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 Caméra 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 Graves end in Kent. The latter may sound curious, but Graves end 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 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. This will be gruelling and off-putting for some. But what McQueen has done with his eyes, ears and nose is re-create not just what it must have been like inside the Maze, but also what must have been going on inside Sands's head. "That's where I want to take the audience," he says.
Very deliberately, McQueen and Walsh did not talk to the Sands family, though they did inform Sands's next of kin that they were going to make the film. Family members neither condoned nor condemned the project, but simply kept their thoughts private. The pair did, however, talk to former prisoners, prison officers and priests who visited the Maze. It is interesting that McQueen, who in the end co-wrote the script with Walsh, created a composite priest for that central 20-minute scene.
Inevitably, the days immediately leading up to Sands's death and the death itself were the most difficult to shoot. The actor Michael Fassbender (he is of German origin but has lived in Ireland for most of his life) had to lose several stone in order to look the part. This meant shooting about two-thirds of the film last autumn and then the final scenes this year, to allow Fassbender to shed as much weight as he could without making himself ill. The death itself is handled sensitively. Instead of making it obviously dramatic, McQueen cuts between the prison's hospital wing and the young Bobby Sands, with scenes of him doing long-distance running in the countryside. "I did this for a change of pace and scenery - to get out of the Maze. I also wanted to bring in here this contrast between a man stuck inside both prison and his own head, and the freedom of the runner in the countryside," says the director.
McQueen made the film while working as the UK's official war artist for Iraq. Because of the dangers of visiting the country, he has been there only once. But the war has inspired him to produce Queen and Country, a series of stamp-like images of many of the British soldiers killed in Iraq. It was put on show initially at the Imperial War Museum last year and has since been touring Britain. McQueen has also been trying very hard to get the Royal Mail to put about half a dozen portraits of the fallen on to real stamps. But, despite the wishes of the families, thousands of
signatures from the public and the support of the charitable Art Fund, the postal service is so far refusing. McQueen is furious that he cannot get any kind of commitment from it.
Steve McQueen is a passionate man of strong beliefs. With Hunger, he has demonstrated a clear talent for feature film-making. It may not make for comfortable viewing, but I would be very surprised if now, with this impressive calling card, he did not join the ranks of British directors who use the visual and emotional power of cinema to the full.
“Hunger” will be shown in selected cinemas and on Channel 4 later this year
Richard Brooks is the Sunday Times’ arts editor