Welcome back to the Directors UK Podcast!
This episode is something special, as the amazing Steve McQueen joins Asif Kapadia to discuss his stunning Small Axe anthology.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Steve and Asif cover everything from writing, shooting and editing, music, food and history. This is a fascinating deep dive into a landmark of British filmmaking.
Just a heads up, there is some strong language in this episode. We hope you enjoy the show!
Asif Kapadia: Tell me about this series of films. Where did this idea come from?
Steve McQueen: Well, it was a want, a need, and a must, really. I just wanted to see those stories which I knew about, and which weren’t on screen. The intent really was to fill the hole in the canon of British film within our narrative. And I wanted very much to do that because black filmmakers, people who wanted to be in film, were not welcome, people were not interested in us. I’ve got so many stories to tell about that. We have our Marlon Brandos, we have our Montgomery Clifts, we have our Greta Garbos doing IT, or working in financial situations, or on building sites, or in hospitals. That’s where our talent is. We weren’t allowed in for many, many, many, many years. So, for me it was about, ‘Yes, this was the time,’ and one could ask why I didn’t start with that. Well, I thought that Hunger would be my first and last film, so I wanted to go out with two guns blazing, really, and that was it. So, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m given another chance? Okay, let’s do more,’ and that was it.
Asif Kapadia: So, initially the idea to do this series came straight after Hunger?
Steve McQueen: Yes, it came quite early. But it was just one of those things where I couldn’t have done what I had done without that maturity and that reflection, because I’m 51 years old now. Looking back on who and how and what I am, it’s like looking at your parents now compared to when you’re looking at them 20 years ago. You see a different kind of person in front of you. So, that reflection and that maturity, I needed it to tackle these subjects.
Asif Kapadia: How did you select these five stories? And where did the idea of doing it as a series come from?
Steve McQueen: Well, the idea for me was always a West Indian family from ‘68 to mid-80s. The reason for ‘68? Because for me ‘68 was a pivotal year. It wasn’t a Windrush generation thing, I haven’t got time for that. These are people who basically were putting their foundations down. ‘68 is when Frank Crichlow opened the Mangrove. At the same time, unfortunately, there was a gentleman whose name I won’t mention, giving a Rivers of Blood speech. It was about that foundation, it was about people just putting down their roots as such. And in the mid-80s, I think that’s the last time some kind of progress was made. So, that trajectory I always wanted to do, and I thought it was going to be one family, and then I thought, ‘No, these should be true stories.’ Because the richness of that was just there, I didn’t need to fictionalise anything... you just go to the true stories.
So, then we set up a writers’ room. I thought, ‘Okay, well this can be a series,’ and from that writers’ room, working on the stories and whatnot, there were two writers that stood out for me, and that was Courttia Newland and Alasdair Siddons. And they were the two writers that I worked with on the five films, as well as with Alex Wheatle who was a part of the writers’ room, and whose story I was fascinated with. At the beginning I asked everyone to empty their handbags on the table as such, and his story was just so amazing. But he didn’t want to write it, understandably, so myself and Alastair Siddons wrote it, with him as an adviser. And he became an adviser across the board of Small Axe, because obviously he was very much present at that time. At that time, certain periods of time that we’re talking about, I was 10, 11 years old.
Asif Kapadia: Did you approach the BBC? How did that initial relationship come about?
Steve McQueen: I approached the BBC because I wanted these stories to be within the bloodstream of the country. I want anyone and everyone to have the opportunity to see these films. That was very important to me from day one. It was a case of getting to communicate to the people of this country, of the UK. Because these were national stories, these were stories of resistance, national stories of heroism and bravery by ordinary people. And the only way I could think of doing that and people having the possibility of accessing it in an easy way was the BBC, so I approached them.
Asif Kapadia: So, the idea was they’re available for free, anyone can watch them, it wasn’t like you had to sign up to something.
Steve McQueen: That was it, because I basically wanted my mum to see it. I wanted my mum to turn on the TV and see these stories about her and other people like her, and the people that she knew on TV. I remember back in the day when a black person used to appear on television, you used to ring people, ‘There’s a black person on TV,’ the whole family, people would be ringing you, ‘Oh, my god, did you see that?’ It would be like Chinese whispers on the phone, people run down, put the TV on or switch the channel, ‘Oh, my god, yes.’ Just to have a black person on television would be an event.
