Steve McQueen has returned with another critically acclaimed film, “Widows,” five years after his Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave.” The film, starring Viola Davis as the leader of a group of widows who plan to execute a heist to finish the job of their departed significant others, has gained Oscar buzz of its own.
McQueen recently sat down with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws to discuss why it took five years to release his followup, the appeal of “Widows” in today’s day and age, and how he continues to tell difficult stories. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: So Steve McQueen, it’s been five years since “12 Years a Slave” and I wonder, this as a followup, it’s really interesting in the context of the other films that you’ve made. What attracted you to this material?
Steve McQueen: Well, I was 13 years old when I saw this TV show called “Widows” that appeared on my TV screen in London. I was a young man and I was just hooked to the screen with these four women who had to overcome huge obstacles and in that environment they’re being judged by their appearance and deemed not capable. I identified with those women very much as a child, of being judged in the same way. Their adventure, their rollercoaster ride to get to the end of this journey was gripping, and that was it. I was 13 and I held onto this for 35 years.
GD: You worked with Gillian Flynn on the script. Compressing this into a two-hour feature film, can you talk a bit about that but also about contemporizing it, making it your own? What was working on the script like?
SM: Myself and Gillian did a lot of research. We started with the FBI headquarters in Chicago, talking to private investigators and church leaders, politicians, et cetera, off the record. It was wonderful. It was like being two private detectives in a way, comparing notes and then afterwards, the whole idea of working with Gillian was kind of interesting, ‘cause we’re very, very different in our approaches, and what was interesting about that is how we complemented each other. You can’t really see what she did or what I did, but we’re very, very different in how we approached it and very, very different in how we were thinking of executing it. So that was extremely encouraging to think that you could work with someone… It’s like a musician, bringing a virtuoso, a guitarist or violinist and somehow enhances what you want to do, and Gillian is incredible.
The reason why I wanted to place it in Chicago was because I wanted to place this movie in a heightened contemporary city, and I say that like that because what I wanted that city to be was to encapsulate what’s going on all over the world somehow. It’s about local, but at the same time it’s about the global. And the geography of Chicago is so fascinating, because it’s interesting how it’s so condensed and how certain things are happening in that city in terms of politics, corruption, economics, policing, religion… So many churches in Chicago it’s unbelievable. And also I wanted to investigate gender. It’s very interesting to encapsulate all this stuff in a movie of two hours and a bit. The elements I took from the TV show, the main element, these four women, basically dealing with stuff that their husbands left behind after their husbands had been killed in attempted heist and them taking on the reins and trying to finish their last job, that was the essence of the stuff I took. The rest of the miniseries, it was very much about the London underworld of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, which I wasn’t so interested in. By taking this piece of narrative from it, the amazing England TV show, and dipping it into the current climate was what I wanted to do. I thought the place for that was Chicago.
GD: You mentioned some of the things you explore in this movie. It’s interesting how on the one hand you fulfill genre expectations of the heist film, but you also explore issues of gender and race and economic disparity, social class. Can you talk about finding those themes and putting them into a story that on the surface is very pulpy, very genre-specific?
SM: The heist movie, as such, is a construct, and constructs are there to be broken. Before there was a heist movie there was something else that turned it into a heist movie. Otherwise we would be making the same movie time and time and time again. A lot of people say that in Hollywood they often do that. I didn’t want to. The whole idea of not putting blinkers on, and taking them off and looking at our surroundings within the context of this caper was very important to me. To use that as a catalyst to talk about so many other things, it needed to happen. Like I said, in Chicago, as I said before, an avenue to explore the world, it’s all there. It’s all there in this city.
GD: And you find these really interesting visual ways to convey the themes of the movie. The thing that just jumped right out at me was that shot of the car where you’re following Colin Farrell’s character from the district that he’s running to represent which is predominantly poor, predominantly African American and you go into the neighborhood where he lives, which is upper class, predominantly white. On the one hand, that shot is impressive just from a visual standpoint, because of how complicated it is, but on the other hand, you pack so much about the themes of the film within that one shot. Can you talk a bit about your visual approach to the movie?
SM: Well again, I’m a person who I don’t bring my stencil onto a situation. I tend to have a relationship or have a conversation with the environment the story is taking place in, so therefore, it could tell me what it wants and needs, or it tells tell me how it can be conveyed, so this particular scene, I’m a British filmmaker so basically I have to stretch a pound. The whole idea was, how do you do something with not a lot of money? In this case I had a bit of money but at the same time, you’re always thinking of the most economical way of doing things. I’ll never forget, Robbie Müller, a dear friend of mine — he died this year — said to me, “A camera move should be as effortless as a cat jumping on a table.” Because cats are very lazy animals but they do just as much as they have to do, and that’s what I wanted to do as far as the shot is concerned. The layers of information and imagery on this one shot, in some ways, it’s all about pushing the story further at the same time as being economical with our time so we get so much from that three minutes and we load it with all this information, about Mulligans and so much other stuff, and Siobhan, hopefully your viewers will see what i’m talking about. It’s so much in one shot.
