The scene is 28 pages long and involves two characters having a conversation, a long conversation: Bobby Sands, Irish prisoner about to go on hunger strike, and Father Dominic Moran, the priest who comes to visit Sands in prison. Bobby Sands is played by Michael Fassbender and Father Dominic is played by Liam Cunningham. The main chunk of dialogue takes up 17 minutes, a back and forth between the two men – and it was decided to do it in one take.
“It’s kind of bizarre to be walking into that particular scene which makes it sound like it’s a small thing but this particular scene that I’m involved in is 28 pages long. To keep the purity of it and the thought processes – it was decided to shoot it all in one go. I think for any actor who’s watching this, the hair will go up on the back of their neck immediately.”
— Liam Cunningham, actor
Indeed. Learning 5 pages of dialogue straight is difficult enough, but 28? Of course, if you’re doing a play, memorizing that much text is par for the course, but film is done in small chunks, sometimes second to second to second. You rarely get the chance to play a scene out, as you would if you were in the theatre – and even then, most one-take scenes run under 5 minutes, maybe a bit more. 17 minutes, especially with as much dialogue as there is in this scene, and no camera movements whatsoever, is so rare as to be almost unheard of.
The film is Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen (no relation), who is a visual artist and photographer. He won the Turner Prize. He’d done short documentaries and film installations, but Hunger was his first feature. He cowrote it with Irish playwright Enda Walsh. His background as an artist obviously gave him a strong visual sense, and a confidence of what he wanted. The film is quite beautiful-looking, although the subject matter is oftentimes grotesque. Mostly grotesque.
The prisoners in the H Block had been naked in their cells – some of them for up to 4 years, wrapped in blankets (hence, the Blanket protest – or “on the blanket”), and wiping their shit on the walls. Eating maggot-infested food. They protested being housed not as political prisoners but as common criminals (which, some might say, what’s the difference?), and they refused to wear the prison-issue uniforms. As the years moved on and the situation worsened, there was one failed attempt at a hunger strike. 7 prisoners went on strike at the same time. When the prisoners decided to go on another hunger strike, they had learned the cold-blooded lesson from the first one. In order to be successful, they needed to stagger the hunger strike, one man going on first and alone. Two weeks later, another would go on hunger strike, two weeks after that date, another one, and so on. It was a devastating tactic, not only for the prisoners, but for the guards, their families, and the country as a whole. It paralyzed Ireland. 10 men died on hunger strike before it finally ended when a mother decided to take her son off the hunger strike (this was the subject of Helen Mirren’s wonderful film Some Mother’s Son). Thatcher made a quiet unpublic concession, that the men could wear their own clothes. When Bobby Sands died, 100,000 people went to his funeral. (I visited his grave in Milltown Cemetery when I was in Belfast. That cemetery is a powerful and political place. It also didn’t hurt that I visited the grave with Anthony McIntyre, who was on the blanket/no-wash protest himself in Long Kesh, and knew all of the hunger strikers. Anthony was in Long Kesh for 19 years. He is now married to a good friend of mine – she who gave us such memorable directions to their house in Ballymurphy – you can read his blog here, as well as read an essay he wrote about our visit to Bobby Sands’ grave. McIntyre’s book Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism is essential reading for anyone wanting to get a handle on the ins and outs of claustrophobic toxic Northern Irish politics, especially because he takes a critical view of the peace process, as well as the Sinn Féin/IRA party line which has caused him much trouble and controversy. We went to the Sinn Féin offices, which, of course, is emblazoned with a mural on the side – seen here in a photo I took that day: Bobby Sands’ face and his most famous quote (referenced in the essay by Anthony McIntyre):
Notice the news truck. It was November, 2004, a tense time in the peace process. Carrie, a journalist, talked to the news guys, to see if they knew what was going on inside. Gerry Adams’ car was parked against the curb. It was great to have insiders take us around because of stuff like that: “Oh, look, there’s Gerry’s car.” You know. Gerry. Belfast is a small town.
My family was in Ireland following the hunger strikes, and although we were in the South, the news still dominated. I was just a kid, but I understood that men were starving themselves on purpose in the north, and that reality was in the molecules, in the air that we breathed. The death of Bobby Sands, as well as the Iranian hostage crisis, were the two world events which filtered down into my young head, making a deep long-lasting impact. I worried obsessively over these things. I felt helpless. I didn’t understand the politics, but I didn’t want anyone to die. I don’t come from one of those Irish-American families that romanticize the IRA. Far from it. I have ancestors who were involved, of course. The IRA of 1920 was quite a different organization from the IRA of 1970, or 1990. Or now. But it’s a complicated issue, even more so on the ground in the day-to-day in Belfast. I really got a crash course when I was there staying with Carrie and Anthony, because they are on the front lines of it. They dare to criticize Sinn Féin, and Gerry Adams, and the peace process. It’s a deep pool, Northern Irish politics. You can’t just dip your toe in to get a handle on what is going on. It requires full submersion.
