Steve McQueen On His Most Person Project To Date, ‘Small Axe,’ And Overcoming His Fears As A Filmmaker

It’s remarkable to hear Steve McQueen sound unsure of himself, even when he’s speaking about himself in the past tense. Because when you look at McQueen’s filmography up until now – Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Widows – this is the work of a very confident filmmaker who is in total command of his craft.
Let’s never forget the dinner scene in Shame, a six-minute masterclass in filmmaking. It’s just two people (played by Michael Fassbender’s and Nicole Beharie) having dinner, but over the course of those six uncut minutes, we watch a first date go from something that is hopeful, like most first dates start out, to something tragic. McQueen never seems to enjoy talking about these types of uncut shots, but my best guess is because they are almost treated as magic tricks, instead of what they are intended to do: Put us, the viewer, in the best possible vantage point to see and hear what McQueen is trying to tell us.
Well, with the five films that make up McQueen’s Small Axe (a number that now more than doubles his filmography), McQueen has a lot he wants to tell us. But the difference this time is the subject matter is so close to him, such a pivotal part of who he is as a human being and a filmmaker, again, as he says, he found himself scared. But McQueen’s slightly morbid, but undeniably true mantra is that we are all going to die, so might as well take a chance. Because what’s the worst that could happen?
The result (which will be available via Amazon Prime on November 20th) is an anthology about the West Indian experience in London told over the course of five films (with unconnected plots, timelines and casts) in which McQueen presents the Black experience of London in the ’70s and ’80s. To pick two, Lovers Rock is a joyous part filled with music and love. It’s infectious. Red, White and Blue stars John Boyega as a man joining the police force. As McQueen points out, he looks at it as art imitating life, because like Boyega joining Star Wars, barriers are broken, but once the barrier is broken, that doesn’t mean things automatically change.
Over the years I’ve interviewed McQueen a handful of times, but this time felt different. McQueen, as an interviewee, likes to keep journalists on their toes and it’s best to come very prepared. He is a person who knows what he’s talking about. But this time McQueen seemed more emotional than normal, which was apparent even over Zoom. With Small Axe, he’s a director who is putting his whole heart out there, and now he has to wait and see if people respond.
With Small Axe, you’ve more than doubled your entire filmography in one month. With Lovers Rock, being at the virtual version of New York Film Festival, a lot of people here needed to at least watch a party like that.
I was just very enthused in New York with the reception of Lovers Rock, and the other two as well. But I think with Lovers Rock, it was this one thing about the liberation of the senses and the impression that people were just sort of taking with it, because of the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in with sensuality. There’s the liberation of hearing, of smell. It was pretty. Yeah, I was very touched. Very very touched.
Seriously, it just felt great to watch that.
It was amazing to make it, too. What was happening on the other side of the cameras was just… you know, sometimes you can be in a situation where you are, and I’ve said this before, but you are a witness. No! Not even a witness, I would say you’re invited. Regardless of your presence, it would have happened anyway. That was the environment that we create, I created. The fact that it happened that way in such an infectious way – euphoric sort of visceral way – was fantastic.
Last time we spoke you were talking about seeing North by Northwest with a big crowd. You said there’s no point looking at a movie on your laptop and the thrill of cinema is to be in an audience with 200 people. Now we don’t have that. People are going to watch these on whatever setup they have.
Yeah. Well, listen, there’s a positive out of it. I won’t even say the negative, just positive. The positive is that hopefully we’ll get back to those screens very, very soon. Again, when this thing is over, I can’t wait.
Me neither.
I think there’s going to be a cascade, an avalanche, a stampede of people to the big screen. I’m hoping that people hold on because there will be a lot of people, their thirst will be quenched by cinema. I mean, people want to go to the cinema!
Yes, they do.
