Sissy, I imagine she is a performer." She is very expressive; she wants to give. She is an artist. She wants to be expressive. The location is amazing. I read the lyrics to New York, New York and I thought, “This is the blues.” When you read the lyrics it is about a person who is a vagrant, who is a homeless person, who wants to make it in the big city, but is not there, but sees the bright lights over there, and wants to be involved in that, and wants to “make it there.” And I thought, “Let’s turn it into the blues.”
Movie Fanatic: Steve, what is it about Michael Fassbender that is so appealing for you to work with?
Steve McQueen: I don’t think we see often an actor like him, often at all. Because he is this person -- he is a very visceral male character. He is a guy. But at the same time, he has an extraordinary femininity in him -- an extraordinary sort of tenderness and an extraordinary sort of openness and I think that is the appeal. Often with actors, they never show their heart and never show their vulnerability. I think that’s pretty amazing that you can be so open and vulnerable, and still sort of wear it with pride. I think most actors will never take that risk, because they’ll feel sort of open and vulnerable. I think it is extraordinary, really I do.
Michael Fassbender: Thank you.
Steve McQueen: Did I embarrass you?
Michael Fassbender: Yes.
Movie Fanatic: Michael, how are you enjoying this period in your career? Do you feel like you are really in kind of a sweet spot after your turns in X-Men First Class, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method and now Shame?
Michael Fassbender: Yeah, I do. I feel like I am pretty blessed to work with people like Steve. That is really it -- that I am allowed to work with the people that I am working with. I think that, for me, this position is like the highest that I could have hoped to achieve when I started out. And that is it, really. I am trying to enjoy the rest of it. It does make me a little scared about what is next. Because I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about things I have done, or sort of linger in the past. I can find that sort of depressing. So, my main thing is what am I going to do next? Hopefully do a good job on the next one.