What conversation was it that brought you to the themes of sex addiction?
SM – It was kind of cathartic in a way. We started by talking about the internet and pornography and then you click with someone (Abi) and by the end of the conversation we thought we had a good idea. Then the next day we realised we really did had a very good idea, so we thought let’s run with that.
What were your methods in regards to research?
AM – Was I running with instinct with sex addiction?! Well, I think it was a free holiday to New York, quite frankly! What’s been fascinating is working with a director from the start. I knew I wanted to physically make the film with Steve.
SM – it was a little bit like Miss Marple and Columbo, fumbling and stumbling. We had no idea where to look for clues. When I first heard of sexual addiction I laughed, as many of us do. But then you find out, like with alcohol addiction, people have to relieve themselves 25 times a day or more. It ceases to become funny. We had no idea if this was a film, but when we’d gathered all the information we finally realised, yes, this was a film.
Abi, how did you land on the character of Brandon?
AM – Primarily, we wanted to talk to people in the UK, but it was very difficult as there wasn’t the same sort of recognition of the addiction, so that’s why we went to New York and started to talk to experts and men, really. It was much harder to talk to women, and that’s what gave us the steer on Brandon. But also what was fascinating was looking at the diversity of the men we met, Brandon being a kind of everyman. We just chose to channel many of the people we met and the experiences we had in Brandon.
SM – I mean, the door was shut in London, we couldn’t get anyone to talk to us about sexual addiction. At the time, the Tiger Woods thing had happened and no one wanted to speak to us. I think it’s to do with the media. Alcohol addiction and drugs are a stigma – sexual isn’t. It’s similar to the 80s with how people with AIDS were treated. People with sex addiction would be laughed at or shunned, so we were very fortunate to talk to specialists in America who could link us to addicts and former addicts.
So Abi, as you were developing your script, was there a point when you were gathering all this information that you realised you had to be delicate in portraying a composite world within such a controversial subject matter?
AM – There was a sort of rhythm to our trips. We did two big trips to New York that were about ten days, and we wrote the majority of the film out there in the Standard Hotel where a lot of key scenes take place. But the main thing I took was the way New York affected you and the feeling it left you with. We’d often spend the whole day walking around, meeting with and talking to people and then we’d be getting into a car to get to the airport. We’d travel from Manhattan to JFK, Steve and I would go ‘wow’ that was great and then silence would descend on us. We’d be left with this weight and an incredible sadness. We were talking to people and afterwards thinking, ‘wow. I do that’. There was a very strange feeling that you realised there was a very fine line between the very compulsive behaviour these men had and the normal way we all live our lives. So Brandon isn’t really even a composite. For me he’s the vessel that literally carries the overwhelming emotion that I certainly felt in these men and which Steve certainly nailed in the title – Shame.
SM – He’s not a freak. He’s one of us – this is the whole point. He’s not a man with sweaty palms and a rain jacket. Far from it.
Was it important for you to stress the ritual of his working life?
SM – The fact he’s a human being one doesn’t have to stress too much, he’s just going about his daily life, but he’s got this secret.
We must bring in the character of Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. She enters his life and he obviously is holding her at a distance and we immediately begin to question why he is doing this and what their relationship’s about. We’re also wondering why she’s so needy in his presence, which leads us to their background. But you decide not to give it to us easily. What discussions did you have between the two of you on their background?
SM – They come from the same background, but react very differently – one exploding, one imploding, with Sissy being this extrovert, which is why I decided to make her a singer as it’s all about getting it out. She’s a little bit too much. And of course Brandon is the complete reversal of that; the insular. I wanted to get that across, people dealing with a similar situation in their life, in the past, but in a very different way. And what Carey does is bring the past into the present, and that’s what Brandon doesn’t want to deal with.
Brandon’s very much an introvert for his slick exterior. For us, Sissy is very much a way for the audience to get to him as well as later in the film where he goes on the date with Marianne. Did you find dramatically that Sissy and Marianne were ways for us to see into Brandon?
AM – I think questions like that are really interesting as you don’t necessarily ask yourself them when you’re writing. I think what was important with Marianne was to show the almost old-fashioned nature of ‘the date’. And when I watch it, the scene where they’re walking to the subway, I can feel that sense of ‘is it going to go any further, or are they going to leave each other?!’ Now we’re in a world with Facebook and Twitter and before you even have dinner with someone you can find out where they were last Christmas and what they did last night, so I think there’s that playing out and I think the women carry some of that, but I think the women are kind of truth speakers. But with the majority of men we met, we didn’t know their back-story. It wasn’t something that they told us. And in a way I didn’t need to know that to carry the actual symptom and the effect. And I think that’s why we constructed the back-story that we kept bringing back and throwing away, and bringing back and throwing away.
