Among the most widely lauded debut features of 2008, "Hunger" tells the story of the 1981 protests by political prisoners in Belfast, which culminated in the deadly hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands. Directed and co-written by British-born visual artist Steve McQueen, the film is unflinchingly visceral and emotional, visually stunning and intricately structured. Much like the director himself.
Tall and broad and dressed in muted colors with incongruously bright red shoes, McQueen cuts an enigmatic figure during a visit to Los Angeles, at once affable, authoritative and imposing. A recent article in the British edition of Esquire chronicled his slow-burn peevishness over an order of nuts in a hotel bar, and though he can be garrulous and chatty, there is a sense of something darker lurking just beneath the surface. His words come out in streaming torrents, and at times his mouth can't quite keep up with his brain.
For starters, he calls the hunger strike the film depicts "the most important event in recent British history."
To translate all his ideas for the project to the screen, McQueen enlisted Irish playwright Enda Walsh as co-writer of the film.
"As far as I'm concerned," said McQueen of their collaboration, "I'm a singer who has all the orchestrations in my head. I have the string parts all arranged in my head but can't write music. Everything in the movie -- the structure, the scenes, how they came together, everything -- these ideas came from me. And it changed sometimes, where I was narrative and he was context, but I was mainly context and he was narrative."
It was a pairing that paid off. McQueen picked up the Camera d'Or -- the prize for best first feature film -- after "Hunger" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and it went on to take prizes at top festivals in Toronto and Venice, had three wins at the British Independent Film Awards and was named the No. 1 film of the year by leading U.K. film journal Sight & Sound.
It also has the potential to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the single longest shot on film.
The staggering shot lasts 17 1/2 minutes (beating "The Player's" record-holding eight minutes) of a 22 1/2 -minute scene, covering 28 script pages as actors Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham enact a discussion between Sands and a local priest over whether Sands should engage in his fatal hunger strike. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt created special film magazines to accommodate the stock needed for the extra-long continuous take. They shot the scene four times (McQueen used the fourth), and on the third take the boom operator collapsed.
"For me, that was always a Connors-McEnroe Wimbledon final," McQueen recalled, "two guys wanting the same thing and wanting it differently. It's the ultimate conversation; it's about the reasons to live and the reasons to die. I needed to get the action and the reaction at the same time. And what happens is that because of the intimacy and the passion and the power of that conversation, people lean forward. They actually physically lean forward, their ears become more sharp, their eyes become much more attuned to what's going on.
"They become a part of it physically, that dynamism, that architectural situation where you've got the viewer, you've got Bobby and the priest. That triangle situation is working in such a strong way. Because that's the first time that I've used real time within the film, so you relate to it in that situation."
Fassbender noted in a separate conversation that there was never any question as to how to shoot the scene. "None of us wanted to break that piece up. It's so muscular, and it's got so much texture to it. If you start chopping it up, you lose that rhythm, that sort of dance they're doing."
Still, McQueen hopes people remember "Hunger" for more than just its singular jaw-dropping centerpiece. As well, he is slightly dismissive of the massive weight-loss Fassbender underwent to play Sands, who dropped about 40 pounds while living on nuts and berries for 10 weeks.
"That's the job," McQueen said. "The film is called 'Hunger.' It's not a vanity trip. It's an essential necessity for the film. The guy didn't eat in order to be heard. It's work. He's a professional actor."
Perhaps just as surprisingly, Fassbender isn't looking for accolades for the dramatic weight loss either, mentioning that besides insomnia and occasional grumpiness around dinnertime, he actually found the experience enlightening.
"People say, 'How did you do it?' Well, you just cut your calorie count down. You just don't eat that much," the actor said.
"Hunger" is rife with an urgency, a sense that what's being depicted on-screen is not only important but also worth the demands of concentration and emotional endurance the film makes of viewers. For McQueen, that's the point.
"I want to make films that are essential," he said. "We're all going to die, and we haven't got a lot of time on this planet. Life goes very quickly, so we might as well make films that people will go to see because they need it or want it. It has to be an essential necessity."
For now, McQueen hopes to continue to move between the worlds of fine art and commercial film. He has been chosen to represent Britain at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Though he hasn't written a script yet, he also plans to make another feature film, but likely one very different altogether from the rigors of "Hunger."
"Can I dictate something to you?" he asked, cheerfully but firmly. "The last bit of the article, if you're interested, can you say I want to make a love story. I want to put down the gun."