Director Steve McQueen Makes His Mark

Xavier Torres-Bacchetta/Corbis Outline

Once the toast of the art world, Steve McQueen is now an Oscar front-runner with “12 Years a Slave.”

The man of the hour at film festivals this fall—the director who generated the most tweets at Telluride, who won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto—is a 44-year-old Brit of West Indian descent with the unlikely name of Steve McQueen. In Britain, he is already a star of the art world, having earned a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and the prestigious Turner Prize in 1999 for a series of provocative, sometimes beautiful art installations. Now he has thrown the Oscar race a searing curveball in the shape of 12 Years a Slave (which came out in theaters October 18), his adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 account of being sold into slavery despite being a free man, a violinist with three children. The film is a stunner, leaving audiences ashen, slack-jawed, their faces tear-streaked, unsure of what just hit them: A horror film? A work of Hanekesque neo-brutalism? The best film about slavery ever made?

Strange to say, but that’s actually faint praise. There haven’t been that many movies dealing directly with the experience of slavery—last year’s Django Unchained, two Spielbergs and the TV series Roots notwithstanding. “It’s a conversation that needs to happen, and it hasn’t,” says McQueen, who is something of an expert in making sure they do. He’s a dead-air specialist, a taboo buster. If there is an elephant in the room, his work sits on top of it, waving enthusiastically. He has directed three feature films, all of them centered on the battle for control of a body. (Michel Foucault would just die.) First was 2008’s Hunger, a reconstruction of the last days of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, starring an alarmingly emaciated Michael Fassbender; then 2011’s Shame, about a sex addict hitting bottom in New York, also played by Fassbender; and now 12 Years a Slave, which does for whippings what Martin Amis once said Yates did for shotgun blasts: They cease to look like things you can recover from. “I’m used to him by now, so I know where we’re going to be going,” says Fassbender, who plays a villainous slave owner in the film. “Honesty and uncomfortable places are his specialty.”

Big, burly, with an intense, volatile manner, McQueen can be a bit of a terror in interviews, with a fondness for returning questions to your feet in pieces. When I compare his penchant for long, sometimes punishing takes to those of Michael Haneke, he corrects me instantly: “No, Steve McQueen.” It can come across as combative, but the remnants of a stutter hint at something more vulnerable. Whichever awards podium he happens to find himself at, he always manages to end his speech with “Mum, I love you.” While filming a scene in Hunger in which a group of naked detainees are beaten by prison officers in full riot gear, the director jumped up and interrupted his own shoot, “No! No! Cut! We have to stop. Just cut, cut! Stop this now!” The actors insisted on doing another take, but the moment it was done, McQueen hurried off the set, distraught.

“He feels things very deeply,” says Marian Goodman, who has shown the majority of McQueen’s artworks since 2000, when the young artist, a relative unknown in New York, rolled up at her gallery door, doing the rounds. “He basically interviewed me,” she says, acknowledging his more interrogative side with a laugh. McQueen showed her Bear, his graduation work from Goldsmiths, University of London, a ten-and-a-half-minute black-and-white collage of two naked black men (one of whom is McQueen) caught somewhere between a brawl and an embrace, and Five Easy Pieces, a sinuously edited montage featuring shots of a tightrope walker glimpsed from behind as she nervously negotiates her space, and an aerial shot of five men hula-hooping, their figures threatening to break the edges of the frame. “There’s a very strong physicality in the work,” says Goodman, “also a wonderful tendency to humanize his subjects. He’s very ambitious in terms of his wish to make great work. I think he always wanted to do full-length films as well as the art films. There’s quite a variety in the many small films he made. At the same time, there’s also the artist who is brilliant at visualizing. He’s a brave man, I think. Of great consequence.”

Since 1997 he has lived in Amsterdam with his wife, the cultural critic Bianca Stigter, and their two children; he claims to get some of his best ideas while vacuuming. Very few artists have made the transition from gallery to movie theater—Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol come to mind. For his part, McQueen soaked up the work of Jean Vigo, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut and Bergman while in the first flush of art-house cinephilia at Goldsmiths. “These are the people I started with,” he says, “but influences? To be honest with you, no. People say some things are conventional. Some people say they are unconventional, experimental. I have no idea. I don’t have any strategy of what’s art house and what’s mainstream. I’m just trying to make the best thing I can out of what I have in front of me.”

And what he has in front of him, for the most part, are actors. The key to McQueen’s success in his new medium is how instinctively he has fastened onto its collaborative nature. “The one thing that Steve is totally sensitive and aware of is that with actors, it’s all about timing,” says Fassbender. “It’s all about getting the camera ready. It’s almost like racehorses. Once they get on the track, they’re good to go. They’ve come to race.”

12 Years a Slave took months of intensive prep and rehearsal. McQueen had been unaware of the book until his wife brought it to his attention. He’d been looking for firsthand accounts of slavery to film. “I chided myself because I didn’t know the book,” he says. “Then I realized no one knew the book. I thought it was like the Anne Frank’s diary of America.”

All three of McQueen’s films are variations on the theme of freedom—freedom from imprisonment, from addiction, from bondage. Moreover, they put the audience through the exact same experience: visceral, aesthetically aggressive, without the usual hand-holding and mollycoddling. “I’m interested in the truth, and the truth is sometimes uncomfortable,” he says. “I think audiences are way more intelligent than people think. I don’t want to do my audience a disservice by serving up kitsch. I want them to have faith in me as a filmmaker, that this person would get through the worst kind of servitude one could imagine, not just physical but mental. The film is about love. It’s about what one holds onto to get through the worst.”