SM – I mean, in everyday life we meet people and we have no idea who they are. We get to know them and we get to be their friends and we get to socialise with them, and maybe after a while within the present we get to know a little about their past. And that’s exactly what I wanted with Brandon. I wanted to be truthful and honest with his character. A lot of people, not just men, don’t really speak. I didn’t want a situation on screen where a guy just talks to his best friend, no – that’s not Brandon. There’s a sense of familiarity with him. We see his actions and his actions are something he’s trying to get away from and deal with. Sometimes he’s not even communicating with himself, he doesn’t even know what’s wrong with him. And maybe at the end he has some sort of understanding that he needs help, possibly.
Let’s talk a little bit about the making of the film. At what point did you bring Michael Fassbender on board and where do you think he took the character of Brandon? How much room do you give him to interpret that character and where do you think he took Brandon in a way you may not have perceived?
SM – I know Michael very well and I don’t take it for granted – it’s all about the script really and if he likes it. And so I gave him a script and it was similar with Mulligan who is extraordinary as well in this film and I think the most surprising point was actually her, because of course I knew Michael. But Carey was the surprising discovery for me, because of the way she took Sissy on paper – it’s a small part – but I love that every time she’s on screen she’s fierce. She’s ‘boom’, she’s ‘bang’. Because of course, she doesn’t have a lot of time to play with, but she nailed it every time. The first time she appears on screen in the shower, when she’s in the club, every time she’s on screen she’s like ‘wow’, so I think in some ways she for me was – though I knew I was working with two of the very best actors of their generation – just ‘wow’. And Michael of course is Michael. What Michael brought to the role, in a way, is a certain focus, a real focus. And sometimes after a take he’s almost like being in the boxing corner, you know you slap the Vaseline on and take the gum shield out, but sometimes I don’t have to do that, he is in the zone and he just continues to be Brandon and that’s it. But he’s interesting because he can just switch on and switch off.
Is Fassbender an actor who carries roles with him? Because Brandon is a tough character.
SM – I think he does. I mean, he says he doesn’t, but I think he does. He’s a very sensitive and beautiful person, so when you carry a character like that, you carry the shit with you – forgive me for swearing on TV. He’s a kind of effeminate guy, he’s very beautiful and not afraid of himself in any way and so he does carry it with him, but he has the capacity to detach. And obviously he’s been so busy over the last twenty-two months that he’s had to switch very quickly from character to character and so I’d imagine that it hasn’t been such a bad thing after all.
I’d like to talk about a few scenes that stick in the mind, certainly in my mind and I’m sure in the minds of the people who have seen the film. You mentioned a scene with Carey Mulligan in the club where we close in on her face and she’s singing New York, New York and it’s a hugely arresting scene and Abi, I’m sure you can give us some context there. Can you remember when you were writing that scene and what brought you to that scene of terms of introducing her to us?
AM – We were sitting up in that bar! And we talked about that song. We were sitting up in the Boom Boom Bar where that scene was shot and the song was Steve’s idea, and it was the audacity of it, and I remember us having that conversation of, you know, what’s the most clichéd song about New York that we could we get away with it. When you broke down the lyrics of New York, New York, it’s absolutely the most perfect song because it’s about the story of Brandon, in a way, about coming somewhere and trying to reinvent yourself and in a way I always feel the film was written with an incredible view of the Hudson – if anyone knows the Standard, the view that you see is incredible – and that’s very inspiring because it’s very bleak and beautiful at the same time and you can see New Jersey across the way and I always sort of felt that there was this piece of water that they crossed, be it from Ireland or New Jersey or wherever it was, that there was something very poignant about that song. So it worked for me. But I’m sure Steve can elaborate on it.
You said earlier that it came to be a New York film almost by accident with your research taking you there and that’s where you found yourselves writing it. How much in retrospect do you think it is a film about New York and a New York film?
SM – Well, people keep telling me it’s a New York film and I suppose it is, I don’t know. I suppose with the access and excess of New York, possibly, the twenty-four hour city can be facilitated with this particular character, so possibly. And I think we could talk about consumerism all night and all day!
It presents New York to us in a certain way – the scene where Michael Fassbender is jogging through the night is highly arresting, block after block after block and I’d love to hear about the shooting of that particular scene and why you decided to do it in one shot, how easy it was.
SM – It was very easy to do. We were set up in a golf cart with a steady cam on it and we got the police to block off a couple of streets and Michael did four takes of it and at the end of the street, where you see the stop sign with the green hand and the red man, the traffic lights had been broken. There was a hot dog van that we’d moved, but it had knocked into the actual stop sign and it fell down. And I thought that was f****** brilliant, excuse my language, and I just thought that was it. It was very simple, and I know people talk about that shot, but it’s just ‘get on with it, keep shooting’. And that’s it. Next!