To make things even more of a circus, Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament while he was on hunger strike (something Steve McQueen’s film doesn’t mention at all). Thatcher wouldn’t back down, and neither would the prisoners. It was a standoff. The IRA has much to answer for. But so do the British. There are no lily-white innocents in this story. Northern Ireland was a disaster, and the H-Block situation was handled disastrously, with escalation after escalation. Implacable. The funerals of the hunger strikers were chances for protests on the other side, the possibility of violence breaking out at all times. The pallbearers often wore black masks, giving the funeral processions a frightening macabre aspect. It was a PR disaster, to be sure, and I suppose that was part of the point. In the past, hunger strikes had been used as a negotiating tool: Starve yourself until the other side caves. Not this time. The 1981 hunger strike, with its staggered-interval participants, was designed to rack up a high body count. Bobby Sands didn’t go into the hunger strike as a negotiator, he went into it as a martyr. Hopefully his death would make the other side break. There needed to be dead bodies this time, not just starving bodies.
As Michael Fassbender says, “I think some people thought Sands was a nutter.”
In the aforementioned 28-page scene, a priest comes to visit Bobby Sands in the dark meeting room at Long Kesh. Father Dominic Ryan is a type of priest very well-known to Catholics who live in rough areas, immortalized perfectly in Karl Malden’s performance as Father Barry in On the Waterfront. No room for prudish notions of piety in such congregations. There are big political battles happening, and the priests are in the thick of it. Drinking, smoking, and fighting alongside the communities. Political men, rough men, men of the world in priest’s garb. There’s the iconic image of Father Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief in the midst of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, he being representative of the kind of priest we’re talking about here.
Hunger begins with the morning ritual of prison guard Raymond Lohan, played by Stuart Graham, in a taut agonizing silent performance. He washes his face in his immaculate sink, he sits at the kitchen table and is served breakfast by his wife. He puts a napkin on his lap, and at one point delicately brushes the crumbs off of the napkin. The first time I saw the film, the cleanliness makes an impression. It’s not just clean, it’s antiseptic. I wondered about it, thinking to myself, “Nobody’s sink is that clean, it looks like a hotel” – it struck me as unreal, and then, 5 minutes in, I thought: “Duh. The man spends his day surrounded by walls covered in feces. Of course he is a clean-freak.” After breakfast, he goes outside to his driveway where his car waits. He lies on the driveway looking under the car. He holds his breath as he puts the key in the door. He holds his breath yet again as he turns the ignition. His worried wife stares out at him from behind the curtain. Nothing bad happens. He backs out of the driveway and drives off. We see him in closeup as he drives to work, his face dead and quiet and still. It’s a war. Every day is a war for this man. He risks his life every day in that prison. He also risks his life at home. 29 prison officers were killed during The Troubles, some gunned down by the IRA in front of their families, others the victim of car bombs. It is a horrible legacy.
By starting the film with Stuart Graham, Steve McQueen’s film lets us know what his approach will be to this huge event, which I think is very smart. Any hint of sentimentalizing the hunger strikers (beyond the obvious empathy a normal person feels when confronted with anyone who is suffering), and portraying the prison guards as faceless villains would have been insufferable, and incorrect. It is that kind of propaganda that continues to pump up both sides with anger and hate. Everyone has very long memories. Don’t forget that. This isn’t some abstract fight. Belfast is a small town. You may think it would be easy to rise above, but perhaps not when you saw your aunt gunned down in the street, when you held your dying brother in your arms. Hate hardens. On both sides. When I was in Belfast, we took the famous black cab tour, and our tour guide, a big tough guy, pointed out a building and said, “See dat pub? My girlfriend’s da got his leg blown off dere.”
The film ends with Bobby Sands’ death, filmed in the most subjective way imaginable, the camera floating around the room as Sands hovers near death, suggesting the vertigo-inducing nausea of such intense starvation. Once Sands enters the story (and he doesn’t do so until about half an hour in), it becomes his narrative, but we don’t start with him. We start with a guard. Trying to get through his day. There is a terribly poignant shot of a group of prison guards in riot gear, and one, obviously a newbie, hides around the corner, in tears.
