Hunger Pains
An Interview with Steve McQueen
by Jeff Reichert

Watching Hunger, with its rigorous formalism and scenes of intense violence, isn’t an easy proposition. Nor, as it turned out, was interviewing its creator, the mercurial British artist Steve McQueen. Seemingly in the midst of twelve thoughts at once, at least half of which were running easy laps around the questions I’d prepared, our interview wasn’t unlike a film nerd speed date in which I generally struggled to keep up and keep the questions flowing. At times it felt almost as though I was the one being interviewed. But don’t for a second take this brief preamble as pejorative declaration. Charming even as he batted away those questions of mine whose assumptions he rejected, McQueen strikes one as serious and committed a filmmaker as you could ever ask for. And as breathless as the interview may have left me, it reminded me of watching Hunger itself, which is to say, it was an exhilarating experience. It’s always good when filmmakers ask more from their audiences (or their interviewers) than they’re expecting to have to give. What other reason do we have for going to the movies?

Reverse Shot: I always like to see a work by a filmmaker who really seems to be thinking rigorously about narrative structure. Hunger kind of breaks into three pieces, all of which are different from each other. Could you talk a bit about how you took the story of Bobby Sands apart and put it back together?

Steve McQueen: Well, It really starts through research—what the information I find gives me and how it translates into narrative. The structure for me was all about initially floating on your back down a river and taking in your surroundings. And all of a sudden there’s a rupture, a fracture. Your surroundings have been distorted, you hit a rapid. The last part of course is the waterfall, a loss of gravity. And that’s how I sort of structured it in my mind.

RS: You say research was really important. In the conversation between Bobby and Father Moran in the middle of the film, how apocryphal is that dialogue? Is this something that happened or is it something you imagined?

SM: It’s just palpable—the conversation didn’t happen in reality, but those kinds of conversations were happening all over at the time. It shows the two sides. The Catholic Church wanted people for God, of course, and the Republicans wanted the people for some kind of socialism or something like that. That’s dynamism that I wanted to bring in.

RS: If one were so inclined, you could make the argument that Hunger is a kind of biopic, albeit a very nontraditional one. Do you feel at all that you’ve consciously rebelled against the way that genre is generally handled?

SM: I don’t think my film is a biopic. Absolutely not. Obviously not. It is what it is, and I don’t want to label what I do at all. It presents itself in a certain way, and I tried to structure it in a way to make it riveting, engaging. To hold people in their seats. The hunger strike didn’t just revolve around one man, Bobby Sands, and there were a lot of elements that made him choose to do what he did. That’s what I was interested in showing.

RS: The strike raises the question of politics as well. There’s been a small debate between some critics here about the nature of this film as a political work. Does it efface the politics of the act itself or find a new way to express them . . .

SM: It doesn’t matter. That’s my answer to that. As long as people engage with the work, politics is not an issue. When does politics get into life and when does life get into politics? It happens right now—we’re sitting here in a recession and we’re dealing with it. It affects us all. There’s no border between “this isn’t” and “this is.” They’re intertwined.

RS: The aesthetic of the film overall is so striking, but perhaps most striking is the care put into the sound design.

SM: I spoke to the sound recordist and told him that I wanted him to capture everything. If someone’s finger is tapping on the table, I wanted it. I wanted all the details. Sound, for me, was the most important part of the film because it fills the spaces where the camera just can’t go. A sound can give you the dimensions of a room. It can give you smell, it can give you tension. In some ways sound can travel itself into other areas of our senses, other areas of our psyche that unfortunately cannot be just viewed. Imagine you’re in a room with the lights switched off and you have to feel your way around a room. This is a chair, this is a table, this is a light switch. You have to use your other senses to figure out what you’re looking at. As you’re watching the piece, that’s what I wanted.

RS: The sound design is certainly atmospheric, but it also becomes a bit unbearable at times, though in a paradoxically pleasurable way.

SM: One can talk about the sounds of the baton banging on the plastic shields as being unbearable as such, but that’s what actually happened. It’s raised the tension of the prisoners, but the noise also was a way of rallying the guards. The sound passes on that tension to the audience. Your heartbeat races, your anxiety increases. It’s the perfect soundtrack.

RS: The sequence with the guards in riot gear really sticks with me. There’s an interesting move that you make towards the end of that part—that fake split-screen where you see an inmate being beaten on one side of the wall and one of the younger guards crying on the other side. It seems throughout the film that you’re weaving in as many perspectives on the issue as you can, and here you put two several in one shot. How important was including this broader context?

SM: I’m trying to show the human side of what happens in these circumstances. How does one respond to a situation like that? This particular guard was a rookie, he was in there for the first time and he, at the end of the day, will become one of the others.

RS: You also open the film in the home of one of the guards, and then later we escape the prison into this daydream of Bobby’s childhood. Even though the film is confined, it’s also wide open in a certain way.

