An interview with Steve McQueen about his new, critically acclaimed NC-17 film

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Writer/director Steve McQueen and actors Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale on the set of Shame. (Fox Searchlight)

Movies have dealt with various forms of addiction many times before. But rarely have they truly mirrored the life of an addict, viscerally evoking the existential torture of an unstoppable compulsion.

Shame, the latest film from British writer-director Steve McQueen, burrows under the skin of its sex-addicted protagonist Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and finds its way to a deeply uncomfortable place.

Few movies have made wall-to-wall sex seem to be a grimmer enterprise, the function of a man succumbing to the deepest recesses of his tormented brain rather than his libidinal desires. As temptations abound within his high-powered New York milieu, Brandon fights a losing battle against his destructive obsession, which threatens his health, his job and his already-estranged relationship with his sister, the aptly named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who turns up at his antiseptic apartment when she's left with nowhere else to go.

Here, McQueen (Hunger) speaks about filmmaking as a form of investigation, his fascination with addiction, and how it feels to be at the helm of the most prominent NC-17 film in years, which opens in limited release on Friday.

How great of a challenge was it to make a movie with adult themes, unafraid of depicting sexuality, in this day and age?

It wasn't really a challenge. For me, it's the movie I wanted to make. It was about finding out about things. You investigate. You experiment. And then you produce a movie. For me, it was never a situation of a challenge.

It was more a situation of being open to the possibilities of what occurs when you follow addiction, specifically sexual addiction, and when you find out about it and you examine the whole thing, like all addictions it's got nothing to do with the actual thing you're addicted to itself. Alcohol addiction has got nothing to do with being thirsty. And sex addiction's got nothing to do with sex. That's interesting. In some ways, that's the thing that is exhilarating, to try and work with that.

What intrigued you about exploring sex addiction in particular?

What was interesting to me is the whole idea of what happens when a person is not in control of their emotions, when a person is not in control of their actions. With sex, it's interesting because it's really something which we all participate in. It's not something like alcohol or drugs that you can stop. So that really fascinated me. The fact of the matter is there's really no self will, for example. We don't have it. If I had self will I'd have a six-pack. It's an extreme form of that and how we negotiate our way in the world.

To what extent is Brandon's addiction informed or enhanced by the upper-class Manhattan world he inhabits?

Michael is [playing] a viral marketer, and you'd never know that. His office could be any kind of office you can think of. I suppose it's the high pressures, possibly, and having a lot of money. I suppose that's an aspect of it. But it doesn't just happen in those environments. It happens to people all over poor communities, as well as to an everyday man or woman. It has a broad sweep of society involved.

Given that broad sweep, why'd you and co-writer Abi Morgan focus on a high-end, wealthy Manhattan marketer?

The people we met often came from these kinds of worlds. We thought, "OK, let's go with that." Originally we wanted to set the film in London, but no one would talk [to us] because the subject of sexual addiction is so high-profile I think it scared people away. … We came to the States, talked to these two experts, and they in turn introduced us to people with sex addiction or recovering addicts.

Besides the obvious reasons, why are the many extended sex scenes essential to the film?

Certain things are not particularly attractive. I think, what we have to do, in a way, is look at these things to sort of gauge where we are in the world. The sex scenes, they are what they are. They're not pornographic. They're not exploitative. They're an examination of a person who's on the edge.

What do you make of Fox Searchlight's embracing of the NC-17 rating, without asking for cuts?

I'm extraordinarily grateful to Fox Searchlight for releasing the film in the United States. I imagine if it wasn't for them, most likely the film would not be released in the United States, so I'm extraordinarily grateful to them. I never had one conversation with Fox Searchlight about NC-17. I thought it was a rap band.

How has your experience showing the film in the U.S. so far impacted your sense of Americans' attitude toward sex? Do you agree that it can be somewhat puritanical?

I don't actually think that's true. That might be what people are saying, but I don't think it's true. I think people's responses to the movie already have been, for me, tremendous. [Given] the way people have responded to it and reacted to it, I don't necessarily think that's true.

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