The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zambardo describes the Stanford Prison Experiment (engineered and set up by Zambardo), and the disastrous effects the prison guard uniform had on the students randomly picked to play guards. Natural enthusiastic fascists arose, those who had no tendencies towards that direction until they put on the uniform. There were those who resisted, and did the minimum, but there were a couple of others who relished their positions of power. The Lucifer Effect is a riveting book about prisons, and Zambardo had gone into the experiment wanting to see what being locked up did to someone psychologically. What he hadn’t expected was the immediate effect the position of power had on the boys chosen to be prison guards, and that has become his main focus of research ever since the experiment in the 70s. Hunger is bold enough, courageous enough, to start with the guards. To start with their lives, and the impact that their environment had on THEM. To hard-line IRA-ers, this would be unacceptable, but that is because they are partisans in the fight. There are scenes where a guard mops up the urine the prisoners leaked out into the hallways as one of Thatcher’s speeches is heard in voiceover. Her stance of non-negotiation starts to look very differently when seen through the eyes of the men who had to work in the prison.
The imagery of those shit-filled cells is so vivid and relentless that I actually found myself holding my breath from time to time as I watched the movie, as though the smell could come through the screen. Long Kesh was one of the most state-of-the-art prisons in Europe. This wasn’t a medieval Turkish prison, Midnight Express-style. The facilities were grand, as prisons go. But the H-block prisoners, living coated in their own filth, had turned it into a circle of Hell. The guards, in charge of fumigating the cells from time to time, had to wear Hazmat suits and masks because the stench was so excruciating. Imagine having to do that every day. Imagine NOT being a political person (although that is relatively impossible in the North). But still: imagine being as un-politicized as it is possible to be, just a person wanting to make a living and have a good life, and then imagine having to clean shit off the walls all day every day, and what that might do to your heart, your soul, your feeling about the Irish. Imagine being a guy with wife and kids who now has to fear his car being blown up with his daughter in the backseat, and how the rage might grow, the urge to strike back. Fuck Maggie Thatcher and her policies: imagine what it was like for those men who worked in the prison.
And that’s what Steve McQueen wanted to capture in Hunger, especially in the 28-pages long scene between Sands and Father Dominic.
“I wanted to have the left and right of it in one room having a dialogue. It’s like two stones – what you want to do in that situation is make a fire.”
– Steve McQueen, director
Father Dominic does not endorse the death-wish inherent in the staggered approach to the hunger strike, but it takes them about 15 minutes to even get to that point. The opening of the scene has the two of them lighting cigarettes, a bit of banter, chit-chat, essentially.
“That’s what I liked about it – two bright intelligent sharp men – who are opposed about certain things, diametrically opposed, but at the same time they both have the courage of their convictions.”
– Liam Cunningham
They smoke. They size each other up across the table. The room is dark, with windows in the back, so both of them have small light silhouettes, differentiating them from the darkness. It is a beautiful shot, but you quickly stop noticing the beauty because it becomes riveting on a whole other level: the camera doesn’t move, no cut-aways, no closeups, and the first time I saw it (having not heard about this showstopper of a scene), maybe 10 minutes into it, I thought, “Holy shitballs, this is all in one.” Little did I know how much more there was still to go.
There isn’t much dialogue in Hunger before this scene, and what there is is brief and urgent, situational, only. Meetings with family members in the visiting room, nothing of importance being said. There is no exposition. McQueen assumes we will know all the details. After all, this was an event of huge importance. If we don’t know the details, then we need to catch up. We only hear Thatcher’s voice in voiceover, so we understand the policy about the prisoners and their status in the prison. There’s only one scene where all the prisoners are seen together, and that is when they all gather for mass in a prison common room. The poor priest says his mass, by rote, as all of the men chat with each other, catch up, and surreptitiously pass notes. It’s pandemonium.
But all we hear is a clatter of voices, nothing differentiated. We aren’t let in on their secret plans, we don’t see them deciding to go on hunger strike. All of these decisions seem to happen by osmosis, which, of course, is not the case, but the film isn’t interested in the planning phase. It’s not interested in the hows. It’s not a history lesson. It’s a full immersion into that prison. You rarely get outdoor scenes. The most extensive exterior happens in flashback.
So when, suddenly, we get 17 minutes of nonstop dialogue, it’s startling. The accents are thick. I know the accent, and I had to lean forward to understand. As the positions emerge, the scene gets tenser. It is as though there are only two men alive on the entire planet. Father Dominic doesn’t disapprove of the hunger strike because it’s suicide which is a sin. His objection is more connected to the reality of the world outside. He does not spout platitudes. He tells Sands that the atmosphere in the prison, paranoid and claustrophobic, is a filthy belljar, and Sands is in no state to make such an important decision. Sands is clear, though. He expresses his clarity. This is how it will go. It cannot be stopped. Even if Sands wanted to call it off, he couldn’t. He was part of something larger.
