The Long Read

Inside Shame

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How a Turner Prize-winning artist, the star of X-Men: First Class, the writer of The Iron Lady and the producers of The King’s Speech came together to make the defining sex movie of our time. 

Steve McQueen’s Shame is a film about a young man’s descent into a private hell that manages to say more about the commodification of sex, the difficulties of intimacy, the tyranny of availability —whatever you want, whenever you want it, no questions asked — and the challenges of being a man in the Age of the Internet, than any other work I can think of.

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Shame uses the specific, the extreme and the explicit (the sufferings of a particular sex addict) to illuminate the general, the banal and the hidden, or at least not much discussed (the superabundance of stimulants, whether drink or drugs or pornography or food or choose your poison). It is harrowing, unsettling, dramatic, occasionally very funny, at other times hard to watch and, in its exploration of the corrosive effects of what Martin Amis calls the “Pornoid” tendency in contemporary culture and relationships, it has the urgency of the necessary, the charge of the new and the thrill — and, maybe, reassurance — of recognition.

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Its co-writer, Abi Morgan, does not exaggerate when she likens the film’s effect to that of “a dog whistle blown in a cinema”. If you can’t hear it, then clearly you’re not a dog. The rest of us might find our ears still ringing days later. If nothing else, Shame is a film that gets under your skin and inside your head. From conversations I’ve had since seeing it, that goes for women, too. But men, in particular, I think, respond to the film. We hear that high-pitched warning.

The chief whistle-blower is a 42-year-old west Londoner, the son of West Indian immigrants, who now lives in Holland with his Dutch wife and their daughter. Steve McQueen, CBE, has enjoyed a spectacular career as a visual artist, working mostly with video. His breakthrough was “Bear”, a short film in which two naked men, one of them himself, circle each other as if about to fight or fuck. In 1999, he won the Turner Prize.

In 2003, he went to Iraq as an official war artist, a trip that resulted in “Queen and Country”, a large wooden cabinet containing 160 sheets of postage stamps depicting the faces of British men and women killed in combat there. For Hunger (2008), his first feature film, he won many awards, including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Bafta. In 2009, he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale.

A big man in a soft blue jacket, McQueen is almost courtly in his manners. He is serious and pensive, but possessed of a booming laugh and a shy, disarming grin. He talks fast, his accent doing that London thing of swerving from plummy to demotic and back again in a sentence. A contradictory man, then, who has made a film which seems to resonate powerfully with other contradictory men — which I presume is most of us.

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“I think [Shame] is about what it is to be a man now,” McQueen tells me, over tea in a grand Amsterdam hotel. “It’s about all of us. I want the cinema to be like a mirror that reflects us. So people see this guy isn’t a freak. He’s one of us.” One of the things it shows us is that, in McQueen’s words, “it’s difficult, being a bloke”.

“There are so many things,” he elaborates, “that distract you from who you want to be or what you think you should be doing.” One of those things, explored in the film, is pornography. “When I was a kid,” says McQueen, “the nearest we got to pornography was on the top shelf at a newsagents. We used to break our necks to look up at it. Now it’s two clicks of an iPhone away.”

Shame is not, McQueen says, intended as a judgmental film. “I’m not saying pornography is bad, I’m not saying it’s good. I’m saying it’s how we live now, and asking how we negotiate our way through it.” McQueen wants me to point out that he acknowledges it’s hard to be a woman, too. He’s not saying it’s worse for us men, only that we have our own specific set of problems.

“There’s a lot you have to live up to as a man,” he says. “I’m generalising, and this sounds clichéd, but I think women are far happier with themselves in many ways, far more balanced.”

Brandon Sullivan, Shame’s protagonist, is a handsome thirtysomething New Yorker. He does something apparently dull and unrewarding but, crucially, remunerative, in a joyless office in an unremarkable building high above the city. This may or may not strike a chord. He lives in an expensive-looking but impersonal apartment in a block full of such sterile cells.

Smooth, solitary, self-contained, smartly turned out, Brandon is not quite a wolf of Wall Street — he’s not rich or powerful enough — but he has the lupine looks and the smooth charm of the practised seducer, which is what he is. Brandon is also a compulsive masturbator and a habitual user of porn and of prostitutes. He is not happy with himself in many ways, nor is he well balanced.

