Widows is a movie full of unexpected plot twists, but none of them are as surprising as the fact that it was directed by Steve McQueen. After winning Best Picture with 12 Years a Slave, McQueen could, at least in theory, have done almost anything he wanted. But a planned HBO miniseries was picked up and then scrapped after two years of development, and it still wasn’t clear what he was doing next. The disparity between the exacting art-house quality of McQueen’s films and Widows’ juicy log line—the wives of four thieves killed in a botched robbery attempt unite to pull off one big job—seemed both puzzling and intriguing: Would a filmmaker who’d mostly seemed interested in controlling crowds be able to please them as well?
As it turns out, Widows is a heist movie that is very much a Steve McQueen movie, a precise dissection of dynamics of race, gender, and class in which bullets fly and cars explode. In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, McQueen talked to Slate about adapting a story that had been with him since childhood, why he reset the action in the “heightened” city of Chicago, and what it’s like to make a movie you actually hear the audience reacting to.
Sam Adams: You went from a movie about Irish political prisoners to one about sex addiction to one about American slavery, so none of your films has followed predictably from the one before it, but it was still a little bit shocking to read that Steve McQueen was making a heist movie. Had you been wanting to try something more genre-driven?
Steve McQueen: The fact that people are sort of judging this is a little early right now. Things sort of develop over a period of time. But the whole idea of making this film, a genre film as such—I just loved the idea that we go from zero to 60 in the first second of the picture. You know the picture’s going to be this journey, a roller coaster ride. So that kind of excited me, the fact that before people sat down in the theater there was a sort of anticipation. It just helps with narrative. It moves you further along the line in fact.
The movie is adapted from a 1980s TV miniseries written by Lynda La Plante and set in the U.K. When did the setting shift to Chicago, and why?
Yes, the original was based in early-’80s London, Thatcher’s London. I loved the idea of taking the basics of that narrative and steeping it into this heightened contemporary city, and for me that was Chicago. In Chicago, geographically, everything is so in proximity to one another. It had all the issues I wanted to deal with: race, policing, corruption, politics, religion, gender. Chicago is this sort of nucleus of a place. It has all the sort of fractures in it, particularly the segregation of different groups: Irish, Italian, African American, Latino, etc. It’s a rich playground to make this picture.
There’s a point in the film where Jack Mulligan, a Chicago politician played by Colin Farrell, goes from the groundbreaking for a black-owned business in a rundown neighborhood to the mansion where he lives, and you follow the entire journey in a single shot via a camera mounted on the hood of his car
I have been going to Chicago for 22 years. My first solo exhibition was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was there for the Democratic convention. So I always say that my first footprint in Chicago was art and politics. What is interesting, as I said in my answer to the question before, is the geographical closeness from one neighborhood to the other. It’s all there. I remember when we were doing research and going from one lady whose house had been foreclosed because she couldn’t pay the interest on her mortgage, and she had been living there for 50 years. Next door was this sort of abandoned lot. The house was demolished next to it. She had to leave. Within 15 minutes we were atop this very tall building where this gentleman collected Olympic torches. It was very, very large—it was two, actually, apartments joined together. You could imagine this person hadn’t been in certain bathrooms before. He was a very nice guy, but that is the dichotomy of Chicago.
You’ve said that what’s particularly striking to you in the story is the position of the women, who in some cases have been living privileged lives off the earnings from their husband’s robberies but suddenly find themselves cut loose when their husbands are killed. What was it about Widows that stuck with you so long, since when you first saw the miniseries as a teenager?
Well, because it never stopped. All those years later, it never got better. In fact, you know, now maybe because of #MeToo, the public is just becoming aware of certain things, certain aspects of that dialogue that was happening 35 years ago on a TV show. It stayed with me because nothing had changed.
There’s also the perennial problem of political corruption in Chicago, where people are only worth what they can afford to pay, and the second the money runs out, they’re on their own.
The political situation is all about that. To Jamal, Rev. Wheeler, Jack Mulligan, of course it’s about money and power. But unfortunately we are the people stuck in the middle of that environment—that cesspool, as I would call it—and we have to navigate our way through that. That’s what these people are trying to do: navigate their way through it and turn this thing on its head. Yes, there is a hugely fictional thing about it, because it’s very difficult to fight that power. But what this film is about is making people aware of that power and where it comes from. In a way it’s a metaphor that these four women can actually do anything about it.
What’s beautiful about it is that these four women represent America. It’s a country that’s based on genocide and based on slavery, but on [top of] that there are these women who come from different parts of the world to create America. This is how the fabric of America developed: People from all different parts of the world come together to create the union, and these women know that they can’t do without each other. So they come together to do something, to achieve their goal, and they know they can only do this by being together. That is America, as far as I’m concerned. So the fact that we have a situation with someone who is trying to undermine that, pull that apart—you can’t pull apart the fabric of the country. I suppose for me the movie is about realizing that we do have power. American can-do. I’m not suggesting we should go out there and just rob people. What I’m suggesting is that people should sort of think about one another in order to take power. This is what these women from different social and ethnic backgrounds are doing.
That explains why the movie ends on such a small, interpersonal note between two of the characters. It’s not really about who gets away with the money. It’s the relationship they’ve built.
Well, I think all four characters, I think what happens is, it’s not over. They’re back to square one, in a way, where we first met them dealing with grief. But again, they’ve won something, they won the fact that they can make it by themselves.
There’s certainly no sense that they’ve changed anything larger. The political situation goes right back to being what it was.
Well, that’s the world we live in. Whatever happens, there are things that we can’t control, or things that we can control through working together—basically getting involved in certain situations you can change. Sometimes you can’t rely on the powers that be to protect you or to answer questions that need to be answered. So you have to come together as one and try to change a situation. It’s just really important.
It’s not political action, of course, but this movie does bring people together in a way. If you see it in a lively full house you can actually hear people gasp at some of the plot twists.
I think it’s a very rare thing for any filmmaker. I mean, that doesn’t happen often and I’m grateful for it. When you finish your picture, you don’t know what’s going to occur, and I think the audience is the last piece of it. It’s like the sound mixing and the color correction and whatever, but then “Hey, the audience.” I think there’s a catharsis for the audience, that they’re hungry for this sort of, I don’t know, all the stuff we spoke about, some sort of self-empowerment, or feeling sort of paralyzed by our present political environment, but you’re actually doing something about it. It’s very apt for now, and I think that’s why audiences are very voluble about it in the screenings. People are enthusiastic about it.