Director Steve McQueen initially laughed at the notion of being addicted to sex.
"I thought, what's that about?" he says, sitting in a SoHo hotel suite recently, talking about his film, Shame, which opened in limited release Dec. 2.
Addicted to sex? What man isn't? McQueen assumed it was just an exaggerated form of promiscuity, the state of perpetual horniness in which most men find themselves in their teens and 20s -- at worst, a lapse of self-control as opposed to a life-destroying compulsion. The more he learned, the more he understood how wrong he was.
"I realized that have to relieve yourself 20 times a day and to go on 72-hour sex-capades -- it's not the same as simply being promiscuous," he says. "And it's not about sex. A sex addict is like an alcoholic -- and being an alcoholic has as little to do with being thirsty as being a sex addict has to do with having sex."
In Shame actor Michael Fassbender -- who starred in McQueen's debut feature, Hunger -- plays Brandon, a New York businessman who is a high-functioning sex addict, one whose life has been constructed and compartmentalized to accommodate his compulsion. But his world is turned upside down when his sister (played by Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment for an unexpected visit.
"She disrupts his ritual," McQueen says. "He doesn't want to have to deal with that.
"Being a sex addict is all about numbing yourself out. In this case, it's the sex that numbs the addict out. The whole idea that this is an addiction is so far removed from most of us. With alcohol or drugs, it involves something that can be removed from us, something we can stay away from. But everyone has sex. I liked the idea of an addiction to something we all know, something that's not alien. This character isn't a freak; he's one of us."
An Englishman who began as a painter before moving into film, McQueen teamed up with writer Abi Morgan to write the script, originally intending to set the film in London: "But no one would talk to us about it, perhaps because sex addiction was so high up in the news," McQueen says. "The media in England has made it kind of notorious. So we flew to New York and talked to experts here. We thought, well, screw it all, we'll follow the trail. And we arrived at where we are today."
Like his film Hunger, about the prison hunger strikes by accused IRA terrorists in the early 1980s, Shame goes against the grain of contemporary film by being slower and more deliberate in its pace and editing.
"I make movies to touch people," McQueen says. "As an artist, I want to communicate. I love making images, from the paintbrush to the camera.
"Hunger was about listening -- about people who have exhausted violence up to its absolute limit. Now they want to push language to its absolute limit. In Shame, Brandon hardly says a word. But really -- in movies, everyone seems to be Shakespeare, talking all the time. In reality, that doesn't happen."
In both cases, McQueen says, his goal was "to make an entertainment. Obviously, it's not a romantic comedy. But it is an entertainment."
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