Destroy All Monsters: Can You Like The Film If The Filmmaker's A Dick?

Matt Brown, Columnist

Steve McQueen's a dick. At least, he seems to be. I don't know the man personally and I've never spent any time with him one-on-one, but here at the Toronto International Film Festival, in Q&As and at press conferences, he behaves like a dick.

To be fair, a lot of McQueen's behaviour is in response to processes that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. People who ask questions at film festival Q&As do not, in my experience, have the widest frame of reference in terms of how films are made, and tend not to be interested in the kinds of things filmmakers are interested in, either. Add to that the questioners who are only interested in satisfying their own egos - the "this is more of a comment than a question" guys, or the people who stand up and cite fifteen examples of previous work before deigning to ask a question - plus the journalists at press conferences who must delve into the celebrity side of moviemaking to make copy, and the frustrations of McQueen and others like him become fairly relatable.

McQueen is at TIFF this year to promote 12 Years a Slave, which is getting solid reviews (read Ryland's take here) and early Oscar buzz for Chiwetel Ejiofor, who could legitimately earn an Oscar for anything he appears in, up to and including 2012 (though for reasons not strictly related to performance in that case). 12 Years a Slave is aimed at a wider audience than McQueen's two prior efforts, Hunger and Shame, which were so specific in niche and unrelenting in focus that they could easily be forgiven for turning away the vast majority of the filmgoing public, regardless of whether McQueen pitched woo to audiences at festivals or not.

Saying that McQueen is "promoting" Slave, though, implies that the filmmaker wants you to see the film, and McQueen apparently doesn't give a shit one way or the other. He staunchly refuses to play the game of making people like him or his movie, and frequently acts like he's genuinely baffled as to why anyone is asking him any of these questions at all.

There's nothing wrong with not giving a shit, of course, and one area where McQueen succeeds beyond question is in forwarding a serious consideration of the issues contained within his work. But in terms of the business side of the movie business, at some point someone will have to figure out if McQueen's doing more harm than good by turning up at festivals and berating audience members and journalists for having opinions he doesn't consider sufficiently evolved to interrogate his movies. His Q&A appearance at TIFF for Shame two years ago was a shit-show still remembered by all in attendance; his turfing of questions at the Slave press conference this week has already spawned some Tumblr gifs, the current high water mark of pop cultural relevance.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not McQueen is a dick - because, again, I have no idea how he behaves IRL, and it's not relevant to this question anyway - I'm wondering how much the public personae of the creatives in the film industry influences the way we engage with their movies. Another TIFF 2013 filmmaker, Eli Roth, makes movies that I generally have little patience for, but I like Roth so much as a personality (reiterating once again that all of these public personalities could be, and likely are, highly distorted or outright manufactured versions of the private individuals) that I bought a ticket for The Green Inferno without question. (Glad I did, too - if it's not quite the Citizen Kane of white-Americans-run-afoul-of-South-American-cannibal-tribe movies, it's in the top three.)

When a filmmaker dicks out as spectacularly as, say, Mel Gibson, we tend to pause when next confronted by their work, or even work that they are involved in (see the revulsion upon the release of The Beaver, for example). Michael Bay tends to get mentioned as a spectacular dick, too, but that hasn't slowed down the grosses on the Transformers films at all. Does a filmmaker's personality matter, beyond what can be intuited in the work itself?

For the majority of the moviegoing public, the answer is probably "no," because they'd have no awareness of those personalities and go to movies to see what's in them, not who's behind them. For films in close-quarters indie niches where the director becomes a brand to a much smaller target market, though, I'm left to wonder.

This question initially emerged for me with regards to Peter Jackson, who has so brilliantly constructed his public image as a nice fella, one of us, that it inevitably occurred to me that the whole thing could be invented. I genuinely hope it isn't, but the fact that I hope that demonstrates how completely Jackson has forwarded a public reading of his celebrity that is folksy, charming, and decidedly geek-friendly - which would, of course, be the optimal brand for him to leverage in selling his work, if you want to apply a "there are no coincidences!" paranoia to the thing.