And going back to thinking about you working with Michael Fassbender, actually, when you’re asking an actor to be in numerous sex scenes, to shoot nude in physically demanding scenes, does it help to have an actor who you know where his boundaries may be, what he’s willing to do?
SM – Well, I think if you’re an actor there should be no boundaries – don’t be an actor then! Don’t be an actor, I’m not working with you, I’m not interested I mean, you wouldn’t ask a dancer to dance on one leg. That’s what reality’s about, otherwise what’s the point?
But Fassbender’s obviously an actor who’s willing to go that distance with you.
SM – Well, I would only want to work with actors who CAN go that far. I’m new to the game, but if there’s someone who doesn’t want to do it I’ll get someone else to do it. It’s not about getting someone to do something embarrassing, but portraying reality. The only analogy I can think of right now is the contemporary dancer. You know, do it, try it, go on, that’s it otherwise what’s the point! There’s nothing embarrassing about it – that’s the movie stars, I’m not interested.
Do you find that there’s a real creative dialogue between you and Michael Fassbender, then, and that you DO want to work with him and that you do want to put him in these situations and that you get good work from him – is there an interesting conversation going on the whole time with him about the character?
SM – Well, yeah, absolutely, but he also does what I say! He finds his way and that’s it – it’s all about work. W-O-R-K.
Let’s take questions here from the floor and the Twitter feed as well.
Hi, I really, really enjoyed it. I deliberately made sure I didn’t know very much about it before I came to see it, so the question that came up for me while I was watching it was, ‘what was it about the subject matter that grabbed a hold of you and would not let you go?’
SM – Sex! Erm, I just liked the idea of sexual addiction! Because, it’s not so far removed from any of us at all, in fact. Absolutely not. We’ve all had that craving for sex and we want it now and you do whatever you can to satisfy that craving in that moment in time. I’m not an alcoholic, I’ve never been, I’m not a drug abuser, but I just like the idea that it’s not something exotic from us – it’s something very close to us and that’s what was very exciting to me.
AM – Yeah, I think it’s not like any other addiction – you can’t give it up in order to be a living breathing part of the world, one needs to be sexual. Sex is the thing we do and it’s fun. But it’s also the thing we can violate ourselves and other people with, so I think the complexity of that was really interesting and I think truthfully, from my point of view, what picked me up and wouldn’t let me go was hearing from the men we met and that really stayed with me and I felt I saw them everywhere and I identified with things in myself and I think that’s definitely what held me.
SM – It was that and it was also, for me, technology. The whole idea that the thing facilitates this addiction more than anything else. I remember when I was growing up as a kid, the nearest I got to pornography was the top shelf at a newsagents and that one guy at school who got hold of a magazine and everyone would flock to him. And now, there’s a certain kind of self-contained ness, in a way.
AM – My first experience of porn was walking the dog and seeing a ripped page in the bushes and I was fascinated. I look at my kids now who are playing on the internet and there’s a pop up. And you realise that suddenly it can spiral off into an incredibly explicit world. The access thing is what’s changed; the kind of courtship of relationships has changed.
SM – Everyone in this room knows what we’re talking about – over 80% of internet traffic is pornography.
I’m interested in your process. There’s a fantastic rhythm to your films and I just wanted to hear you talk a little more about how much that rhythm is pre-planned or discovered?
SM – I talk a lot with my cameraman, Sean Bobbitt, who I’ve worked with for eleven years and he’s amazing so we firstly talk about subject matter, but it’s about finding things. The first section, ‘Brandon’, I thought, ‘let’s just get the sex addiction idea out of the way as soon as possible’. So the first nine minutes of Brandon getting out of bed etc are to understand who this guy is and to some extent what his morning ritual entails. It’s about trusting the camera movements, the long takes. The rhythm is set then, I don’t do storyboards. Sometimes you just have to find it within the room where I set the camera.
How do you go about co writing the script? Does one write the lyrics and one the melody?
AM – I guess. It’s back and forth really. I type, Steve sits, we order a lot of room service. He reads and shouts. We both shout. We go for long walks, read magazines, sit silently. It’s what’s often not being said. What’s been fantastic in collaborating with him is that we started together, so there was a real shorthand when we got to the set.
SM – Things take time! We were often doing crosswords, not sexy! But then things move swiftly on.
At the end, is there hope for Brandon and Sissy, or does the cycle continue?
SM – I don’t know. I’m hoping there is hope, but I don’t know. I don’t want to detach my responsibility from the characters, but I don’t want to give you some sort of happy ‘War Horse sunset’, but I hope, that’s all.
AM – I think addiction’s active. We all know the cliché, ‘one day at a time’, but I think that’s true.
SM – Once an addict, always an addict.