“He was taking this priest in just to hear his own thoughts. He needed a sounding board.”
– writer Enda Walsh
The dialogue is incredibly complex, yet the structure of the scene is simple. Played like a play, it’s a real SCENE. Yes, scenes happen with closeup to closeup – but those are reconstructed in an editing room, and played in tiny bits. Actors rarely get a chance to say more than a sentence at one time in film. So here, once the thing starts … it can’t be stopped. And so it mirrors the urgency of the actual situation faced by Sands, and by Father Dominic who knows what a disaster is facing the community. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The script is a masterpiece of construction, and if it had been played with dueling closeups the tension would have been more manipulated. Here, it is organic. It comes out of the progression of the lines, happening in real-time, but also out of the growing sense of awe I had as an audience member that this was all in one take. It all became one. I wanted to applaud at the end. These magnificent actors doing this dance. Accomplishment. The work it must have taken. First, to get all those words down, and then, to PLAY it.
This is why I love acting.
This is why I love the movies.
Because of scenes like this. You can have your 3-D. I don’t care about it. I don’t care about action movies and CGI stunners. I don’t care about dinosaurs and superheroes. I care about acting. And acting is shown in its purest most eternal form in what Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham pull off in this scene.
Many actors don’t know how to act if they are not in closeup. I do not mean to diss closeup actors. It’s a skill, to be able to act effectively in closeup. You try being honest and open with a camera an inch away from your face. But anyone who has seen a Hollywood star on Broadway knows that many of them have no idea what the hell to DO without the “help” of a camera. Their bodies are lost, their arms are awkward, they just don’t occupy space gracefully. They don’t need to. Closeups are the cinema’s medium. People who do “too much” are terrible in closeup. You really don’t need to do anything. The camera picks up thoughts, fleeting, quick. But onstage you have to project: not just your voice, but your thoughts. Here, in Hunger, the men don’t even have their faces to rely on. We can’t see their expressions, they are in silhouette.
But they are both such masters at what they are doing that you don’t need closeups.
And that is a brave director, to get out of the way of the event he is creating to such a degree that he doesn’t feel the need to manipulate, tell us where to look. Crazy brave.
It starts with Sands sitting alone at the table.
He hears the door to the room open, off-screen. He looks up. The priest approaches, his head cut off by the top of the frame.
The priest sits. Cigarettes are shared and lit.
They chat. A bit. How are things in the prison. How are things outside. A couple of jokes.
Then, the talky standoff/confrontation begins. You ride it like a wave. It’s not just a slow build, it’s more jagged than that, more real. It’s a jazz riff, not a crescendo.
It lasts for the next 17 minutes, in one unbroken take, with mounds of dialogue.
“Everybody had to be on the money because any mistake was going to mess up all that work. So one component out of place and the whole thing’s ruined. So I love that. I love it and you could feel it in the room that a lot was at stake.”
– Michael Fassbender
The upcoming hunger strike is, for the first time, described. The priest balks. Sands retaliates. The priest finally says, “I don’t think I’m going to see you again, Bobby.”
And there, 17 unheard-of minutes into the scene, we have our first cut. There’s movement in the next shot. We see Bobby take out another cigarette in tight closeup, and then bring the cigarette up to his lips and light it, all in one piece.
When you hold back edits, when you hold back cuts, it’s actually more of an attention-getter than frenetic cutting. That cut, to Bobby’s hands taking out another cigarette, actually means something. It has giant impact. The long unbroken piece we’ve just seen has ended and we know that neither man has convinced the other. We know that because the actors (and the writer) have shown us that in the work they have done in the scene. Steve McQueen was smart enough, bold enough, and trusting enough in actors to let the scene play. And he knew when he had to cut.
As Bobby smokes the cigarette, we stay on him in closeup.
