Hunger: Interview With Director Steve McQueen

Cannes Film Fest 2008–“Hunger,” directed by Steve McQueen, was a highlight of the Festival this year and one of the year's very best films. IFC will release the movie in December.

Why did you make a film of this particular moment in history now

Over the course of months of thinking about the making of a feature film quite intensively, and registering what was going on around me at that time, I became very interested in Bobby Sands.

When I was a child growing up in 1981, aged about eleven or twelve, there were three things that influenced me: the Brixton Riots, Tottenham winning the FA Cup, which was fantastic, and Bobby Sands. His image appeared on the TV screen virtually every night with a number underneath it and it stayed with me, that passion and that level of confrontation to die on hunger strike.

This memory and this opportunity drew me to find out more about him and I thought it could be a powerful film. There is this one image in my head of a child that refuses to eat. His mother tells him he cannot leave the table until you eat. For this child, at that moment, in a world ruled by his parent, refusing to eat is his only way he can fight back.

Historic Parallels

When Jan Younghusband at Channel 4 approached me at the beginning of 2003 there was no Iraq War, no Guantanamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib prison, but as time's gone by the parallels have become apparent. History repeats itself, lots of people have short memories, and we need to remember that these kinds of things have happened in Britain.

Research and working with Enda Walsh on the script

I have never written a script before so I wanted to find a writer to work with. But I didn't want to work with a screenwriter–it just didn't feel right somehow. Meeting Enda Walsh, it was just immediate; he gets it, he is like a kindred spirit–a playwright of course but an artist.

We read and researched before going to Northern Ireland. Speaking with ex-prisoners and prison officers in the Maze, with priests who visited there, was probably the heaviest experience of my life emotionally. We came back to London and I don't think we spoke to each other for a period of two weeks to recuperate from the experience.

Being in the Maze

What I wanted to do was to know what it felt like to be in the Maze at that time–to capture what is not written about in history books. I wanted the first part to be like walking into a room and turning off the lights so you feel your way through the room by touch; learning the architecture, the geography.

Originally, I didn't want to have any dialogue at all. Words can often just fill space, and its just noise after a while and this can take away from what's actually going on. Instead, I wanted to focus on the texture of what it was like being there at that time–the atmosphere. These are the things that don¬ít get written in history books and I wanted to use a magnifying glass and put these things on a plinth in some ways– similar to black and white photography when you can sometimes better see the architecture, the shape of things.

Dialogue as Fight

But then I started to think about there being, after a period of no dialogue, an avalanche of dialogue. A confrontation, a debate is similar to the to-ing and fro-ing of a Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe Wimbledon tennis final or a Frazier-Ali fight. You don’t know who to champion. There’s no clear winner.

In HUNGER, this is the scene of Bobby Sands and the priest. Some people think Bobby was wrong, a terrorist, others that he was right, a martyr and I wanted to look at the left and the right of this. When two stones hit against each other, they create sparks and make fire. And I wanted to hold that for a moment and for people to think. I knew I wanted the warm-up–Bobby and the priest feeling each other out. Then it gets a little more competitive. And then, the announcement of the hunger strike cuts in.

You could say that the whole conversation was based on tennis or boxing. If someone’s hitting you, how do you save your energy How do you rest The other person gets ahead, then you get ahead. It's all about tactics. I said all this to Enda and the genius of Enda was that he wrote that and then he came up with the idea of the foal. It's a bit like jazz, you write the music and then, if you let people go, they can improvise within the form.

Filming in Northern Ireland

Originally we wanted to film in the H Block but that was not possible. However it was essential that we filmed in Northern Ireland, using Northern Irish crew and cast. What became apparent was how so many people had been touched by this story and it was quite remarkable how everyone knew where they were when Bobby Sands died and during the hunger strike, everyone had some kind of relationship to the events of that time.

