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Steve McQueen and the mountains made out of molehills

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Yesterday over at Twitch, columnist Matt Brown published a piece about how he thinks filmmaker Steve McQueen is a dick. According to Brown, the director responsible for Shame and Hunger has been abrasive at press conferences and Q & As at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he’s showing his latest film 12 Years a Slave. Brown writes:

McQueen is at TIFF this year to promote 12 Years a Slave… Saying that McQueen is “promoting” Slave, though, implies that the filmmaker wants you to see the film, and McQueen apparently doesn’t give a s**t one way or the other. He staunchly refuses to play the game of making people like him or his movie, and frequently acts like he’s genuinely baffled as to why anyone is asking him any of these questions at all.

From Brown’s piece you’d think McQueen is a holy terror, a BAFTA-winning G.G. Allin who puts people down with a ruthlessness that would make Harlan Ellison and Don Rickles blanch.

But from the video of the TIFF press conference (included after the cut), I think Brown’s overreacting and way out of bounds. Brown doesn’t even provide examples of McQueen behaving like a dick as he asserts. McQueen’s not behaving like a dick at all. He’s behaving like a serious filmmaker, and sometimes people who are serious about their craft are annoyed by frivolous questions.

Some additional thoughts after the cut.

I think what really undermines Brown’s accusation is that he understands the root of McQueen’s frustration:

To be fair, a lot of McQueen’s behaviour is in response to processes that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. People who ask questions at film festival Q&As do not, in my experience, have the widest frame of reference in terms of how films are made, and tend not to be interested in the kinds of things filmmakers are interested in, either. Add to that the questioners who are only interested in satisfying their own egos – the “this is more of a comment than a question” guys, or the people who stand up and cite fifteen examples of previous work before deigning to ask a question – plus the journalists at press conferences who must delve into the celebrity side of moviemaking to make copy, and the frustrations of McQueen and others like him become fairly relatable.

We have all experienced this, whether at film festivals, author readings, comic conventions, and other kinds of public appearances. Press conferences and Q & As can be miserable, and there are bound to be some awful/dumb comments. I’ll admit that I’ve asked dumb and/or rambling questions in the past, which is why I rarely pipe up these days unless I’ve got something succinct.

The most awkward Q & A incident I can remember was at a midnight screening of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in LA. Grace Zabriskie was in attendance. A guy asked her what it was like to put lipstick all over her face. He had unknowingly mistaken Zabriskie for Diane Ladd. The rest of the audience simultaneously winced in embarrassment. I can’t even remember the response anymore, only the sudden drop in the theater’s barometric pressure.

Sure, McQueen makes faces at some of the questions, but 1) maybe he’s just got an expressive face and 2) good for him. I’m actually surprised more people don’t make funny faces at bad questions. That takes a lot of restraint. Here are two from the TIFF press conference that seem especially dumb:

  • “Why didn’t [12 Years a Slave] go to Cannes or Venice before Toronto?”
  • “Did [Brad Pitt] consider other roles [in 12 Years a Slave]?” (i.e., did Brad Pitt consider playing Michael Fassbender’s part or Benedict Cumberbatch’s part)

McQueen’s response to the Cannes/Venice question is that the film wasn’t done at the time. That’s all you can really say. Cannes is held in May, Toronto is held in September, and maybe Venice’s slate was full before McQueen was finished. Duh. Now, to be fair, the film premiered at Telluride in late August rather than at Cannes, but having consulted several calendars, my research has found that August is still a month that comes after May but is relatively close to September. McQueen’s response to the second question was that Pitt’s role wasn’t Pitt’s to consider. This is a polite way of saying what I’m thinking: “Why the f**k would that decision be up to Brad Pitt? Steve McQueen’s the director of the f**king movie.”

The worst thing about those two questions is that they are boring and of no interest to anyone. They aren’t even cool inside-baseball kinds of questions, they’re just plain uninteresting.

McQueen also has some quizzical looks on his face as he addresses the broad introductory question about race and a later question about how being British may have affected his approach to depicting slavery in America. What I noticed in McQueen’s responses was his reluctance to address complicated issues in sound bite form. He doesn’t understand what conversation the film would inspire about race that isn’t already happening, and he similarly doesn’t want to view slavery along strict national or nationalistic lines. He’s a thoughtful filmmaker, and he’s probably wrestled with these ideas himself for some time and possibly finds the answers irreducible to something pat. Press conferences, by contrast, are about the reduction of complex ideas into simple, quotable lines; and we’re not talking aphorisms but quaint pull quotes.

That might be a bigger issue about the way people react during Q & As and press conferences. These things can feel so artificial, and sometimes it’s hard to suffer fools gladly or answer the same questions over and over again. Even one-on-one interviews can be wearying for people, and at their worst they can feel like really bad dates. That’s why good interviews read or sound like actual conversations rather than just some collection of regurgitated material that can be found in a press kit. There’s a sense that the participants are alive and engaged.

To some extent it’s the filmmaker’s job to promote his or her own film, but just because a filmmaker seems slightly peeved over a few questions is no justification for thinking that the filmmaker is a dick. I remember at the NYFF press conference for Holy Motors last year, director Leos Carax seemed like he didn’t want to be there. He doesn’t really like doing press, but that doesn’t make him a dick. It makes him a filmmaker who doesn’t like doing press.

Brown tries to expand his piece into discussion about the way a director’s personality may affect your perception of their work. That’s a whole other conversation and one that’s worth having (we did it on Flixist a while ago), but the fact that it stems from something so small seems odd to me. Steve McQueen is not doing press conferences to win friends and influence people. He’s doing it to talk about the film he believes in. (You’ll note that before the end of the TIFF press conference for 12 Years a Slave, it’s McQueen who asks the moderator if an additional question can be asked.) He’s not playing the “I’m going to make people like me” game because the game is childish and McQueen is an adult. There’s nothing dickish about that. In fact, he’s pretty personable in sections of the TIFF press conference, and you can see more of that personable side in other videos, at other Q & As, and other interviews.

But if we accept Brown’s premise that Steve McQueen is being a dick, let me be the first to say that the world sure could use more dicks like Steve McQueen.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.