#WeFour: Steve McQueen directs a crime tale of ‘Widows’ taking charge

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Growing up in England, filmmaker Steve McQueen found himself drawn to a six-part BBC miniseries called “Widows” created by Lynda La Plante, who would go on to produce “Prime Suspect” with Helen Mirren. His fascination with the story about four women deciding to stage a heist planned by their deceased husbands persisted over the next 35 years.

“They were being judged by their appearances and believed to be incapable,” recalls McQueen, the day after the world premiere of his version of Widows at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival. “I was being judged the same way going to school in London. It stuck with me. I didn’t know at 13 years old that I would be a filmmaker. I wanted to take this narrative and steep it within the social reality of Chicago.”

The original premise intrigued McQueen. “I loved how grief can compel you into being reckless. I asked a friend of mine whose mother died, ‘How did it make you feel?’ She said, ‘Reckless.’”

Exploration of cruelty and resilience can be found in McQueen’s Hunger, Shame and Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. “What I wanted to do was run the gauntlet of the human condition in a situation where we can see ourselves onscreen. Yes, there is a kind of endurance. Yes, there is some kind of hardship. But these four women are not superheroes; they’re human with all of their frailties and faults.”

It was important to find a co-writer with the right dynamic. “It had to be a female voice,” notes producer Iain Canning, who was involved in making Hunger and Shame. “Gillian Flynn [Gone Girl] is the best in the business in that sense; she has such a proven track record of doing extraordinary thrillers, suspense and surprises. That was the key first relationship to get right.”

There was no doubt that the Windy City situated on Lake Michigan was the best place to set and shoot the cinematic adaptation. “I had my first museum show in Chicago,” recalls McQueen. “While I was there, my then-girlfriend, now-wife Bianca Stigter went to the Democratic National Convention [also being held in Chicago] as a journalist. Chicago was always interesting as far as art and politics right from the beginning 22 years ago. I wanted to place this fiction into a heightened Western contemporary city and that for me was Chicago.”

A crime noir classic directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson was thematically influential. “What I love about Chinatown is the whole idea that everyone is in on it. “If you go to Chicago and talk to the FBI, the police, private investigators, people in the underworld, gang members and clergymen, you realize that there’s this whole matrix. You know what is the catchphrase for Chicago? It’s ‘I’ve got a guy.’”

Intercutting moments from the personal lives of the spouses with the failed heist was part of the original plan for the opening sequence. “I’m British, so what happens is that you always try to stretch a pound,” McQueen explains. “But within economics you get invention. Your train leaves the station, but you stop at other stations along the way. It’s so economical and also thrilling. You’re picking up things as you move along. It’s beautiful. I wanted you to get an idea of what the relationships were like between these women and their partners. It ends with an explosion and they’re now widowed.”

Subtext was an important element of the opening narrative. “There’s a little moment where Harry Rawlings [Liam Neeson] is playing with Veronica [Viola Davis] and leans forward,” remarks editor Joe Walker, who joined the project immediately after completing Blade Runner 2049. “It alludes to the violence that’s inside those relationships, even though they’re having breakfast or getting up in the morning.”

A signature scene is a continuous two-and-a-half-minute shot that follows local politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz) as they leave a poor neighborhood in a car with tinted glass windows, have a heated conversation, and return to his mansion; it’s captured entirely outside of the moving vehicle with the actors being heard, not seen. “I loved the idea. It’s like good radio. I grew up in England with the BBC and radio. What happens is as an audience member you listen more. You’re in there. There are so many things going on in one shot. The public and the private. The landscape. The issue that Jack has with his father [Robert Duvall]. The shift from poor to rich. The only time Jack’s assistant speaks is behind closed doors; that’s who she really is as opposed to how she presents herself, which is often the case in politics and with people in high positions of power.”

Violence is not glamourized. “It’s steeped in reality,” notes McQueen. “For example, Jatemme Manning [Daniel Kaluuya] is a soldier in the sense that he works for his brother Jamal [Brian Tyree Henry], who has an enterprise. He kills people sometimes and is numb to the violence, as so many black men are in Chicago. Jatemme doesn’t even participate in his last act of violence because he is so bored of it. He’d rather watch TV. His other acts of violence are perverse because he’s trying to make it interesting for himself.”

A cinematic technique has been developed between McQueen and his longtime cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt. “Steve and I have discovered over the years that by using a long continuous shot in association with violence, it takes you away from the conscious idea that you’re watching a movie,” Bobbitt observes. “If you don’t put a cut in, then you have no escape, so the violence compounds itself to great dramatic effect.”

McQueen has put together a stellar cast for the Fox release that includes Oscar winner Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo as the titular widows, along with the aforementioned Farrell, Duvall, Neeson, Henry and Kaluuya. “Colin Farrell is a great artist,” enthuses McQueen. “Liam Neeson is a great thespian. Viola Davis is a Marlon Brando. There’s a fearlessness, depth and familiarity. People love Daniel Kaluuya because whatever he does, he tells you the truth.”

Scheduling the actors was tricky but not impossible. “It provided a wonderful atmosphere, because you had the core widows who were there for the majority of the time, and Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson or Jacki Weaver would come in for their sections of the shoot and bring a whole new energy with them,” notes Canning. “Sometimes the challenge can be keeping the same group of people enthused and energized through a whole shoot.”

Improvisation was allowed. “Oh my God,” remarks McQueen. “All of the time. Virtually all of scenes between Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell were improvised. It was beautiful. You know what it is? It’s like music. You write the melody and harmony, but within that they can improvise. I don’t care what you do. You can knock yourself out.”

The music metaphor carries over to cinematographer Bobbitt and editor Walker, as both of them have worked on all four movies by the resident of Amsterdam. “It’s like a band. You come together every three or four years to make an album. It’s intense. But you understand that as a unit you do things exceptionally.”

“I talked to [composer] Hans Zimmer early on,” recalls McQueen. “I asked him, ‘What does heartbreak sound like?’ Hans was also a tea boy on the ‘Widows’ TV show, so he understood what Widows was about. How do you balance the dramatic with the action? The only time when you can smell a city is through the sound. That was one of the pleasures of spending a lot of time trying to get a realism and also a surrealism, because realism doesn’t sometimes bring the truth. The idea of perspective and space within sound was important.”

Production designer Adam Stockhausen (The Grand Budapest Hotel) found and dressed 60 locations in Chicago. “That’s why it looks real,” McQueen notes. “One has to embrace the environment. I don’t bring my stencil into a situation and go, ‘I want it like this.’ The environment has to tell you what it wants.”