Words by Mr Tom Shone
Having just got off the plane from New York after completing the US press tour for his latest film, Shame, and coming straight from the airport to the studio in central London where a bevy of MR PORTER's make-up artists and stylists have been preparing for his arrival, Mr Steve McQueen is tired.
"I just wanted to go home," he says of the tour, during which he was fêted, lionised, praised to the skies, and damned in equal measure - the usual baptism of fire faced by a young British film director with a controversy du jour on his hands. Shame picked up a best actor trophy at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year for its unblinking portrait of a sex addict named Brandon (Mr Michael Fassbender) who by day toils at an anonymous, high-paying corporate job and by night watches his life slide into a mosh pit of porn, hookers and hook-ups.
Some critics thought we'd made pornography. Another 10% don't think there's a thing called sex addiction. Go figure... Most critics are middle-aged men anyway
"About 20% of the critics thought we'd made pornography," says Mr McQueen, who talks in an impassioned headlong mumble without making much eye contact. "You're gonna get that reaction because we're making a film about sex. Another 10% do not think there's a thing called sex addiction. 'It's a film about sex that's not sexy.' Go figure. It's like someone saying, 'It's a film about drugs and people are not having a great time.' I felt like Jamie Oliver talking about obesity and people going, 'What's the problem, it's their free choice'! O-K. I wouldn't have got that response if I'd been making a film about drugs or alcohol. Most of them are middle-aged men anyway."
He dismisses the critics with an imperious wave of his hand. Mr McQueen has a reputation for difficulty - a recent interview with The New York Times devolved into an argument over music between the director and a bar manager - and his publicist warns me it might be best to speak to him before the photoshoot, to "warm him up". He's certainly got an abrasive, rolling energy. Upon arriving at the studio, the first thing he does is take issue with the clothes that have been set out for him to choose for the shoot. "I'm not wearing that," he announces. "That's not my thing. Not at all. Maybe the shoes."
From left: Mr McQueen and Mr Michael Fassbender at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Governors Awards, LA, November 2011
Beneath the hauteur, though, Mr McQueen seems painfully shy, with something of a child's hatred of being pinned down. All questions about his past are batted away. Before making feature films he achieved fame as an artist, winning the Turner Prize for a series of experimental short films, but when I ask him if he regards himself as an artist or film-maker, he says, "I leave that to other people. I don't think like that." Is his work personal? "Not particularly, no. Not at all. That's your imagined idea of an artist." But he was born and raised in West London? "I'm not answering questions about my parents. Move on. Next question."
At this point, our interview begins to hit a kind of obstreperous rhythm, me asking questions, him treating the whole exercise as an opportunity for a clay pigeon shoot: whatever you say I am, that's not me. How was his experience as a British film-maker in Hollywood? "I don't wear my nationality in that way." He now lives in Amsterdam with wife and daughter? "I'm not talking about that. Next question." Ho boy. Let's put it down to jet lag.
We are on firmer ground talking about his feature films, starting with 2008's Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, also played by Mr Fassbender, with whom Mr McQueen seems to have struck up a Scorsese/De Niro style working relationship. "It took time, there wasn't an immediate love, it was love the second time around," says Mr McQueen. "He's known me for four years now, so that level of trust comes through time. It's a question of trust. I'm very proud of that, very pleased. I don't hire actors; I work with actors, whether it's Michael or Carey [Mulligan, who co-stars in Shame]... It's about working together as a team."
I love the title of that James Baldwin book, Evidence of Things Not Seen. We come to the cinema, sit down with our past, our present, our baggage, and project what we know onto the screen
Shame started life as a 45-minute conversation in a café between him and screenwriter Ms Abi Morgan about internet pornography and sex addiction, but when they approached groups of recovering addicts in the UK the response was somewhat reticent. "At that time, it was very high profile in the press - the Tiger Woods story had just broken - people really didn't want to speak to us. Doors were being shut in our faces. I said 'OK, let's go to the States'." After "a very intense week" trawling recovery groups in New York, they had their central character, but resisted the urge to freight him to too much back story.
"The kind of films that get made now, within the first half-hour you know everything about a person. Who they are, where they come from. I wanted to make it a first-hand account, where you found out the past through the present. I love the title of that James Baldwin book, Evidence of Things Not Seen. We come to the cinema, we sit down with our past, our present, our luggage, our baggage, and project what we know onto the screen."
Both his films are about individuals who treat their bodies as battle grounds, I point out - one to be starved of nourishment, the other surfeited with pleasure. "What was interesting to me was they're both films about freedom, in a way. Trying to find one's freedom in a different kind of environment. Bobby Sands, in order to transcend his environment, stops eating. Brandon is in surroundings that seem to be free - he has all these obvious advantages: he's good-looking, good job, well paid - and what does he do? He puts himself in his own prison. Why? I don't know."
At the end, he shakes my hand and thanks me for the "great interview". I wonder what the bad ones are like.