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6 Filmmaking Tips from Steve McQueen

Explore the filmmaking lessons we can learn from the work and wisdom of director Steve McQueen.
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By  · Published on October 23rd, 2013

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of Steve McQueen.

Watching Hunger for the first time is not an experience that I’ll soon forget. British video artist-turned-director Steve McQueen imbued this vision of the 1981 IRA hunger strike with such a potent visceral sense, with such a rich and detailed tapestry of sound and image, that watching it is truly a corporeal endurance test of stark immediacy. McQueen’s approach didn’t require traditional methods of character identification and narrative pathos – he simply used the reality of shared flesh and blood to connect the viewer with the events depicted onscreen. The result of McQueen’s efforts carries a profoundly haunting, disturbing, and ultimately revealing insight into the politics of the body, told through a symphony of blood, shit, and urine.

McQueen’s latest, 12 Years a Slave, doesn’t pull its punches. It is hardly surprising that an artist whose life of work has been so invested in exploring the human body’s use as a device for subjugation, domination, and othering has created such an affecting vision of the horrors of American slavery and institutionalized racism. While Twelve Years a Slave is by most accounts McQueen’s most “accessible” work to date, he doesn’t seem to have lost the touch that made his museum-based work so unique during his quick rise in mainstream critical consensus.

So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from not that Steve McQueen.

Drag Your Audience Into an Experience

“I really wanted the audience to participate in this hunger strike – to drag them willingly or unwillingly through this film, where maybe at first there’s a sort of unease and then rest. But hopefully by the end you’ve arrived somewhere anyway after you’ve been sort of dragged through this process of someone starving themselves and such…

How can you make that movie smell of shit? How can you make people feel the cold? Those are the central elements that have to come through this film.”

In his 2009 interview for the Criterion release of Hunger, McQueen explains at length his desire and the methods he used to create an immediate experience for the audience, where viewers experience certain sensory details of the world depicted in the film usually unavailable in an audio-visual medium.

How do you not only represent an event, but make it tactile and pungent? McQueen accomplishes this with an unrelenting approach, through a frank confrontation with the subject matter, and by realizing an uncompromising proximity with it. One aspect that is so striking about Hunger is how radically it avoids the trappings of the biopic or the political “true story.” Nearly devoid of a larger context, McQueen’s film focuses on subjective experience, and anchors his audience into that experience. That way, “history” hardly feels so distant.

Stay Curious, Manipulate, and Rely on One Another

Steve McQueen’s work with Michael Fassbender is proving to be one of the more rewarding director-actor collaborations in recent filmmaking. And Fassbender has been exceedingly game for the extremities required of McQueen’s work, losing an incredible amount of weight for Hunger and embodying a violent slave-trainer for McQueen’s most recent film. Reportedly, Fassbender passed out as a resulting of delving into one of his more horrific scenes in Twelve Years a Slave.

In this 2011 promotional interview for Shame, the actor discusses the characteristics that he sees in a great director, starting with a curiosity about the way people live and interact, then continuing with manipulation (although Fassbender doesn’t expand on this point, what is strong directorial control other than manipulating the audience to invest in accordance with the things the director seeks to accomplish?), and finally touching upon McQueen’s vision of the set as one of a mutually reliant filmmaking community, an aspect of McQueen’s practice that other actors have attested to.

And therein lies the obvious secret of strong collaborations between adept and invested artists: the simple willingness to trustingly combine your efforts.

Create an Environment of Trust with Actors

“You have to create an environment where they feel safe and then make them into spheres, so however they roll, whatever direction they go in, is right. They’re like dancers – every part of their body has to be used. There’s no restraints, no censorship. If you create that environment, things happen out of the ordinary, which, as log as you’ve got the camera rolling, you catch.”

I included this quote in a recent piece about a cautionary tale that’s instructive of how not to direct actors through difficult, compromising material. McQueen has discussed the inviting and open atmosphere he creates on set – the necessary warmth and physical consolation if need be (after all, this is rather physical material). Perhaps the environment behind the camera needs to be the complete opposite of the content depicted before the camera in order to properly deliver such harrowing material.

Build a World Outside the Frame

“I was a painter before, and it was always about the frame, of course. But within this frame, somehow, because of movement, because of things passing through the frame, it seemed to have a life bigger than the actual frame itself. That’s the thing that gave me the passion to sort of want to make films. There’s always the possibility of something happening within that time period that you are focusing on or that object or that person.”