GD: And in ways, too, the ways that you film the heists, both at the beginning and the end, again with the car, the camera in there looking out the front window… the windshield and then going out looking out the back at what’s going on, it’s very interesting…
SM: I’m happy you’re sounding a bit confused. Not because you are confused, because people will know what you’re talking about and then go see the picture. But yeah, for me it was very much about having a visual experience for the viewer right at the beginning of the picture and bringing people in. I think it’s one thing to observe a car chase. It’s another thing to be in it, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to bring the audience in it from the get-go.
GD: You had an incredible cast in this movie, obviously Viola at the top, but you’ve got everybody from Robert Duvall, who’s got 50, 60 years worth of experience, to somebody like Cynthia Erivo.
SM: This was her first film.
GD: Yeah. So talk a bit about assembling the cast and finding the right actresses to play the widows, and all the people who are surrounding them as well.
SM: It was a very long process. I worked with my casting director, Francine Maisler, who was fantastic. She brought the attention of Cynthia Erivo to me. I went to see her in “The Color Purple” on Broadway. It was one of those things where it was really organic. So many stories of all these individuals and how I got to meet them, but hearing about, for example, Elizabeth Debicki, she did a play called “The Maids,” a Jean Genet play who I love, and I thought, “That’s interesting. I heard she was great in that.” Viola, of course, I met her and I just thought she’s an iceberg. There’s so much gravitas to her and what she conveys, a well of depth. So again, I can talk about each individual person and how I came to them, but it was time-consuming but at the same time it was about getting it right.
GD: And it’s also a very diverse cast as well. You were at some film festival, I forget which one, you were making the rounds for this and seeing everybody up onstage on the photo, you see the diversity of this world that we live in. Was that a consideration of yours as well to try to represent the world that we live in more broadly?
SM: I didn’t have to try. It’s a given. When you cast this movie and you’re talking about the stories I’m talking about, it’s a given. I didn’t have to flex my muscles doing that, but I was happy people noticed that there’s something wrong.
GD: It’s interesting looking at this movie, too, in the context of the times that we live in with Me Too and Time’s Up. Obviously you were planning this movie before any of that happened but can you talk about having the film come out in the context of where we are right now?
SM: I’m grateful, in a way. I say grateful, but at the same time it’s a very bittersweet pill. I saw the original TV show 35 years ago, so the fact that nothing’s changed in 35 years is very, very sad. The fact that people are now talking about it, yeah, it’s a good thing. I’m very happy that this film’s come out at this time and if it in some ways can help or people can talk about it within the context of the current times we live in, I’d be very happy with that.
GD: Like I mentioned, this was five years since your last film and everybody wanted to know what you were gonna do next after that. Were you being particularly picky? Did you need time to think?
SM: No, I did an HBO show which didn’t work out and I was doing museum shows. I’m an artist so I was doing museum shows and working on artworks and et cetera, et cetera. Lots of things about life. I knew that this would be my next film after “12 Years.” I was busy doing all other stuff and at the same time I was very happy to stop, in a way. It was very disappointing when the HBO thing didn’t happen but I did three films in five years, and within that time I did a lot of museum shows. I couldn’t continue on that sort of pace, so in some ways I was very fortunate.
GD: I did actually wanna ask you about your background as a visual artist, ‘cause that’s such a big part of your life, as you said. How does one inform the other? How did that background as a visual artist inform your eventual move into filmmaking?
SM: It wasn’t a move. I’ve not moved anywhere. It’s like writing poetry and writing a novel. They’re two similar things but at the same time different. One is poetry, one is more fractured, condensed, and a novel is more beyond which I suppose you could think of that as a movie. Saying the same things but in different ways.
GD: You made history with your Oscar win. Tell us a little bit about that night. I remember it was a very exciting race just to follow. What did that mean for you when you won that Oscar?
SM: What’s great about that was I think that the movie changed a lot of things in the industry. First of all, the perception that movies with black protagonists don’t sell abroad, and I think “12 Years a Slave” shattered that idea. It allowed other films to be made, which wouldn’t have gotten made if it wasn’t for “12 Years,” so that’s great. And the fact that I was able to share it with my parents, my mother and my sister — my father passed away — that is huge, to think of where we came from and walking on the red carpet. It had a huge impact, for sure. Absolutely.
GD: And also that film, it was something that dealt very frankly and very powerfully with a dark chapter in this country’s history and something that we’re still dealing with some of those same issues today, so to have a movie like that be embraced.
SM: Yeah, to have a story like that win Best Picture, to have a story like that make that much revenue, it just tells you how people, they’re interested in interesting stories. I’ve never lowered my attention. I’ve never lowered my want for telling difficult stories or telling stories which have some kind of meaning, just like “Widows.” At the same time it’s one of those things about how we never get our way through this environment we live in now, which is not particularly pleasant. And somehow we try and find refuge. The thing about “Widows” is that we get these four protagonists, women, who are from different races and different class backgrounds, who come together as one to achieve this heist, to achieve this goal. I think it’s very indicative of America and how I love this country so much in a way. You get all these people from all over the world who come here and basically make this world, and it’s great. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say in a very long, abbreviated way, is it’s about us forgetting our differences, coming together and realizing our own differences, and taking power.
GD: Well every movie you’ve made so far has been something I’ve watched over and over and over again so I look forward to watching this one over and over and over again.
SM: Thank you so much.
GD: Finding those little subtitles in the visuals in the storytelling and all that. Thank you so much for your time.
SM: Great, man. Thank you.