IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Shame'

Tuesday, 29 November 2011 17:06 Written by  Dana Feldman
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'Shame'

With the gritty, harsh reality of New York City as the backdrop, Fox Searchlight Pictures' film Shame follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome and successful New Yorker, as he navigates recklessly through a life of which he attempts to keep private as he succumbs to his many sexual addictions and obsessions. His inevitably self-destructive path in life is disrupted when his wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly comes into town for an indefinite stay. An emotionally schizophrenic film about a subject rarely discussed, Shame doesn’t leave you even after you’ve left the theatre. His Manhattan apartment, once a haven for him to quench his lusts and desires, is suddenly much too crowded for him to successfully hide his lifestyle. Sex addiction, in its ugliest form, is realistically depicted as the film serves as a voyeuristic metaphor capturing what it is to be a human being in today’s world. The message is quite clear – it isn’t easy, not for any of us.

What is clear is that we all have our demons, some of which seem to have a much crueler grip than others. Though never actually discussed in the film, the unspoken words speak volumes in this case as Brandon and Sissy never talk about their parents. With sparser dialogue than many films, the message is clearly delivered with two of the bravest, raw performances in recent film history by Mulligan and Fassbender. Both excavate the most deeply buried of human truths and the audience is privy to their urges and impulses as well as their failed attempts at normalcy.

Alluded to through the duration of the film, the audience is aware of the fact that these two were not brought up in a home in which anyone would wish. With only one another left in this world to call family, they share a closeness which is at times extremely uncomfortable to watch. Brandon struggles to find human connection, but must fight off his crippling needs for excess. His quest for the numbness only found in random sexual acts is an attempt, which fails, to aid him in an escape from his past as well as his present life.

An original screenplay written by the acclaimed Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Hour) and directed by McQueen, this provocative and daring drama follows Fassbender as he is forced to navigate through his character’s private world as well as the one he now shares with his sister. McQueen’s vision was to make a film about a subject that few films have explored before. Shame serves as an exploration into the purgatories of both addiction and secrecy. We watch as Brandon suffers feeling trapped by his sister’s neediness and is forced to show his darker side to the one person who knows him best, the only person who knows him well.

In one particular scene, Sissy leaves Brandon a voicemail message in which she says to him that they are not bad people, they just come from a bad place. One can only infer what this bad place entailed for each, but you know instinctively that whatever it was, and one can make a few assumptions, it was very bad.

IAR recently attended a press conference at The Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, CA, for the film where Fassbender and McQueen spoke to the many dark aspects of sexual addictions and childhood abuse.

Asked about the NC-17 rating and the explicit sex scenes, McQueen explained his choices to show life in its rawest of forms. One instance is the opening scene where Fassbender gets up in the morning and walks naked to the refrigerator to get a drink of water, checks his voicemail and then continues on to use the bathroom. McQueen asked, “How do you shoot something and not be there so the audience can blend in and yet give the actors space? It’s all about virtual reality.” His feeling being that this is real life, if it were the 1950’s than perhaps someone would be in pajamas, but in modern society it is completely expected to have someone walk in the buff to the kitchen. It is normal, real life. He goes on to further say that within the ordinary you can get the extraordinary, “From this mundane morning ritual, if you really pay attention, you can learn a lot about this character and his life.”

Of the film McQueen wanted to do something extraordinarily important. “Being in a world where it’s difficult to be a human being is not always pretty to look at.” He forces us to do so in a way that is not offensive, it is simply honest. He also explains this as a film about modern life, “This is a film about now. You don’t have to socialize or interact. You can sit in your house all day on the Internet.”

His choice to film in New York was simple, “When I was in London I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me about sex addiction. It was a time when sex addiction was high in vogue. People shied away from being in the spotlight.” He happened to be living in New York at the time and people were talking. “People in New York were open to talking and so I said ‘We should film it in New York.’ It seemed the logical and obvious thing to do.”

In regards to his feelings about all of the nudity and explicit sexual content, Fassbender jokes that there were a lot of fluffers on set, but adds on a more serious note, that as of this point he has only seen the film once. He laughs as he described watching the third act with one eye covered by his hand. “I will need to see it again with just Steve, not a thousand people. I thought it was beautiful, beautifully shot.” This, he says, is a film where each character is trying to connect, looking for help. “We’re all fragile in our own way, trying hard to find our way in life. We all need someone to help us.”

Asked if McQueen was concerned about finding an American distributor with the NC-17 rating, he says that his main concern was always simply to make the best film possible. “I wasn’t thinking about getting a distributor at the time. I am very happy that Searchlight came on board. Never once have they asked me to cut anything.”