It’s not a dead medium. It’s actually going to be crazy. On the other side of that, we still have this other medium, the streaming situation, that people can actually still see films. Of course not with each other, but at home. At the same time, it’s something that we can actually just have at least. It’s something we can actually celebrate, at least, because we’re still active, it’s still active. It’s not like it’s … how would you say? it’s not like it’s cinema, but at the same time at least we have this medium. I think it’s great. I’m very grateful for it. More people see it than they would in a cinema. Nothing can beat the cinematic experience as far as I’m concerned. But for film, this comes close.
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I was actually surprised when this was first announced because last time we spoke you were talking about your experience with HBO, which didn’t go well. It sounded like you were pretty against doing anything like that again. Why did you change your mind?
I think it was to do, firstly, with the BBC. I wanted this to be on the BBC because, for me, these stories, these small acts, were national stories. So the fact that anyone in the UK who turned on the TV had access to these stories was very, very important to me – rather than limiting to a cinema release or whatever. So that was very much a turning point for me. Also, how these films were received at Cannes, New York Film Festival, Rome and London? It’s just having the best of both worlds. Yes, I wanted these to be on television and in a streaming situation because I wanted people to have access to these stories the way they wouldn’t have had if it was only cinema release.
I know you’ve been wanting to do these since right after Hunger. Did it work out the right way that it’s coming out now? It sounds so cliché to go it’s of the moment, but it really feels like this was meant to come out this year.
Well, I wasn’t mature enough. I didn’t live enough. I didn’t understand enough until now. Now was the time to make these films. Sometimes the things you know about, or are close to you, are under your nose, under your chin. You can’t see them. You need perspective on them to sort of have a real understanding of them. The whole idea of what happened with these movies coming out now with the unfortunate situation with George Floyd, well all I can say is that I’d rather George Floyd would be alive today to be honest. But in this situation, you know, there’s never a good time or bad time to release something. Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that. These stories go on and on and on.
I am curious, too, because you mentioned last time, when you were talking about Collin Farrell’s character in Widows, and you were mentioning there’s some Bush there, there’s maybe some Trump there. How much was Trump or Boris Johnson on your mind when you were making these films? Or maybe not, since Lovers Rock is such a celebration.
It’s not about Boris or Trump. It’s about this sort of continuing narrative of unfortunate situations or unfortunate individuals that prop up or keep up a certain kind of mentality. So, for me, that’s why it was just about a celebration of the Black experience as much as them having to sort of deal with the unfortunate surroundings. With Black people we’re always in a situation where we’ve always been inventive within the tragedies often we find ourselves in. How do we make something bad into something good? That’s what we do. If it’s in the arts or whatever, we’ve always had a situation where we have to sort of turn the environment into something else. Look at it differently. That’s the only way to survive.
In Red, White and Blue, John Boyega is becoming a police officer tells a friend he’s joining the force. The reply is, “You’re going to be a Jedi?” I wasn’t expecting a Star Wars joke and I’m curious what John thought of that.
Courttia Newland wrote that line.
Ah, okay.
Courttia Newland wrote that line, which I thought was fantastic. It’s just one of those things where, yeah, what’s interesting enough about Leroy Logan, he kind of parallels John’s life in the movie. He’s the golden boy. He goes into the force, just like our man John in Star Wars. There were all these expectations and all these things which were sort of going to occur. What happens is he comes up against something. He’s not allowed to proceed further. So, in some ways, it’s art imitating life, in a way, with John’s situation. Not just John’s situation, not just Leroy Logan’s situation, but with a lot of Black people’s situation within the corporate world or in the workforce. That’s what they will come up against in whatever sort of environment they’re in: that they want to integrate in order to change things, but not be allowed to progress. So this is something which, you know, groups in the UK but also groups in the US will identify with immediately. They will recognize it.
In the film, he calls for backup but they don’t arrive. Which kind of feels like art imitating life, in a way, with when he speaks out on social media. I hadn’t thought about that until you said that.
Well, I’m only basing my opinions on obviously what we’re reading in GQ. Obviously we were all there, we all saw, so that’s happening.