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We meet him first thing in the morning, lying awake in bed, listening to the ticking time bomb of his alarm clock. We watch him get up, pad naked through his apartment to the bathroom. As his answer phone picks up, he pees, and the sounds of the flushing toilet and a shower being switched on drown out the voice of a woman. “Pick up,” she says. “Pick up…”

Later we see Brandon on the subway, where he brings an unknown female passenger close to orgasm with just his clear-eyed stare. After a meeting at work we see him back at the apartment, where he pays a pretty hooker for sex. Another morning: he wanks in the shower, ignoring the woman on the answer phone again. At work once more, he masturbates in a toilet cubicle. Back at home he turns on some music, opens a beer, digs into a carton of Chinese takeaway, fires up his laptop and wanks, the sounds of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” mingling with the manufactured moans from his speakers. Is this pitiful? Or normal?

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Brandon is played by Michael Fassbender, the talented 34-year-old Irish-German actor familiar to mainstream filmgoers from X-Men: First Class and Inglourious Basterds, and to art-house audiences from Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, the recent Jane Eyre adaptation and as Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, in McQueen’s Hunger.

That was a movie about an imprisoned man who seeks freedom by using his own body as a protest, who achieves liberation (of a kind) through denial. Shame is a movie about a free man imprisoned by his overpowering needs, and his ability to easily meet them. “In a way, he has the keys to the city,” says McQueen. “So what does he do? He locks himself in his own prison. Why? I’ve got no idea. But to me that’s fascinating.”

Socrates, as we know, likened living with the male libido to being chained to a maniac. Brandon’s maniac is insatiable, self-lacerating, a maniac seeking oblivion through increasingly demeaning sexual encounters. Brandon, it seems, can get his rocks off only alone or with a woman — or in one scene, a man — he has paid for or never met before. Any hint of emotion and his dick (of which we see more than we’re accustomed in the cinema though not, obviously, as much as we’re used to online) shrivels.

In one especially painful scene, he tries to have sex — make love, perhaps — to a girl he knows and apparently likes. He can’t do it. Instead, he orders a call girl. With her, he attempts a cordial postcoital conversation. That doesn’t go anywhere, either. In another scene, he has a threesome. As he comes his face contorts in despair.

This aspect of the male experience, it hardly needs pointing out, is not one often shown on film, or even discussed in polite conversation. “People treat [the masculine sex drive] as comedy,” McQueen says. “Because it’s embarrassing, or it’s funny, or we just don’t talk about that, or whatever. No one wants to look at this thing. People want to sweep it under the carpet.” He pauses. “Let’s not do that. Let’s look underneath the carpet and see what the fuck’s going on.” This, he says, is his motivation. “If you’re an artist making work, you want it to be relevant, otherwise what’s the point?” As for the masturbation in both Shame and Hunger, “Show me someone who says they don’t wank and I’ll show you a liar.”

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The motor of Shame is sparked by the physical arrival of that voice on Brandon’s answer phone. She turns out to be not a spurned lover, or not explicitly a spurned lover, but his younger sister. Her name is Sissy, and her arrival into Brandon’s cloistered existence is as unwelcome as the insertion of plot into a porn film.

A cabaret singer, Sissy is as extrovert as Brandon is internalised, as chaotic in appearance and attitude as he is controlled. She is played by Carey Mulligan, the pixyish, 26-year-old English actress best known until recently as the young Lynn Barber in An Education. This is Mulligan’s best role since that one. Sissy also fails to find whatever it is she’s looking for through sex. She is also needy. And she is also seeking a connection — with Brandon, mostly — which she cannot make. From the moment she enters the film, she carries the sense of an unhappy ending.

It’s never made clear what happened to damage Brandon and Sissy so badly. Were they abused as kids? Have they at some point been in an incestuous relationship? “We’re not bad people,” Sissy tells him. “We just come from a bad place.” And they’re heading towards another: I won’t give away the ending of Shame — it’s ambiguous, anyway — but as the conclusion draws near both Sissy and Brandon are horribly wounded.

Mulligan and Fassbender give performances of terrifying concentration in Shame. Much will be made of the physical demands on them, but more will be made of Fassbender’s nudity than Mulligan’s. “Just having Michael walk naked round a corner onscreen causes a stir,” McQueen says. “If it had been a woman, no one would say anything.”

