From learning to tailor on Savile Row to impressing editor Isabella Blow with his Central Saint Martins graduate collection to helming Givenchy at only 27-years-old, the career and controversial work of late designer Lee Alexander McQueen has inspired and fascinated fashion lovers, art appreciators and critics around the world. Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui take a renewed look at his complex life with their new documentary, “McQueen,” which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd. Featuring a wealth of archival footage (such as audio recordings, dubbed The McQueen Tapes, that serve as chapters in the film’s structure) and interviews with the creator’s closest friends and family (including his sister Janet McQueen and longtime design assistant Sebastian Pons), the film paints a dynamic, sensitive portrait of McQueen and his life both on and off the catwalk. In Bonhôte’s words, “it’s not a film just about the fashion industry, but a film about an extraordinary man who worked in fashion.” Read on for our exclusive interview with the directors.
Why McQueen? What drew you to him?
Ian Bonhôte: We got approached to do the project. Someone called me saying they were brainstorming a project on the British greats, and one of the names that came up was McQueen. They knew I had worked on some other films in fashion. I come from a commercial music video background, and they wanted something quite visual. Because of my fashion film work, I’d be a good person to do it. As for McQueen himself, he was someone I’d always admired. When I moved to the UK in the late nineties, he was really at the center of a massive creative explosion. The connection he had with art and music, plus the tragedy of his personal journey, is quite extraordinary. The combination of all these things makes him a great subject, so I said yes right away.
Peter Ettedgui: You’re looking for fascinating stories and fascinating characters. This man is one of the very few people we’ll experience in our lifetime that you can call a genius. His story is extraordinary in every aspect. The end is deeply tragic, but the beginning is wonderful. A lot has been written about McQueen, but the beauty is to be able to show it. Rather than to read descriptions of beautiful dresses, to be able to actually see those catwalk shows and see what he did really brings it home in a different way.
Had both of you seen the McQueen retrospective, “Savage Beauty,” at the V&A or the Met?
Bonhôte: We saw the one in London. We went to the V&A and it was an amazing show, but we felt the person wasn’t there. It was clear there was a need for a movie. We knew there were potential biopic projects, but we always felt that this is a documentary—this is a doc, in the vein of “Senna” or “Amy.” I personally didn’t want to see someone acting; Lee is such a strong character.
Ettedgui: I got into a conversation with somebody about who they would cast as McQueen, and we kind of agreed, if you have McQueen himself, why would you hire an actor to play him?
The amount of archival footage in the film was amazing. A lot of it looked like home videos. How did you get access to all of it?
Bonhôte: We had about 150 sources. We looked for people who had shared the most intimate moments with [McQueen] through working relationships or friendships, and we interviewed these people and built a trust with them. Mira [Chai Hyde], for example, who was a close friend and did the grooming for his shows, discovered all these boxes [of material]. She’s got an amazing collection of early McQueen because she lived with him, and she got paid [in clothes] and things like that.
Ettedgui: And there are other things like, you find a photograph of the gang, and you see that someone is holding a video camera. You get in touch with that person, and you go, “whose video camera is that?” and they say, “oh, that’s Simon’s video camera,” so you get in touch with Simon. It’s a detective sort of thing; you have to track the stuff down.
Bonhôte: I found a clip on Youtube that had hardly a hundred views, and we found out that it was by the boyfriend of one of Lee’s best friends, Annabelle Neilson, living in New Zealand. So we tracked him down, and he got back to us—that was in November, I think. We had almost finished the movie. But you re-open the movie, and you don’t tell the producers!
Ettedgui: And then we had to go to Annabelle, who we’d been talking to throughout the project, and say, “look, your ex gave us this footage and we’d love to use it if you give us your blessing.” It’s a long process. Sometimes when you start a documentary, you’re given something—when I started the documentary [“Listen to Me, Marlon”], we had this incredible archive to begin with. With this, we had nothing. We had to create it while we went along, which made it fun but also a bit terrifying.
