Steve McQueen on the future of film

Since he first made his name as a Turner Prize-winning artist in the 1990s, McQueen has been in the vanguard of international art and filmmaking. But with last year’s vital and masterful five-film anthology Small Axe being made for and screened on television, where does he see cinema’s future lying?

Steve McQueenPhotography by Miller Mobley

Kaleem Aftab: Do you think cinema needs saving at the present moment?

Steve McQueen: It’s such a complicated question. It has a lot to do with the filmmakers. If there are films that people want to go and see in the cinema, they will go. I don’t know if cinema needs saving, to be honest, but it’s definitely worth saving. It’s such a complicated question. Personally, I adore it. I love being in a cinema with an audience. I love the ‘oohs’ and the ‘ahhs’, the applause, the titters, and communal viewing? There’s nothing like it.

Is there a certain type of film that you prefer to see at the cinema?

I always prefer to consume and see something in the cinema. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; I don’t really care. As a filmmaker and as an artist, part of my sort of development was to venture out, catch the bus, walk down the road, pay your money, get your coffee, sit down and watch a movie. It’s part of my DNA.

There are certain movies which are currently going directly to television which could have had a better reception in the cinema, for me at least. However, I didn’t grow up at a time where you could press a button and see a film any time you wanted. That would have been amazing. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I do feel that the experience of watching something in the cinema is far superior to watching anything at home. Now the question is: do people care? I do.

Lovers Rock (2020)

Small Axe was made for television and played in the cinema? How should people see them?

I always made them for the cinema. When we mixed it, I did a television mix and a cinema mix, and the cinema mix informed the TV mix, which is a smaller and less sophisticated situation. Getting interesting sounds out of a laptop or phone is ridiculous. When I was making Lovers Rock, I had the image in my head of people smashing up the cinema when they watched it when ‘Kunta Kinte Dub’ came on. I had this image of the audience sort of just going in raptures. We had a little bit of that when it debuted at the London Film Festival because the crowd were bouncing off each other. I wanted the crowd on the screen to reflect the crowd in the audience.

However, for me, Small Axe was about getting into the country’s bloodstream and everyone being able to watch it via the BBC and on Amazon, with its broader reach outside of the UK. I have been fortunate to premiere my movies in Cannes and Toronto, Venice, but I never had a premiere like Small Axe on the BBC and Amazon, with the response, the reaction and intergenerational conversations it instigated with people asking: ‘What’s going on?’

You mentioned we now have films at the touch of a button, but do you think there’s enough awareness of film history?

This is the problem. I think it’s not really well curated on the streaming platforms, but, then again, people sort of curate themselves. People are extremely adept at finding things and showing things, and so forth. Also, it is a question of what was available, what was being presented. I was reliant on what was on at the NFT, the Ritzy and Riverside Studios [in London]. Today, people are not waiting for people; they’re going out and finding, which is kind of great.

Do you think that changed your perspective, that you were guided to a certain type of film that became the canon, that might not be the films you would now choose yourself?

I was fortunate in the sense that in the late 80s, early 90s, there were many very good film programmers. I could research things myself. Quite frequently, I was in Paris going to the Cinémathèque there. I suppose for me, it was also about the journey – going on the ferry, getting over to Paris, on the train or bus, and emerging from the cinemas into daylight. The journey was a part of the experience: time to ponder and to think. I don’t know if it’s better or not. For me, it was a moment to digest.

Do you think that the generation coming through has enough awareness of film history’s richness or should more be done?

Film history is very dusty. When you say that, I find that old and dusty: film history feels archaic. ‘I don’t know’ is the answer to that, as far as young people are concerned. I think they’re used to things slightly differently. There’s so much going on, so much distraction, and I don’t know if they have the patience.

Mangrove (2020)

When someone says ‘film canon’, what does that mean to you?

It means evolution, relevance, the understanding of and reflecting on the narrative of who we are and where we are. Within that lies the critique, the formalisation of understanding, questioning, contradicting, and bringing things to account. It’s important because you need to have some kind of understanding of film. It’s so powerful, cowboys and Indians, the distorted sort of look at history and how powerful Hollywood has been, being a huge enabler to this day.

Don’t forget that cinema can be revolutionary as well. You got that amount of people in a large space, looking together at a story or an idea, it’s collective thinking, and that’s dangerous.

What do you think cinema will look like in 2031?

I don’t know. What cinema will be in the future? If something catches people’s imagination, people will still want to see it in the cinema. It’s about catching people’s imagination. People want to go to the cinema to be taken away. But it’s hard to say: will they be releasing movies on all platforms at the same time? What are they going to do? How will we be consuming?

So let’s put it this way. Storytelling is a craft. Everyone loves that guy or girl in the pub telling you that great story and having you at the edge of your seat. It’s not about ‘I’ll tell you the rest next week’; you need to complete that story in that moment. So cinema having that limit to around a couple of hours to tell a story and hold an audience’s attention is valuable because it’s about craft, and we’ve always had it like that.

I think cinema is and will remain valid just because people love the story and want to leave the cinema, thinking. The effort to go out and that journey is important too because it’s like going to a place of worship. You have to have hope because you can come back bloody disappointed. But there’s the hope that you might see something and experience something amazing.

The future of film