And in spite of my extremely high regard for both Hunger and Shame, I find my interest in Steve McQueen as a filmmaker cooling rapidly as he wanders around refusing to suffer fools lightly. Not everyone can be a people person, but do the not-people-persons have to stand in front of their films and tarnish the brand? Or should they leave the stupid questions to those more readily willing to understand that this art form is a business, and businesses who sneer at their customers don't generally thrive?


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

Around the Internet:
  • Who on earth is Matt Brown?

  • D. Bastarde

    The Guardian brought me here, and I think the columnist is a dick.

  • Simon Moon

    I have just watched the press conference myself and my conclusion is that this columnist is an arsehole.

  • Why should he suffer fools lightly, though?

    Do you?

  • THRILLHOU

    When you write your articles about filmmakers being dicks, do you use a pen or a pencil?
    Do you use plain paper, or college rule?
    What was the first film you saw?

    Now, please answer those questions without looking like a dick.

  • Tom E

    This article makes you look like a dick. You didn't cite a single example, first of all. Second of all, you start the article with the explosive and click-friendly first sentence, which later on you become wishy washy about. You obviously have no understanding of McQueen or what it means to be an artist, so why bother trying? This article makes me immediately forgive anything he may have said to answer your questions, as it's immature and bitter, with no foundations or focus.

  • Andrew C Livingston

    Let Steve McQueen do what he does best and you do whatever it may be that you do best... This article ain't one of them.

  • Sean Smithson

    An artist being a dick doesn't bother me too much. I tend to shy from work by artists that victimize people. No names, but I am shocked by the number of film makers working in and around Hollywood who are just to the legal side of being pedophiles, yet they are allowed to run rampant because they generate huge profits. It's an intensely gross and disgusting thing.

    As for McQueen...yup. he doesn't seem to suffer fools, and especially in a film festival environment even the paying attendees should "know their shit" to some extent.

  • Less Lee Moore

    The woman asking the questions at the panel started off on a terrible foot by asking really ill-informed, broad, and frankly, stupid-sounding questions. I would be irritated, too. That sort of inept, dog-and-pony show that festivals seem to encourage rankles me and I'm not even a filmmaker. I don't think he's a dick at all. I think he's an intelligent person who isn't afraid to call out bullshit when he sees it.

    I also think that if you used the phrase "tarnish the brand" in front of McQueen he'd probably give you the side eye, too.

  • Toulouse Startrec

    David O Russell and Lars Von Trier are documented dicks, but I love their movies.

  • ThisGuy01

    Who cares? I'd rather see a great film made by an insufferable asshole than an unwatchable mess by the nicest man on Earth. Plus some people just don't play the press game. The work should speak for itself. Not soundbites & cute banter with a bunch of over-entitled "journalists".

  • I love McQueen's work, and I've only ever heard his interviews on the blu-rays I have of his films, where he wants to be talking about his work and is obviously (or seemingly) so passionate about it, so I don't really have a take on his public persona. I do always prefer the humble sorts, but I hate any biased perceptions and try to steer away from it unless I met the director (or whoever) in person, and even if I only met them once in person, who's to say I should base my perception from a first impression. Regardless of anything I said, I thought this was a great article. As you said, either you're telling us how you really feel, lying to us or making us think through a devil's advocate.

  • Mina Bontempo

    Why people want absolutely to differentiate the art from the artist is beyond me. If a film irks in some ways, I'm likely to deduce from it that the director is a jerk, and If I know the director to be jerk, I'm very likely to be prejudiced against the film, and am perfectly fine with it. Hell, I don't give a damn.

    I also think that Steve McQueen's attitude during this press conference is not as bad as you made it sound. A typical reaction coming from a journalist, at any rate. You, poor little thing. Shame was a ridiculously pompous movie, but it seems that that Steve McQueen is a more articulate guy that I thought he (I thought he was gay too, not that it matters).

    Anyway, perspectives change, and they should, that's what makes opinions so interesting and frustrating. The thing is, you won't never have a look at the big picture, no matter how many assumptions you make, things you learn, etc.

    Fassbender looked deadly pretentious, though.

  • billydaking

    >>>>"Why people want absolutely to differentiate the art from the artist is
    beyond me. If a film irks in some ways, I'm likely to deduce from it
    that the director is a jerk, and If I know the director to be jerk, I'm
    very likely to be prejudiced against the film, and am perfectly fine
    with it. Hell, I don't give a damn."