The film is grim — though not unremittingly — but you’ll have gathered by now, I hope, that I was as gripped by it as I have been by anything I’ve seen in a while. And I’m not alone: Fassbender won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, the film has been nominated for many more honours, and it has received laudatory reviews wherever it has shown on the festival circuit, from Stockholm to Toronto. Despite its tough subject matter it is being confidently tipped for Oscar nominations.

The idea for Shame came from a discussion between McQueen and Abi Morgan, who’d expressed an interest in working with the director after being “blown away” by Hunger. Morgan is the prolific British playwright and screenwriter whose previous work includes Sex Traffic, for Channel 4, and who is on a hot streak at the moment: in 2011 alone her work included the hit BBC TV drama The Hour and the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep.

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From that initial expression of interest came what Morgan describes as a “film blind date”, in which the writer and the director, who’d never previously met, sat down in London to see if they might be able to come up with something on which to collaborate. Usually, Morgan tells me, these brainstorms last an hour or so and end inconclusively. In this case, however, Morgan and McQueen talked for more than three hours, “about mortality, about the internet, and how so many people seemed to be having relationships through that, and about the obsessional nature of those relationships.”

Quickly,  they understood they wanted to look at a life dominated by sexual compulsion. “Steve talks about access and excess,” says Morgan. “We can eat what we want. We can take what we want. We can buy what we want. We can sleep with whoever we want right now, as long as we have money.” They decided they would have to meet some people who did just that.

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McQueen and Morgan took the kernel of their idea to a young British producer, Iain Canning. Canning had worked on Hunger and was now running his own production company, See-Saw, with his Australian partner, Emile Sherman. See-Saw is a small, independent operation, based in London and Sydney, and at that point it had just one film in the can. Happily, that film was The King’s Speech, which would go on to huge critical and commercial success and to win four Oscars. (Canning’s only absence from the set of Shame was when he had to fly to LA to collect the Oscar for Best Picture for The King’s Speech: “I think they understood,” he says.)

Canning agreed to fund McQueen and Morgan’s research into sex addiction. When they failed to find enough people willing to talk to them in London — the scandal of Tiger Woods’ infidelities was breaking at the time, which Morgan believes contributed to sex addicts’ reluctance to talk — they headed to New York, “blown there by the wind”, as McQueen puts it.

“I think what Steve wanted to do was to make a film about need and free will,” Canning tells me. “At the time there had been a lot of tabloid stories about ‘Who are sex addicts?’ and there were people in the public arena who were connected to that.” He means Tiger Woods, among others.

Canning and McQueen had the example of Hunger — a sensitive film about a difficult topic — to illustrate their bonafides as serious film-makers, rather than opportunists seizing on the headline story of the moment.

In New York they were put in touch with, as Canning has it, “a group of men who had basically destroyed their lives through their inability to control their sexual behaviour. We went into it with the same preconceptions as anyone: sex is enjoyable, what’s the problem? But it’s depressing. And it falls into a bigger fabric of human behaviour. It could be drugs, it could be alcohol, it could be overeating or over-exercising: the things we use to take ourselves out of ourselves. Many of those topics have been dealt with [on film], but it’s a very interesting time for sex. The accessibility of the internet has made sex obsession or sex addiction more obvious a topic for a conversation than it has been previously.”

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Morgan and McQueen checked into the trendy Standard hotel, in the Meatpacking District — it would become an important location for Shame — and pounded the streets of Manhattan for 10 days, visiting addicts, their counsellors and experts in the field, and endlessly talking about their ideas for the film. “Then we’d leave each other alone for a while,” says Morgan, “and I’d write for a bit and then he’d come back and read it and he’d tinker some more and we’d have discussions about dialogue and we just built it up from that first conversation, really.”

The research was not easy. “It was very moving,” McQueen says. “One guy said, ‘I’ve got a beautiful wife, but there’s thousands of women I’d rather sleep with.’ That’s how difficult it is. It was emotionally exhausting.”

Says Morgan: “We’d get in a taxi to JFK together and sometimes we sat in silence, because we carried the atmosphere of the people we’d met and the things we’d heard. It was a feeling of real sadness.”