Asif Kapadia: Which film do you want to start with?
Steve McQueen: Let’s go to Mangrove.
Asif Kapadia: Where did the initial idea form?
Steve McQueen: Mangrove and Lovers Rock, were the two stories I came in with initially. After the writers’ room, the story they came up with was Education, and I was holding back on that maybe because of my own history of it. It was Helen Bart, a great researcher, who came to me with the Leroy Logan story, Red, White and Blue. And then Alex, of course, that came out in the writers’ room, Alex Wheatle. So, Mangrove, that was the one I was going to do from day one. But as I dug into researching Mangrove, it was the strangest thing, where certain things were revealed in the research. My own history was intertwined in that. My father’s best friend was Rhodan Gordon. He grew up in a place called Paradise in Grenada and he was the man who opened up the Black People’s Information Centre. When I was lying on the floor watching TV, he used to come over to my dad’s house all the time, but I didn’t know he was a part of the Mangrove Nine. I think the trauma was such that people didn’t talk about it after a while, because there were repercussions which happened after that. Again, after that trial, the day after, I think Rhodan got his arm broken and put into prison for 5 months for attempted assault on a police officer, because people wanted revenge.
The Mangrove Nine was a rare, rare occasion of victory, so it was so deep. And the trauma that people went through, to this day, the children and people who were surrounding it...so, there was a lot of research in that.
Asif Kapadia: Pretty much everyone that you were working with, were you working with them for the first time on this?
Steve McQueen: Yes, and that was great. And from day one, we made sure that each and every department had a programme where we had two apprenticeships for people. Black filmmakers in the accounts department, in camera, hair and make-up, every aspect of the production had at least one or two people involved as an apprentice programme when we were filming. That’s the way I wanted to do it. Obviously I wanted behind the camera to reflect what was happening in front of the camera, it was very, very important to me. I usually work with Sean Bobbitt, but I found this amazing DoP called Shabier Kirchner, he’s from Antigua, and he’s just an amazing young man. I like giving people a chance, an opportunity, because I was given a chance and opportunity — and Shabier didn’t just take it, he hit the ball out the park, and it was wonderful working with him. I think what’s beautiful about Shabier is that he’s a sailor, and all the DoPs I’ve been friends with have all had an association with the water. Sean is a fisherman, Robby Müller, he loved sailing, he was out in Indonesia. Chris Doyle obviously was a merchant sailor for a while. There’s always the water.
Asif Kapadia: What’s your link to water?
Steve McQueen: I’m surrounded by it, I live in Amsterdam.
Asif Kapadia: But that idea, that’s something they just had in common, there’s just something that you get a sense of about the way they are with nature.
Steve McQueen: Well, I think also the horizon. When you think of the horizon and perspective, it’s depth and depth of field. It’s perspective and depth and balance, I suppose. I don’t know, I’m only guessing here. It’s interesting, I love the idea of that horizon. I imagine that was the first absolute straight line that anyone had ever seen, the horizon. There it is, a straight line. I think there’s a relationship to space that they have, and a perspective, and dealing with the frame of course. So, I don’t know, just my folly philosophy there.
Asif Kapadia: Did you have to shoot much faster than you would normally on a feature?
Steve McQueen: All five of them are feature films, but apparently I shoot fast. I’m not aware of it because I don’t know how other people shoot, but apparently I shoot fast. So, it was a TV schedule. But again, I’m not aware of that.
Asif Kapadia: How many weeks would you say you had per movie?
Steve McQueen: I have the breakdown here, if I can remember. Mangrove was 30 days. Lovers Rock 10 days, Red, White and Blue, I think was 14 days. 11 days for Alex Wheatle, and the last one, Education, was 12 days.
Asif Kapadia: How did you come upon the cast across all of the films?
Steve McQueen: We were doing that for years. I was working with an amazing casting director who I worked with on Hunger called Gary Davy, and we started in 2014/2015. Letitia Wright, I talked to her maybe 5 years ago, so before Black Panther, any of that. And I just offered her the job. I had a conversation with her, a cup of tea, and Gary was there and I spoke to her and said, ‘You got the job,’ and she was amazed I didn’t audition her. But when you feel someone, you smell someone...and that was it. Gary has been working on this for a long time, he must have been thinking, ‘Bloody hell, is he going to make this?’ But often it’s just a case of being organised and planning, and having an understanding of what you want, and having fun, really. When you’re having fun, nothing’s a problem, nothing’s a stress.
