Turner Prize winner, Official War Artist, Steve McQueen has been lauded and put off by the British establishment for his art projects, including Queen and Country which tried to replace the Queen’s profile on UK stamps with portraits of UK war dead. Peter Aspden of the Financial Times sits down with McQueen for the “Lunch with the FT” column where much of the discussion revolves around his film Hunger, about Bobby Sands’s IRA hunger strike:
He talks in cascades of sharp, staccato sentences, which are frequently suspended while he searches for a better way of putting the point he has just made. “It was a very important case from our recent past,” he continues. “And then, for me, the film became this physical, magical thing, like a thermometer that was taking the temperature of what was going on at that time.”
They were febrile times of course, but McQueen’s approach is paradoxically cool, forensic, so concentrated on detail and nuance that the wider political issues are occasionally held at bay. He tells me about the nature of his research. “I was interested in what was happening between the words. I asked questions [of former prisoners]: when did you get used to the excrement on the walls? What was it like waking up with maggots all over your body?”
A waiter brings us king prawns and scallops. I hope he isn’t listening.
“What I wanted to project on the screen was the human element of the story, not the headlines from the newspapers,” McQueen continues. He quotes a scene from the film, in which a snowflake lands and melts on the scuffed knuckle of one of the prison warders. “We all know what that feels like. It’s a way into the character. By heightening your senses, it heightens your emotional understanding of him. It’s all about getting in.” [ . . . ]
He gives the impression that he is still not quite used to the acclaim that has greeted Hunger. “I was in LA, doing the studios. People wanted to see me. Driving into the parking lot, I thought, this is so surreal. I was expecting elephants and showgirls to come out any minute. It was interesting.”
Did he hear a lot of bullshit? “Yes, but there are a lot of very intelligent people there. Their problem is that all they talk about is film. That is their only reference, other movies. That kills ideas. They can kill an idea in a second. You know, everyone sees this big Hollywood sign, but not all the graffiti behind it or the structures that hold it up.” It is unclear whether he actually went delving behind the letters, or this was a metaphorical observation, or both. We down our espressos, and it is time to leave. He has a busy afternoon.
Lunch with the FT: Steve McQueen (Financial Times)