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Exclusive: Steve McQueen Puts the Jigsaw Puzzle Together in Hunger

Steve McQueen is, without question, one of Her Majesty’s finest artists — he collected the isle’s illustrious Turner Prize in 1999 and will represent the Union Jack at this year’s Venice Biennale. But a feature-length filmmaker too? Now that deserves an in-depth interrogation. We sat down with the amiable, bear-like gentleman a few days back to discuss the naked truth about Hunger, his commanding, critically-acclaimed study of Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison and, in turn, its most notorious resident: IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. (See our review of the film here.)

Flavorwire: Can you recall your first encounter with Bobby Sands and his hunger strike?

Steve McQueen: I was 11 years old when I saw this image of a man on the television — I didn’t know who he was. Underneath his image, there was a number. And every evening on the news, that number would increase. I thought it was his age. It wasn’t; it was the amount of days this person had been on hunger strike. In some strange way, it was the beginning of the end of my childhood. The idea that someone stopped eating in order to be heard — this made a big impression on me as an 11-year-old kid. I didn’t know what the situation was about exactly, but, as I got older, I found out.

FW: The film visualizes a historic moment for the uninitiated — such as Americans, younger generations….

SM: Well, people in general. Because, unfortunately, there’s only 90 seconds of footage shot of that period within the prison — it was called the Blanket and the Dirty Protest. What I wanted to do was construct that time again on film, a time that wasn’t ever seen by an audience in clear detail. It’s like going back and trying to put a jigsaw puzzle back together.

FW: You visited the actual Maze prison and interviewed ex-prisoners and prison officers.  How did this shape your vision?

SM: There’s documentation in books and so forth. But what I wanted to get was the information that wasn’t in books — the stuff in between the words, the things which get overlooked, which never get asked. What was it like in the cell for four and a half years? Not washing for that amount of time, what was it like? To wake up with maggots on your body, what was it like? What was it like, when those maggots in summer turn into bluebottles? These were intimate details I wanted to find out — to make this story human. Thereby I could identify it in a way that was close to my understanding of what it is to be human.

FW: Hunger strikes one as a textural film in two senses. One, that the viewer can see, hear, and almost feel the Maze’s H-blocks in all their dreadful detail — here’s a fleck of snow and, oh yeah, here’s a pile of shit. And two, there can be countless interpretations of a fairly elliptic presentation of fact. How did you settle on the film’s style and structure, where there is plenty of expressionistic imagery, but little in the way of exposition?

SM: The architecture of the story sort of did that. There are sides of the story, you know — there’s left and there’s right — so I didn’t want to make a story on that. I wanted to make the story more of you and me. That was more interesting to me as an approach: I wanted to give the responsibility and the weight of that time to the audience to hold for an hour and a half and to spirit it in a way which was more sensory rather than, “Once upon a time this happened, this happened…” If you can give them something which they can feel and relate to in an intimate, physical sense, then the emotional impact will be much higher.

FW: You wanted the film to be shot in Northern Ireland. What was it like working with locals, especially those who lived during that gloomy period?

SM: What was happening in front of the camera and what was happening behind the camera were very much fused. A lot of these people were involved directly with the hunger strike, being from a situation where their relatives were prison officers or their relatives were one of the people on the blanket strike. There was a direct relationship; in fact, we were shooting the past with the present.

FW: Being a first-time director, how steep was the learning curve in terms of working with these technicians as well as actors?

SM: I think if people are open and direct, there’s no problem. It’s all about communication. If you communicate your ideas very well, then there’s nothing to be fearful of. And there’s all these experts to help you; they’re at your fingertips. So you’re much more in control of the situation.

FW: Did you see Michael Fassbender [who plays Sands and lost 40 pounds for the role under medical supervision] during his insane fast?

SM: He was in LA during his fast. I was pretty shocked when I saw him. At the same time, I was strangely relieved that he got down to that weight because you never know what could happen. It had this double effect on me — concerned and relieved.

FW: What were you doing during this break?

SM: [laughs] Well, I was editing the first part of the shoot, which we shot in two and half weeks before shutting down production for two months.  Then we shot again for ten days.

FW: You and [the Irish playwright] Enda Walsh form a sort of artistic dream team: You with your eye for telltale compositions and he with his ear for richly tuned conversation. What was it like adapting history with him?

SM: To me, it’s like writing music.  I could hum the melody, but I needed him to translate it or write it down. It was a great collaboration in that way. Obviously I knew what I wanted and he has a wonderful ear.

FW: There’s that famous scene about creative freedom in 8 ½ where Marcello Mastroianni drifts skyward, only to be yanked back down to earth by his producer. This being your first film, did your producers give you full creative license?

SM: Well, I wouldn’t do anything if there wasn’t creative freedom. At the same time, things pop up where you have a difference of opinion. But, my producers were great. They work hellishly hard. Especially Jan Younghusband, who actually commissioned me to do the film. No one, no studio would have taken it…

FW: Yes, particularly with such a controversial subject…

SM: Yeah, and no money coming in from it. So she needs all the credit she deserves. She’s fantastic.

FW: Do you plan on making more feature-lengths?

SM: I honestly don’t know really. If I could get as passionate as this one — yes, I will. But if not, I’m not doing it. It’s your life for a good amount of years.  I’ve been doing [press] for 10 months now and this is maybe my 600th interview.  So you know, if I’m going to commit myself to this stuff, it better be damn good whatever I do.

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