Interview

Let’s Get Physical

Steve McQueen interviewed by Patricia Bickers

Patricia Bickers: Why did you you want to go to film school in New York on leaving Goldsmiths?

Steve McQueen: Well, I wanted to go to New York University because I wanted to make feature films. I had had it with art and I wanted to go off and make films so I went to America where I quickly discovered that film school was not the place I wanted to be. I just wanted to just get on with it. At NYU, everybody wanted to be Scorcese or Spielberg, whereas what I wanted to do was throw a camera up in the air and catch it but no one was letting me do that. So I came back to London and started to make films. I was making art films rather than feature films, though I don’t see any differences as such. Obviously there is a difference between showing film in a cinema rather than an art gallery, but I was interested in the gallery as a space.

PB: What did you do before you came to film?

SMcQ: I always answer this question by saying that the first thing you get when you’re a kid is a crayon, and then if you’re lucky you get a paintbrush, and then if you’re lucky ... For me it was very much an evolutionary thing and in the end I got a camera to play with. I was painting at Goldsmiths and then I stopped at the end of my first year and just stuck with the camera.

I already knew that I wanted to be involved in film-making. It was the whole idea of working with people that was interesting. Also the fact that film moves – physically as well as emotionally. It was much more dynamic than other art forms.

PB: When you say that you like working with people, do you mean in a collaborative sense?

SMcQ: Definitely. You’re living with people for a week, a month, or six months - sometimes even a year, to make a film. So it’s a relationship-building thing, at the same time you’re making work. The best thing about making films is the time spent making them. When I see works that I’ve made, I always think what a great time I had making them. The films remind me of that time.

PB: Despite the time spent on making them, the films themselves are short and tightly structured. Do you edit them down, selecting the best takes?

SMcQ: There are only one, two or maybe three takes of something; usually one shot leads to another shot which leads to another. It is almost like building something until it’s high enough and then stopping just before it falls over. It is just having some kind of sense of where you put one brick on top of the other ...

PB: Do you have any sort of shooting script or story board to start with?

SMcQ: I always draw scenes and stuff like that but no writing usually. I just communicate a lot directly with the cinematographer or whoever I’m working with.

PB: So there is an improvisatory element in your work?

SMcQ: When people come into the situation it becomes much more direct. I want people to do what they want to do because when they feel comfortable it seems to translate better on screen. It is when you put people in a straitjacket that it doesn’t seem to translate very well at all. The individuals I work with are usually people I know.

PB: You said earlier that you were interested in the gallery as a space in which to show your films, yet the way in which you present them is very cinematic. Is this deliberate?

SMcQ: Very much so. I try to get away from this kind of ‘popcorn mentality’, as I call it. Projecting the film on to the back wall of the gallery space so that it completely fills it from ceiling to floor, and from side to side, gives it this kind of blanket effect. You are very much involved with what is going on. You are a participant, not a passive viewer. The whole idea of making it a silent experience is so that when people walk into the space they become very much aware of themselves, of their own breathing. Unlike silent movies, which weren’t really silent because there was always a musical accompaniment in the background, it is real silence. I find it difficult to breathe when l’m in the space. There seems to be no oxygen. I want to put people into a situation where they’re sensitive to themselves watching the piece.

PB: Is that why the camera angles are often dizzying and unexpected?

SMcQ: The thing is I don’t see the angles as being odd at all. I think basically you can put the camera anywhere. There is no right or wrong angle for something. The idea of putting the camera in an unfamiliar position is simply to do with film language. Sometimes it is spectacular, sometimes it is ugly, sometimes it is uninteresting. But it has to do with looking at things in a different way. Cinema is a narrative form and by putting the camera at a different angle - on the ceiling or under a glass table - we are questioning that narrative as well as the way we are looking at things. It is also a very physical thing. It makes you very aware of your own presence and of your own body.

PB: That is certainly true of the moment in Five Easy Pieces, when the man apparently pisses into the audience/camera lens! I was reminded of the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard, where the camera looks up at the body of William Holden floating in the pool above. Billy Wilder has said that what appears to be a straightforward shot was in fact a highly complex set-up.

SMcQ: I remember that film. That was a great shot by Billy Wilder. Wonderful. And the photographers flashing, taking photographs … really wonderful! I wanted a situation where I was peeing while people, the audience, would be under me, as it were - the dynamics of that situation.

PB: Was it complex to set up?

