Steve McQueen can still recall lying on the floor, head propped up in his hands, when he first sat down to watch Lynda La Plante's TV series Widows. He was 13. "Those women were so symbolic of where I was at that time," the director says. "I was being judged on my appearance and was deemed incapable. These women were experiencing exactly that. They had to circumnavigate all these stereotypes and turn them on their head. So I was absolutely glued."
Widows, for those who can't recall that 1983 broadcast, was about three bouffant bereaved women who team up to commit a heist after their husbands die in an armed robbery. It is not necessarily a film you'd expect from the Turner Prize- and Academy Award-winning artist.
“You think heist, you think revenge,” McQueen says. “But I’m thinking drama all the time. I’m thinking, How do you own it? You have to do the genre in a different way. For me it’s a very feminist…”
The film is all about women. So when in doubt go back to the women. How are they feeling? It's one of those times when the most important thing you can do is listen
He pauses and glances up, towards his brain. McQueen is not one to speak carelessly. He stops. He starts. He whispers to himself to ponder something. He repeats for emphasis, sometimes rolling a word around in his mouth like a connoisseur might wine.
“I think that any film that’s not feminist is a bad picture,” he says. “I assume everyone is a feminist. That’s where I’m coming from. For me it has to be a feminist movie to be a good movie. I hope this is a good movie. I’m not a woman, but I’m a huge, huge, huge admirer of women. The film is all about women. So when in doubt go back to the women. How are they feeling? It’s one of those times when the most important thing you can do is listen.”
It's not as if McQueen, the brilliant, flesh-mortifying film-maker behind the tactile Bobby Sands picture Hunger and the coruscating Oscar-winner 12 Years a Slave, was ever going full-blown cops and robbers.
All I am saying is that these people are in love. The inter-racial situation is surprising, but, also, people don't seem to realise that people over the age of 40 have sex
Working with Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, with whom he wrote the script, McQueen has crafted a film that explores race, sex and politics. Much has been made of an opening scene featuring long-time marrieds, played by Liam Neeson and Viola Davis, in bed. As Davis has it: "I know people can roll their eyes, but something needs to be said about it, really, because at what point in the history of cinema have you seen someone who looks like me and someone who looks like Liam Neeson in bed together, kissing, romantic, in love, married?"
“See that happening in the street? No one would blink an eye,” McQueen says. “If we see two men kissing on the street, no one blinks an eye. But on the screen it has this sort of power. What is this saying? All I am saying is that these people are in love.” He laughs. “The inter-racial situation is surprising, but, also, people don’t seem to realise that people over the age of 40 have sex.”
McQueen's Widows stars Davis as Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers' union representative whose husband, Harry, is a criminal. He and his gang die after their van gets blown up in a bravura opening sequence. Unhappily, the vehicle also contained $2 million belonging to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who intended to use the money to run for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the slick son of a powerful, elderly politician (Robert Duvall). Once Jamal shows up at Veronica's apartment, she has little option but to round up others left widowed by her late husband's ill-fated heist – including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) – to carry out the robbery their spouses failed to.
The Chicago setting allows the panoramic plot to zip between ravaged neighbourhoods, dangerous psychopaths (take a bow, Daniel Kaluuya) and the ruling classes. The camera stays trained on the outside of the car during one inventive sequence in which Farrell’s character travels from a downtown charitable initiative to his imposing family quarters in a matter of minutes.
“Thinking about Chicago, the extremes of poverty and wealth are so close to each other, it nearly did my head in,” the director says. “I travelled between this beautiful old house – a woman’s house on the southside that had been foreclosed because she couldn’t keep up on the interest on the mortgage – to an apartment on top of Sears Tower owned by a guy who collects Olympic torches. It took 15 minutes. What the f**k? It’s a hugely politicised town, with Irish and Italian and African-American connections. And now the biggest US Latino community outside LA. So how does the establishment hold on to power in a place like that?”
The most interesting people aren't necessarily easy. That's why they're interesting. As soon as I met Michelle Rodriguez we got on like a house on fire. We understood each other
McQueen was warned off working with Rodriguez for being "difficult" on set. The Fast & Furious star took some coaxing, too. She initially turned down her role in Widows as she was worried her character was subservient to men.
“Yeah, but apparently I’m difficult, too,” McQueen, says, smiling. “There’s a very nice thing that Michael [Fassbender] told me once. He said never listen to what people say. Especially in Hollywood. Just go and find out for yourself. People want a situation where they get to have an easy conversation. But often the most interesting people aren’t necessarily easy. That’s why they’re interesting. As soon as I met Michelle we got on like a house on fire. Because we understood each other. It’s one of those things. As a black man, as an artist, you hear these things about certain other artists. Oh, he’s a perfectionist. They won’t call me a perfectionist. They just call me difficult.” He laughs.
He's not wrong. When McQueen – who is in amiable, chipper form when we meet – appeared on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs, in 2014, its presenter, Kirsty Young, remarked: "I have found you today to be entirely affable and giving, smiling a lot and great company. But a lot of people…"
“You have to laugh at those things, but sometimes they drag you down,” McQueen says. “Are we saying that Michelle Rodriguez hasn’t got work because people call her difficult? Obviously. And it’s a nonsense. Stanley Kubrick? He’s a genius. He’s not a horrible, sadistic arsehole. But he was. If that was a woman? Forget about it. If that was a black guy? Forget about it.”
He is, of course, somewhat accustomed to slings and arrows. When he first watched Widows he was having a terrible time at school, where he had been put in a class for students believed best suited to "manual labour, more plumbers and builders, stuff like that". Against the odds he went on to study art and design, at Chelsea College of Arts, and then fine art, at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, where he became fascinated by the pioneering Soviet film-makers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, and by the transcendentalists Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson.
Bear, the first of McQueen's lauded short films, was presented at the Royal College of Art in London in 1993. He won the Turner Prize in 1999 and produced several major artworks, notably Queen and Country, which commemorated the deaths of British soldiers in the Iraq War by presenting their images as stamps. His debut feature, Hunger, starring Fassbender as Bobby Sands, won the Camera d'Or at the 2008 Cannes Festival.
“I had an amazing time making that picture,” he says. “It’s interesting to talk to you about it now, because it’s 10 years to the day we released that picture. It was an incredible journey. Meeting the people involved was life changing. I remember there were all these bodyguards at the premiere in Belfast. The greatest thing that happened that night was that nothing happened.”
He made two more pictures with Fassbender, Shame and 12 Years a Slave. With the latter he became the first black director to win a best-picture Oscar. He was rightly outspoken during the 2016 Oscars So White campaign.
“I don’t really care about the Oscars,” McQueen says. “I don’t give a damn. I care about things getting made. But trophies? Come on. It’s all about the work and getting people employed. I would like to see more films made by black directors and more films made by women. I’m not saying I don’t want to see films by white directors. I just want more possibilities.”
A former Tottenham Hotspur supporter – he stopped watching because he couldn’t handle “the emotional roller coaster” – McQueen finds parallels between the classism found in the film industry and the decline of Brazilian soccer. “Where are all the working-class actors?” he asks. “Where are the Gary Oldmans? It reminds me that the majority of Brazilian footballers are now middle class. Because obviously they reckon they can earn a buck. I mean, what the f**k? Where are the Peles? Where are the Jairzinhos? It’s weird. And it’s not good.”
Widows opens on Tuesday, November 6th; you can read Donald Clarke's review of it here