Co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, the NC-17 rated Shame is a provocative and emotionally raw drama that tells the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome and successful New Yorker who is so consumed with his sexual obsession that he is on an inevitable path towards self-destruction. When his wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to crash at his Manhattan apartment, Brandon’s constant quest for numbness clashes with Sissy’s need to be loved.
At a press conference to promote the film’s release, writer/director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender talked about what inspired this story, their thoughts on the NC-17 rating for the film, why they enjoy collaborating together, and creating an atmosphere on set where everyone knows each other and works together to get the job done. Fassbender also talked about how blessed he is to work with the people he’s being allowed to work with, at this point in his career. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: Steve, what was your main impetus for wanting to make this movie and tell this story?
STEVE McQUEEN: I wanted to see Michael [Fassbender] naked. I was like, “Strip, motherfucker!” Why? Well, I was speaking to (co-writer) Abi [Morgan] and she had this wonderful quote where she said, “It’s like having a dog whistle go off in the room.” It’s a situation that people know about, but they see it for the first time and are made aware of it. It’s extraordinarily important, but no one’s speaking about it. It’s a huge phenomenon. But, it’s not just about sex addiction. It’s about addictions, in general, and being in a world where we don’t necessarily have self-will. It’s difficult to be a human being, right now. I wanted to show us as being fragile. This is not beautiful or pretty to look at. I just wanted to take the ostrich head out of the sand and let us have a look at ourselves. It’s difficult. But, at the same time, Brandon is really trying.
Michael, how did you go about internalizing and preparing for a role like Brandon, who has a lot of self-loathing going on? How did you wrap your head around that, to bring that to the screen?
MICHAEL FASSBENDER: I just spend a lot of time with him. A very big part of my preparation is just that I re-read the script. I might read it 300 or 350 times, so I’m spending a lot of time with him and I’m getting to know him. And then, through the day, I’m like, “Oh, what would Brandon do, in this scenario?” You’re gathering little pieces of information every day and you’re putting it together, and you’re sitting down with it and thinking, “Is this logical?” If it is logical, you give it a try. And then, Steve was there to steer me in the right direction with that. But, it’s just about trying to understand him and relate to him, as opposed to this judgement thing. That would be a mistake.
What would you say to all of the sex addicts out there, who are not as handsome as Michael Fassbender and don’t have great jobs, where they can pay $1,000 for high-class call girls?
McQUEEN: Funny question. I don’t know how to answer that.
FASSBENDER: To be honest, it’s a world that’s like anything. If you’re addicted to gambling, you know where to go to gamble. So, if you have a condition where you’re addicted to sex, you know where other that are looking for the same thing are going. I don’t think it necessarily comes down to looks. It’s a common interest. In England, there was a phenomenon there, and I don’t know if it’s the same here, that was this dogging scenario. I don’t know if that’s happened here, but people basically parked in car-parks around the country and had sex. You’d park a car, meet a stranger and have sex with them. So, people that are into that know where the car-parks are. I guess that’s the best that I can answer the question.
Steve, from a storytelling point of view, did you feel that Brandon’s story would be diluted by not showing the full physicality of what he does and not having some of those graphic scenes that pushed it into the NC-17 rating?
McQUEEN: I don’t know. It’s sex. It’s what most of the people in this room have done, if not all of us have done. I’ve never held a gun in my hand, in my life. It’s this weird thing, where what we do in our daily lives should be somehow censored. It’s very odd. And things that we have no idea about and have no capability of doing, should be viewed by the masses. For me, it’s just normal. For example, Brandon waking up in the morning and going to his kitchen to have a glass of water, and putting on the voicemail, maybe in 1951, he would have had pajamas on, but in 2011, people often do not wear pajamas. That’s it. It’s normality. There’s no big deal, for me, about nudity. There’s nothing graphic about it. It’s sex. It’s nothing which is harmful to anyone.
Were you ever worried that an American distributor wouldn’t want this film?
McQUEEN: I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking about trying to make the best film that we could possibly make. That’s what you do. You’re not thinking about anything else. You’re thinking, “How can I make the best film I can possibly make?,” and that’s it. So, I was very happy that Fox Searchlight came in and wanted to distribute the movie. They never asked me, ever, and a discussion never happened, about cutting the movie, or anything like that. It never happened. I’ve never had a conversation with them about that, at all. They’re just an extraordinary company, and I was very pleased that they wanted to distribute the film. Thank god for that. Otherwise, more than likely, I imagine it wouldn’t have been shown here.