Fassbender, too, conducted research into sex addiction while preparing to play Brandon. There was one man, in particular, a user of prostitutes, who influenced his performance. “The crux of Brandon’s problem is that he can’t be intimate with anyone,” the actor tells me by phone from LA, where he is promoting the film. “Brandon is all about control, and when he gets too close to someone he feels vulnerable and exposed. Hiring prostitutes is much easier for him. He hires a prostitute, she comes, he pays her, they have sex, she leaves, and he doesn’t have to deal with any of her emotional baggage. And that was something I was able to get my head round through meeting this one man in particular. I was really grateful to him for opening up the way he did. I began to get an idea of what I was dealing with.”

Before embarking on his research, Fassbender “didn’t know if I really took the subject [of sex addiction] that seriously. But in talking to people you realise this is very real, and people are badly affected by it. There are guys [who] can’t make love to their wife or girlfriend, but who lock themselves in a room with pornography for three days.”
The research is reflected in his performance. “At times,” Fassbender says, “I wanted [Brandon] to be repulsive. I thought that this was something that should be displayed. Especially in the sexual scenes. This guy doesn’t like himself. He’s abusing himself.”

“When you’re writing about someone who is flawed, you need to write about the ugliness of that behaviour,” says Abi Morgan. “Does that make that person abhorrent? I don’t think it does. I think that the place Brandon is in is quite heartbreaking. I wanted to talk about men, real men who are intrinsically in pain.”

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To Fassbender, Brandon is a unique character. To McQueen he is representative of something wider. “I sympathise with him because he’s trying,” he says. “He’s doing his best to get through the day.” That, he thinks, is what he has in common with Brandon, and what we all share. “I’m not interested in ‘me’,” McQueen says. “I’m interested in ‘we’. How do we respond to that person on screen? Can we all relate to him? I think in Michael’s performance, we can.”

Shame was shot fast, in February and March of 2011 in New York, but the rehearsal period had been extensive. All the actors in the film liken working with McQueen to walking a tightrope, or working without a safety harness, or jumping off a cliff, or some variation on that theme. What they mean, McQueen says, is that acting, like life, requires a step into the unknown. McQueen is respectful of actors he works with but also refreshingly candid about them as a breed.

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“Actors are pretty smug people,” he says. “They do things like this [he snaps his fingers to indicate a flippant or facile approach]. When you spin them round and point them in another direction, then maybe you get something out of them they didn’t realise they could do.”

A director, McQueen says, must make it clear he’s serious. He must challenge an actor to produce his best work. It’ll be harder than they might be used to, but ultimately far more rewarding. The aim, he says, after much preparation is to get them to the stage where “the actor will become like a sphere, and every way they roll is perfect”.

The notion that actors might be regarded as somehow brave for appearing naked on screen, he seems to find curious bordering on outrageous. When I suggest that it’s unusual for relatively well-known actors like Fassbender and Mulligan to engage in full-frontal nudity, as they do in Shame, he says, “Well, it shouldn’t be. They’re artists. They use their bodies, otherwise what’s the point? You don’t get a dancer saying, ‘I only dance on my right leg.’”

One imagines the no-nonsense McQueen might be tough to work for, but such are the testimonies from his collaborators — far beyond the usual pre-release publicity gush — that it’s hard to take them at anything but their word. In return, McQueen can be extraordinarily generous. On Fassbender, his muse: “Michael has the capacity — and I say the capacity, because it’s not going to happen every fucking time — to be amazing. And what’s more, I believe in him. A lot of actors I just don’t. He questions himself. He works hard. And what he brings to the script is himself. He’s a man’s man, but there’s a vulnerability to him, a femininity, that can be very beautiful. I don’t think a lot of actors could have [played Brandon]. I don’t think they could take it that far. He went beyond. As artists, we need to portray humanity. That’s what he can do.”

The money for Shame, a relatively modest £4m, came from Film4 and the now defunct UK Film Council, as well as the film’s UK distributor, Momentum Pictures. Given the film’s subject and its unflinching treatment of it, there was no expectation Shame would find an American distributor. As a result, Canning says no compromises were made. McQueen had final cut, and no pressure from his producers or distributors to tone down his material.

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In the event, the film caused a bidding war among US distributors, with Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox, emerging as the winner. Despite Shame receiving a financially limiting NC-17 certificate in the States, where it was released in December, Fox has staunchly defended the film, and hopes are high that glowing reviews, awards buzz and positive word of mouth will gain Shame a wider audience. “I think in the US in particular there’s an opportunity to move the dial a bit,” says Canning. “To shift it back to the idea that adults, 17 and over, can choose to go and see a film that has mature subject matter.”

