Hunger: How Steve McQueen’s Brilliant Film Was Made

One of the best pictures of the year, “Hunger,” which pemiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest to great acclaim, will be released by IFC in late December.

Genesis of Hunger

Jan Younghusband, Exec Producer and Commissioning Editor for Arts, Channel 4: I knew Steve McQueen through the Turner Prize and I have been a fan of his work for some time. When he came to see me to talk about doing his first full scale feature film, it seemed the most obvious next step for him. We had taken the view at Channel 4 that we should support the arts community by doing more than just covering things on television. We decided to commission new work that would be both compelling television and make a difference beyond the screen, and be supportive to the artistic community as a whole. We have since made several “first” films by artists including Lloyd Newson¬ís multi award-winning DV8 THE COST OF LIVING and Suzi Templeton’s Oscar winning PETER AND THE WOLF.

We also regularly commission new operas and choreography for film, develop new talent in the performing and creative art(“Operatunity,” “Musicality,” “Picture This”), and make new public art and sculpture in the community (“The Big Art” initiative and Antony Gormley¬ís “Waste Man”).

The idea for Hunger Jan Younghusband, Exec Producer: Steve McQueen teamed up with Robin Gutch at Blast! Films and we discussed various ideas over a period of time, but none of them seemed quite right. Later, at a meeting with Robin and me, Steve retold the story of Bobby Sands and his last few weeks in the Maze Prison, and immediately I knew this was the right idea for him. Steve has a unique ability, as we see in his other work, to express the deeper psychology of situations simply through looking. I felt he would be able to show us the human story of this young man dying for his beliefs and the people around him on all sides brutalized by an intolerable situation. I felt Steve could revisit this crucial moment in British and Irish history, ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, and show us in his own unique way the universal humanitarian themes of this story, which have a continued resonance for us today, in so many other situations. It was obvious the project had real cinematic ambitions and would need partners from the world of film to make it happen. The natural first port of call was my colleagues at Channel 4’s film arm, Film4. It was also really important to me that the film developed in a way natural to Steve’s usual method of working as an artist. Methods which might not always conform to standard filmmaking practice. So I teamed up with Peter Carlton at Film4, as we had long talked of working with artists, and I knew that Peter and I could work together through Film4 and support the film in a particular way.

Peter Carlton, Exec Producer and Senior Commissioning Executive Film4:

Film4¬ís stock in trade is working with distinctive voices in film and generally that means those from a more traditional filmmaking background such as Shane Meadows, Kevin Macdonald, Sarah Gavron. But we’re also unique in our ability to encourage new talent such as Duane Hopkins and Miranda July to furrow their own paths in cinema. One of the advantages for Film4 being an integral part of a broadcaster is our ability to draw on talent from other areas and collaborate with other parts of the organization such as with the history department on the feature length documentary DEEP WATER or the drama department on Michael Winterbottom’s THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO and Gabriel Range¬ís DEATH OF A PRESIDENT.

Jan and I had had numerous long talks about collaborations and Hunger was very much a perfect fit where we could develop an extraordinary project together and, through Film4, help deliver it to a wider international cinematic audience. By joining forces in this way we’ve stretched across the boundaries of art and film in a way that is unique to the channel.

Robin Gutch, Producer: After that initial meeting with Jan Younghusband, both Steve and I felt it was essential to meet some people with first hand experience of the Maze prison and the hunger strikes. Some years before, whilst working as a Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, my brief had included commissioning producers from Northern Ireland. So I went back to some of my contacts from then and managed to get help in introducing Steve to a few people very close to Bobby Sands and to the events of 1981. This was critical to enable Steve to move beyond an idea for a film towards feeling surer of what kind of film he wanted to make.

As well as meeting people, we visited the site of the Maze prison itself. No one could visit the site, which at that time included the old cages of Long Kesh as well as several wings of the Maze itself, and not be overwhelmed by a sense of history. The hospital wing in which all the hunger strikers had spent their last days was still open which was chilling and memorable. I think that visit was the moment when Steve’s passion to make the film became an unstoppable force.

