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Racking Focus: What Filmmakers Can Learn From Steve McQueen's Career

Many independent filmmakers are under the illusion that you "start commercial," then become more artistic as time goes on. They couldn't be further from the truth.

It's a stunning and exhilarating thing to hear Oscar buzz swirling (so heavily!) around Steve McQueen's latest film, 12 Years A Slave, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It's also - for this writer - rather shocking. Not because I don't think McQueen is talented - quite the contrary - but because of how his career began and the direction in which it has moved. McQueen's progression contains a truth any independent filmmaker would be wise to absorb. 

In my opinion, McQueen is perhaps the most exciting young filmmaker to watch on the planet. His debut feature Hunger is one of my favorite films, a masterpiece that addresses the concept of the political act in a brilliantly nuanced fashion.

Understanding that politics is both specific and universal, that political action is both simple and painfully complex in its consequences, the film painted a portrait of "doing politics" unlike anything else I'd ever seen in cinema. It was also fabulously creative in its treatment of narrative - the main character is barely seen in the first 25 minutes, there's no traditional narrative progression whatsoever, and there's barely any dialogue - oh yeah, except for a 22-minute sequence in the middle of the film that is nothing but dialogue. When Hunger came out in 2008 it was hardly a surprise (at least to the British public) that the film was as elliptically told as it was - McQueen spent many years making video art for museums and galleries before he made Hunger, so his background was decidedly non-narrative. 

Fascinatingly, McQueen's trajectory since Hunger has been both fast-rising and trending toward the mainstream. No one could accuse his follow-up Shame of exactly being a conventional film - it revolves around a sex addict having a breakdown - but it was certainly far more conventionally told than Hunger (while still a great film). 12 Years A Slave, which I have not seen, is generating heated Oscar buzz and is certainly marking a rise in McQueen's popularity, as he climbs a rung higher on the ladder of general film-world recognition and respect. 

Show us what you can do that makes you as different and singular as possible.

Why is all this of note? So many independent filmmakers are under the impression that the best route to success is via making a commercial product as their entry into the industry, after which they can begin to "branch out" and do more commercial work. For McQueen, the opposite path has proven highly successful. Hunger is nothing if not a bracingly unique film, a fiercely original work of art that couldn't have been made by anyone else. The singularity of vision behind Hunger gave industry figures the confidence in McQueen to let him make films on a larger (and more commercial) scale.

Any number of filmmakers are capable of making a conventionally told film - but there's only one Steve McQueen. By distinguishing himself (with his first film) as a filmmaker capable of doing things no one else could do, McQueen quickly earned the respect needed to "advance" in the industry. Let it be a warning to aspiring filmmakers - no one's interested in seeing you do what everyone else does well. Show us what you can do that makes you as different and singular as possible. 

Of course, most filmmakers won't end up being as brilliant and original as someone like McQueen - but anyone with some talent for making art has an inner creative compass that steps to its own beat. Following that rhythm may give an emerging filmmaker a better shot at being noticed than anything else.


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