FASSBENDER: They’re the best people we ever could have hoped to get.
Steve, just by expressing interest and wanting to do this film, your actors knew that they had to put themselves out there, physically and emotionally, to pull this off. What did you do to enable them to do that? And Michael, how did you get into the headspace to be able to put yourself out there?
FASSBENDER: [Steve] was like, “You’re an actor. That’s your job. Fucking do it!”
McQUEEN: Absolutely, I think that. You’re an actor. You can’t show a bit of reality. You’ve got to show the whole of reality. You’re there to portray that. If you have the talent, like [Michael] has, we can also see ourselves. It’s just like a dancer. You’re not going to say, “I’m only going to dance on my left foot. I’m not going to dance on my right foot. That’s not going to happen.” No. You have to be able to put yourself out there, otherwise you’re not an actor, you’re something else. For me, it’s very, very simple.
FASSBENDER: I totally agree. It’s very simple for me. I keep things very simple. There’s this idea of, “Oh, my god, and then you’re naked. What’s that going to do for your career?” I’m not a politician. My job is to facilitate characters. I’m a storyteller, and that’s one facet of telling that story. End of story.
Can you talk about the actor-director relationship that you have and the implicit trust that you have with each other, given that you’re about to do a third film together (Twelve Years a Slave)? Why do you think this pairing works so brilliantly?
McQUEEN: It actually doesn’t. This is like Abbott and Costello. We just pretend to like each other.
FASSBENDER: In fact, I loathe him. I don’t know. I think it’s a hard thing to put your finger on. It’s a chemistry that I’m very, very grateful for, and feel so blessed that I’ve come across it. It is something that, for me, for sure, I was always looking for – a collaborator. Hunger was a big break for me, and it was [Steve’s] first movie.
McQUEEN: It was my break too, absolutely.
FASSBENDER: So, together, we were experiencing a lot. I could see, on Steve’s face, the passion and wanting to get it right, and I wanted to get it right, too. We just formed a language, very quickly. When we started Shame, it was like we had just walked off the set of Hunger and onto that. We picked it up, immediately. It was amazing.
McQUEEN: We don’t really talk about it. People say, “Oh, wow, really?!,” and I say, “Yeah.” It’s bizarre, but I’m happy for it. But, as far as Michael is concerned, I don’t think we’ve often seen an actor like him, at all. He’s a very visceral male person. He’s a man, but at the same time, there’s an extraordinary femininity, tenderness and openness, and I think that’s the appeal. Often, actors want to be these macho types and they never show their heart or their vulnerability. I think it’s pretty amazing that he can be so open and vulnerable, and still be able to wear it with pride. Most actors will never take that risk because they’d feel too vulnerable and open. I think it’s extraordinary, really.
There are several intensely intimate moments in this film. What kind of mood was established on set, while you shot those scenes?
FASSBENDER: We had a lot of fluffers around.
McQUEEN: Don’t say that! Moving on swiftly. I lost my train of thought with that, sorry. From the catering to make-up and hair to the camera department to the sound department and to the electricians, grips and gaffers, you have to create an atmosphere that everyone knows each other. It’s a group that’s working together. Great actors, like Michael, if I may be so bold to say, are like thoroughbred racehorses. They come into a room and they sense if anything is wrong. They sense if there is some kind of difficulty. So, you create an environment which is safe. In order for people to take risks, that’s what one has to do. It starts from the bottom, up. Everyone has to be involved. Any great and interesting actor has to be in a space that they feel is safe, in order to do what they have to do. That’s what it is. It really is that simple, in that way. Everyone is involved. And, it was a great set to be on. It was a fantastic set to be on. It was wonderful.
FASSBENDER: The New York crew was amazing. They were amazing people. We were jumping around like kids, as well, because we were like, “We’re filming in New York!” That idea of being allowed to film in New York was really exciting.
McQUEEN: Absolutely! It really was a privilege. It was one of those things where you were skipping, going into work, even for night shoots. The comradery and banter was great. What was going on, on the other side of the lens, was different than what was going on behind the lens. What was going on behind the lens was wonderful. We were laughing and making jokes, possibly because what was happening on the other side of the lens was so dramatic. But, things seemed to balance out because of that.
