"It's not about a dude in a rain coat with sweaty hands." That's one way to look at the newest film starring Michael Fassbender, Shame, which is directed by Steve McQueen, of Hunger notoriety. The film co-stars Carey Mulligan and centers around a New York bachelor named Brandon (Fassbender) who struggles with his sexual addiction while his sister crashes at his swanky apartment.
I sat down with Fassbender and McQueen in a roundtable interview to discuss addiction, the meaning of Fassbender's character to all of us, McQueen's idea behind constructing a gripping opening scene, and more.
Shame opens in Chicago on December 2.
Has this been sort of an odd press tour considering the questions people have been asking?
Steve McQueen: Well, I don't want to talk about my sex life. It's one of those things you don't talk about.
Sex addiction isn't generally discussed in media. How did you decide to handle the subject, which isn't a highly discussed subject?
Michael Fassbender: I suppose our relationship with sex is not a clear one. As a society. How much is our own free will, and how much is being sold to us? We grow up in a world in which there is so much information and manipulation, at all times. It's like [sex addiction] is something that is happening; it's not something that we're trying to stir up here. We're trying to stir and investigate and really treat it respectfully. Because it happens. And yes, in the beginning, I was thinking, "Sex addiction, well ... is it a real thing?" And then you start to look into it, and it's very real. And we can choose to repress it, hide it, or we can start to take a look at it, and take a look at ourselves, our relationship to it, how much we are involved in it, and not sort of treat it as a dissociated thing. It's a parcel of all of us, and the world we are living in. Me personally, I tried to keep Brandon as close to me as possible, instead of isolating him from me. And treating it as somebody else's issues and problems. His actions will speak for himself, but his inner life doesn't have to be associated with the act. It's not about a dude in a rain coat with sweaty hands. It's about an everyday guy, that we all know, and in some ways, we are all a part of him. That was important to me, and to Steve as well.
McQueen: We may not understand sex, but we damn know how to sell it, that's for sure. How can we negotiate our way through it? Brandon's sexual addiction has as much to do with alcohol as to being thirsty. It's how you stay above water. And unfortunately, addiction does come about. Sex is one of those places that hasn't been looked at in a serious manner. It needs to be looked at, because it's as familiar to us as everything else we do. And again, I've never held a gun, or shot someone in the head. But apparently that is more normal in movies more than anything else.
Shame is a very New York story. What do you think Brandon as a character says about New York, and how do you feel Shame responds to other New York films?
McQueen: Brandon is indicative of us, he's indicative of you. He is us. He's not a freak, he's not one of us.
Is he a player?
McQueen: He's not a player, but he's absolutely going beyond being just promiscuous. He can't survive a day without having more than a few sexual encounters. Some guys relieve themselves twenty times a day, I don't know. Brandon is on his computer, trying to pick up women, he's constantly thinking about sex - his computer is full of it. He's more removed than just a player, because it takes over his life.
Fassbender: Playing means you're getting some sort of joy out of it. This is about being all encompassed in something. It's like he doesn't want to be going out to the bathroom during his office day. He wants to connect. It's like his relationship with Marianne. He's not going through obliviously sleeping with random people. He is very aware that this is an addiction that is taking over his daily life. When you deal with addiction, and a cycle or behavior has developed, and that cycle is tearing about your relationship with others around you ...
McQueen: It's not a problem until someone tells you it's a problem. Even though you have an idea it's a problem, it's not until someone like Sissy comes in and holds the mirror up. What she does is show past and present.
How much of the role was on the page, and what did you bring to it? What challenges were there with the subject matter and character that you didn't want to do?
Fassbender: Steve told me about the idea in 2008, I got the script in 2010. What struck me immediately was how beautiful the story was - I felt for Brandon and all of the other characters as well. It was sort of like finding him, and allowing him to tell me where to go, and to allow those around me and influence me. And when I mean others around me, I mean Carey and the other cast mates, Steve, David in costume, the props department, the art department. Everyone is informing you; everyone is collaborating. It just sort of represents something, as opposed to closing yourself off to something. I read the script a lot, I live with the guy as much as I can, and then I come to set, put it all out on the floor, and they come with their ideas, and you try to stay open, responsive, and most of all, focused. All of those things are in play. And then you start to go to places where you are shuffling around in the dark a little bit; and you're trying to find things. And you need a really good team around you to do that. It's about respecting the characters, and like I said before, I didn't want to isolate myself from the character.
Michael, you also have 'A Dangerous Method' which is coming out this month, which is also a film about sex and psychology. Did working on one inform your work on the other?
Fassbender: I didn't even think about it at the time, but obviously you see there are some parallels, in terms of discussing our relationship to sex, even a hundred years after the characters of A Dangerous Method. So, at the time I just went from one to the next. I have a pretty good ability of diving into something and then flushing it out, because I went from Dangerous Method to X-Men: First Class to this. It's like I'm trying my best to facilitate what's on the page. You have people that are sort of sensitive, intelligent people. And I know when you're working with people like Steve or Abi (Morgan, co-writer) you respect what's down on the paper, and not really think ... the one thing I suppose, in a roundabout way, is that acting is like psychoanalysis. It's people who are trying to represent human life, and trying to understand what we are doing here, and representing life, and our experiences of life through a storytelling life.
McQueen: One thing I have a feeling about with Dangerous Method, I haven't seen it, is that it's about trying to understand it, whereas Shame is not about trying to understand it, it's just trying to negotiate, because it's all around us. Michael is not Freud, he's not Jung, he's just a guy who is trying to deal with something. I think he relates something more to most people.
Does Brandon have limits?
McQueen: I don't know. It's a movie. You ask me a question, and I don't know either. He's actually Superman. He's got a cape. I don't know. I don't know.
Could Brandon ever go too far?
Fassbender: I think that he's gone pretty far. The thing is, where do you get the fix? And when you're looking for the fix ... it's like buying heroin off the street off a guy that you don't know. And you're injecting it into your veins. That could be anything. And you're putting it directly into your veins because you are so desperate to get your fix. And that's when you put yourself in very dangerous circumstances. And that's where this idea of "shame" comes from. You no longer are possessed with a choice, you're not in control of your actions or you decisions. It's the addiction and condition that is controlling you. After the act, it is the feeling of self-loathing that you are a slave. It's not like there's a line. It's like, where can I find it? That's why you see Brandon in the third act of the film, and he's sort of on the streets of New York, and looking for a fix. One club turns him away, and he turns around and sees someone across the street. That's the availability to get his fix, and he goes after it.
Fassbender: And in this story, the motivations are clear. Why does he get beaten up in the club? He needs to feel something. He doesn't like himself, so he's abusing himself.
There isn't a lot of self-loathing in your performance. When it starts to leak out, Brandon slaps it down with another fix.
Fassbender: Of course, that's the pattern of addiction. The cycle. That feeling of self loathing, shame, "I need to escape from that, so I do it again." It continues.
Let's talk about the introduction of 'Shame.'
McQueen: Well, music is very important. It has to flow. If it's not flowing in the first ten minutes, if it doesn't grab the audience by the balls, you might lose them. You have to give them a situation in which they are finding their way. It's like putting the audience in a room, with the lights turned off. They have to feel their way through the architecture and the furniture of the room. They familiarize themselves after a while.
The movie is coming out in NC-17, which is a relative rarity in America. Was it at all hard to keep 'Shame' as is? Was there talks of an edited version?
McQueen: I never had a conversation with Fox Searchlight regarding NC-17. I never had a conversation with them changing the picture at all. They support the movie. They have taken the movie on its own merit. All we're asking for is that people have a chance to see the movie.