Asif Kapadia: So, do you know exactly what you’re going to shoot before you turn up on set?
Steve McQueen: No. For me, it’s like the Olympics. You train for 4 years for that gun to start the 100m, so that when you go, you’re ready. So, for me, it’s a lot of prep, a lot of conversations with the DoP, with the costume designers. It’s one of those things where you just prep, prep, prep, prep, and then on the day I don’t know what I’m going to do. Sometimes I walk in, I don’t even know what scene it is because I have it in my head. I think often it’s like this conversation, I have no idea what’s going to come out of my mouth from one word to the next, but I had the intention. And once you have the intention and you’re present, it will happen, it will evolve. The intention is much better actually, because I don’t want to put my stencil onto anything. Something might change. Maybe it’s raining outside, ‘Oh, let’s incorporate the rain in this,’ or something happens when you’re setting something up, and you just go with it. I think the intention is so much more important than anything else. When you have the intention, you know what to do. And also, most of the time it’s not knowing what you want — it’s knowing what you don’t want. And limitation is freedom. When you know it’s right, you know it’s right, when you know it’s wrong, you know it’s wrong.
Asif Kapadia: Do you have a favourite part of the process?
Steve McQueen: Well, editing’s nice because there are no temperamental actors, you’re there, you can edit it with a nice coffee, no-one giving you all that. There’s a thrill in shooting because it is like walking a tightrope, and it’s the thrill when you make it on the other side, it’s the exuberance. I imagine it’s like scoring a last minute goal in the FA Cup final, in off the post, and you go mad and you take your shirt off and the crowd is going nuts. I’m sorry, I’m getting into it there, but there’s nothing better, I feel, than that moment. And unfortunately you don’t get the adulation of the crowd, but you do get some kind of satisfaction. And then you go in the cutting room, and then you find it’s wrong. But then again, it was a moment at least, it was a moment...Oh, god, I’m rambling on. I like everything. And the writing too, writing’s difficult. Writing is difficult.
Asif Kapadia: You co-wrote, yes? Is that something you would normally do or this a new thing for you?
Steve McQueen: Yes, I’m writing a screenplay by myself for the first time now, which is interesting. With myself and Courttia or myself and Alastair, what was interesting about that was just the back and forth. I think that’s beautiful, it’s like playing tennis rather than hitting a ball against a wall. Because, for example with Lovers Rock, I knew what I wanted because it was the story of my aunt. Because what happened was that my aunt couldn’t go to blues, and my uncle actually used to leave the back door open for her to tiptoe out at night and go to blues. Next morning, time for church. So, I knew a certain aspect of it. The guy with the cross, for example, that was a real dude. I used to see him a lot around Ladbroke Grove and Chelsea and South Kensington, and I remember seeing him at the bus stop, and I thought, ‘How’s he going to get on that bus?’ And he collapsed the cross. So things like that, to rap with Courttia was just beautiful, and to laugh and to get things down. And the same with Alastair, Alastair is an amazing researcher, so a lot of the stuff that we found in Mangrove, that was down to Alastair. Unfortunately there were no recorded documents of the court at that time, it was the year after they started to record everything. So, he got a lot of his information from the Kensington Gazette. It was a local paper, a journalist was there every day writing everything down as far as the court case is concerned.
So, we were very fortunate to have all of that, as well as Ian Macdonald, when he was alive. We spoke to him in depth about the case and everything else, as well as certain people who were around at that time with the Mangrove Nine. Frank and so forth and whatnot. So, there’s one part which was much more organic, and the other part which was much more formal, which I love. Because what we did in that situation was turn that courtroom from a place of so-called justice, into a place of righteousness. The whole idea of the black congregation and visuals with the gallery getting involved, and to turn it into a place where you get someone like Darcus Howe turning the stand into a pulpit to his congregation.
Asif Kapadia: How did you choose the visual style of your work?
