by Pouya G. Asadi
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Pouya G. Asadi: Can we talk about culture today, hyper-sexualization of culture, etc. In our mass media, in our films, in our print, in our advertising in everything we do there seems to be sexual element or connotation to it. Even the way we communicate now, there seems to be a distance, which is electronically removed, a lack of intimacy or personal connection. It comments on Brandon’s macro-portrayal of intimacy.
Michael Fassbender: Wow. [laughs] First let’s deal with what you said, sex, our relationship to it. What is it? [Shame] is trying to investigate it in the here-and-now, perhaps an element of it that might be happening. It seems to be an area that we haven’t cracked yet, in terms of you know, nothing has really changed. People have been trying to figure this out for hundreds of years. The thing at the moment is you realize it’s a strong impulse, why do we have sex? Well primarily to survive, so we don’t become extinct. And then you have people that realize “well, because it’s such a strong instinct, money can be made from it.” That’s why I think from a soda pop to a cereal, there are sexual innuendos in there to sell the product. In terms of information, it’s not a film about sexual addiction, it’s really about how we are trying to navigate through the world with all this new found information being streamed at us all the time, how do you process that, how do you deal with it? Perhaps that confusion or anxiety manifests itself in forms of addiction. Ways of trying to numb our escape, we have to deal with a lot. You know in these big cities, so many people living on top of each other, how do we behave with each other? Society tells us there’s a certain etiquette in how we should behave, and then what happens when you peel away that layer on the top? How does it actually work. OK the theory is great, but how does it work in practice?
What about Brandon and his issues of being intimate, and how his feelings of cold are acceptable to him? I find that more and more in the world, I find myself with others not knowing what “intimate” means anymore.
Michael Fassbender: I don’t know either, I think the thing with Brandon is, yes there’s emptiness in him. But then he’s brimming over the top with emotion and sensitivity, it’s all there, but he’s keeping it under lock-and-key and guarding it; because he’s afraid of these results of what will happen if he emotionally exposes himself. He puts himself in that scenario, we see it very clearly with the relationship with Marianne, he wants it. He wants a relationship that is nourishing to him, of course he does. You know we all want the same things we want to be sort of accepted, loved, relevant. So you see it very brilliantly by Steve (McQueen) and Abi (Morgan); you get revelations of the characters through each other. Sissy and Brandon are great revelations of each other, [Sissy]’s exploding with emotion, anybody she comes into contact with she throws love at them and she tries to extract it from them. She emotionally unloads on everybody she comes into contact from what [the audience] can tell, who’s the past boyfriend, where does he come from?
The amazing thing to me about the film, particularly as you edge up to the end of the film and this idea of Shame, you manage to keep Brandon’s character so humanized; you know we live in a society that breeds sexual dysfunction, does not particularly nurture people sexually necessarily, in the larger sense, and then when people fall, when people are discovered to be dysfunctional in their particular ways those characters are demonized. In Shame, it’s a film that doesn’t demonize people in it, yet it doesn’t excuse them entirely…
Michael Fassbender: No, because we are the people. [laughs] It’s about all of us. It’s not about, “hey look at these guys….” Because then you wouldn’t be able to do an honest portrayal of it, or spectral insight into it. If you disconnect it from yourself, then it’s somebody else’s problem. But if you think “this is OUR problem, we need to take a look at it,” then you don’t demonize.
Steve McQueen: I think also the fact is that when you look at Brandon, you see yourself, I mean he’s not a million and a half miles away from us all. It’s a little bit like the movie Freaks, they’re one of us. It’s one of those situations where, you know, you cannot demonize him because he’s a human being… he’s one of us. You vicariously see through his actions, you’re trying, we’re all trying to be decent human beings, and sometimes it’s just bloody hard. You know I’m a moralist, but am I moral everyday? No! You know we try, we’re not computers, we’re actually human beings. I suppose if we were computers we wouldn’t be interesting to make films about. The fact that we’re humans, we are faulty, we’re not particularly perfect, makes it all the more interesting.
Steve McQueen: Sure. Also there’s a point of language, and how we communicate with each other. Well we don’t really communicate with each other we just make noises at each other to get through the day. So communication happens in other ways, so the truth is barely spoken about, you can’t be frank, you can’t be honest, you have to keep an etiquette or ritual to get through the day, it’s just typical for a human being isn’t it?
Why did we come into these characters at this certain point of their life? Do we know much about these characters by entering their lives so late and sudden?
Steve McQueen: I think you know a lot about their lives. I wanted to come into the middle of their lives. I think we know about the characters’ back story because we all KNOW these characters in real life. I think everybody knows a Sissy, where you love a person, but never as much as them, you know the sort of ‘OK I’ll call you tomorrow!’ [laughs] One of those people. And of course Brandon we all know that character, we might actually all be him in that way, male or female. So it’s not a million miles away, there’s a familiarity. I think what I really wanted to do, when people came to the cinema, with their baggage their history, their past, and their present. That when they see the film they can sort of pick up on what possibly could have happened to these characters in the past. I didn’t want to be mysterious, I wanted to be familiar.
Michael Fassbender: Can I chime in? I think it really goes back to this idea of not excluding the actors/participants of the movie with the audience, the other participators. The audience has to participate a little bit themselves in order to really provoke thought properly, to provoke a response. The audience can fill in the blanks way better than we could ever explain shit.
Steve McQueen: I honestly like the non-passive participation of the cinema, it’s stimulating, because, if you invest, you ultimately get rewarded.
Michael Fassbender: [laughs] ummm depends—
Steve McQueen: Iron Maiden!
Michael Fassbender: Anything from Iron Maiden to Michael McDonald. A lot of the times I’m just hanging out on set, it really depends on what the mood is, and how I’m feeling that day or what’s on the day’s list of prep.
