Interview | Elvis Mitchell
Photograph | Sebastian Kim
The director Steve McQueen has found a way to constantly include the element of surprise in his work, both as an artist and as a filmmaker. It would be dismissive and reductive to say that he operates on pure instinct, but what he has done with his installations—such as his video pieces Bear (1993) and Five Easy Pieces (1995)—comments on the way that we inhabit space, and how subtly and insidiously shocking it is when our intimate spaces have been violated. He often seems surprised himself when he's asked about the unrelenting power in his work. The three feature films he's responsible for as director—Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and his latest, an adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave, which is out this month—all explore the notion of having someone's personal space invaded, and how the protagonists in each film deal with that issue.
Given how unflinching his productions have been, the 44-year-old McQueen is remarkably gentle and thoughtful—so much so that he will request a moment to consider a question, and turn it around in his head to get the shape and weight of it, before answering, occasionally with an excited rush of words in response. (And I'm hard-pressed to remember a conversation with him, be it an interview or a chat over tea, that hasn't included a chuckling, "I hope that won't stir up too much trouble ...") That has been my experience with him since we became acquainted a few years back, after the American release of Hunger. He has an insatiable desire to understand and to be understood; if his work stimulates conversation—demands it, really—then so much the better.
MITCHELL: One image in the film that really sticks with me is when Solomon shatters the violin.
McQUEEN: The violin, to me, is his last remaining hope. It's like the sex scene with the slave that we were talking about—that object was his sense of being human. That was his instrument, that's what he wanted to engage in. And he gives up his hope, in a way, by smashing it.
Well, the violin is also kind of his last link to his old world. There's also that pride that he has in his art—as far as he's concerned, he's an artist—and the idea of an artist giving up his means of achieving that art is heartbreaking.
It's like destroying a piece of yourself in order to feel, I suppose. To feel what? I don't know.
We see Solomon throughout the film as someone who always sees possibilities, and just destroying that violin means that he realizes he can't live for possibilities anymore—that he's just got to be thinking about existing day to day.
Destroying your violin ... I mean, it's just about the worst thing you could do in that situation short of cutting off your hands. The worst thing you could do as an artist is to destroy your art.
Pick up a copy of the October 2013 issue of Interview magazine on newsstands now or read complete interview here.