Inside the Maze: Steve McQueen, the UK's Official War Artist for Iraq, Scored a Hit at Cannes with a Feature Film about an IRA Hunger Striker. He Talks to Richard Brooks
Brooks, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
When Steve McQueen was at art school in London he wanted to be a film-maker. Once he was in on New York University's film course he wanted to be an artist. That might sound a little perverse, but 38-year-old McQueen, whose first feature film, Hunger, won the Camera d'Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival on 25 May, sees no particular paradox. "For me, the two are not separate interests," says McQueen, who won the Turner Prize in 1999 for his video work. "I don't see them as two different skills. They are both working, as it were, on a canvas."
Before shooting Hunger, a film about the last six weeks of the hunger striker Bobby Sands inside the Maze Prison in Belfast in 1981, McQueen worked on two documentaries--one about mining in Southern Africa, the other about Gravesend in Kent. The latter may sound curious, but Gravesend is where the ship in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness begins its journey to Africa.
McQueen got the idea for making Hunger four years ago, though the inspiration for it dates all the way back to 1981, when he was an 11-year-old living in west London. "I suppose it was an impressionable age and I would see on the TV screen I night after night this mugshot of Sands, with his prison number underneath. It was an image which really left its mark." The film idea came together when McQueen, who now lives partly in London and partly in the Netherlands, got chatting with Channel 4's arts supremo Jan Younghusband, who in turn talked about the project with her colleague Peter Carlton, who runs the experimental side of the channel's film developments. McQueen, who already had a good idea in his head of how he was going to tackle what clearly would be a harrowing subject, then began to look for a writer. "I wanted Sam Beckett ideally," he semi-jokes. In the end, he chose Enda Walsh, an Irish-born playwright who now lives in London. "I knew I wanted a playwright and not a screenwriter," he says.
McQueen wanted a script that was essentially a drama, particularly for one extraordinary 20-minute scene where a priest enters Sands's cell at the Maze and tries to persuade him not to continue with his hunger strike. As the priest finds out, Sands used to be a long-distance runner in his youth and because of the arduous training for this he has kept his single-minded perseverance and sense of purpose.
Hunger is not a political film per se, even though, of course, the real-life hunger strikers were trying to get political status as prisoners. It is a film about the men inside the Maze, and about one person in particular who is prepared to go to the ultimate end in order to achieve his goals. This makes it more a film about the human condition and the extremes of that condition--as, indeed, was Heart of Darkness.
Not surprisingly for a man who has spent most of his career as a visual artist, McQueen's film is shot with great vision. And yet, as he himself puts it: "I use my nose and my ears just as much." That is very much the case when he comes to direct scenes involving prisoners and warders and showing the utterly appalling state of the prison cells, covered with the men's own excrement. …