Michael, was there a backstory given to you about what had happened in Brandon and Sissy’s past?
FASSBENDER: Well, we talked about backstory. Carey, Steve and I got together and discussed it, many times. We all had an idea of something, but perhaps had our own versions of it. But, I’m not going to tell you what that is. It’s not really that important, to be honest. It’s not just to be tricky with it. They never mention their parents, so that already speaks volumes. There is a history between them. I thought, “God, isn’t it great that there’s not a paragraph in this film where they have an explanation of what happened with expositional dialogue.” We get it. We get that there’s a history between these two, and they’re coming from somewhere. When you have wonderfully intelligent people that go to see the film, they’ll fill in the blanks much better then what you could ever put on paper.
Steve, the scene with Carey Mulligan singing “New York, New York” is just really haunting. What was the genesis of that, and how did you choose that particular song and arrangement?
McQUEEN: Brandon is an introvert, who is imploding. Sissy is an extrovert, who is exploding. These two people come from the same background, but obviously, what’s happened in their background has effected them differently. I imagined that Sissy was a performer. She’s very expressive. She wants to give. She’s an artist. She wants to get whatever is inside of her, out of her, as an artist. The location was just amazing, and I read the lyrics and thought, “This is the blues.” When you read the lyrics, it’s about a person who’s a vagrant, who’s a homeless person, who wants to make it in the big city and is not there. They see the bright lights and they want to be involved in that and make it there. I thought, “Okay, let’s turn it into a blues song.” The song, in its original state, sung by Liza Minnelli in the Martin Scorsese film, New York, New York, in 1977, was its original state. But, the lyrics were changed for [Frank] Sinatra, a verse was dropped, and he obviously sang it in a very different way to Liza Minnelli. Therefore, to use it again, I thought, “I have the authority to change it.” Also, when you think of the jazz from the early part of the last century, they were always taking standards and changing them, and doing something else with them. The original version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to Louis Armstrong’s version was extraordinarily different. I thought we had license to do that. What’s beautiful about it is Carey’s deliver, and also Michael’s response to it. Within the abstract of the song, you hear and see where they’ve come from, their background and who they are. I loved the whole idea that, through verse, you get a huge sense of the past, in the actual present.
Steve, did you ever consider setting this story in London? What do you think the setting of New York brought to the film?
McQUEEN: Well, what it was, was that myself and Abi Morgan had a conversation. We were only meant to meet for an hour and it ended up a three and a half hour conversation, and we were still talking. Of course, we wanted to research this and, unfortunately, we couldn’t get anyone in Britain to speak. I think it was the time when sex addiction was very high in vogue. People were talking about it. In a way, I think people shied away from being in the spotlight, in London. In our research, we spoke to two specialists in the field, who happened to be living in New York, and they actually introduced us to people who had this affliction, and I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just shoot it in New York?” It seemed to be the logical and obvious thing to do. That’s how the wind carried us over the Atlantic to New York.
Michael, what did you think when you saw this final product?
FASSBENDER: I’ve only seen it once, and it was all a bit overwhelming, really. I think I watched the third act from behind my hand. I need to watch it again, to be honest. I’ll watch it back in London, hopefully with Steve and not a thousand people. I thought it was beautifully shot. I was very moved by all the characters in there, and this idea that each character is trying to connect, or is looking for human help. It’s tough to be human and out there. We’re all fragile, in our own way, and we’re all trying to find our way. What I got from it was that great humanity that makes each of these people think they need somebody to help them. I thought that was quite moving.
How are you enjoying this period in your career, with all the roles and attention you’re getting now?
FASSBENDER: I feel like I’m pretty blessed to be working with people like Steve [McQueen]. That’s really it. It’s just that I’m allowed to work with the people that I’m working with. For me, that would have been this position that was the highest I could have hoped to achieve, when I started out. I’m trying to enjoy the rest of it. It does make me a little bit scared about what’s next. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about things I’ve done, or linger in the past. I find that depressing. My main thing is, “What am I going to do next?” Hopefully, I’ll do a good job on the next one.
What can you say about the next film that you’re going to be doing together?
McQUEEN: Well, I can’t really talk about the next movie. All I can tell you is that it’s called Twelve Years A Slave, and I think you know who’s in it (Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Fassbender).