Steve McQueen refers to his new film, Widows as a rollercoaster, which is apt since this interview itself was a rollercoaster and a minor film festival miracle it even happened. (It involved a shuttle bus, an Uber, and a five-block sprint through the streets of Toronto as McQueen patiently waited. When the interview started I was still out of breath.) It’s been a full five years since we last had a Steve McQueen film (personally, I think McQueen is one of the best directors working today), which of course was 12 Years a Slave, which took home a Best Picture Oscar.
Widows stars Viola Davis as Veronica, a woman who has to pay off the debts of her husband (Liam Neeson) after he’s killed during a heist. To do this she recruits fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to pull off an upcoming heist that their now dead husbands had been planning. Colin Farrell plays a corrupt politician at the heart of all this and there’s an extended long take he’s involved in that is just absolutely stunning.
McQueen is not one to mince words. He’s blunt about how he’s been labeled “difficult” within an industry where a white director in a similar position doesn’t get that word attached (instead, they’re often labeled “passionate” or a “perfectionist” some other euphemistic term). He’s also blunt about the fact he was told not to hire Michelle Rodriguez because she also apparently has a reputation for being “difficult.” McQueen explains why being labeled as “difficult” is all a bunch of bullshit.
The Widows premiere went really well.
I didn’t get to see it with a crowd and I’m envious.
That’s the good thing about cinema. No point looking at a movie on your laptop on your own at home. The thrill of cinema is to be in an audience with 200 people, 500 people or a thousand people and watching something. I remember when I saw North by Northwest with my wife when we first dated. About 20 years ago. That movie, and the reaction…
You got to see it with a crowd?
Oh, I mean, people applauding and all that. It just gives you a skip in your step as you exit the cinema. It’s a communal experience. That’s what cinema is. And that’s why I made this film.
Is this unique for you? I’m wondering, because Hunger and Shame, there aren’t that many applause lines like Widows has.
Sometimes there’s a time to cheer and sometimes there’s a time to cry. And we have that both in this movie.
Last time we spoke I remember we talked about the long take. With 12 Years a Slave you were very adamant that you don’t set out to do that, it’s only to service the story. And in Widows, the shot with Colin Farrell as he drives from an impoverished neighborhood to a wealthy neighborhood is getting a lot of attention, but it just encapsulates everything that’s going on in this movie.
There are about four things going on in that one shot. Again, you must understand, that I’m a British filmmaker so we have to try to stretch a pound. There’s an economic value to it as well. Again, sometimes limitation is freedom. I think layers are just so important because, just right now, I’m talking to you and there will still be things going on in this conversation, which I’m aware of. So how do you reflect that in life? You’re going from the South side of Chicago, downtown, to this affluent neighborhood in one ride. You see the landscape change in the journey. You see the private and the public. He’s just talked to those people.
Did you base Colin Farrell’s character on any one politician?
One could talk about Bush. One could talk about the Clintons. One could talk about all kinds of politicians, and even Trump and dynasties and nepotism.
When you win Best Picture for a movie like 12 Years a Slave, does it change what you do next?
What it does is, possibly, allow you to make one more mistake. So that’s about it really. It allows you possibly to make one more mistake.
So did you feel like you could take a chance on something?
We all will die. Why not take a chance, because we’re all gonna die? Once I realized, and it sounds stupid for me to say this, once I realized we’re all gonna die, I was like let’s just go for it. What’s there to lose?
Even if 12 Years a Slave didn’t do what it did, is Widows what you would have made next regardless?
I don’t think I would have made it, because, maybe, no one would have given me the money if I hadn’t made 12 Years a Slave. Like I said, it allows you to go out and make one more mistake.
It never occurred to me, “I want to see Viola Davis in a role like this,” and then it’s in front of me and it’s like, “Oh, I like this.”
I hear you, but sometimes audiences don’t know what they want. And studios offer something to the audiences, which is safety. Everyone wants safety. Everyone wants to do what they’ve done before. The whole idea of actually doing new versions of a heist movie is to break the conventions and break the rules. Otherwise, we get the same movie time and time and time again. So the same thing goes with Viola as far as casting. I want to reflect the world that I live in. I open the door and what I see. I want the audience to be reflected onto the screen. The cinema where you go and pay to go; the cinema ought to be reflected on the screen. Simple.
When will we see something again from you? Because, just selfishly, I feel it’s been too long.
It was. I did the HBO thing, which HBO didn’t pick up and that’s another story. But, at the same time, I made three films in five years, two retrospective works, I had a child. At a certain point, I was forced to stop, but I was happy because of it.
Can we talk about Lukas Haas’ character?
Ohhh! [McQueen gives me a high five.] Lukas killed it.
That seems like such a complicated role. He plays a guy who meets Elizabeth Debicki’s character on a “sugar daddy” type dating site. He’s mysterious but not a bad guy.
Bang on! You’re bang on. I’m so happy, this is the last interview of the day, but bang on. Lukas Haas had to navigate in the way of not coming off the track. But it’s a very treacherous road. His handling was so deft.
You take that one little step either way with that and it just doesn’t work.
Absolutely. It just falls apart. No, he nailed it. Bang bang bang. I’m so happy you said that, thank you so much.
I’m glad I brought it up.
Brand fucking new on this fucking show.
There are a lot of people in this who are just fantastic. Carrie Coon has a small role but is amazing.
When Carrie Coon came in, she hit the ball out of the park. Again, you’re opposite Viola Davis! You better bring your A game. How many scenes has she got? She’s got two scenes! With Viola Davis! And she was just, boom, with Viola Davis!
And Jacki Weaver.
Boom, Jacki Weaver. I mean bang.
Are people just lining up to be in your movies?
I love actors. I love actors.
But they know that, and that’s why they want to work for you.
One reason why I love actors is these people portray humanity. They take so much risk to show up, and to be who we are. And I just, I’m so in love with them and to collaborate with an actor, to encourage them, to help them produce something that maybe they didn’t even know they could possibly do, and also inspire me? Boom. Loving it. That’s what it’s about. For me, the movie is about a rollercoaster ride. It’s a rollercoaster ride. But, on the rollercoaster ride, it’s from A to Z. You stop at certain locations which tell us about the environment we’re in and the predicament these women have to challenge in order to get to their destination. I want to tell you something as well…
Take Michelle Rodriguez. People told me not to work with her.
Because she’s “difficult.” She’s this and that. “Don’t work with her. No, no don’t work with her.” But people say that about me. If you’re a white director, they call you a perfectionist. Me, they call difficult. So I didn’t pay any mind to what people say about Michelle, because I had to find out for myself. I offered her the role and she said no.
Why didn’t she want to do it at first?
She said that she didn’t want to be the character. The character was subservient to men. She didn’t want a situation where she was beholden to a man. She said no and I did a lot of auditions of other actresses, but for me it wasn’t working.
That has to be tough when you know who you want.
Well, yeah. I even sat down with her in a café in LA and we hit it off like a house on fire immediately. It was kind of funny because, what’s interesting about Michelle is, I’m interested in easy people. She is just amazing as an intellect and what she’s interested in, she’s so curious and so tenacious as a human being. When I met her, I thought, “Oh, I understand what they mean by difficult.” She’s always asking questions to herself, difficult questions. And trying to answer them. Bring that here! I want that! I have the same reputation so it’s nonsense. Again, when people say things about people, one has to find out themselves. That’s it. That’s what it is.
‘Widows’ premiered this week at the Toronto Film Festival and will open in theaters in November. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.