Bonhôte: It’s so terrifying because the process is enormous—conducting the interviews, editing the archive. We met the Videofashion team in the process of digitizing stuff, and they’ve got hundreds and hundreds of hours [of archival footage]. But they were all lovely—Videofashion, FashionTV and Jeannie Baker.
Peter: They’ve got all this stuff, but it’s not properly archived or labeled. They suddenly realized, as a result of working with us, that there’s real value in this. It’s part of fashion history. So Jeannie Baker, Bell Media, they’re going through the archive, and getting it digitized. There’s real value in it, not just financially but historically as well.
Bonhôte: We used a series of recordings of Lee on tape. The person who gave us the material said, “oh, I’ll meet you at this event and we can talk about it.” I had no idea what was on the tapes.
Ettedgui: They were ninety-minute tapes.
Bonhôte: They were very candid conversations. Not like interviews, but friend-to-friend. I remember putting the tapes next to my bed and thinking, “I don’t know what’s on there, but when they digitize it I hope they don’t damage it.” When we listened to them, the sound wasn’t great but Lee was saying these things—when the person you’re making a film about tells you something, you can’t deny it. You can change your mind—we all change our minds—but you can’t deny it. What was said on the tapes confirmed a lot of elements.
Ettedgui: It meant that we could have Lee, in a sense, narrate the film. With [“Listen To Me, Marlon”], the voice of the protagonist drove the documentary. As soon as we had those tapes, we realized that even if Lee wasn’t narrating the whole thing, he would very much be the central point of reference for everything.
You say that McQueen confirmed a lot of things on those tapes. What exactly did he confirm?
Bonhôte: Those tapes were from the mid-2000s. He confirmed some of the difficult times, the pressure that he was under; the hard work. It’s quite incredible because the two tapes had about a year and a half between them, and one was much more upbeat than the other.
Ettedgui: And he would say things like, “I would dredge up my worst nightmares and fears and put them on the catwalk.” That’s what you want Lee to say because that’s what he was doing. And he did say that in printed interviews, but not on any audio or video archive that we’d seen. There’s also the dark and difficult aspect to his life—there were some drugs, partly to fuel his work habit. It wasn’t so much recreational but to keep him going. That was a difficult side of the story to tackle, because it’s so easy to sensationalize. We have Lee saying, “cocaine is a bad drug, but that’s where I was at that point in my life.” It’s fantastic that we have him saying it rather than putting someone else in an uncomfortable situation talking about it. [The drugs] are so talked about and so uninteresting; it’s banal. We heard of another documentarian who had been working on a TV program about him, and we had several people say that the only question she wanted to ask was, “and were there drugs?” We never wanted to do that. That wasn’t the film we were making.
Exactly, a lot of press coverage focuses on the sensational aspects of his life, like his drug use or suicide.
Bonhôte: Or where he comes from. Where we come from doesn’t define us—the point is to transcend it, get inspired by it, get strength from it. One of the things that made him so special is where he came from, but not because his dad was a taxi driver, that’s irrelevant.
Ettedgui: But what is important is that he was an outsider. He was always an outsider. He had difficulty in his life when he got pulled inside the bubble. He found that very difficult to cope with because he had ambivalent feelings about it. At the same time, he was realizing that this was what he was born to do—and loving it, too.
Bonhôte: We found out as well that he was very exigent. Very demanding of himself, above all. To reach that level of quality you have to push yourself.
Ettedgui: Yes, of course there was pressure from the industry, but the biggest pressure of all was the pressure he put on himself. He wanted to do better, and if he did a collection that wasn’t quite at the same level, he would be so torn up by that and so upset. So he was constantly pushing himself.
Bonhôte: And he cared what people said in the industry. He may have been an outsider, but he did respect other peoples’ opinions.
Ettedgui: We both feel that [his collection] “It’s a Jungle Out There” was very much a reaction to the reception of his first Givenchy collection.
Throughout the filmmaking process, was there one tidbit of information or something you found out about McQueen’s life that struck you?
Ettedgui: My mind is just teeming with things.