    Film, however, is a collaborative art, so who's the dick--the writer? The actors? The producer? The director? The editor?

    Plus, this is storytelling, and judging people or films based on the people who made them for what is essentially an elaborate game of pretend seems somewhat narrow-minded. Hitchcock was a dick. Kubrick was a dick. So what? I'm not interested in the person; I'm interested in the film itself.

  • Sergio Andrés

    I find this article absolutely ridiculous.

    I've seen the Press Conference and there is no no way to understand your argument.

    I think the problem is the moderator (where is Henri Behar?, he is always great) and her not very clever questions. But Steve never loses the respect to the moderator. He just do not agree with her (neither Michael Fassbender does it). So, this is why Steve is a dick?
    Maybe he could be more understandable and try to help the moderator, but that does not make him a dick.

    For me, a dick is someone who qualifies a person for two press conferences. Have you talked to him? Do you know him?

    Cheap promotion

  • McQueen is the man, and he does not suffer fools. He's my kind of dick.

  • AnnaZed

    Well, Mel Gibson's dickishness was very specifically anti-Semitic, which is something most people find abhorrent and, of course, Polanski is a criminal.

    McQueen's dickishness seems to be of the 'how do you morons even get out of bed in the morning and tie your shoes?' school, which is a social graces thing. The dickishness (let's say) of Brett Ratner is tolerated - even embraced - until it's not. McQueen is an auteur, an intellectual, and thus pretty much entitled to snort with derision when people ask him dumb questions. Woody Allen does a politer more oblique version of this that turns the questioner into a fool (and Woody Allen is in fact a bit a of a dick), Spike Lee (who is also a bit of a dick) loves to skewer dumb people in public - it's like a schtick for him. McQueen just plays it straight.

    Now, the question of whether it helps or hurts the film for him to be out on the circuit snorting with derision at his intellectual inferiors; I would say on balance that it's all upside. The real 'business' that you refer too takes place behind closed doors with backers and collaborators who all seem perfectly willing to work with him over and over again (they can't all be masochists) so it seems that when not accosted by fools McQueen a decent enough guy to work with. The percentage of 'customers' (ticket buyers) who might have his dickishness on their radar is actually proportionally very low, and among those that do (take for example the person who made the tumblr gifs that you linked) there is a high percentage that are impressed by his refusal to take any crap for anyone. I kind of am I have to say.

  • Mica smar

    What about actors? It's much easier to forget about the director during a movie, but with actors you're staring at them for two hours. Personally, I rarely think about the director until after a film.

  • r0rschach

    I think a filmmaker is supposed to win us over with the quality of their work, not by pandering to the audience or trying to be our friend. I love the films of Von Trier, Tarantino, Welles and Kubrick, but all of them have histories of being difficult to work with, narcissistic, and being hostile or impatient toward the public.

    At every Q&A I've ever been to, 90% of the questions were either pretentious, moronic, or "What advice do you have for an aspiring filmmaker?". I've heard people ask for plot ideas to use in their own films and seen multiple people ask Robert Rodriguez questions about Tarantino films (under the impression they are the same person). McQueen has made some of the best films of the last decade and I certainly can't blame him for his contempt for dumb questions, not everyone is blessed with the patience and grace to put up with it.

  • Thought provoking article. I make a big effort to separate art from artist, but I'm definitely not always immune. Even though he is the author of source material and not director, I feel a bit odd about Ender's Game and Orson Scott Card. From everything I've read about him, he just seems like such a total dick. Do I really want to line his pockets? On a more positive note: I can't say for sure of course, but it seems to me that PJ's public persona hasn't changed much from interviews he did around the time he made BAD TASTE, and I doubt he was really thinking about his "brand image" back then. He just seems to me like a genuinely nice guy.

  • AnnaZed

    Ha, good point. I have been feeling lately like I might just draw the line at 'Ender's Game'. It is a different thing though, Card is a bigot and a person who finances entities that really harm people. McQueen is just a snob.