Steve McQueen: Let’s talk about Red, White and Blue then. Or, we’ll mix Red, White and Blue with Lovers Rock. Okay, with Mangrove, the first one, for me it was Crossroads going into Ben-Hur, because it’s a Western. Frank, he’s on the wrong side of the law for a little bit, for a little while, but when he wants to go straight, he opens a saloon. And the sheriff won’t let him forget his past and harasses him and tries to take him down. So, we go from a little hole in the wall café to the highest court in the land, we go to the Old Bailey, basically for criminals, people who commit treason and murder, for some guy who basically opened a café and gets arrested for riot and affray. So, that’s what I wanted, I wanted to go from Coronation Street or Crossroads to Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia. So I always based it on Westerns, and West Indian people have an affinity to Westerns because it’s all about the land, and most people from the West Indies who I know were from country. So, for me, that was it, that widescreen and 35mm, it had to be. So, Lovers Rock, there was a continuum, the sound, it was wafting, it was like scent, it was a flow. So, I chose to shoot it on digital because I thought, ‘We can’t get the roll out and reload,’ and also we needed the flexibility. And if I shot it on film, it would be just too heavy.
Asif Kapadia: Did you have really long takes in Lovers Rock?
Steve McQueen: Oh, yes, long takes. And also, with Shabier, I think his balance is just so gorgeous, you’re so in the crowd. It’s beautiful, what he does, it’s beautiful. ‘Get in there, and do this, and turn left’ — I had him on my radio mic giving me hell. I know his ears were bleeding, but it’s just the flow, he can translate and adapt. For Red, White and Blue, that was on 35mm, but that was a much squarer version. Why did I do that? I did that because I love the idea of television, and even though it’s 35mm again, there was a situation where I wanted it to be a much more familiar ratio. If you make it into a Mangrove, then it becomes something it’s not. I think Mangrove, you elevate the action because of the frame, and I think with Red, White and Blue, I think if we’d shot it in widescreen, you’d be expecting something that you’re not getting. There’s much more dialogue, it’s much more drama-driven than you would imagine a cop film to be.
Alex Wheatle was digital, and the 16mm was Education, because I love Play for Today and I wanted it to have that added texture, and I wanted it to stick on you. I wanted this whole idea of the grain. We had a lot of trouble with the BBC actually for shooting on 16mm and broadcasting it, but they were cool in the end. But I needed that texture, I needed that grip, I needed that fragility. And film, you can’t beat it as far as I’m concerned.
Asif Kapadia: You were talking about colour palette, let’s talk about Lovers Rock, for example.
Steve McQueen: Funnily enough, I saw Lovers Rock today in the Eye Museum, which is the national film theatre here in Amsterdam, because I was checking the DCP. So I saw it projected in surround sound and whatnot. And it was just interesting, because it was very much about Jacqueline Durran (Costume), it was very much about Helen Scott (Production Design), getting an understanding of the colour, and of blackness, and of clothing, what people would wear. So, it’s about having an understanding of that when you’re doing your research, when you’re introducing people to certain things, and also getting it for the first time for camera. Because a lot of that stuff hasn’t been really seen before, how people dressed for blues. Now, the women used to get a pattern, I remember my mother getting a pattern and helping my aunt out and making a dress for her for Saturday night. So, basically you go to blues on a Saturday, Monday in the market you get a pattern for a dress, my mother would help make it for my aunt, and then Saturday she’d be out with that dress. And the guys would have a certain style, and the colours, obviously you see the shirt that Micheal Ward wore for Lovers Rock. These were the things that were so much about a certain style, a blackness. So, there was a combination of Jacqueline Durran and Helen Scott, and of course talking to Shabier about the colours, because for me it’s like a beautiful aquarium in a way, that room.
And with the music as well, it intermingles so you’ve got all these flows, and they have to flow. So, that was the exciting thing about Lovers Rock and the colour palette, but it had to be right, and it had to be a certain style and a way of doing it.
Laura Adams, Directors UK (filling in as Asif Kapadia experiences a connection issue): Could you talk us through your approach to working with actors?