Of the amount of sexual content, McQueen doesn’t defend, nor does he feel he needs to do so, his choices, but explains it this way. “It’s just sex; we’ve all done it. I am sure all of us in this room have. Why is what we all do in our daily lives so censored? It is very odd to me. Nudity, sex, both are normal, no big deal.” He compares our censorship of all things sexual to the violence so readily conveyed in film and television, “I have never once in my life held a gun in my hand and yet we have no issues with showing that.”

Fassbender adds in regards to making a film about sex addiction, “That our main character’s urges and impulses are focused around sex, I felt was pretty relevant to what’s going on in the world today.” He further explains, “It speaks to this constant drive we have for satisfaction and highs, one that is followed by feelings of shame and self-loathing. It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself.” He adds, “It’s tough being a human being and we’re all fragile in our own way.”

McQueen, in regards to his actor’s raw performances, adds “You’re an actor, very simple. Bringing reality to the performance is the job.” He acknowledges that both Mulligan and Fassbender both achieved this with their intensely raw and honest performances. “As an actor you have to put yourself out there or you’re not an actor. It’s very simple really.”

Fassbender adds laughing when asked how he handled taking on this role, “I am an actor, it’s like do your fucking job!” He adds that he agrees that it’s really very simple. “People say ‘Oh, you’re naked! What’s that going to do to your career?’ I’m not a politician, I’m a storyteller. My job is to facilitate a character and to be some facet of telling that story.” He speaks to his innate ability to step into the skin of whatever character it is that he is portraying, to literally become someone else.

In getting his actors comfortable, McQueen created an environment of trust on the set where everyone knew and was comfortable with one another. “Everyone felt it was safe to take risks because what was going on behind the lens was much different than what was going on in front of the lens. There was a lot of joking around going on.” He adds that a safe environment is imperative to making his actors comfortable in taking the necessary risks to make a realistic film. Fassbender describes the set as both terrifying and exciting at the same time.

McQueen describes Shame as a film that is not just about sex, “It’s about addictions in general. It shows us as human and fragile.” Best described as a story about the drive or sex as well as the need for love, the struggle with this affliction shows the impossible promise of fulfillment at its darkest of moments.

When asked about the addiction of sex and if being an attractive man would make such an addiction easier to maintain, Fassbender says it would have nothing to do with looks at all. “If you’re addicted to anything in life, you know where to find what it is that you’re addicted to. If you’re addicted to gambling, you know where to go. So, if you’re addicted to sex, you know where to find people who are also addicted to sex. It doesn’t necessarily come down to looks, it’s an interest.” He went on further to speak of a phenomenon in years past that was prevalent in England. “There was a time in England when people would park in cars and have sex. Those people knew where to go and how to find others who wanted to participate.”

Brandon has a lot of self-loathing and to prepare, Fassbender spent a lot of time with the character. “A very big part of my preparation was reading the script over and over again. I could read a script anywhere from three hundred to three hundred-fifty times, just gathering little pieces of information every day. It’s just about trying to understand him and to relate to him, not to judge him in any way.” He constantly asked himself what his character would do in this or that situation, “I was constantly questioning, not judging him, and I had Steve there to steer me in the right direction.”

One particularly poignant scene which was asked about was one in which Mulligan is singing the song “New York, New York,” and Brandon’s reaction to it is indicative of his introverted nature, he is imploding while Sissy is the extravert, the performer who wants to get out what is inside of her and she uses her artistic side to do so. The song, McQueen says, is about a vagrant, homeless person, who so wants to make it in the lights of the big city. “I read the lyrics and this felt like the blues. People are always taking standards and doing something else with them so we made this rendition bluesy, jazz. To see
Brandon’s response to it further exemplifies how these two people, who came from the same background, are totally different.” In speaking to both Mulligan’s delivery of the song as well as Fassbender’s reactions to it, “Both were beautiful and it is from this scene that we get a huge sense of the past and the present in their lives.”

Mulligan, Fassbender and McQueen had many discussions about the back story of these two characters. Fassbender, “I think we each had our own versions and I’m not going to say what they were.” Throughout the film they never mention their parents, “I think that it says a lot that there is not even one paragraph in the script about what happened to them.” McQueen has the natural ability to convey a message, to speak volumes, without his characters saying a word. “There is a history between them, no dialogue but we get it. Intelligent people can fill in the blanks much better than I can say.”

Both agree that there is an implicit trust between actor and director. Fassbender elaborates on this most unique of relationships, “Chemistry is a hard thing to put your finger on. I am so grateful. I was always looking for a collaborator.” Indeed both have found this most pertinent of elements in one another and the duo is currently working on their third project together entitled Twelve Years of Slave. Fassbender respectfully adds, “After Hunger we formed a language very quickly. We experienced a lot together.”

Shame opens in limited release on December 2nd. 

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