“Shame” is the haunting new film from director Steve McQueen, giving an unflinching account of one man’s spiraling descent into sex addiction in New York. Michael Fassbender (reunited with McQueen following “Hunger”, 2008) plays protagonist Brandon Sullivan whose addiction threatens to derail his entire life, while his situation is complicated by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who imposes herself – along with her own troubles – on him for an extended stay. With his work life made difficult by a sleazy boss (James Badge Dale as David) and a mesmerising work colleague (Nicole Beharie as Marianne) offering possible normality, “Shame” is a fearless exploration of 21st Century desires, failings, obsessions and relationships that includes graphic scenes of sex (including eye-watering full frontal nudity from Fassbender) that have caused quite the stir amongst critics and viewers alike. Joining the director and main star in London, Wonderland begins with light conversation before moving onto the films darker content.
We read that the budget for this film was $6.5 million US dollars. How much of that budget went into creating the screen-filling CGI penis?
[Pause followed by laughter]
Michael – All of the budget! I think we had point five left to make the film.
Steve – We thought we’d do 3D but that would have been way too expensive.
Michael – [laughs]
Steve – There was a funny story, there was this woman who said “I have seen your film literally about fifteen times” and I said “Why?” and she goes “I’m someone who goes to the movies with the blind and so I have to describe it to them” and I said “Really?!” and she said “yes!”. I don’t know if she had to describe Michael’s penis but let’s not go there!
The film addresses the very serious topic of sex addiction. What was it that attracted you to this subject?
Steve – The idea that someone could get so addicted to something that was so intimate but actually did not want the intimacy – the paradox of that was fascinating to me. Just talking to [script writer] Abi Morgan [Sex Traffic, The Iron Lady] about it, it was interesting to investigate what a sex addict is and once we delved into it, we saw the evidence of how serious and devastating it is. It’s similar to drug addiction or alcohol addiction and it really does take a toll on someone’s life.
Michael – Of course this is something that should be looked at and should be pretty relevant and contemporary to today but nobody had talked about it in a film. It just seemed really obvious that this is something that is worth investigation. [Having worked together on Hunger] I knew I was going to be in the best of hands and it was going to be dealt with accordingly, uncompromisingly and also respectfully.
How did you go about researching for the film?
Steve – We couldn’t get an “in”, as such, in London as people wouldn’t speak to us. It’s almost like when people were diagnosed with HIV in the early 80s, it’s a situation where there is a stigma to sex and people don’t want to speak – especially to the media. So we had to go to New York and speak to an expert in the field who in turn introduced us to addicts and former addicts and it was one of those situations that through those conversations and research that we got an idea of what it was to be a sex addict and make very close relationships with people who were, or are, sex addicts.
What were the more shocking things that you discovered?
Steve – Certain things were worse than in the film, of course. I mean you can imagine someone being locked in a room for 72 hours, looking at porn and masturbating all day.
Michael – I think the most affecting or disturbing thing is the sense that – whatever the addiction – it’s a loss of control. The fact that a guy can’t get through the day without masturbating in the bathroom at work and he’s surfing the internet and dragging up these porn sites on his work computer – he’s not an idiot, he knows he’s going to get caught doing it, but he can’t help himself. The choice has been taken away because the condition has taken over. That for me is what’s most disturbing.
We left the cinema feeling a little depressed about the state of the characters in the film – are they all hopeless? Brandon is an addict, Sissy clearly has her own troubles and then Brandon’s boss –
Steve – I think Marianne is a symbol of hope and she is quite healthy. Sissy and Brandon come from the same place. And David is a bit of a jerk.
Michael – The fact that Brandon is someone who is aware of his condition, that’s already hopeful and he’s trying.
Steve – It’s a difficult world and I’m not making Walt Disney pictures here. If you want to see a happy ending go and see any of those American movies that are probably being put up for an Academy Award right now. I’m trying to make a movie about real life – which is not easy sometimes for people who have certain kinds of conditions – but what is admirable about [Brandon] is that he is a likeable person and he’s trying. Not everyone is Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, you know what I mean?
Has making this film had any impact on your own sex lives?
Michael – Very much so. It’s kind of made me appreciate the relationships that I have been in and that I like intimacy. It had never kind of occurred to me that this could be a condition and to see how devastating it can be having met people –I feel grateful. I feel lucky.
Steve –You do come away feeling very lucky. But they say you are always just one drink away.
Shame is released in cinemas on January 13th.
Interview: Seamus Duff