NC-17 is normally the kiss of death for a feature film, however Fox Searchlight and director Steve McQueen are hoping to break through a barrier with the theatrical release of Shame. The story of a sex addict (played by Michael Fassbender) and his troubled sister (played by Carey Mulligan), Shame earned the restrictive rating due to explicit sexual content with McQueen's actors baring it all and the studio never asking for a less graphic final cut. It's a risky move in an environment in which it's allowable to blow people to shreds on screen but not show sexual intimacy, however McQueen firmly believes this was the only way to tell the story.
"It’s sex. I think it’s what most of the people in this room have done, if not all of us have done. I mean 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 sort of somehow censored," explained McQueen. "It’s very odd. And things that we have no idea of and have no capability of doing, should be viewed on the masses. For me, it’s just normal. For example, Brandon waking up in the morning and going to his kitchen to get a glass of water, putting on the voicemail. I mean, maybe in 1951 he would have had pajamas on, but in 2011, often people 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."
Together for a press day in LA in support of the December 2, 2011 release of Shame, Fassbender and McQueen (who previously worked together on 2008's Hunger) discussed the challenges of filming Shame, the intimate scenes, and the movie's subject matter.
On why he wanted to tell this story:
Steve McQueen: "I wanted to see Michael naked. 'Strip, motherf--ker!' Why? Well, it's to do with I was speaking to [co-writer Abi Morgan] and Abi had this wonderful quote for the film where she said, 'It’s like having a dog whistle go off in the room.' 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."
On setting the film in New York rather than London:
Steve McQueen: "We wanted to research this and unfortunately no one in London...we couldn’t get anyone to speak. I think it was the time when sex addiction was very high in vogue, people talking about it. And, in a way, I think people shied away from being in the spotlight in England and London. In our research we spoke to two specialists in the field. I happened to be living in New York and they actually introduced us to people with the affliction. I thought to myself, 'Why don't we just shoot it in New York?' That seemed to be the logical and obvious thing to do."
On wrapping his head around Brandon's self-loathing and figuring out how to bring that to the screen:
Michael Fassbender: "Just spend a lot of time with him, you know? A very big part of my preparation is just I reread the script. I might read it 300 times, 350 times, and so I'm spending a lot of time with him and getting to know him. And then through the day I'm like, 'Oh, what would Brandon do in this scenario?' Just little pieces that you're gathering; you're gathering little pieces of information every day. You're putting it together and you're sitting down with it and you're thinking, 'Is this logical?' If it is logical, we'll then give it a try. And then Steve is there to sort of steer me in the right direction with that. But it's just about trying to understand him and relate to him, as opposed again to the sort of judgment thing. That would be a mistake."
On the actor-director relationship and why it works so well:
Steve McQueen: [Laughing] "It actually doesn’t. This is like Abbott and Costello. We just pretend to like each other."
Michael Fassbender: "In fact, I loathe him. [Laughing] 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 and feel so blessed that I’ve come across it. It is something that, well, for me, for sure, I was always looking for - you know, a collaborator. Hunger was a big break for me, and it was [Steve’s] first movie. So together, we were sort of experiencing a lot. I could see on Steve’s face the passion and wanting to get it right, and I wanted to get it right too. We just formed a language very quickly. When we started Shame, it was just like [snapping his fingers] picking up. It was like we had just walked off the set of Hunger and onto that. We picked up immediately. It was amazing."
Steve McQueen: "We don’t really talk about it. People say, 'Oh, wow, really?, and I say, 'Yeah.' It’s more like a Neanderthal conversation - a grunt and a groan, and let's call action. I'm happy for it."
On being able to get into the headspace to physically and emotionally pull this off:
Michael Fassbender: "He's like, 'You’re an actor. That’s your job. F--king do it!'"
Steve McQueen: "Absolutely. I think that. You’re an actor; you can’t show a bit of reality, you're there to show the whole of reality. You’re there to portray [that]. If you have the talent, like this gentleman has, we can see ourselves. It’s just like a dancer. 'I’m only going to dance on my left foot. I’m not going to dance on my right foot. That’s not going to happen.' No. You have to be able to put yourself out there, otherwise you’re not an actor, you’re something else. For me, it’s very, very simple."
Michael Fassbender: "I totally agree. It’s very simple for me. I keep things very simple. It's like this idea of, 'Oh, my god, and then you’re naked. What’s that going to do for your career?' I’m not a politician, you know what I mean? My job is to facilitate characters. I’m a storyteller, I'm some facet of telling that story. That's it - end of story."