Steve McQueen: Well, I love actors, I love them. I just feel what an amazing job you have that you portray humanity, you portray who we are. So, I have an undying debt to actors, a huge respect. That’s what I go in with. And to help them, support them, guide them, that’s what it is about. And each individual person’s different, of course, and sometimes they need less, sometimes they need more. But I think it actually starts with the whole set. I think it actually starts about the environment you place the actor in. Actors are very sensitive, and if they feel something’s up on the set or in an environment they’re in... I’m just saying that the environment an actor steps into is very, very, very important. If they feel they’re in a safe environment, they are willing to open up, they’re willing to make mistakes, to try things. So, for me, if people asked for advice, it’s about the environment first - it has to be a safe and happy environment. People, they have to see things happening which make them feel: ‘Okay, I can work here, I can bring something to this situation.’
Asif Kapadia: Did you rehearse on these films?
Steve McQueen: Yes, we did some rehearsing, but I don’t like to rehearse too much sometimes, because I think your decision of bringing someone in, knowing who they are, is the best thing. We definitely did a bit of rehearsal, but obviously sometimes in rehearsal the plane can come off the runway. Also a lot of things, for example, in Lovers Rock, were to do with choreography. That was pretty amazing. And we had this woman called Coral Messam, who was a choreographer, and we did a lot of dance rehearsals, because it’s very different, the way people dance now compared to how they danced then. People would have a partner and they would dance with a partner. That’s beautiful, the whole idea of dancing with a partner. And I think people just jump around throwing shapes now, but I love the tradition of that, and I think we lost a lot of stuff. Not lost it, but we forget a lot of tradition which happened at these parties, how you would speak to someone, how you conduct yourself, how you would dance with someone, so I wanted to bring those back into the dance.
Asif Kapadia: We’re of a similar age, so I can remember this era, and I was thinking that so many of the cast —
Steve McQueen: Asif, you remember back when we were Black and Asian and not BAME?
Asif Kapadia: Yes, I’ve never used BAME in my life.
Steve McQueen: I don’t know what it is. Yes, go for it.
Asif Kapadia: Well I remember the era, the riots, and I was thinking a lot of the cast are too young to remember any of that, so you must have had had to teach them to feel they were right for that era.
Steve McQueen: Yes, but a lot of them were playing their mothers or fathers or grandfathers or grandmothers, or uncles or whatever. A lot of them were playing them. So, again, when you think of Italian Americans in a Scorsese movie, they’re playing their mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and whatever, that’s what they were doing. So, for certain people, obviously you could coach them and they understood, but there was a feel, a vibe, they innately had.
Asif Kapadia: And then everyone just got into it?
Steve McQueen: It was beautiful.
Asif Kapadia: It was just a vibe?
Steve McQueen: On all the films it was. Red, White and Blue, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, all of them, it was a vibe, it was beautiful. It was beautiful to feel because it was just so effortless. And I think the people were euphoric to be able to be themselves on set. All of a sudden they were being themselves on film, so it was beautiful.
Asif Kapadia: Do you want to talk a little bit about food and getting that right on screen? That’s an important part of culture, isn’t it?
Steve McQueen: Beautiful, yes, absolutely. Yes, it’s all about the senses. It was wonderful to do, because so many things happen over breaking bread, so many things happen around that. And also, what’s good for scenes is everyone’s on the table, there’s no getaway because you’re eating so you can do a scene. And obviously in our lives, that would happen a lot, people had to sit together and eat, it was very, very important, and what they ate and so forth and whatnot.
Asif Kapadia: Tell me about the choice of music.
Steve McQueen: We had this amazing musician, Mica Levi, and I spoke to her the other day, and we were talking about it, and I think Mica had a tough time after a while because the source music was so strong. That’s why there’s only a score on Mangrove, because the source music was so strong and of its time. And I think it says a lot without saying anything. So, again, you think of Education using Small Faces, there’s this sense of anarchy but fury, and a certain angst which I love with Small Faces. And going back to Bob Marley, of course, and elsewhere, it’s about how it integrates within the narratives. Lovers Rock, from day one I said, ‘This narrative has to be built around the way the DJ lays down the tracks’. So as he lays the tracks down, then our narrative builds on that. So, by the time we get to Silly Games things change, there’s a transformation, a spiritualisation.