Bonhôte: There was already so much documentation about Lee, so we knew quite a lot. But I think what was really interesting was to hear it from people. Certain things that have been written, some people who were close to him just disagreed with. The best way for us to learn about Lee was to talk to people. We used every single aspect of what we learned to create a portrait.
Peter: It was more about connecting the dots, because the information is all out there. There are two very, very thorough biographies; there’s been a lot of stuff written about him. You can look at all of his fashion shows. When he says, “all my shows are autobiographical,” that sounds great, but you don’t fully understand why that is. Those dots are not connected up completely. So for example, when you get to “Voss”—which is one of his most stunning collections; it’s about 150 pieces—and you look at the setting and the allusions to madness and the bubble of fashion, when you actually unpack the context of that show and where he was in his life, and how that all feeds into the build-up of it, you can really connect that information effectively.
Was it a conscious decision to not include any interviews with Sarah Burton?
Bonhôte: No, we would have loved to talk to Sarah. We approached the brand but I think, from what we were told, the direction they were going was more about focusing on Sarah being the Creative Director of Alexander McQueen.
Ettedgui: Several people spoke to Sarah on our behalf. For some people, the loss of Lee is still huge in their eyes. To go on camera and talk about this stuff is very difficult. The people who did come to us needed a great deal of time to open up. It took a year to bring Janet [McQueen] and Gary [McQueen] on board. It was a very brave and generous thing to do, and not everyone felt that they could go there.
Bonhôte: Sarah and Katie England are two people we would’ve loved to interview. I’d love to meet them and talk on a personal level.
Ettedgui: On the other hand, it’s lovely that we were able to name check [Sarah] and show that she was there as an intern at the beginning, and at the end of the film you see her standing by Lee as he works. It’s unspoken, but her presence is there, and you can extrapolate from that. When Lee says, “I don’t want anyone else to continue the brand,” in the next cut, you see Sarah with him—we did that very consciously. It’s there sub-textually.
Bonhôte: And when people talk on camera, sometimes things come out very well, sometimes less so. We had some interviewees who didn’t come across that well, and others who made a lot of sense include. We’ve heard [Sarah] is quite camera shy, so you never know—spending two hours in front of the camera to open up, as the head of Alexander McQueen, would put a lot on her shoulders.
Ettedgui: We also had Sebastian [Pons], who had a similar role [to Sarah’s] but was more senior for a long period of time. He was so candid in a way that I think would’ve been difficult for Sarah, as the leader of the brand, to be. I think he may have covered many of the things we would have gotten from Sarah.
What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process?
Bonhôte: The timing. Filmmaking is hard, especially with the time we had. We were trying to push creative excellence as much as possible, so time was not our friend in every aspect—the negotiations, interviewing people, finding the archive.
Ettedgui: In every single aspect of this film, time was so difficult. We really had to struggle to get it into the shape it’s now in, with all of our hearts and all of our souls. It didn’t come easy. I don’t know if I should say this, but one evening, I was almost in tears about it. My daughter said, “dad, don’t worry, the fact that it’s so hard means that at the end of the day when you have a great film, it will be so satisfying.” She was right.
What exactly was your time frame?
Ettedgui: It was a year.
Bonhôte: We ended up taking a year but it was even shorter starting out. Two or three years would’ve been amazing, but we didn’t have that.
Ettedgui: At the same time, there’s one thing I would say that I think is very important: that pressure and that struggle was something that Lee, especially early on in his career, had all the time. It kind of gave us an insight. We learned a lot of things about how the shows were put together—everything was last minute; it was incredibly intense. That sharpened us and made us appreciate what he did even more. We took some inspiration from that.
Bonhôte: You don’t get comfortable, you push. You can’t wait on things to happen, so you go 100%.
What sort of response have you gotten from people involved in making the documentary as well as viewers?
Bonhôte: Very positive. All of them have said, “wow, that was painful.” Not the film itself, but because they think we managed to create such a true portrait of Lee.
Ettedgui: You’re hearing his voice and seeing him. We brought him back to life, which is a huge deal for many. They’ve all said that this is the film Lee would’ve wanted. And that, for us, has just been a sensational thing to hear.