On the intensely intimate scenes and the mood on the set:
Michael Fassbender: "We had a lot of fluffers around."
Steve McQueen: "Don’t say that! Moving on swiftly. Sorry...I lost my train of though. From the catering to make-up to hair to the camera department to the sound department to the electricians, grips and gaffers, you have to create an atmosphere that everyone knows each other. It’s all sort of a group where we're 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. They sense if there is some kind of difficulty. 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. Any great and interesting actor has to be in a space that they feel is safe in order to do what they have to do. That’s what it is. It really is that simple, in that way. But 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, amazing people. We were sort of 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."
On the concerns over an American distributor picking up Shame given its subject matter and potential rating:
Steve McQueen: "I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking of trying to make the best film that we could possibly make. That’s what you do. You’re not thinking about anything else. You’re thinking, 'How can I make the best film I can possibly make?,' and that’s it. So I was very happy that Fox Searchlight came in and wanted to distribute the movie. They never asked me, ever, and a discussion never happened, about cutting the movie or anything like that. It never happened. I’ve never had a conversation with them about that at all. They’re just an extraordinary company, and I was very pleased that they wanted to distribute the film. Thank god for that but more likely I imagine it wouldn’t have been shown here."
On deciding to have Carey Mulligan sing "New York, New York" and the genesis of that particular scene:
Steve McQueen: "I thought Brandon is an introvert who is imploding. 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 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."
On the backstory between his character, Brandon, and Carey Mulligan's character, Brandon's sister Sissy:
Michael Fassbender: "Well, we talked about backstory. The three of us got together and discussed it many times. We all had an idea of something, but perhaps had our own versions of it. But, I’m not going to tell you what that is. It’s not really that important, to be honest. It’s not just to be sort of tricky with it. They never mention their parents, so that already speaks volumes. And there is a history between them. I thought, 'God, isn’t it great that there’s not a paragraph in this film where they have an explanation of what happened with expositional dialogue?' We get it. We get that there’s a history between these two, that they’re coming from somewhere. When you have wonderfully intelligent people that go to see the film, they fill in the blanks much better sometimes than what you could ever put on the paper."
On watching the final cut of the film for the first time:
Michael Fassbender: "I’ve only seen it once and it was all a bit overwhelming, really. I think I watched the third act [from behind my hand]. I was taken so much on board, I need to watch it again, to be honest. I’ll watch it back in London, hopefully with Steve and not 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. You know what I mean? It’s tough to be human and sort of out there. We’re all fragile in our own way, and we’re all trying to find our way. What I got from it was that great humanity that makes each of these people think they need somebody to help them. I thought that was quite moving."
On the subject matter of sexual addiction and having a good-looking actor portray a sex addict who can afford $1,000 a night prostitutes as opposed to the realities of most sex addicts' lives:
Michael Fassbender: "If you’re addicted to anything in life, you know where to find what it is that you’re addicted to. If you’re addicted to gambling, you know where to go to gamble. So if you have a condition where you're addicted to sex, you know where other people that are looking for the same thing are going. I don’t think it necessarily comes down to looks, you know what I mean. It’s an interest."
"In England there was a phenomenon there [...]that was this dogging scenario. I don't know if that happened over here where people basically parked in car parks around the country and had sex. It was like you park a car and meet a stranger and have sex with them. And so people that are into that know where the car parks are."
On his career and his busy 2011:
Michael Fassbender: "I feel like I’m pretty blessed to be working with people like Steve [McQueen]. That’s really it. It’s just that I’m allowed to work with the people that I’m working with. I think that, for me, that would have been this position that was the highest I could have hoped to achieve when I started out. I’m trying to enjoy the rest of it. It does make me a little bit scared about what’s next. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about things I’ve done or linger in the past. I find that kind of depressing. My main thing is, 'What am I going to do next?,' and hopefully do a good job on the next one."
On the headlock in his fight scene with Gina Carano in Haywire:
Michael Fassbender: "It's not as tight as it looks on my face, I've got to say. She's great. It was tight enough but I did sort of rush blood into my face to make it look like I was really [tight]. I watched it the other night, I was like, 'Cool, that worked.' It's like my vein's going to pop. She's great, Gina. We filmed that scene over two days and it was a lot of fun."