Even though the blues is being circumnavigated by racism, the police and the wider, broader sense of unfortunate landscape of that time, that was a sanctuary for these young people, and it was their church. So, the spirituality and the outpouring, and the letting go, was very apparent. And of course when we get to Kunta Kinte Dub, as soon as I heard it, it was like a dog whistle going off in my head, I said, ‘That’s the track, that’s the track, that’s the track.’ And that’s the track when everyone goes crazy at the end of Lovers Rock. But then you can think of Red, White and Blue with the soul music, because Leroy Logan was a soul guy, and his best friend was Leee John from Imagination. But also the end tune is so beautiful when the father and Leroy are talking, when Steve and John Boyega are talking at the end, the father and son, it’s just one of those songs which says everything without saying anything, really.
Asif Kapadia: Tell me about shooting the Silly Games sequence.
Steve McQueen: Well, the thing is, as I said, none of that was planned as such, because I knew what I wanted, you could write it down, but what is that? What does that mean until you’re in the room?
Asif Kapadia: How long was the script for that?
Steve McQueen: It’s a filler space because that whole sequence is 6.5 minutes, I think, or even longer, I’m not too sure. And sometimes scripts are there as a guide, and that’s about it, so everyone knows what room they’ve got to be in and how many people need to be there, and that’s about it. And then you let it ride and let it go, because you can’t predict that. All that stuff that you saw there, it was the vibe that was happening. It was real, we just happened to be there with a camera and some equipment. Sometimes you just need to set the environment, give the vibe, and I think that’s what a director does. A director is a person who can actually communicate and set the feel and the vibe. And then you let go, and it’s okay. You know what? It’s okay. And they feel themselves, they feel each other. We have a black DoP with a black director and black people, let’s do it, let’s feel ourselves, let’s go. You can’t make that stuff up. Again, it is a cultural thing, and it’s a case of allowing things to happen.
Asif Kapadia: I always think that directing is a bit like being a DJ anyway.
Steve McQueen: Absolutely, that’s a good one. I think you’re absolutely right, you’re the hype man for sure. Everyone’s looking at you and if you’re low, you’re low, if you’re down, you’re down, so it’s fucking exhausting. But at the same time, you get high off the reaction, you get high off what you see, and to give people freedom, and allowing them to experiment. But you know what? Sometimes it’s like this, as far as actors are concerned, you need for them to become a sphere. And what I mean by that is no matter where and how they roll, it’s correct. You turn the situation into a sphere so they can’t do anything wrong.
Asif Kapadia: How has this experience generally compared to what you’ve done before?
Steve McQueen: It was just beautiful. I’ve got to say it was beautiful being in Brixton and shooting, being where we were, we were all over the gaff. Just gorgeous, it was just really, ‘Wow,’ I was shooting movies in my home town, London. In America it’s fantastic, but sometimes I was so happy to have some geezer talk to me about shit. I know it sounds silly, but just to be yourself and to be with people who understand you, it’s just beautiful, it was wonderful. I’m not saying that it’s bad in the States, far from it, but I just felt so happy, I felt so happy. Goodness, we don’t have an industry here because Netflix and the rest of them have taken all our shit, and we don’t have a narrative there because people don’t support it correctly. So, I felt nice, I felt happy for a moment that I could be here in my own town and doing stuff which I love doing.
Asif Kapadia: When you have your sets, do you let them be 360 sets? Is that how you would prefer to work?
Steve McQueen: No. I think sometimes you can’t do that, and also it’s a craft. So, again, I might say stuff, but it’s not willy-nilly. And what I mean by that is, I grew up shooting on Super 8, and it was fucking expensive. It was like £4.50 a cartridge, so when I shot, oh my god, I was shooting, ‘Oh my god, that’s 20p I just rattled off.’ So, how I learnt to shoot was that way. What do I want? How do I want it? There has to be a preciseness. It’s a craft, so you have to know exactly what you want to a certain extent. I don’t shoot thousands of hours of footage and cut it down to half an hour, that’s not how I work. And coverage, what the hell is that?
Asif Kapadia: Do you do a lot of takes?
Steve McQueen: I don’t know, good question. I just want to get it right. Basically, when you shoot it and it’s the first shot, it’s right then it’s right, let’s move on. What’s coverage to me? It’s a bit ‘just in case’, and I’m like, ‘I’m here, I’m doing it, let’s focus, let’s get this right. How am I going to do this?’ It’s an art, it’s a craft. So, I might be speaking willy-nilly, but it is a craft.