We don’t know Bobby Sands at all. Not yet. We’ve seen him meet his parents in the visiting room, but that’s about it. He’s been peripheral until now. He starts to tell the priest a story about something that happened when he was a young boy and a cross-country runner. And this monologue is also done all in one piece, with no cutaways to the priest. The story he tells, about a wounded foal, is a bit too on-the-nose for me, thematically. The rest of the scene had been played without poetic metaphor at all. The priest and Sands are in a clash of the titans, speaking of politics and religion and the British, all practical, and urgent. So Sands monologue, which actually tells us more about him than we have known until that moment, is effective, dramaturgically – it’s like a soliloquy – but more than anything, what I want to talk about is how it is filmed, and how it is played. The monologue about the cross-country race is 4 minutes long. That’s about 3 pages of straight text. And again, it is done in one big chunk. The priest only interjects one word and that is when Bobby asks him if he understands what he’s talking about. “Aye”, says the priest, off-screen, no cutaway to his face. The camera stays on Bobby the entire time.
Fassbender’s acting is exactly what it needs to be. To me, he is the perfect actor. He’s been doing such good work for a while now, and he was dreamy-sexy-tormented as Mr. Rochester (yum), and now that he’s in X Men he’s getting all this attention, but excuse me, he’s got the role of a lifetime here as Bobby Sands. It doesn’t get any better than this. And the foal monologue is weak, in my opinion, it’s too obviously a playwriting device. But it is almost more interesting (in fact, it IS more interesting) to see what an actor does with less-than-stellar material. This is what separates the men from the boys. Fassbender plays the foal monologue straight and unsentimentally, downplaying the obvious “here is the theme” spotlight. It really feels like he is sharing a memory. It is hard to imagine that what he is saying were ever words on a page, and that, to me, is always the mark of an extraordinary performance. It is literally unthinkable that Fassbender ever sat in his hotel room memorizing those words by rote. No, it can’t be. Can it?
The miracle of acting. Of belief in the imaginary. Of that mysterious thing called talent.
When Sands finishes the story, there is finally a cut-away to the priest. His beautiful face. He says nothing. It looks like he might for a moment, but he doesn’t. The closeup passes with no dialogue.
The scene is over. There is nothing left to say. We go back to the two-shot. Silence. Devastating.
We go back to a closeup of Bobby, and the camera stays on him as we hear the priest push his chair back, get up, walk out of the room, door opens, door closes behind him. All while we watch Bobby watch him go. That’s it. No more contact with the outside world. A weary knowledge of that fact on his face. Letting the world go.
The scene ends with a tight closeup of Sands putting out his last cigarette in the ashtray.
The scene is a tour de force.
In an interview with Fassbender in the DVD extras, he describes how the two men (and McQueen) worked on that scene:
“The diet was just going by numbers, I just had to get to a certain weight but that scene was the one I was nervous about … To have a command of that scene as one muscular piece … All of us knew if we got that scene right it would be great, and if we didn’t, the whole thing would collapse and it would fall on its face. It’s a hard task to ask an audience and just watch dialogue without a movement of camera, especially nowadays when the camera is moving so much. I just worked and worked and worked on that piece… I went out to Belfast 4 weeks before we started filming, just for research and to get the accent – and that piece, and I made a sort of plan of doing it every day a certain amount of times, and so by the time Liam arrived the week before, I had it learned off. Steve said to Liam ‘We’re thinking of doing this in one take’ and Liam was like ‘You must be joking’, so Liam comes to me after, he’s like, ‘How are you doing with this dialogue?’ And I said ‘Well, I’ve got it learned off’, and he’s like ‘What??’ I said ‘Well, you know, I’m playing Bobby Sands, I’m shitting it, excuse the pun, I don’t want to get this wrong, I didn’t want to mess it up. Listen’, I said, ‘why don’t you move in with me. I’ve got this two bedroom flat – why don’t you take the spare bedroom, and we’ll hit it every day.’ So he moved in and we worked on it 10, 15 times a day. Steve would come in the evening, take a look at what we’ve done, give us some notes, and the next morning, we’d do the same thing. And we worked on it like that for a week. …. You’ve got somebody like Liam, he brings so much experience, he’s a fantastic actor – and then he can say I don’t like the way you did that – we talked like that very openly. He gave some really interesting notes as we were rehearsing it together. And then it’s just a matter of working with each other, because if one of you dies, the other one dies out there with you. We were lucky, we had a good chemistry together and a very easy working relationship. As I see it, the way that Sean backlit it, it’s more silhouettes of two people, for the first 17 minute two-shot – which is kind of a reprise of the prison and the outside world, it seems to be a limbo place where they’re having this conversation. The rhythms – that was the important thing – because if you broke it up, you lost texture. There’s that banter at the beginning, but they’re really saying other things. It’s the subtext. It’s all what they’re not saying. They’re sizing each other up, it’s like in the ring, they’re dancing around each other and testing each other’s mettle and their beliefs. The rhythm was definitely something that was very important, and if you lost it for a minute then the whole thing would sag.”