Enda Walsh joins Steve McQueen to create the script for “Hunger”

Robin Gutch, Producer: Steve and I returned from our first research trip to Northern Ireland heartened and inspired that there was an important and timely film to be made. But also in no doubt that we would need a remarkable writer to collaborate with Steve on the screenplay. We also felt it was essential that the writer should be Irish. We read a lot of plays and screenplays over the next few months, even novels, and we were agreed that one writer stood out.

Enda Walsh was already a rising star of theatre, but had also successfully adapted his own play Disco Pigs into a film directed by Kirsten Sheridan. His writing has a combination of uncompromising originality of vision, a remarkable ear for dialogue, and a relish for pushing language into a kind of dramatic poetry. My only reservation was whether two artists of real originality would be able to find a way of collaborating together on a single piece. But that fear evaporated within five minutes of Steve and Enda meeting, as clearly they just ‘clicked’ in a way that producers dream of but rarely witness.

Enda Walsh, writer:

I knew Steve’s work pretty well, I could sense the possible direction from just reading that he was attached to it, so naturally I was very excited. Without working narratively, in a classical sense, he always tells very human stories. He’s got a real instinct for character and worlds, I think. In my plays particularly I’m interested in the effects of environment on characters and how that affects the story structure, so it was a very good match. I was excited but also very nervous. You want to do justice to yourself but of course you want to try and capture something for an audience, and show in this case a very extreme environment, but give the audience something new, I hope. A different way of seeing how a story might work.

The impact of the research process on the script¬º Enda Walsh, Writer: Apart from reading a lot of news transcripts and various books… we had the opportunity of meeting ex-prisoners from that time in the Maze prison and colleagues of the 10 men who died. It was inspiring. Regardless of whether I believed in their cause… I admired how they survived in the Maze, their loyalty to each other and to their beliefs. But it was the way they talked that really had an impact on me. They were all hugely articulate men. They had a real command of language. And that had an effect not only on the large scene in the middle of the film between Bobby Sands and the priest… but on the whole film in terms of detail and examination.

Script changed radically from first to second draft

Enda Walsh, Writer: The first draft was trying to tell the story as it happened. So it was initially pretty conservative in its telling. In snatches it was getting to the essence of what we wanted. We just had to extract what it was we were interested in, not try and tell everything, try and tell enough… and try to carve out a film that had a different sort of emotional punch than your standard film. The structure was the revelation and was all Steve’s suggestion. That honed how we had to tell the story.

Refining the script

Enda Walsh, Writer: There’s a tricky narrative line that’s being told… a lot of it without words… so that was hard. If we told too much it was always wrong¬º but we had to move the film forwards¬º so the narrative is visible but it doesn’t swamp the whole piece. Also we wanted it to remain detached and hold back on any emotion. A lot of the time these films are very manipulative emotionally… they become romantic… and that didn’t seem right at all. Where we do allow the character some fear, some real emotion… seemed very important and I hope the piece is stronger because of this.

Channel 4 and Film4’s commitment

Robin Gutch, Producer: I have absolutely no doubt that Channel 4 and Film4 are the only financiers in Britain, and one of the very few in the world, who would be prepared to back a film of this complexity, and potential controversy, from an artist completely untested in narrative film making. Both in terms of development funding, and in terms of putting in the lion’s share of the budget. Without them this film would never have been made, simple as that. But we were also very heartened by the degree of support we had from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

On our very first trip to Belfast, Steve and I had met an initial meeting with Andrew Reid, Head of Production at Northern Ireland Screen, whose encouragement was important at that early stage. And we ideally wanted the film to be financed with a mixture of British and Irish funding, which fortunately came together at Cannes in 2007.

Raising the Financing

Laura Hastings-Smith, Producer: Robin Gutch approached me in November 2006 as producer . I was astonished to read such a bold and cinematic script that revisited a moment in history so powerfully and with such humanity. How lucky was I to be invited on a project developed with so much talent, passion and integrity! Once Steve and I had met and he was happy for me to join the team, we reassessed the budget and schedule and the task of raising the rest of the production funds began.