Asif Kapadia: How different is Steve McQueen now from the fine artist that started out making films?
Steve McQueen: How am I different?
Asif Kapadia: Are you still essentially the same guy making films the same way but on a much bigger scale, or have you totally changed everything?
Steve McQueen: My first day shooting Small Axe, the day before, I didn’t sleep at all. ‘Can I do it? Can I do it? Can I do it again? Am I any good? Do I remember what to do?’ Listen, it’s a funny thing being a director because often you’re the most inexperienced person on the set. ‘How many films have you done in the last year?’ ‘I’ve done 5,’ or whatever, 4. Meanwhile you’re just coming in after three years of doing some prep.
Asif Kapadia: Three years of talking, and then suddenly you’re meant to turn up and be on it.
Steve McQueen: Yes.
Asif Kapadia: And I’ve forgotten how to direct, normally.
Steve McQueen: Absolutely. So, I think I’m the same guy, there may be more people on the set, but that doesn’t matter because it’s just about what you’re focussed on. So, no, I think I’m the same person.
Asif Kapadia: When I’m thinking about these films, there are moments that are very poetic, and very beautiful, they’re not necessarily all about moving the story on, which to me is like an artist. I suppose I was being general like that in terms of that question.
Steve McQueen: Well, I think that is part of moving things forward. I’m not stopping to look at the beautiful vase or to look at sweat dropping down off a wall, or seeing a colander rock back and forth, it’s about the moment and what that moment means, and time, and digesting, and lulling. Like with Frank, at the end of Mangrove when he’s in the dock, I chose to go to him and to focus in on him when we hear all the verdicts that are happening. It’s how you tell a story. Two people in a pub, one tells you the same story, one person bores you to tears, other person has you on the edge of your chair. It’s how you tell a story which is the most important thing.
Asif Kapadia: Tell me about the reaction to the films when they came out. This all came out during lockdown, it’s been a weird experience.
Steve McQueen: It’s been a weird experience. It was wonderful, I was working with some amazing people, like Chris Dickens, the editor, I was working with an amazing sound team, so we were basically mixing and grading...
Asif Kapadia: Virtually?
Steve McQueen: No, we were in the same room. All checked and whatnot and we were all very careful. We were very fortunate that we opened the New York Film Festival, and we were very lucky that they took three of our films. So, every week for three weeks we had a movie. We cut it on a Thursday, and it was debuted on the Friday, reviewed on the bloody Monday, for three weeks. So, it was like a factory, finishing off. And it was wonderful working with those guys, and it was such a good life. We debut Lovers Rock opening New York Film Festival last year, and the response was ecstatic. They delivered it at a drive-in as well as streaming, and people were apparently jumping out their cars and dancing, beeping their horns and whatnot, it was a really euphoric moment. And that was moving, I was in tears talking to people on the end of the phone bout the response to the movie, because to have an impact in New York, it was the first cultural event in New York since the COVID situation happened. And to have that feeling of emotion... the taste, the smell, the sound, all the senses being celebrated, sensuality, sexuality, I was very touched by it.
Asif Kapadia: How was the response internationally?
Steve McQueen: It was amazing. I think people understand a party, I think they understand music, I think they understand love, so it was very easy. And they understand people enjoying themselves, and they understand people sheltering from unfortunate surroundings they find themselves in. Again, you could take this to anywhere in the world and have people understand it. It’s people basically resisting the environment they’re in and making something of their own, Small Axe, so yes.
Asif Kapadia: Since when the stories are set, do you think the world and the experiences of young people now is different?
Steve McQueen: No, unfortunately not. I think that’s why I stopped it in the 80s, I think when Leroy Logan joins the police force, I think it’s ‘84, ‘83, and he has that conversation with his father. Because they have the conversation where he says, ‘Scorch the earth and replant it, and something good will come out of it,’ something good. But I swapped it for Education at the end because you need the optimism, and also the possibility. Because there is a possibility, there is a future. And again, we have to keep on fighting and striving, because without those people who fought before, you and I wouldn’t be talking to each other, we just wouldn’t be. All those people, the fighting in Lewisham, Southall, Toxteth, Manchester, all over the gaff, trust me, we stand on their shoulders. There’s not an if, but or maybe about it. Trust me.