There was also many of the younger generation of cast and crew who had grown up with the stories of their parents or uncles and aunts and who were now playing the parts or contributing to the scenes that members of their family had actually lived through–prison officers, visitors smuggling 'comms' (communications), prisoners in the H-Block. In making this film, there was a real coming together.

Working with Actors

I had never worked with actors before but I thought it best to be truthful with them and I think they found that quite shocking. But I always feel that if you show you are taking risks, people will go that extra mile. It was a great, great experience.

Actors Liam Cunningham and Michael Fassbender are a bit like Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. They met in Belfast for the first time but they became inseparable.

I think at first, in rehearsals, they were testing me out. I am a first-time director. But we had to get to the heart of their scene, of the conversation, and I surprised myself because at certain times I could be quite aggressive but it was all about what could potentially happen and demanding a focus. We rehearsed for quite a few days and you get such a buzz off it at the same time, you keep on the runway because you don't want to take-off until you’re filming. On the shoot, there can be such an atmosphere and we had that in the room filming the conversation.


Before the camera started rolling, I said this is probably the only chance you'll ever get to do a 22-minute take in your career. The stakes were high in recording it and the stakes were high in the actual scene and we had to do it now. An exciting place to be and I want to be in those moments often as this is when magic happens.

At one point, I got everyone out of the studio except Liam and Michael. I told them “to be God,” as I felt that they had this possibility of transforming themselves, they had the power as actors where whatever they did, it would be right. They had successfully created this world, like a sphere that wherever it rolled it would be right and so I told them “you are there, you are it,” and I think it enabled them to create without being self conscious, without thinking. Everyone came back in and we recorded immediately.

Violence and Beauty

In the film there is both violence and beauty. When you look at a Velasquez or a Goya painting, the composition of the image holds your gaze– their painting has an attractive-ness and a questioning. What you're attracted to, you can also be repulsed by. HUNGER is shot on 2 perf 35mm, aspect ratio 2:35:1–using that ratio there's always a relationship to something else in the frame which makes a narrative. People will not stay in the room if you're doing a bad job, but they'll stay in the room if you¬íre doing a good job.

Working on the Film with a Team

At first, it was difficult and I'd get irritated but this is what I want to do. I think I'm a team player. Of course, there needs to be a leader of the team, but that's not what interests me. It was fantastic in that each individual is an expert in their field and its great when you ask your producer a question and you get an answer back immediately and then you ask the production designer something and you get something back immediately–it's wonderful!

All these people are there to help you make your movie and it gets to a situation where it's not your movie, but it's their movie too, so there's a wonderful feeling where you feel WE’RE doing it. It's very different to how I usually work but it's an environment I love being in and I want to continue being in that environment.

Anticipating the reception

There are lots of things going on in the world right now; in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Sudan, but I wanted to concentrate on home, in Britain, on what has happened here. I've made films in the Congo, I've been to Iraq. I was a war artist there, but it is all about what's underneath your bed.

What we did here was a film about reflection, about our choices and our past, how we think of ourselves as a nation and what we have done. So I hope the debate following the viewing of the film will be about who we are. I want the screen to be this massive mirror, when you're looking at the screen you’re looking at yourself.

Cinema's Power

I think cinema has a power beyond entertainment. I hope this film is entertaining even if it's not a comedy as, in some ways I think its uplifting but its not entertainment for entertainment's sake.

My approach to making films is we've got nothing to lose–take a risk. It's important to make decisions in life that you hope will be for the better–make the effort. If this film disarms the viewer, removes their barrier for a moment in time, then we¬íve got them and through that experience the film can have some power, some meaning and hopefully make a difference. If, through entertainment, one can grab people's attention, then it is great.

Making Another Film

I do want to make another film. It was my first time on a film set, and I hope I keep some of that naivety. But I think it is difficult to find a subject to fall in love with again. Reading all these scripts I've been sent, is like a series of blind dates and it's difficult. I think I have to be involved in writing the script again. It takes time.