Don’t call Steve McQueen predictable. The British artist and director may have made three previous films that steered closer to the arthouse end of the market—Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave—but Widows, an expansive heist movie he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn based on the 1980s TV show created by Lynda La Plante, doesn’t feel at all out of place when you consider the breadth of stories he has told to date. He saw the show when it aired, and 35 years later he has made it a rollercoaster ride through a corrupt city as four women struggle to survive.
When did you start thinking about this as a film?
I think I started to think about it as a film I wanted to do around 2012, which was when I was making 12 Years a Slave. I just loved the idea of these four women. I wanted to see them on a big screen. I knew I wanted to take just the nucleus of Lynda La Plante’s amazing TV series and plant it in Chicago. The surrounding narrative becomes extremely different from what it is when it’s set in London in the ’80s. I wanted to place it in a heightened Western contemporary city, with politics, race and corruption going on.
What kind of work was involved in that transition?
Just a little research. Researching who, for example, Veronica—played by Viola Davis—would be. She’s a person who, maybe, had a similar trajectory to Michelle Obama. She grew up on the Southside, moved addresses several times. Her mother, maybe, felt it was highly motivated of her to be educated. She went to university. She was great at what she did. There’s a certain class that was inherent in her anyway. She sometimes kept an eye on an old neighbor that she grew up with, and she worked for the teachers’ union.
She’s the person who has met this handsome white man, called Harry Rawlings. And at first there was a sort of disconnect, but somehow they got to know each other, as people do in certain circles—particularly if you’re dealing with politics and education in Chicago. Opposites attract, and they bonded. Maybe she had an idealized view of him, or maybe she didn’t want to know in a way. In Chicago, she thinks, everything’s bent, and square pegs can fit into round holes. So they fell in love and had a son. So this is not wooly. It’s not an up-in-the-air scenario. You can think of people who could end up like this.
We did a lot of thinking about who these people would be, and where they come from. Linda [Michelle Rodriguez] is Dominican-Puerto Rican and her husband is Mexican. There’s a rift with the mother-in-law, because she would love her son to marry a Mexican girl. A lot of research went into that too.
And then you have Belle [Cynthia Erivo], a single mother who works two jobs—sometimes three—and her mother looks after her child when she goes off to babysit others. She has a close friendship with the person in the hairdressing shop—she has a lover, basically, and her lover owns the shop.
Then you have Alice [Elizabeth Debicki]. She’s always been someone’s trophy girlfriend, and that was her commodity. When you’re poor, as she is, a Polish American growing up in Chicago, often there’s a case that you trade on whatever you have as a commodity to earn. Of course, her mother was previously involved in the game too. She was a prostitute herself. She pushes that situation onto her own daughter. Pushes her into the family trade. When the person who gave birth to you treats you like crap, it’s got to be brutal.
So all these four characters are very much researched and looked at, and nothing could come from thin air.
There are interesting questions in the film about how complicit or innocent they each were in their husbands’ activities, and how ready they already were to execute this heist. What kind of work went into striking that balance?
I think there’s a sense of loss—a grief—that brings about many questions. It brings to the surface a lot of things. It diminishes what is not important and raises things which are vital. ‘Fair’ becomes secondary in some sense, because sometimes death does sort of liberate you. I remember asking a friend of mine, whose mother had died, “How do you feel?” six weeks afterward. She said to me, “Reckless.” It didn’t matter anymore. Once you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.
I think that’s the main crux of what pushes these women forward: the fact that there’s nothing to lose. These women have decided they’ve got nothing to lose. But the fact that someone could take away their life makes them actually more active and purposeful. What they have is a certain sense of fearlessness because of grief. Them just picking up a gun would be unbelievable, but the fact that they’re fueled with a sense of recklessness is very important.
How central to this is that standout line of Veronica’s: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”?
Absolutely. Because they’re women. And they’re all different kinds of women. I think it’s how people respond to that. That’s it. No one thinks they can pull it off. Could you imagine this film with Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in the lead? We would be talking about something completely different.
How did you assemble this cast?
Cynthia was the first. Francine [Maisler], my casting director, just came to me and spoke to me about this woman called Cynthia Erivo who was on Broadway. She had never acted in a movie before. And I saw her and immediately thought she was absolutely amazing.
I didn’t know Elizabeth Debicki. She had been in a play by Jean Genet called The Maids with Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. I heard about this play and I said, “OK, let’s get her in for an audition.” She was amazing. Really, really amazing.
And then I was talking to a number of women about the role of Veronica, and I opened the door for Viola and that was it. I was sold. She’s so deep. She’s an iceberg. So much depth. So much gravitas to her. Opening a door handle can mean so much.
With Michelle Rodriguez, she said no. I went to see her and then she changed her mind. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. In the meantime, when she said no, I auditioned over a hundred women and it didn’t work out. So I had to get on a plane to meet Michelle and, thank goodness, she was persuaded by myself to be involved and it was great. Fantastic.
I read that you’d been told Michelle Rodriguez was ‘difficult’. Which seems like a gendered response.
Gendered and what?
And racist. Where do you think that came from?
I don’t know, you said it. I mean, I can’t presume anything, but for me, when I met her, anyone that asks those questions of you is interesting, not difficult. Some people are called perfectionists, some are called difficult. I have that sometimes myself. But it is what it is. Don’t listen to what people say.
What’s the philosophy behind how you work with actors?