No film exists sui generis and Shame, while certainly distinctive, does contain echoes of earlier works. For me, the movies it summoned most strongly were those of Paul Schrader, writer, among other things, of Taxi Driver — about another alienated loner travelling through New York at night — and writer-director of American Gigolo — about another smooth stud with a gaping hole where his heart should be.

When I point out the Taxi Driver resemblance, McQueen is flattered but also wary: he does not, he says, refer to earlier films — or books or music or paintings — when conceiving his own work. McQueen, Canning says, “comes at film from a different place to other directors”. Thanks to his background in contemporary art, he is “not guided by a sense that he has to follow a particular kind of process. It means you end up with a very different kind of film”.

McQueen’s films reject the convenient shorthand that passes for traditional cinematic language. They do not employ generic techniques, or the tried and tested cuts and edits of mainstream movies. Emotional scenes are not always filmed in close-up. The camera is often static, shots are held for much longer than usual. McQueen has no formal training as a director — many years ago he quit film school in New York claiming he wasn’t allowed “to throw the camera up in the air” — and he didn’t apprentice to other film-makers, as many directors have done. He is profoundly not a hack.

“You don’t have to train to be a director,” McQueen says. “That’s fucking nonsense.” The craft, the techniques, these can be learned, acquired or delegated. “I always feel like a bit of an amateur,” he says. “I’ve never been on a movie set other than my own. I don’t know how things work. I walk into microphones, trip on wires. I’m like Mr fucking Magoo.”

Shame is not just a gritty film about sex. Like Hunger, it has many scenes of great beauty: an extraordinary sequence in which Fassbender runs through the streets of Manhattan at night; another in which Mulligan brings Fassbender to tears by singing “New York, New York” in a nightclub. And it contains some terrifically salty dialogue. Few will forget a scene in which Brandon’s boss queries him about the contents of his confiscated hard-drive (“I’m talking hos, sluts, anal, double anal, penetration, interracial facial…”), or the most awkward and pathetic New York date scene since Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle took Cybill Shepherd to a porno cinema.

Near the end of Shame, there’s a sustained shot of two people in a life-threatening situation. It’s so stark and coruscating it made this viewer look away. Even on a second screening, I had to cover my eyes. “It’s a tragic moment,” says McQueen. “So you hold the camera on it. It’s like Goya. I mean, how fucking horrific an image do you want to talk about? It’s not fucking new. Sure, people don’t want to look at that. But if you’re an artist, you don’t turn away and pretend something’s not there. That’s the whole point: life is not easy, it’s fucking difficult.”

If it shows us anything, Shame shows us sex cannot, after all, be a transaction without emotion, or without consequence. For Brandon, sex can occur without love (it can’t occur with love), but not without pain. The same is true, to a lesser extent, for Sissy. And perhaps for the prostitutes and the online sex providers Brandon uses.

“It’s not a damning statement on modern sexuality,” Fassbender says, “but it does take a look at it. What effect does pornography have? A lot of it is violent, particularly towards women. What does it mean that kids are looking and learning about sex through it?”

Is it a moral film? McQueen balks. “Maybe, but I’m not fucking moral,” he says. “I wish I was. But you can only preach morality if you’re a saint. And I’m not a saint. I’m not a robot. If I could programme myself to act a certain way, then I’d have a six-pack. I don’t. We do the best we can.”

We do the best we can. If Shame has a message, that’s it. It is, McQueen thinks, a hopeful message. “What we’re often good at, as people, is breaking shit,” he says. “And then we try to put it back together. We have everything, but we screw it up. Possibly we can stop doing that. That’s the hope. I wouldn’t make a hopeless movie. That wouldn’t help me.”

What Shame attempts, perhaps, is an honest portrait of wounded contemporary masculinity, in extremis. To me McQueen recalls his excitement, years ago, at seeing Shadows, John Cassavetes’ film about interracial relationships in Beat generation New York. “It was the first time I saw people on screen who looked like me,” he says. “It felt great. It was like, ‘I’m a human being, I’m not alone.’”

Shame is out on now

Words by Alex Bilmes