  • DarthDave

    I find Ben Affleck insufferably smug (possibly a hangover from his hubristic pre-Gigli persona) so I really have to force myself to watch anything he is involved with. I thought Gone Baby Gone and The Town were great, although in truth I'm a little irritated that I have to admit that!

    I don't blame McQueen for not wanting to be a part of the promotional process - in fact his dismissive attitude towards idiots is rather amusing - but if he dislikes it that much you have to wonder if it is a contractual obligation that he can't get out of. Perhaps if this latest film is a hit he will be able to have enough Malick-esque clout to say 'feck off' in future negotiations, so he can stay at home.

    Although going by 'Steve' rather than 'Steven' when there is already a filmic icon with that name does seem mildly dick-ish.

  • AnnaZed

    Well, speaking of dicks' it's interesting that Steve McQueen the actor's famous boorishness, inebriation and well documented abuse of his wife is missing from this conversation. As someone said above it's sometimes hard to look at actors on the screen when we know that they are repulsive human beings (see Gibson above as well).

  • AngMal

    "Well documented" in a posthumous biography - featured in that paragon of journalistic integrity the Daily Mail no less - when McQueen was no longer around to refute the claims. If highlighting his flaws it's also worth noting McQueen also used his celebrity to get the studios to constantly donate bulk goods to the reformatory school he spent time at as kid, and returned there to give talks to the 'inmates' even after he'd made it as a star.

    In any case I think the point of the comparison above was not to hold the 'original' McQueen up as a saint, but to point out the slightly petulant attitude of using the same name as someone already very famous in the same profession as you. Like a director called Jonathan Wayne going by John Wayne* just to be contrary.

    *Yes, I know his birth name was Marion Morrison, but you know what I'm getting at. I also know he was a right-wing nutbag too, but again, his character is not the issue I'm focusing on here.

  • Less Lee Moore

    So the fact that he goes by Steve McQueen and not STEVEN McQueen makes him "petulant"? I cannot believe this is a thing that people are talking about. It sounds ludicrous. He's English, not American.

  • AngMal

    'Slightly'. And working in the same profession, regardless of nationality. But it's not worth getting steamed-up about.

  • DarthDave

    All good points.

  • Brian Clark

    For what it's worth, I wandered through a park in New Orleans while McQueen was shooting 12 YEARS and stopped to watch because I was hoping to see the process behind some insane long take (I didn't), and he seemed like he was being quite nice, and not a dick, to the extras!

    I wish more filmmakers would refuse to suffer fools, honestly. Maybe then discussion of films wouldn't be so dumbed down?

    As to the question -- I think most people do separate the artist and the art to a point. The line people tend to draw is when the artist in question is a jerk directly to them. Most (not excluding myself!) will tolerate an enormous amount of injustice/unkindness/despicable behavior, until it effects them personally.

  • Meli

    It is absolutely possible to like a film if its director or main actor happens to be a massive dick. If anything, it's very dumb and shallow not to like a movie because of its director/actor. You're probably going to miss a lot of great stuff if that's how you pick your movies. Having said that, I genuinely don't have a problem with McQueen. I like the way he handles interviews and the fact that he doesn't care whether you like him or not.
    However, it frustrates me that McQueen is getting some grief for essentially not being very "charming". As far as playing the game goes, he is doing a much better and honest job than Mallick is.

  • Gurdeep Singh

    i'm probably gonna be a dick for saying this, but i didn't realise Steve McQueen (director) was a black man.

  • Alicia

    Sure, I might watch it. However, if I dislike the film-maker as a person I will rent rather than buy the movies in order to avoid putting money in their pockets. (Same goes for books, music, and other media.)

  • Kurt

    This is more of a comment than a question....

    I kind of like how McQueen did the Q&A for shame at that screening a couple years ago. I thought he was fine at the 12 years screening this year. I love the cinema of Roman Polanski (probably the canonical example in this debate) and I enjoy Tom Cruise movies.

    Perhaps I just can easily compartmentalize the work from the creators...

    No issue here, for me anyway.

  • Gordon

    Well, I like some Roman Polanski movies, and being a child rapist is far beyond being a dick, so…

  • Now I just feel dumb for not mentioning Polanski. Good call.

blog comments powered by Disqus
​​