Well, we rehearse but, for me, to put it in a nutshell, my job is to help the actor to become a sphere, meaning that whatever they do is correct. As a sphere, you roll this way, you roll that way. Whatever you do is correct. My job is to get them to that level and then get out the way and say “action”. To get there you’ve got to work on it. We had a while to rehearse and we also talked a lot. To get into the headspace, to get in the character, to almost let it seep into the actor’s head that they don’t even know they’re taking it on after a while.
And it’s freedom as well. The fact that they need to have room for movement in order to feel, and explore every single possibility before they come up with an answer, or allow themselves to understand where they’re going. So it’s a process. It’s a steady process.
How did you work with Gillian Flynn on the script?
I said that I wanted to make this movie in Chicago, and she came along on a research trip and it was great. It was a hand-in-glove situation. We basically researched with the FBI. For three-and-a-half hours we really did our heads in. We saw the Matrix. We spoke to politicians off-the-record. We spoke to clergymen off-the-record. We spoke to private investigators. We spoke to people in the underworld. Actually, the person in the underworld was introduced to us by a policeman. Go figure. That’s Chicago. All these strings amalgamate, and I think that’s what it’s about.
What caused you to see the Matrix when you went to the FBI?
Well, just how things really worked. That’s why in this picture there are no cowboys rolling across the hills coming to rescue you. Everyone’s involved. Everyone’s got their hand in. That’s not to say that people don’t have a moral conscience, but in the world we’re living in people make compromises because they have to. Everyone does it. I do. You do. And we try to navigate our way through the cesspool the best way we can do.
The popular belief, echoed in cinema, is that corruption on this scale is a thing of the past. You don’t think that’s true?
Look, not all, but a lot, and a lot makes a difference. In England, we were talking about, “Our police force is the best. Best police force in the world.” Everybody used to say that. That was a cliché. And then you look at the Stephen Lawrence situation and you find out how corrupt and disgusting they were. So, unfortunately, it isn’t the majority of them, but it was allowed to happen. It’s a single police culture in which they protect each other and whatnot. So it is what it is. They’re meant to protect and serve, and sometimes they serve themselves more than others. And it’s not just the police. You can’t just go on about them. The politicians. The clergymen.
I’m not saying it’s midnight. I’m not saying it’s dark, dark, dark. But it is allowed to happen. Now we had a situation in England where there was this thing, the police were institutionally racist. It took a black man’s death for that to [come out].
The film is more action-packed than anything you’ve done before. Did you have fun with that side of it?
I did. I love it. I’m excited. I’m always excited by those kinds of films, so it was a great thing to participate in because it’s thrilling. I’m still a big boy, playing with my train set. So you still get an idea of, how do you make this blow-up and also how do you make it different? It’s that Kubrick quote. “Everything’s been done. My job is to make it better.” So that’s exciting.
I’m just looking for some kind of truth. I’m not looking to flex my muscles. It’s about getting to some kind of truth in the actual story and portraying it on film. That’s my goal. It’s all about the story. Nothing else.
What felt especially fresh to me was how quickly the heist happens in the film. You spend the whole movie building to it, and then it’s over in a flash—as it would be, presumably.
It felt real because, if you want to burgle somebody it’s all about getting in and getting out. Maybe there are some hiccups along the way, but that’s it. And also the speed and the violence is very real. That’s what happens with the violence. You don’t linger on it. When Robert Duvall is shot it’s over in a second. The whole sequence is over in a second.
How much of that is built on set, and how much in the edit? You don’t like shooting coverage.
First of all, Sean Bobbitt is such a great cameraman. The reason why there’s not a lot of coverage is Sean’s a damn good cameraman. Don’t forget, he was a documentary cameraman. That’s what he was doing. He was in the Middle East and whatnot, and he never had a second chance to shoot something. So, when you have that in-built instinctive thing you see the footage, and you think, We got it, just move along.
Of course, when we’re doing a feature film, there is a possibility of doing things again, and sometimes we’ll do coverage, but often not because you want to keep it fresh, you want to keep it real. And also I don’t want to tax my artists, because it’s tiring and you want to see something fresh for the first time. That makes it exciting.
I’ve been working with Sean for 18 years. It’s one of those things where you have to be in a situation where you have the possibility… I mean, I’ll have images, and one image can lead to another kind of revelation, and that’s always up for grabs. Not shooting coverage doesn’t limit you, it actually gives you more possibilities.
Some were surprised by the direction you took, making a big heist movie after your previous work. But none of your films have been exactly similar. Do you think people haven’t given you enough credit for the latitude of your interests?
Credit? I don’t think that’s an honor. I don’t give a sh*t. I don’t care what people think as far as, “He can do this, he can do that.” I can do what the hell I want. I think that’s how I’ve always operated. I mean, I’ve only made three feature films, so if people want to write the book on me already, it’s a bit shortsighted, because we’re on a journey.
I was so interested in this picture because it was about these four women and how they came together from different parts of America—different classes and social backgrounds—and created this heist. And that was it for me. The whole idea of people trying to wade their way through this cesspool we find ourselves in. Me and you, how do we do that?
The city of Chicago and the world we find ourselves in with this film is almost like a fairground attraction. You are on a rollercoaster ride, and we’re doing the dips and the loopty-loops and all kinds of stuff around our environment to get to the end. And that’s what heartens me the most because so many people who have seen it want to see it again. Even though they know all the twists and turns we just spoke about. We went to Toronto, we took this to London, Chicago, New York. The audible shocking gasps and laughter and applauding during the movie, you really get that.
I’m just grateful that I got to make this picture for a 200- and 500-seater audience. I didn’t make this for an iPhone or a laptop, popping in and out of the fridge every five minutes. That audience experience can never be replicated anywhere else. And that’s cinema. That’s why I love it.