Donald Clarke (Irish Times) interviews director Steve McQueen (Hunger, 12 Years a Slave) on his new series, Small Axe, and about dealing with the West Indian experience in London over 30 years. Here are excerpts; see full article at Irish Times. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
It’s been 13 years since I first met Steve McQueen. Hunger, his devastating take on the H-Block hunger strikes, had just won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. His victory in the Turner Prize, the UK’s premier award for visual arts, was nearly a decade in the past. We enjoyed a sunny autumn day on the patio at the front of the American Hotel in Amsterdam.
“I remember that. Nice terrace,” he says.
A lot has happened in the interim. Hunger made a star of Michael Fassbender. McQueen won an Oscar as producer of 12 Years a Slave in 2014. Last year, he was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list. Small Axe, his recent series of films for the BBC, has been universally acclaimed. At next week’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, a virtual event this year, he will chew through the career with writer and actor Mark O’Halloran.
Yet you couldn’t reasonably argue that acclaim has softened his edges. He still enjoys tugging the carpet beneath interviewers and rounding on your questions from an oblique angle. We get into it early on when I ask if he has an opinion on the debate as to whether Small Axe, dealing with the West Indian experience in London over 30 years, counts as cinema.
“I don’t care! That’s for critics to talk about,” he says. “I think these kind of conversations are about the limits of people’s imagination of what can be what. If the situation is not pushed then it becomes stagnant.”
This is not an issue of ranking. Nobody (at least nobody who’s not an idiot) is rating one medium over another. But it was interesting to note how the anthology and the individual films have been treated in awards season. The LA Film Critics Circle anointed the whole series as its film of the year. Their counterparts in New York honoured Lovers Rock, the beautiful, elegiac episode concerning a reggae party in 1980, individually for its cinematography. But Small Axe has not been entered for the Oscars or the Bafta awards. Next year’s Emmys await. What goes on? The media are all blurring.
“That’s not for me to say. That’s for you. Blurring? I just make stuff. You are the guys who want to put labels on things. That limits your thoughts and your imagination. If you want to be limited by form then fine. But kids aren’t. It feels dusty. It feels like an old conversation.”
Fair enough. After all, McQueen came to the moving image via television.
“The first time I saw movies was on TV,” he says. “But when I got in to watch with an audience that was another thing. The ‘oohs’ and the ‘ahs’! It was a fantastic experience to watch a film with an audience.”
Does he remember what films won him over as a child?
“Lots of things. I saw Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter when I was 11 years old. I remember seeing a Warhol film projected at school. I remember seeing The Singing Detective, the Dennis Potter series, on TV. That was very influential.” [. . .]
Education, the last of Small Axe’s five films, deals with the semi-official segregation of black students in London schools during the 1970s. Viewers will inevitably parse the story for clues as to McQueen’s background. He was not considered academic at school. Diagnosed with dyslexia, stuck with an eye patch due to an ocular complaint, he felt that he was written off at the age of 13. He proved them all wrong. He studied design at Chelsea College of Art and became part of a golden generation – the so-called Young British Artists – at Goldsmiths College, going on to excel in the field of video art. [. . .]
“Everything is political. Calling me a political director is like calling me a male director. Everything is political. Nothing is divorced from the political. How he and she met? Where they come from? I am not uneasy about that. I am just a realist. Ha, ha!” [. . .]