By Iain Blair
British director/writer/producer Steve McQueen burst onto the international scene in 2013 when his harrowing 12 Years a Slave dominated awards season, winning as Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA and a host of others. His directing was also recognized with many nominations and awards.
Now McQueen, who also helmed the 2011 feature Shame (Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan) is back with the film Widows.
A taut thriller, 20th Century Fox’s Widows is set in contemporary Chicago in a time of political and societal turmoil. When four armed robbers are killed in a botched heist, their widows — with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities — take fate into their own hands to forge a future on their own terms.
With a screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen himself — and based on the old UK television miniseries of the same name — the film stars, among others, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson.
The production team includes Academy Award-nominated editor Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave), Academy Award-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and director of photography Sean Bobbit (12 Years a Slave).
I spoke with McQueen, whose credits also include 2008’s Hunger, about making the film and his love of post.
This isn’t just a simple heist movie, is it?
No, it isn’t. I wanted to make an all-encompassing movie, an epic in a way, about how we live our daily lives and how they’re affected by politics, race, gender, religion and corruption, and do it through this story. I remember watching the TV series as a kid and how it affected me — how strong all these women were — and I decided to change the location from London to Chicago, which is really an under-used city in movies, and make it a more contemporary view of all these issues.
You assembled a great cast, led by Oscar-winner Viola Davis. What did she bring to the table?
So much weight and gravitas. She’s like an iceberg. There’s so much hidden depth in everything she does, and there’s this well of meaning and emotion she brings to the role, and then everyone has to step up to that.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
The big one was logistics and dealing with all the Chicago locations. We had over 60 locations, all over the city, and 81 speaking parts. So there was a lot of planning, and if one thing got stuck it threw off the whole schedule. It would have been almost impossible to reschedule some of the scenes.
How tough was the shoot?
Pretty tough. They’re always grueling, and when you’re writing a script you don’t always think about how many night shoots you’re going to face, and you forget about this big machine you have to bring with you to all the locations. Trying to make any quick change or adjustment is like trying to turn the Titanic. It takes a while.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
From day one. You have to when you have a big production with a set release date, so we began cutting and assembling while I shot.
Where did you post?
In Amsterdam, where I live, and then we finished it off in London.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. It’s my favorite part as you have civilized hours — 9 till 5 or whatever —and you’re in total control. You’re not having to deal with 40 or 50 people. It’s just you and the editor in a dark room, actually making the film.
Joe Walker has cut all of your films, including Hunger and Shame, as well Blade Runner 2049, Arrival and Sicario. Can you talk about working with him?
He wasn’t on set, and we had someone else assembling stuff as Joe was still finishing up Blade Runner. He came in when I got back to Amsterdam. Joe and I go way back to 2007, when we did Hunger, and we always work very closely together. I sit right next to him, and I’m there for every single cut, dissolve, whatever. I’m very present. I’m not one of those directors who comes in, gives some notes and then disappears. I don’t know how you do that. I love editing and finding the pace and rhythm. What makes Joes such a great editor is that he started off in music, so he has a great sense of how to work with sound.
What were the big editing challenges?
There are all these intertwined stories and characters, so it’s about finding the right balance and tone and rhythm. The whole opening sequence is all about pulling the audience in and then grabbing them with a caress and then a slap — and another caress and slap — as we set up the story and the main characters. Then there are so many parts to the story that it’s like this big Swiss watch: all these moving parts and different functions. But you always go back to the widows. A script isn’t a film, it’s a guide, so you’re feeling your way in the edit, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The whole thing has to be cohesive, one thing. That’s your goal.
What about the visual effects?
They were all done by One Of Us and Outpost VFX (both in the UK), but the VFX were all about enhancing stuff, not dazzling the audience. The aim was always for realism, not fantasy.
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
They’re huge for me, and it’s interesting as a lot of the movie has no sound or music. At the beginning, there’s just this one chord on a violin when we get to the title card, and that’s it. There’s no sound for 2/3 of the movie, and then we only have some ambient music and Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and a Van Morrison song. That’s why all the sound design is so important. When the women lose their husbands, I didn’t want it to be hammy and tug at your heartstrings. I wanted you to feel that pain and that grief and that journey. When they start to act and take control of their lives, that’s when the music and sound kick in, almost like this muscular drive. Our supervising sound editor James Harrison did a great job with all that. We did all the mixing in Atmos at De Lane Lea in London.
Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did it at Company 3 London with colorist Tom Poole, and it’s very important. We shot on film, and our DP Sean and I spent a lot of time just talking about the palette and the look. When you’re shooting in over 60 locations, it’s not so much about putting your own stamp and look on them, but about embracing what they offer you visually and then tweaking it.
For the warehouse scenes, there was a certain mood and it had crappy tungsten lighting, so we changed it a bit to feel more tactile, and it was the same with most of the locations. We’d play with the palette and the visual mood, which the DI allows you to do so well.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
(Laughs) I always hope it turns out better than I hoped or imagined, as your imagination can only take you so far. What’s great is when you go beyond that and come up with something cooler than you could have imagined. That’s what I always want.
I’ve got a few things cooking on the stove, and I should finish writing something in the next few months and then start it next year.
All Images Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Merrick Morton
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.