Steve McQueen Hunger film still Bobby Sands on Hunger strike
Steve McQueen
Hunger

Film still
Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender, on hunger strike, with William, played by Lalor Roddy, and Orderly. Maze Prison Hospital

Turner-prize winning artist Steve McQueen talks about his award-winning first feature film Hunger, the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, with Simon Grant.

Simon Grant
There were several events in your childhood that left a distinct impression – Tottenham winning the FA Cup, the Brixton riots and Bobby Sands. What interested you about Bobby Sands and the IRA prisoners’ late 1970s blanket protests?

Steve McQueen
I remember as an 11-year-old seeing Bobby Sands on BBC news every night. There was a number underneath his image, and I thought that that was his age, but I noticed that each night the number increased, and I realised that wasn’t his age, it was the number of days he had gone without food. To an 11-year-old, the idea of someone who in order to be heard was not eating left an impression on me. I don’t know why this image stayed with me, but it is a very strong memory.

Simon Grant
So when it came to doing the research for the film in Northern Ireland with previous inmates of cell block H of the Maze prison, as well as some of the prison officers, what was that experience like?. 

Steve McQueen
I felt privileged to hear their story. They were extraordinarily articulate – pushing language to its limits, just as there were times when they pushed the body to its limits. 

Simon Grant
What kind of questions were you asking them?

Steve McQueen
Everything. It is a case of wanting to know not just the big questions, but also the details, such as the daily rituals, and how people survived in the situations and the arguments and the dialogue. I wanted to have a very rounded picture of their experience.. 

Simon Grant
Did you do that by focusing on the sensory experience – touch, taste, smell – which play a prominent part of Hunger?

Steve McQueen
These things are there in order to help the bigger questions of the film. For example, in one scene, when the first prisoner is put into the cells, he finds a fly and focuses on that fly. A couple of days before him going into prison I don’t think he will have even looked at a fly twice. These sort of scenes are there in order to bring to the fore the environment or situation that they are in. It’s not just for decoration, it’s actually to enhance the situation that these people find themselves in – be it prison officers or prisoners.

Simon Grant
How did you manage to film the violent scenes of beatings in the prison, as in a way you are reviving the experience in some way?

Steve McQueen
To a certain extent yes. It was very hard but we had to shoot it. It’s one of those situations that was very unfamiliar to me. It’s one of those situations where you know you’re going to use all your skills to do something and sometimes it affects you and you’ve got to get over it and get on with it. And it was one of those. The architecture of the place dictated the camera also.

Simon Grant
The detail in the lingering shots of the camera, for example the slow panning shot across the shit-smeared walls of the prison cells and the maggot-infested food on the floor, is remarkable. Was it really like this for the prisoners?

Steve McQueen
Yes. And the people who dressed that set were ex-prisoners.

Simon Grant
When I saw that imagery I was reminded me of Richard Hamilton’s painting The Citizen that depicts Bobby Sands in his blanket. The paintings seems incredibly aesthetic and clean by comparison to your gritty portrayal of the filth and degradation. 

Steve McQueen
Well, the situation was that there was no image of what was going on in the prison, except 90 seconds of TV footage. So Richard Hamilton had the license to do that, and the painting is still a strong image…

Simon Grant
The structure of the film is divided into three distinct sections, with the 20 minute single shot dialogue between Bobby Sands and the priest at the centre. Was there a deliberate structure set out in your mind from the beginning?

Steve McQueen
Yes I had this idea of the structure as like a river that turns into a rapid which turns into a waterfall. This analogy of narrative, of a route is what I wanted to bring the audience along to a situation that he can or she can identify with her surroundings. Then there is a fracture, a disturbance. The reality that ensues is distorted of course. The waterfall is the suspense of reality – death. In some ways the situation in this film’s narrative is that it goes against nature of course, because as human beings we do anything to survive. So, that someone would decide to die is very profound.

Simon Grant
Then I was very taken by the scene at the beginning of the film where the prison officer is at home having his breakfast. You cut to underneath the table where we see the napkin on his lap. Some crumbs falls onto the napkin from his toast…Why did you do it like that?

Steve McQueen
For the detail. These things which are singularly insignificant in the film such as the snowflake that falls on prison officer’s knuckle – could be very significant in the context of this. What does it mean…? It’s incredibly crucial element to the character in some way. I’m not forcing the action at all, I’m presenting it. It is the same consideration when thinking about where to put the camera. It’s these kinds of decisions you make in order to how best to translate an environment. And often as the case with the filming the prison scenes at least, the architecture dictated to me where to put the camera. But often it’s the case you have to find it. 

Simon Grant
Did you get a different sense of Bobby Sands, not just the political situation, but after having made Hunger?

Steve McQueen
As 11 years old it’s totally abstract. You have no real concept when you’re thinking about but the seed that has been planted is very strong. And as you grow up as an adult it is still strong, even if you know the context of it. So when I got over there, of course it changed again. My approach to it was how people make these extraordinary situations ordinary. For example, prison officers are going back home to their families from a workplace that is horrific, and prisoners are having to live in that situation for four and a half years. So I am in was interested in how people deal with those decisions that politicians make, and the environments which are created from those decisions, which they have to survive in.

Simon Grant
So is that why you have the disembodied voice of Thatcher that appears at various stages in the film?

Steve McQueen
The voice is so powerful, so you didn’t need to show her face. I wanted to remain in the prison and I didn’t want the situation where there were punctures in that concentrated situation. To have her voice – the voice is almost like vapour – is very strong. 

Simon Grant
Michael Fassbender who plays Bobby Sands prepared himself for the role of Sands going through his hunger strike by undergoing 10 weeks of supervised fasting. How did you work with that?

Steve McQueen
When we were shooting that period no one would normally speak to him apart from me. From twelve weeks he would be taken back to his room and I would go back and have a conversation with him (There was too many people asking are you okay are you alright, so he needed to focus on his role) I understand now why fasting is so important in those situations. It focuses you. Often it’s the case it that it’s the first time you are actually aware of yourself, because you’ve reduced yourself, everything has been taken away from you as far as food is concerned – sex drive etc. You get to a state where it is very inward looking and I think it just helped the role, in a way and obviously him personally in order to direct his own emotion. 

Simon Grant
The central scene with Sands and the priest is an extraordinary part of the film, not just because of its length….

Steve McQueen
It was what was necessary for the role for the conversation. Up until that point it is a cascade of words. Everything else was pushed to its limit. Every question, every thing was looked at from inside out. It was a conversation that actually didn’t happen in real life but it was a situation I thought was necessary for the film, because in some ways you have to understand what were the reasons to live and what were the reasons to die.

Simon Grant
And now the assimilation of this history into main stream politics has changed the political landscape…

Steve McQueen
Well, it’s interesting. The Bobby Sands story is one of the most historical events in the last 27 years, but it has been swept under the carpet.