The music is just phenomenal throughout. I might be wrong on this one, in Red, White and Blue, you only hear it for a few seconds, was that the original Gloria Jones version of “Tainted Love?”
Also, I certainly didn’t expect to hear “Uptown Girl.”
Ha! I love that tune.
It’s great.
Also, Al Green was huge in this picture, just because there’s a real kind of soulfulness about him and also that was one of Leroy’s favorite artists.
For you, how important were the song selections in all these films? They do seem to be there to help tell the story.
Absolutely. I mean, again, it’s always been the refuge, often for music. I did this thing in the Shed last year. The inauguration exhibition at the Shed in New York. I made a crazy show – Grace Jones, myself – called Soundtrack of America. It is the bloodstream of Black life. It is kind of the soundtrack of Black life. You hear it often when you’re walking down the street in your head. So, to translate that and put it into these films was vitally important. It was the perfume that had to be in the air that fueled a lot of things and sort of heightened a lot of things. We should definitely do a conversation just for the music, but it would go on forever.
When I asked you about that scene in Widows when Colin Farrell is in the car and going from one section of Chicago to the other, you played it off as, look, I’m a British filmmaker, we got to stretch a pound. But now you did five movies. If you’re stretching pounds, how did you do this?
I think it’s passion. Nothing becomes hard because it’s the passion, you want it so much. Again, these were somethings which I had to do. These were things I had to do, so it didn’t feel hard, it felt like… What did it feel like? It felt like a gift. It’s kind of corny to say that but it did. It was a privilege. It was a privilege to tell the stories of my ancestors and my family, which had never been told. It was a privilege to do that. I went to work, I ran to work. I ran to work! And I stretched a pound. Amazon helped a bit but it’s, yeah.
Well, it certainly doesn’t look like it. It looks like a very expensive production.
That’s the trick! Make it look easy!
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You mentioned earlier you weren’t mature enough after Hunger to make this? When did it hit you? Was it after doing a certain film? Was it after 12 Years a Slave? What was it where you were just like I understand what this needs to be?
I knew I could do it now, but was I ready?
Right, okay.
Doing it, yes, I know how to do it. But was I ready upstairs?
You mention the passion. Could you have summoned that then, to do what you did today?
I was scared. I was scared. I was scared because it was things that I knew about, but I didn’t know… I told them, I was scared. Can you imagine? Isn’t it strange? Things that are so close to you that you feel are the easiest things to do? I did not feel that. I felt the further it was away from me maybe, so it’s a very strange thing. I had to sort of prepare myself in some ways for it. The day before I shot, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep. The day before we shot, I didn’t sleep a wink. I couldn’t sleep. So I don’t know, maybe I knew I was ready to do it, but there was something that wasn’t there? Again, you’re making something that you know, or is so close to you? No, I haven’t answered that, I don’t know what that was. Sometimes you just got to jump. Don’t look at how you’ll land, just jump. That’s what I did.
Something you said last time that’s really stuck with me, especially this year, I think we were talking about Widows but you so bluntly said, “We all die, why not take a chance because we’re all going to die.” I think about that a lot, especially this year when everything seems so terrible.
Yeah. That’s me, that’s my mantra. Go for it, what’s there to lose? Absolutely. You will die anyway, what’s the worst thing that can happen to you? What’s the worst thing that can happen to you? Just go for it. Who gives a shit! You know? I think that’s the thing. Propel yourself, because why not? If you’re too careful nothing ever happens. You got to go for it. Sometimes do something and ask questions later. You know?
Your self-doubt could stop you from doing anything. If you start questioning things too often, you end up sort of discounting yourself. Well, this was the hardest thing I ever did in some ways. Definitely the hardest thing I ever did because I was confronting myself in that way. I had to basically shout that mantra to myself every morning.
‘Small Axe’ premieres on BBC on November 15, and Amazon Prime on November 20. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.