SMcQ: No, not at all. It was extremely simple. We made a glass container, put it in between two tables, got the camera underneath the table, and shot it. It was very straightforward, very simple.

I think you can be yery effective with very simple means. I don’t like to put too much effort into things. I find that once you get involved with special effects it is no longer about what is happening in front of the camera and I really want to concentrate on what is happening in front of the camera, like the man apparently peeing on the surface of the screen.

PB: And like the way that the two wrestlers in Bear keep blocking out the light above and which at times blocks them out, like the photographers’ flashes in Sunset Boulevard.

SMcQ: Yes. The whole idea is that they’re blocking out the light, the camera isn’t doing anything. My main interest is in the movement of the two people on screen.

PB: In all your work one is very conscious of the protagonists moving into and out of the frame. For instance in Five Easy Pieces, you first see only the fringe of the tightrope-walker’s skirt coming into the frame from the left. Inevitably, one thinks about what is metaphorically off-screen, on the margin: our fears, out erotic desires, issues of Black and White, of taboos for instance in Stage ...

SMcQ: I don’t deal with Black and White, I don’t deal with taboos. I think it is all to do with passing through, like at the beginning of Five Easy Pieces when the tightrope dips down into the black screen and then disappears out of the screen. I used to really like road movies and the whole idea of passing through, and as you pass through everything change.

It is also to do with the structure of the whole set-up, the idea of breaking up the frame. The idea of something going on other than what you see, of what is going on beyond the frame like in Stage when the hand claws back the frame.

PB: Does the title, Five Easy Pieces, refer to the movie?

SMcQ: It was a definite reference to the movie though I didn’t see it till I’d finished making the piece but I knew the scenario. It is a very minimal film because nothing much happens, it is just about passing through. I used to be a big fan of Jim Jarmusch – Stranger than Paradise - and obviously Wim Wenders - Alice in the Cities and The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.

PB: You have referred to Bear, Five Easy Pieces and Stage as a trilogy. All three seem very much connected at a level of both expressed and unexpressed desire. There is a strong erotic thread joining all three.

SMcQ: Yes, frustration, in some ways. Frustration and release - very literally in the peeing shot, when the guy is holding on to his penis and ‘pissing it out’. I wanted to deal visually with situations which were to do with flirtation, to do with aggression, with sensitivity – the whole emotional rollercoaster. I wanted to deal with the whole gamut in my own limited vocabulary.

PB: The hula-hooping sequences filmed in close-up in Five Easy Pieces are overtly sexual.

SMcQ: Well, for me, when I first did it, it was to do with whirling dervishes and the whole idea of spinning to get closer to God. But the hip-thrusting hula-hooping is just like fucking, wanking or masturbating - live guys doing it together. Maybe no one gets closer to God by masturbating, I don’t know!

PB: The tightrope-walker above appears to be essentially feminine - would it have worked as well if it had been a man?

SMcQ: No, I think you’re quite right. It is painful walking the tightrope back and forth. Your feet hurt. It is very much like she’s making love - the expression on her face, her breathing. I wanted her to be out of the way of this boy’s stuff below. I wanted her to be up there somewhere, doing her own thing while the boys could just get on with what the boys were doing. There’s a lot of distance between the two.

PB: The camera angles exaggerate the distance.

SMcQ: Yes, the idea is that she is walking over the guys’ heads. Also there is the symmetry of the shot, the partition of her hair and the partition of her spine, together with the position of her arms which breaks up the frame quite beautifully.

PB: You take that much further in Stage, in which you employed a split screen, literally dividing the frame. Having avoided, in your other work, the danger of binary opposites - apart from the obvious one of black and white film - here you court it, the risk being that it will be read literally in terms of black and white.

SMcQ: The problem with these issues - a white woman and a black guy – is that they are heavy things to deal with. They aren’t what I was concerned with at all. I wasn’t being naive about them, but a black man and a white woman is such a cliché whereas Bear didn’t seem to be clichéd at all. Maybe the situation is too concrete, an Othello kind of situation. There are some very good moments in there, but it is like a ball and chain with me, this film.

PB: Perhaps confronting the problem head on, by splitting the screen as you did, is a strength.

SMcQ: In some ways it has been a good experience because it is pushing me to do other things.

PB: Just Above My Head is something of a departure although there are lots of continuities. Most obviously it deals with questions of visibility. The fact that you are black, and that you are both the artist and the subject of the film, inevitably gives it an extra edge.