McQueen has said elsewhere that he has never been on a movie set besides his own. Let’s hope he never does, as his life in the art world seems to so thoroughly inform his unique approach to filmmaking.

His statement (from the same Criterion interview) is revelatory. The director’s work always carries a sense of possibility, both good (unlikely) and bad (more likely). The doubtful potential for liberation or the foreboding probability that the lives of the characters depicted will become much worse is always present outside the frame and imbued in the thorough world that McQueen depicts. McQueen’s world-building outside the frame informs an ever-present sense that anything can happen. This is not a type of filmmaking made to allow the viewer to feel safe.

McQueen explains his approach to the frame a bit further during this 2008 Q&A after Hunger’s screening at the New York Film Festival:

Approach Difficult Truths with Love

McQueen: “What motivated me more than anything was a sense of love, strange though that sounds. It’s a word that doesn’t get used often in this context. It was a sense of wanting to embrace the sin of slavery and make myself comfortable with it – and not just myself, of course. It’s like fire. It’s dangerous, but I wanted to embrace it.”

Graham Fuller: “Why love and not rage?”

McQueen: “To tame it, to master it. It sounds odd, but it’s the truth.”

McQueen’s statement about making Twelve Years a Slave with a sense of love can be taken a number of ways. On the one hand, he has recreated a time period in which a nation is profoundly comfortable with and extensively invested in the institution of slavery. In order to honestly depict the horrors of that institution, the purview from the director’s chair should see slavery as it existed during this time period – as something that was a normal and accepted part of daily life. The banality of slavery then makes it all the more disturbing.

But furthermore, McQueen is attesting here that there are very few honest depictions of slavery in cinema. He mentions Spielberg’s Amistad in this recent Film Comment interview, which is about a slave rebellion, but attests that much of American cinema has avoided the reality of slavery as it existed. To “love” the subject, in McQueen’s use of the term, means to become “comfortable” enough with the historical reality of its existence and the profound capacities in which this sin shaped the history of the nation in ways that continue to resonate today – all this in order to finally make a film that is really “about slavery.”

Depict What People Do

I like the face McQueen makes when the interviewer mentions Fassbender’s nude body in the opening scene of Shame, as if the shot were a decidedly scandalous directorial statement. McQueen makes mention of the fact that he attempted to stay honest to what people do, to what the daily life of a man like Brandon might be, which we only get a glimpse of. Yet McQueen recognizes why the interviewer finds such a shot so unusual and seemingly radical: because narrative cinema so rarely depicts “what people do,” especially in regards to nude bodies onscreen. The banal facts of a given subject’s daily life become something else when placed onscreen, and that can be a powerful tool, allowing the filmmaker and the audience to think about and explore those aspects of everyday life that are rarely scrutinized.

So while McQueen is interested in excessive acts of disciplining the human body in various ways in Hunger, Shame, and Twelve Years a Slave, he also makes room for normalcy to seep in. When he depicts the activities of a violent guard in the Maze prison or abusive slaveholders in the American South, he isn’t merely staging these characters as perpetrators of a destructive ideology that serve as necessary tools for a narrative about subjugation – this is the daily work of these people. McQueen’s films use cinema to explore the blurry line between ordinary and extraordinary attitudes, activities, institutions, and behaviors.

What We’ve Learned

One repeated criticism that has been leveled against McQueen’s work is that it’s too cold and calculating, too formally methodical in its almost clinical or anthropological depiction of human interaction. Certainly, a viewer can be as disconnected from Shame as they are immersed in the affecting microcosm of Hunger. But perhaps we shouldn’t see coldness and empathy as two opposing poles in a cinematic experience. Rather, distance, and the social tools that make such distance possible, is a routine part of our everyday lives, a means of survival that permits us to go on living without being overwhelmed by the injustices that have structured daily life or burdened by our own unrelenting desires. McQueen’s filmmaking is both id and superego, and is thus rich with the capacity to push, pull, and even alienate the viewer.

But at the heart of this method is a serious empathy that’s evident in McQueen’s approach to both his chosen subject matter and the environment of the film set. McQueen’s work is worth revisiting not only because of his uncompromising depiction of people who become subject to power through acts of violence exercised on the human body, but also because of the director’s earnest desire to understand, even love, the irredeemable person on the other side of that act.

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