This article first appeared in issue #146 of IF Magazine (April-May 2012). Subscribe here.
Filmmakers rely on many complex techniques to bring a sense of reality to the cinema. Director Steve McQueen and long time collaborator Sean Bobbitt BSC try to minimise them.
“Once you start introducing an edit into a scene you are subconsciously reminding the audience that this is a film,” the cinematographer, who has worked with McQueen for more than a decade, says. “If you don’t give them that escape then sometimes that can heighten the dramatic effect – an edit can often deflate the dramatic effect.”
Shame – McQueen’s second film after Hunger – is an uncompromising exploration of successful New Yorker Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his sexual addiction. The story is told with minimal intervention – McQueen is no fan of cinematic coverage according to Bobbitt.
“His explanation is when I walk into a room and see two people talking I will either stand there or sit there and watch them – I will not walk around the room and listen to them from different angles."
For example, a long, slow tracking shot was used to capture a dinner date between Brandon and Alexa (Nicole Beharie). It evokes memories of a similar scene in Hunger: a single shot held for 16½ minutes on the two protagonists, Irish republican Bobby Sands and Father Moran.
“So it’s that element and also the belief that if you just set things up correctly you let the actors get on with it – it’s about their performance; it’s about them, it’s not about the camera.”
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Alexa (Nicole Beharie) on their dinner date.
Fassbender’s performance was recognised at the British Independent Film Awards where he won Best Actor and many pundits felt he was unlucky not to be nominated at this year’s Academy Awards.
Bobbitt was also nominated for a British Independent Film Award and Evening Standard British Film Award in recognition of his cinematography. The film was shot on 35mm 2-perf film stock using an ARRICAM LT.
“The preference has always been for film,” Bobbitt says. “This is before the ALEXA really came into its own so there wasn’t – as far as I was concerned – a viable option in terms of digital cinema. Plus, just the feel, the texture of the whole film – it just felt like ‘film’.”
Kodak Vision 3 500 Tungsten was used for the night time interiors while Fuji 250 Daylight was used for the daytime interior and exteriors.
“We wanted to show a New York that during the day was more true to what New York really is as opposed to what most people see in the cinema – the palette of New York in the day time is really quite drab and tending towards the browns and greys and light greens. But at night time it changes completely because of all the different coloured lights.
“The grain structure was something we were interested in because usually you have the daytime very clean – the look and feel – and the night time is slightly grainer. We wanted to throw that on its head so you got a grittier, grainer feel during the daytime with those muted palettes and then a very clear, colourful bright night time. New York changes as the sun sets and that’s something that we wanted to play with.”
Brandon breaks down.
Minimal artificial lighting was used after the dinner date scene as Brandon and Alexa walk through the streets of New York through shadows – a conscious choice “to let them fall into the darkness as a way of hopefully heightening the reality,” Bobbitt says, “and making people believe that they were in the real world rather than just walking around in a movie.”
Not every shot is quite so subtle. As Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) begins a one-night stand with his philandering boss David (James Badge Dale), an agitated Brandon leaves the apartment and begins running across several street blocks – his movement tracked seamlessly by the camera.
The scene was shot at 2.30am in Manhattan – “it just all fell into place so there’s no extra lighting in that shot” – although it only required blocking off two streets.
“I think we had three or four takes at it at which point the police said ‘ok, we’re going home and going to bed’ and that was the end of that.”
Shame was released on DVD by Transmission Home Entertainment on June 6.
CORRECTION: This article originally mis-identified the actor playing Alexa as Mari-Ange Ramirez.