In the film it seems lots of technology features, acting as a vector of keeping people apart from contacting properly – Skype, answer phone etc. Where you trying to make a point about modern technology pulling people apart? Or was that not a factor?
SM – I was just commenting on way we live now. Skype is great sometimes, but that’s just how it turned out in the film. There’s a shorthand now that I imagine is less intimate then face time was, but that’s just how we live now.
AM – I love the internet, I love technology, but it’s also a symptom and a great thing of a fast changing world. It is a faux intimacy, but the shortcut that takes us right into the heart of someone’s being. There’s something bizarre about that, but it’s just a fact of life now I think.
Has the NC-17 certificate in the US had an impact on the film’s success?
SM – When I first heard of NC-17 I thought it was a rap band, I had no idea. I don’t care, I’ll be honest, I’m not interested. I have a lot of respect for Fox Searchlight who bought and distributed in the United States. They never asked me to cut or alter the film and they’re very supportive in a way I never thought a US distribution company would be. I’m very happy we got it released in the States.
Throughout the film it’s hinted that there’s a sexual intimacy between Brandon and Sissy. Was that the point? That there’s no limit to how low a sexual addict would go?
SM – A lot people ask this. I don’t know if there’s a relationship on that level. Obviously they’ve encountered something unpleasant in their past, but I don’t know how brothers and sisters react with each other and I don’t know what’s acceptable. Of course it’s awkward. Something’s going on, but I can’t tell what it is.
Tailing off from that, it’s a peculiar relationship – you don’t stand there seeing your sister naked in the shower. Is it right to think people assume he became a sex addict from something that happened with his sister? He seems like a normal guy, so were you worried people would think he became an addict because of something that happened with his sister?
SM – I don’t necessarily agree, it was never spoken about. The relationship from Sissy was sexual-ISED, but never sexually implied. There’s some kind of craving for intimacy from her that borders on an uncomfortable boundary that tests Brandon. I never thought of the intimacy.
AM – It’s difficult, as I have my background to the scene, but I think it’s interesting to keep the debate going, so I won’t disclose it. I think it’s about a man whose boundaries are confused and the sibling relationship is challenging within the context of the film – she’s the one woman he probably shouldn’t screw, bringing an element of danger. It’s more for me about boundaries that have become corrupted.
SM – There’s more than one back-story. Michael, Carey, Abi and I all have our own. That’s very important. They’re damaged people which is why I didn’t want to go into the yarn of what happened in their past. Who knows why people do what they do. There’s always something to say about it, but I didn’t want to set one particular stencil. In rehearsal we talked a lot about it, but what was wonderful was that when I first introduced Michael and Carey I thought ‘oh no, they don’t like each other’ – it was very awkward. What was going on was that they had started acting at that moment. I thought the chemistry wasn’t working, but it wasn’t supposed to be bloody working. They had different ideas about what had happened in the same way I imagine they would have in reality. That’s what makes them great actors. That was huge in adding to the process.
What message do you want the viewer to leave with?
SM – Hopefully it will stay with them for a little longer than an hour and then people can have a conversation about it. A movie for me is like an object – it’s the starting point of a conversation as much as any artwork can do.
AM – I don’t think about the message. I remember visiting a woman whose son had been murdered for another project and everyone make a joke at the end – a few years after his death. And everyone laughed but she laughed two beats longer than everybody else and I thought, ‘you’ve gone mad’. And I think I’m always looking for that moment, trying to convey it and hope they can ‘get’ that, rather than leaving a message. Just a series of, sometimes, oddities. Just things that feel real, that are incongruous. An audience is very intelligent and can work it out for themselves.
You both mentioned reality. Do you think this film is realistic and why is reality in film important?
SM – I think it’s way far away from reality, but it’s about triggering moments of reality for me. It’s artificial and plastic, but it triggers moments of reality, like when Sissy is singing TO Brandon, what happens is that these oddities are just right. So through the song I hope the audience understand how the past arises in the present through this abstraction, this song – through the most sort of undescriptive manner the abstract can come a reality. The moments I’m hoping for are an understanding of what can occur in these moments that are so farfetched from reality in some ways.
AM – Huge question! I think people often ask what the message is – but it’s kind of what I do, it’s my job. And the great privilege of what I do is that for these past six months, a year, I’ve connected with people and we’ve tried to express this world. I hope you write from a place within yourself that feels truthful. I write about what interests me. This was inspired from a connection with Steve and I hope that was portrayed onscreen and I hope that in itself feels truthful. But reality’s shifting and is different for you than it is for me, but I hope there is somewhere we connect on it.
SM – its like when in your daily life a song comes on the radio that hits you between the eyes because it answers a lots of question and evokes a lot of emotion from within you. It’s something that hits you from an angle that you never expected, but opens up many doors – that’s what I’m hoping for and would love from the cinema, really.