SMcQ: When I walk out into the street or go to the toilet, I don’t think of myself as being black. Of course, other people think of me as black when I walk into a pub. Obviously being black is a part of me like being a woman is part of you. I just want to make work. People try to contain things by putting them into categories. I don’t.

PB: A lot of contemporary women artists find that they cannot relate to the kinds of issues that exercised feminists in the 70s. They, too, say that they just want to make work; they are feminists, yes, but they are not fighting the same battles. For an older generation of black or female artists, visibility was a fundamental issue – Rasheed Araeen, for instance, called his book, Making Myself Visible, for him it was everything to do with his being black. In Just Above My Head, on the other hand, we gasp as your head disappears out of the bottom of the frame, briefly lost from view, precisely because we are able to identify with the subject regardless of race, colour or gender.

SMcQ: I’m in the position I am because of what other people have done and I’m grateful, for sure. But at the same time, I am black, yes. I’m British as well. But as Miles Davis said, ‘So what?’ I don’t say that flippantly but like anyone else I deal with certain things in my work because of who I am. I make work in order to make people think.

PB: In Just Above My Head, there is almost a moment of epiphany, the moment when the tree looms out of the sky behind your head - a soaring, even transcendental image for both the subject and the viewer - that is the very opposite of the fearful moment when your head disappears from view.

SMcQ: For me that whole thing was to do with gravity. All along, all you’ve seen is empty sky, just whiteness, with this head bobbing along. Then we see these tree branches spread across the screen and it’s like ‘Oh, we’ve landed. Thank God!’ It is like something to hang on to where before there was nothing else apart from white sky.

PB: When I first saw this piece, it struck me as the counterpart to the tightrope sequence from Five Easy Pieces. To reverse my earlier question, was it essential that the protagonist in Just Above My Head, is a man?

SMcQ: It had to be me! The reason being that I’m a person who likes to work, I mean physically work. It was a case of ‘I’m going to walk!’.

PB: You use both real time and slowed-down time in your films. What dictates your decision to alter the time?

SMcQ: I generally use 50 frames per second - it’s not slow motion (25 frames per second is the normal speed that film goes through the projector). It is a very subtle thing - I don’t want to romanticise things. It is almost like that feeling when you’re sleeping but you’re awake. It is to do with that. Funnily enough, both the situations in which I have used slow motion have been to do with feet; the tightrope sequence in Five Easy Pieces and the sequence when I am crawling in Stage. All the rest have been fragments slowed down frame by frame.

PB: I wasn’t really aware of the tightrope sequence being slowed down because the tension of the moment was such that it seemed like real time, just as in real life, in moments of high tension or drama, time seems to slow down. In that sense, you have manipulated a natural reaction in the viewer.

SMcQ: I like to make films in which people can almost pick up gravel in their hands and rub it but at the same time, I like the film to be like a wet piece of soap - it slips out of your grasp; you have to physically move around, you have to re-adjust your position in relation to it, so that it dictates to you rather than you to it.

PB: You are working on a new project with a professional cinematographer. How will this affect your approach?

SMcQ: It is like working against someone in some ways, which I quite like. It is about making a relationship as well. There’s a lot of grip there. A lot of things to hang on to.

PB: So it is a behind-the-scenes collaboration like that between you and the other protagonist in front of the camera in Bear?

SMcQ: Exactly. It is exactly that in fact. It is a journey. I didn’t know what was going to happen in that film. I had one idea - these two guys clashing – and from that things just developed, scene by scene, looking at rushes, changing things around.

PB: Is this new collaboration with a professional cinematographer a way of getting back to your original ambition of making feature films?

SMcQ: Yes, definitely. I will do it. When you make a film it is like a journey. It is basically therapy. For me, the only way to work on an idea is to get a camera and develop things as I go along.

PB: How would you handle sound, in particular dialogue?

SMcQ: That’s difficult. I have difficulty putting words in peoples’ mouths. The best dialogue is very, very thin dialogue; you let people improvise and then basically you record what they’ve improvised and then write it down. Sound itself, though, is not a problem, you just press ‘record’ and ‘play’.

PB: Can you conceive of a time when you would use colour?

SMcQ: Yes. The reason I have avoided it up till now was because I thought it was a bit distracting. What I was trying to be was direct. But now I think ‘Yes, I’ll get there’, but with the right project.

Patricia Bickers is Editor of Art Monthly.

First published in Art Monthly 202: Dec-Jan 96-97.

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