SM: It’s because you have these people in the film who are protagonists who also do and have done horrible things at the same time. Everyone’s guilty. What happens is that the circumstances and the environment, the extraordinary environment which they tried to make ordinary, actually creates things that happen in there. Things which are out of their control, but they have to make do with it. One protests, one has to guard.

RS: Where did you shoot the prison scenes?

SM: We shot in an old sports center in Belfast. I wanted to shoot in the Maze, but they refused us access. It was kind of a strange situation, but I think it was very good we didn’t shoot in the Maze because it could have affected the crew. It’s a very historical, heavy place. It could have disrupted what we were doing.

RS: I imagine that being in the sports center you could have perhaps had a bit more control over the surroundings as well.

SM: Yes and no. I built the set with no breakaway walls. I didn’t want that. I wanted to capture the architecture of the H-block, which was designed by the Germans for a prison to house the Baader Meinhoff and then imported to Belfast for the Republican prisoners.

RS: There’s a recognition that some people in England and elsewhere may have of Bobby Sands, but I think in a lot of circumstances most people might not be aware of his history, especially that by the end of his life he was an elected member of Parliament. Why withhold that information until the very end?

SM: I’m not withholding information at all—it’s in the film. Once you’re looking at someone who is actually dying I didn’t want to detour or put in a piece of information to make a point. Let’s not detour or submit to distractions—keep focus like he did. It’s a difficult thing to do. He made a decision and that was that. I didn’t want to go outside the prison. I wanted to stay with him in this extraordinary world which they had to live in.

RS: You want to stay with him but, and this is one of the things I found most daring about the film, you do leave Bobby for those cutaways to the birds, or the imagined childhood dreamscapes. Was this in the film from the very conception?

SM: His youth?

RS: More the idea of incorporating his youth at that specific point in the film.

SM: I think what happens at the end of the movie after an hour and twenty-five minutes or so of being so close is that I just wanted to get out of that prison cell. I wanted to do the reverse of what was happening in that bed. You have a man who’s older, he’s dying of starvation in an institution. The opposite of that is a young man who loves cross-country running. He’s absolutely free. Cutting from a static camera of a person lying in bed to running in the countryside—that is the complete reversal. It tied in very well. It also gave people a chance to breathe, especially when it comes to death.

RS: What led you to Bobby Sands’s story? You must have been about 12 years old when he...

SM: Eleven.

RS: Tell me about how the idea of this strike impacted you as an 11-year-old boy living in England.

SM: The idea that there was this person who refused to eat so that he could be heard was very strange to an 11-year-old. The clock was ticking and the days went by and he wouldn’t eat. Even if I didn’t understand exactly what it was all about, it struck me. You know, as a child, you’re sat down at the table and your mother tells you that you’re not going to leave the table until you’ve eaten your food. She tells you what time you’re going to go to bed, what you’re going to wear, and this sort of refusal to eat showed a kind of power in the act because as a child that was the only relationship I could have to a hunger strike.

RS: Well, it’s about choice in a certain way. As you said, as a child you don’t really have choices.

SM: Imagine the strength you must have to refuse to eat.

RS: You may not want to tackle this one, but I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a new British film that’s hit me as much as—

SM: I’m not interested in nationalism, so I’m not going to answer that question.

RS: Fair enough. [I scan my notes for a second] We’ve almost got it. You talk faster than I expected.

SM: Good, I’m happy. We’ve done it all haven’t we? [Looks over my notes, too. It’s clear he’s been following along. Reads from the page] Jump from you mean the transition from art to film?

RS: Yeah . . . I’m not really familiar with your other work and I was just curious . . .

SM: You don’t need to be. It’s not that important. I’m interested in what I do, what you do. The evidence, not who you think you are. The rest is nonsense. The artwork is about the artwork. It’s what you’re judged by. That belief keeps you on your toes.

RS: It’s choices again. When you finish watching Hunger, the overall sense is of someone who has made some very specific and direct choices about the way material is being presented and accumulated and ordered. Which I thought was a nice counterpoint to your story in that it revolves around a choice.

SM: Good comment.

RS: So many filmmakers, British and otherwise, claim that they’re approaching realism, but it’s always through a kind of cloaked artifice. Hunger never feels realistic because it’s so clear that you’re always there deciding what we see and hear.

SM: Cinema is what, a hundred and thirteen years old? It’s like a baby. You have to push it to get closer to what you want. How do you get close to a human being? It’s through artifice, through the devices of cinema. It’s not about social realism or borrowing your reportage and camerawork from documentaries.

RS: Documentaries are all unreal in their own way.

SM: Whatever. It’s always a drama trying to present something as a historical record. But you can do whatever you want so long as it translates in a way in which people can identify with.