Over the course of Steve McQueen's four films, including the 2014 best picture winner 12 Years a Slave and his latest, the crime drama Widows, the director has displayed a knack for first images that jolt. Although his movies may initially disorient you, that's by design: By the time you acclimate to one of McQueen's opening shots, you've been taught how to watch the provocative feature that follows.
"I've seen enough films in my life to know that your intent as a director has to be put over within the first five minutes of the picture, because audiences are so skittish," McQueen said. "It's like the start of a conversation: What's your first impression of someone?"
Other directors might fritter away their films' opening moments on a title sequence or an establishing shot of the city, but McQueen has no use for that. Instead, he's more likely to drop you right into the action.
Below, McQueen walks us through some of those potent first impressions.
A Surprising Clinch in Widows
Though Widows is about four women banding together to pull off a risky heist, it doesn't begin with the sort of action you might be expecting. Instead, McQueen trains the languorous opening shot on the protagonist Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), as they make out in bed with evident passion: At a time when sexual desire has been leached from most studio movies, the up-close intimacy between the two actors feels real and startling.
"I don't think we've gotten an image like that ever, really," McQueen said of the shot, which he holds long enough for you to consider all of its implications.
Perhaps you'll first notice that both stars are over 50, a rarity for a Hollywood love scene. "Usually, you see youth engaged in some sort of acrobatic sex," McQueen said. Even rarer is the fact that Davis, a black actress wearing her natural hair, is making out with a white leading man.
"It's kind of the elephant in the room," McQueen said. Like the movie, which hopscotches around segregated Chicago neighborhoods, the scene is "powerful because it's all about race and not about race at all."
And then there's the matter of the tongue. This is no stage kiss: Davis and Neeson really go there. "You could write a whole article on Hollywood and kissing," McQueen said, waving a dismissive hand. "I think, 'Goodness gracious, if you're putting your mouth on another actor, you might as well get on with it.'"
The Widows script, based on a British miniseries by the same name and adapted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, opened with a different sequence. But by the time he filmed Davis and Neeson in bed, he knew he would be using that as the first shot instead. The actors, however, were kept in the dark. "Can you imagine if I'd said something?" McQueen explained. "That would have had a huge impact on them. I just wanted them to relax and enjoy it, and they did."
McQueen then cuts from that quiet kiss to the noisy cacophony of a heist gone wrong. It is a flash-forward to the crime that will cause Veronica to lose her husband, and the contrast is meant to set the tone for what is at stake.
"Bang, you're taken out of it," McQueen said. "As soon as the audience is comfortable, we make them uncomfortable again." To McQueen, that juxtaposition of shots is a confident declaration: "I want your attention, and now I've got it."
A Near-Naked Still Life in Shame
Since McQueen worked as a fine artist before directing, it's no wonder that his films often begin with an unmoving image that looks gallery-ready. "When you see an artwork for the first time, you approach it and it's usually static," McQueen said. "Your relationship with it is very immediate, but then you look, you look and you look again."
That's exactly how McQueen hopes the viewer will react to the opening moment of Shame (2011), a drama about sex addiction that begins with a shot of Michael Fassbender lying unclothed in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. The film is known for casual full-frontal shots of its star, but McQueen hoped the prolonged first image would coax audiences past the initial thrill of seeing an actor's body.
"You might appreciate his appearance," McQueen said, "but it goes on longer, to the point where you wonder, 'What is he thinking about?' And then, 'What am I thinking about?'"
From high above, the camera regards the pale, still Fassbender in his bed like a corpse laid out on a slab. His blue sheets even recall the blue of surgical gloves or doctor's scrubs.
"It's almost like an examination," McQueen said, noting how long it takes for Fassbender's sex addict to display any signs of life. "Can he break free of being the person he is? We don't know, and he doesn't know, either."
The Sudden Shock of 12 Years a Slave
Though many historical dramas open with title cards that explain the setting and era, McQueen had no intention of coddling the audience for 12 Years a Slave. Instead, after a brief declaration that the film is based on a true story, he plunges you into a near-silent tableau of more than a dozen dazed slaves standing shoulder to shoulder in a sugar-cane field.
"I loved the idea of starting this picture with that, because it's like time travel," McQueen said. "You're thrown into this different century all of a sudden, and you're giving the audience time to examine, 'Where am I?'"
In that way, the viewer experiences the same sense of dislocation as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black New Yorker who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South. Ejiofor is positioned near the center of that opening frame in a way that indicates his status as the protagonist. But by lingering on the shot long enough for you to take in the faces of all the other men in the field, McQueen implies that the slave story we are about to follow is only one of many.
Though McQueen can be exacting in the way he composes a frame -- "One thing wrong, and it's all wrong," he said -- he is willing to undo all of his best-laid plans in the editing room. The first image used in 12 Years a Slave was originally intended as the second shot, but once McQueen made it the opener and extended its length, it took on additional power.
"The script is a starting point," McQueen said. "It's all about talking things through."
A Noisy Opening Salvo in Hunger
While McQueen's other films favor a nearly silent opening, his 2009 directorial debut, Hunger, is the notable exception. Over title cards that establish the political unrest in Northern Ireland, we hear a constant clattering. Then McQueen cuts to a pot lid being banged over and over on the floor -- part of what we come to realize is a prison protest.
The noisy shot served a dual purpose. "I thought this would maybe be the only film I ever make, so let's ring the alarm bell," McQueen said.
With Hunger, McQueen found himself intoxicated by the power of opening a movie in media res. The main character, the imprisoned Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands (Fassbender), is not introduced for some time, and the first scene is taken out of chronological order. Some directors would worry about confusing audiences, but McQueen believes this sort of approach galvanizes them.
"When you are put on the edge of your seat, when you don't know what's going to happen next, it makes you alert," McQueen said. "And that makes you a real participant in the narrative."
In his view, scrambling that narrative -- especially in the first act -- implies something broader than the confines of a two-hour movie can allow.
"I always think about what may have happened beforehand," McQueen said. "The beginning of a movie is never the beginning of a story."
MovieStyle on 11/30/2018
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