TORONTO — Lynda La Plante's 1980s British crime series "Widows" had a curious hold of filmmaker Steve McQueen as a 13-year-old boy.
The show was about a group of women who, after their criminal husbands are killed, band together to pull off the raid their dead spouses had planned. The women were, to young McQueen growing up in London, doing what they were deemed not to be capable of.
"I was a person at that time who was deemed not to be capable, as well, being a young black boy at school and having to fight my own battles of stereotypes and people assuming things about me because of my appearance," says McQueen. "I could relate to those women. I was going through the same thing."
More than three decades later, McQueen has adapted "Widows" into his much anticipated follow-up to the best-picture winning "12 Years a Slave." While it preserves much of the original series, it also greatly expands its scope, transports the story to Chicago and richly populates its urban landscape with a sterling cast of Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson and Brian Tyree Henry.
For one of the foremost makers of what could be called art films, "Widows," with a script he penned with Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl'), is an unexpected turn into genre filmmaking. Before the film, which 20th Century Fox will release Nov. 16, made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen spoke about the ambitions behind "Widows."
AP: "Widows" might appear like a heist movie, but the genre seems like a mechanism for a complex investigation into gender, race and politics.
McQUEEN: It's a roller coaster ride but it brings to the surface things that are very much there. It's what we know. When you think of the '70s, you think of "Chinatown" and "The Godfather" — I'm not comparing my picture to those pictures at all — but these were real, gritty movies within a genre, and these were the biggest movies of their time. They brought the audience with them, as well as brought the sophistication. They catered to the high and to the low. I don't think there's any high and low. I think there are just good movies and bad movies, and that's it.
AP: How did you choose the setting?
McQUEEN: I wanted to channel Chicago in all its complexities. Chicago is such a rich environment. The whole cross section of that political base, it all fascinated me. I'm surprised there aren't much more movies made about it because it's there for the taking. It's like New York in the '70s. I love that wonderful phrase, which is very Chicagoan and which might go back to Al Capone: "I gotta guy." It's all about getting something in a crafty way. "I gotta guy." Fantastic!
AP: The world in your films, from "Hunger" to "12 Years a Slave" to "Widows," seems a mean and nasty place, where it takes just about killing yourself to keep your integrity.
McQUEEN: They all deal with trying to defy one's environment that the characters find themselves in, and how do we transcend that environment. And right now the world is a bit of a dark place. It is a bit of a difficult environment to exist in. It takes little sparks for us to keep our head above water.
AP: Would you have wanted your next film after "12 Years a Slave" to come sooner than five years later?
McQUEEN: You mustn't forget, I did three films in five years. I was a little bit of a factory. The fact that I had this project with HBO that didn't work out was a bit of a shame. For me, it was a big shame. I was doing art projects in that time as well. It was a bit of a break for sure. But I had been on a treadmill and it was good to have that time to reflect. It was imposed on me, in a way, because of what happened at HBO. But at the same time, you embrace the possibilities of a situation.
AP: This is a studio film...
McQUEEN: No, it's not. Well, it's a studio film but I could do what I wanted. When I think of studio films I think of something else. I don't know what that means. Basically, the studio gave me the money to make what I wanted to make. If that makes it a studio film, then so be it. I was the instigator of "Widows." The fact that they wanted to put money into it, great.
AP: Your camera movement seems a blend of coolly observant and frighteningly intimate. There are shots you hold and hold.
McQUEEN: I always feel like I'm a kind of Tai chi director. The environment or the location has to tell me what it wants. I don't like to put my stencil on anything. I don't like to dictate before I get to a situation. It's very much a collaboration with the environment, with the actors, with what's going on. Then we proceed in sort of translating the scene or the event. My dear friend Robby Muller, who passed away this year, said to me that a camera move should be as much effort as a cat jumping on the table. Just enough effort.