Steve McQueen: What did we play that one day during that scene? There were a couple things maybe? Beach Boys? Maybe…
Michael Fassbender: Yeah…
Steve you always talk about how you like making your cinema alive. And the idea of we have to keep cinema alive, what about these adult movies from the past, Last Tango in Paris, Bad Timing, Carnal Knowledge, where the audience was also participating, yet still breached serious topics in the world.
Steve McQueen: I think with the Internet now, [you have] pornography two clicks away with the most explicit image you could possibly think about. I think cinema, thinking about those times you talk about early to mid 70s, they’ve moved on tremendously. Meaning what place does cinema have right now? ‘Now’ as in the age of Cinemax, HBO, etc. What I mean is that, cinema has a space now where it can be a much more adventurous place to talk about narrative. These series on television, ten part series, how many seasons can we have now? They make it a little too elaborate. So cinema now has a way to kind of beat television and be more direct to the audience, more urgency. Almost a necessity, in a way. You only got 90 minutes, or 100 minutes or hopefully that lot of length to say what you have to say. It’s like a 7-inch single, in the old days, you put it on, it’s gotta rock [snaps] it’s got to do something.
It’s interesting in the film: the opening image of the light, flooding the bed spread, yet most of Brandon’s activities are portrayed in the dark, where Brandon is stuck in this ultimate carnal pit, in this deep dark world. Where he’s trying to accomplish whatever dark needs he has. I’m curious what did you draw as an actor in getting to portray that and what did you take from the process to your own life?
Michael Fassbender: I don’t really know, I think instead of drawing from it I need to facilitate it. I don’t sort of go home at night and think… it’s not supposed to be therapeutic to me, or else it would become self-indulgent. So honestly I’m just really trying to not distance Brandon from me so I can invest in him, in the right way, rather than take from him. Does that make sense? It’s like ‘where is he at in this point in time? Why? What am I trying to reveal to the audience here? What are we trying to show in this section of the story? In this certain beat?’ It’s more of about things like that.
Steve McQueen: For me it’s also about the similarities between human beings, I mean you don’t’ have to be a sex addict to understand Brandon. You totally sympathize with him and acknowledge what the situation is. I think being a sex addict now, it’s almost like being an AIDS patient or someone with HIV in the early ages. It’s almost like it all goes underground, you can’t talk about it. I think that’s outrageous, people should be able to have conversations about their difficulties and trying to keep a head above water without having to feel ashamed of what they do. That was the urgency I was searching for in the making of SHAME. I don’t want these topics to be left under the carpet.
Michael Fassbender: Yea, why try and hide it?
Michael Fassbender: It’s just really about being focused everyday. That I’m open everyday, that I’m awake, and responsive and also provocative, and stimulating those around you [on set]. Trying to keep up with those around you, and also to surprise those around you. All while serving the story, and try to maintain this clear headspace every morning, every day. It’s really that simple.
Steve McQueen: Acting is not—you know in this movie it’s a lot of film making and it’s almost like the actors are treading board, and having these conversations in such a way, seemingly, but in reality it doesn’t happen. So the physicality that Michael brings to the part and the focus that he brings to the part is about us representing us. Outside of the reality but in the real reality, I think that’s why people responded to the movie because they could see themselves, and that’s the highest form of acting. And that has nothing to do with the theater or projector, it’s as close to reflecting humanity as we possibly can.
Michael Fassbender: The Physicality. It’s always got to be physical that’s something that I think about immediately. When I’m at home going over the character reading the script, how does he move, or of course so much could be told with the way people sit, look at how you’re sitting right now, it can express so much, sometimes more than a paragraph, or where the state of the character is at, how they behave with other people through body language.
I noticed in every scene, including the opening shot, there’s an exertion of the energy of shamefulness from your face, from your body. Up until the last scene when the woman looks at you again in the subway, you give her a look such as “why are you doing this to me?” Could this mark the ending of the physical addiction Brandon has?
Steve McQueen: That’s your interpretation. [laughs] That’s a very interesting interpretation, nonetheless I’m not sure if it is THE interpretation. I don’t know, lots going on in that scene, one could be interpret things very very differently.
Michael Fassbender: It’s a beginning you know, it’s like there’s a hope for me. Whether or not he stays on the train or gets off the train with her, again that’s whatever you want to invest. The train keeps going, life keeps going, we just leave the cinema. It’s not like everything can be nicely wrapped up at the end. It’s a day-to-day thing, that’s why I think that [final] scene is good, because it’s a day-to-day struggle.
Does the movie give us the idea that Shame can be a positive thing in our lives?
Steve McQueen: I don’t know how it could be a positive thing really? The title came from talking with the people who had this affliction; what happened through a lot of these interviews. It’s what happened with people when they came out of these all-night escapades. The response they had after these long drawn-out sexual, interactive journeys, and when they came out of them they would have such a sense of self-loathing, self-hate, and shame. All the embarrassment and shame of it, it kept on coming up in all these interviews, so we thought that’s it, that’s the title. And all these people would just—
Michael Fassbender: Repeat…
Steve McQueen: and do it again, as it soon as [the behavior] cycled
Michael Fassbender: and it Doubles…
Steve McQueen: all they would do is come up for air, they come up for air which would be the self-loathing and shame, and then go back under again. Shame is sort of like an object for them, wouldn’t even be food for thought, it was just sort of dis-acknowledgment of what they were doing, they always wanted to get lost. Shame became just like any other drug, coffee, food, alcohol. And again this idea of self-will, that we all have self-will, it’s crazy, nonsense. We don’t have self-will. I’ve said it several times if we had self-will I’d have a fucking six-pack, not this gut. I nearly got one [shakes head] [laughs]