The executives at Britain’s Channel 4, which cofinanced Hunger, the first feature film by London-born artist Steve McQueen, had any number of reasons to be worried about its box office prospects. In its sores-and-all depiction of the final weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981, the movie offers up sadistic beatings, excrement-stained prison cells and unstinting close-ups of oozing abscesses and squirming maggots. But the execs were particularly panicky about one scene that depicted two men sitting at a table, talking. The conversation, between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) who’s challenging his decision to starve himself, goes on for more than 20 minutes. It opens with a single, 17-minute take, a continuous shot with no cuts, close-ups or camera movements—virtually unheard of in a commercial release.
At an early screening of the film, when the Channel 4 brass saw the scene for the first time, they were “s---ting themselves,” recalls McQueen over a cup of coffee at a hotel bar in Amsterdam. But there was little they could do, since McQueen had avoided shooting any shorter backup takes. “I knew what I was doing,” he says.
Apparently so. Last May McQueen, 39, won the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes, where Hunger’s premiere received a lengthy standing ovation. Reviewers singled out the conversation scene for especially ecstatic praise.
McQueen, a working artist since the early Nineties, is best known for his quietly gut-wrenching film and video pieces, exhibited at such serious galleries as Marian Goodman in New York and Thomas Dane in London. Charlotte (2004) begins with a shot of actress Charlotte Rampling’s right eye; soon a finger—McQueen’s—enters the frame to caress and prod the loose flesh that surrounds it, before touching the eyeball directly. Running Thunder (2007) depicts an elegant but motionless horse lying dead—or asleep?—in a grassy meadow. Nothing really happens, but as the light shifts subtly and the 11-minute film loops back on itself, it makes all sorts of statements about stillness and action, life and death.
Like his films, McQueen exudes an unlikely combination of supreme confidence and delicate inscrutability. Tall and burly, with a booming voice that carries across the hotel bar, he has a hesitant, choppy way of speaking, leading you to believe he’s sharing only a fraction of his thoughts. But occasionally he’ll blurt out an uncensored, unvarnished truth, perhaps as a calculated reward for what he considers a good question, or perhaps just because he feels like it. (During his first meeting with Rampling to discuss Charlotte, McQueen exclaimed, “Look, I want to touch your face.”)