Steve McQueen and the “Shame” of New York City

Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender first made magic together with 2009's "Hunger," a brutal and bare look at Bobby Sands, who lead an ultimately fatal hunger strike in order secure basic rights for IRA prisoners being held by the British. Now McQueen and Fassbender have teamed up again, this time for a very different film, "Shame," about a thirty-something yuppie sex addict, named Brandon, living in New York City, whose life is thrown into turmoil by an unannounced visit from his sister, played by Carey Mulligan.

"Shame" is an unflinching look at Brandon's constant quest for sexual gratification, one that is raw and honest enough to have earned the film an NC-17 rating. Brandon prowls the streets of Manhattan, on the lookout at work, on the streets, online for his next conquest.

Brandon's New York City is so remarkably vivid and real, it's hard to believe that McQueen originally intended to set this story in London. But that's what he told PopcornBiz earlier this month from the comfort of the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo.

"I wanted to film it in London and no one would talk to us. At that time, possibly, because in the media sex addiction was so much in the news, so by coincidence we came over here, we spoke to (some people) and they said “why don’t you film over here?” McQueen said. "And of course we were speaking to people who were addicts and former addicts. So the wind blew us over the Atlantic."

As McQueen tells it, geography was never what his focus. He just needed a home for Brandon.

"The world I was interested in was following Brandon. The world I was interested in was 'Where would Brandon live? Where would Brandon work? How would Brandon get to work? When Brandon goes home, what food does eat? Is it Chinese or takeout or where is that Chinese takeout in relationship to his house? Where does he go to drop off his laundry?'
So all of those things I was very meticulous about, his ritual and what he would do. Sometimes the locations we were shooting in were ugly, but that’s life you work with it. I love the idea that – to be hung up by those kinds of limitations, forces you to work and make something half decent and that was the situation.

And being a born-and-bred Briton, McQueen grew up accustomed to London, and now finds himself awed by the grandeur of the Big Apple, a sense of scale most New Yorkers scarcely notice.

"You know a lot … New Yorkers live and work in the sky. That’s amazing. It’s like 'Wow! You live and work in the sky!' And most people raised eyebrows and like “What is this guy talking about?” But what’s interesting about that to me is that you are always in perspective with the city… It’s kind of interesting how insignificant it makes you feel, how insignificant you are when you look out the window and are like 'Wow, there’s this massive city.'

"It does things in a way. And with a camera, of course, you can actually see it physically happening—with the reflections in the window of the office and so forth and the light and when Brandon takes Marianne to stare at the wonderful view – it’s almost like, for me, this Antonioni movie in that--and I never thought this before--but in that hotel room, because it’s so lonely in a way, when you see in the frame the huge possibility of the city it makes you lonely. So it’s a frame. And by coincidence you have the city. I mean it’s kind of great, because by coincidence you show the city.

New York City is so deeply embedded in the DNA of "Shame," that it's even the source of some of the soundtrack most important song's, not least of which is a haunting cover of "New York, New York," sung by Mulligan's character, Sissy. It's a take on the standard that reduces her brother to tears. The vocal arrangement, which McQueen did himself, is unlike any you've heard before, a huge departure from Sinatra and others.

"This is a blues. It’s not a triumphal sort of “hey!” we’re talking about a person who is a homeless person who sees the bright lights in the distance and wants to go there and make it there. He’s not there, she’s not there…"

"Shame," rated NC-17, opens Friday in limited release.

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