British visual artist Steve McQueen discusses his first feature film, Hunger
Even though he’s worked with film and video for much of his career, British visual artist Steve McQueen never intended to add “feature filmmaker” to his lengthy resume of experimental works like “7th November” and the space-themed “Once Upon a Time.” But then he started researching the IRA Hunger Strike that scandalized the U.K. in 1981 for his next project and realized the subject demanded a narrative approach. The resulting movie Hunger, which opened in limited release last week, electrified the film festival circuit, winning McQueen the prestigious Camera d’or prize for first-time director at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
GIANT: How did you settle on film and video as your primary means of artistic expression?
Steve McQueen: Because the images moved. I painted as a kid and it evolved from there: you start with a crayon, then a paintbrush and then end up with a camera. All artists deal with images in a frame and at the end of the day, I wanted them to move.
GIANT: Which comes first for you: form or content?
McQueen: For me, it’s all about the idea. For example, the idea for Hunger demanded it be a narrative 35mm feature film. So the idea comes first and dictates the form. I’m not in love with anything but the idea itself and the best way it is asking to be represented. I get inspiration through domestic chores—vacuuming and washing. That’s when you get those “eureka” moments, when you’re doing something completely different.
GIANT: Which of your experimental films would you direct people to if they wanted to see representative examples of your work?
McQueen: I’d cite the movies I did in Africa, Wet and Deep and Gravesend. One dealt with a gold mine in South Africa outside Cape Town, the other dealt with coltan mining in the Congo. I’d also say Once Upon a Time. In 1972, this satellite was shot into space with 118 images meant to represent Earth to extraterrestrials. What was fascinating to me was this was the first compilation of images that was not for our eyes that was meant to represent us as a whole. So I went to NASA to acquire those images and put them on digital format and played with that.
GIANT: With Hunger, was it difficult for you to adapt to a conventional narrative film structure after years of making experimental pieces?
McQueen: I don’t understand what conventional is in a way. It’s all about what works. I suppose what it is the whole idea of art. Art for me is like poetry—not a lot of people can read poetry or even understand it. But everyone is an expert in story and narrative. Before you’re even born, your mother and father tell you stories. So we’re all experts in narrative; everyone in the world can tell you a story. But not everyone is an expert in poetry.
GIANT: Did you take away any lessons from making Hunger?
McQueen: The great thing is I haven’t learned anything! [Laughs] The only thing I’ve learned is to take more risks. I don’t think anyone had expectations for Hunger and the fact it’s done so well is because I took a risk.
GIANT: Did you attend film school?
McQueen: Yes, I went to NYU’s graduate program after I left art school [in England]. When I was in arts school I wanted to be in film school, and then when I was in film school I wanted to be in art school! I was only at NYU for three months because I hated it. They wouldn’t allow me to just throw a camera in the air—experiment with the form to make film language. I don’t think everything has to be genre and at NYU everyone was fairly similar. So I left and came back to London.
GIANT: In the past, you’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a black artist.
McQueen: I don’t know what that term means I’ll be honest with you. And I don’t really care. I just want to make work, whatever that work is. I don’t know what else to say—I’m not from Mars!
GIANT: What role should visual artists play in the evolution of film?
McQueen: The form of film is only 115 years old, so it’s still in its nappies. There’s much more to do with the medium and we should be pushing ideas of how to connect that to audiences. Cinema is a situation where so much more can be done, where the audience can feel responsible for what they see onscreen and engage in a real way with what they see onscreen, not as a passive viewer but as a contributor to the film. The exciting thing about is that you can experiment and play with it and come up with the answers.
Hunger is currently playing in limited release. Read GIANT’s review and watch the trailer below.