[“][I]f you leave without emotion then I’m not doing my job properly,” Alexander McQueen says in one archive clip. “I want you to feel repulsed or exhilarated.” The eagerly anticipated documentary, McQueen, is a high-octane, raw and intimate journey. Both tortured and inspired. There’s the high-drama, darkness and romance of his early headline-grabbing shows, a snapshot of the struggle and fast rise to success at the helm of Givenchy at 27. More so than this, the film looks at the man behind the masterpieces and how he went from a self-described “unremarkable” East End boy done good to rebelling against the fashion system altogether. HUNGER spoke exclusively to McQueen filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui to take us behind the seams…
What drew you to Lee Alexander McQueen in particular as a subject for a documentary?
PETER: The first thing is that we were both totally inspired by his story. Both of us were in London in the 90s, we both had slight indirect connections to the story. Enthralled by him at the time. And I vividly remember that moment when Lee died and the air just got sucked out of you – it was such utter tragedy. As filmmakers working now in documentary, you’re always looking for subjects where you can totally invest yourself because the story moves you. That was really it for us. On another level, why a movie rather than a TV show? We just felt that those shows he created throughout his career are cinematic spectacles. They’re performance art, operatic – they’ve got everything. Obviously the fashion industry saw those shows, other than that they might be seen on YouTube. We kind of thought the next best thing to actually see them live was to see them on the big screen and we wanted to celebrate that work. And people gasped at it, like we did.
How long was the filming process from start to finish?
IAN: The production was 12 months, which is a very short amount of time to create a movie doc as Peter explained before – we were always under pressure because there were a few projects out there and all of our distributors said they wanted to give us a certain amount of deadline but we constantly tried to protect the film and push the deadline slightly. But at the same time this sense of urgency we had to create the film felt like some of those designers and Lee himself in the fashion industry. You have a deadline, you have to work to it. You don’t take no for an answer.
He was known for having a close-knit friendship group. Did you find it difficult getting people to agree to speak on camera about Lee?
PETER: It was an enormous challenge for two reasons. The first, [for] his people his loss is still enormous in their eyes. It’s still very, very raw. Some people were very reluctant to expose that on screen. And there’s been a lot written and made of Lee over the years. There’s been a lot of sensationalism, voyeuristic interest in his drug habits and other things. And some people felt that should remain private; that somehow any filmmaker coming along might be someone who might want to manipulate their words and portray that side of Lee in a precarious way. That couldn’t have been the furthest thing away from what we wanted to do but it took a long time to persuade everyone in the film that we were good guys.
Who was the hardest person to convince to talk to you?
IAN: I think I would say [Lee Alexander McQueen’s sister] Janet and actually Janet willingly came to us. [At first] she had said that she wouldn’t talk but we kept in touch. As well as Mira Chai [stylist]- an essential person who because quite a big character in the film. But not difficult but just trying to access if they were ready to share those memories.
It’s a very personal portrait of McQueen – exploring his fears, inspirations, obsessions and nightmares. What was the biggest thing you learned about him that you hadn’t before starting this project?
PETER: One thing is there was this badass, bad boy image about him and he was quite an abrasive personality and one thing I learned was just how much he was loved by the people that worked with him and were friends with him. That they would go to the end of the earth for him. And again, belying his punk, iconoclastic image was an absolute love of tradition, of fine art, of craftsmanship of what he was making. He’d mastered those crafts, to the extent that he could take them anywhere he wanted to. He always felt you had to keep that contact with tradition but nevertheless break all the rules around it. The stories about him creating [and] improvising garments and just turning up on peoples doorsteps and making someone a dress or a pair of trousers within a couple of hours that just fitted perfectly. I love that side of it.
IAN: In terms of business, he didn’t produce the show at the beginning, so he’d never run out of money or have cash-flow problems. He probably never had money, but he never went bankrupt. And then at 27 you get a gig at Givenchy. And Lee just used that money to create McQueen. It was really hardcore.
What really set him apart from his contemporaries when McQueen was starting out?
IAN: Some of the themes that he brought onto the catwalk, like Island Rape…People used the catwalk to demonstrate clothing and the craft, the style, the look – Lee wanted to tell stories I think. The show was completely part of the collection. I think he provoked people and made spectacles. He provoked conversation. At the beginning of his career people would pay attention, people wanted to see what he would make.
PETER: He put everything into that storytelling. It wasn’t just his fashion designs – it was lighting, photography and music, dance and technology. No-one at the time was producing something quite that extraordinary. Or since. There’s been extravagant fashion shows but this was a different level. It was a form of art.
You also get across what a polarizing character he could be with his friends and colleagues…
PETER: When we were first thinking what’s the story of this film and how are we going to tell it? We were very struck by this apparent contradiction between Lee McQueen – the East End misfit who became the star of the fashion world and Alexander McQueen. We didn’t have to put words in the mouth, it was all this talk that he had these two sides to his nature and that sometimes you didn’t know who could come through the door. Sometimes it was a much darker figure.
IAN: If you meet creative people who are very much in-demand, who constantly produce more and more outstanding pieces, you’re on the verge of breaking all the time. So if people don’t achieve what you’re asking them to do they can snap. When you’re upset and you direct, the pressure is there, it’s normal. You want to show that Lee was under a lot of pressure and sometimes that pressure was passed onto the others. His name was on the top of the door – he had to go home with himself. Because he put so much pressure on himself I think he expected a lot of people to put pressure on themselves.
What do you hope people take away from the McQueen documentary?
PETER: At the end of the documentary, if people aren’t in a state of catharsis and sorrow then you’re doing something wrong. So that’s a given. But once that’s died down, what I want people to take away is a sort of inspiration of the fact that anything is possible. Sure, you’ve got to work hard and so on but Lee’s motto was ‘The Sky Is The Limit’ and he made everyone feel that around him. We’re living in a very difficult, grey and overall pessimistic time and I think there’s something about the exhilaration about what he achieved in those early years and the journey he took everyone on.
IAN: I will always miss Lee. I will always miss that I can’t buy some of his creativity. For me, I would love people to take away that we are all very fragile beings and despite the fact we didn’t want to go in-depth into the mental health issues I think we really need to take a step, especially within the creative industry, to make sure that if we want the great geniuses to carry on offering up amazing gifts of creativity we need to make sure we can keep them alive. It’s a big lesson. There’s a lot of creatives in the world – actors, musicians, fashion designers – and Lee was too young. And I think why is it in these industries? We are fragile and sometimes we need to get off the treadmill and take a breather and if we can get back on the treadmill great. If we can’t? So be it, but at least we’re there the next day and we can carry on living.
‘McQueen’ is in cinemas June 8.