Steve McQueen is the Turner Prize-winning visual artist whose feature film debut Hunger has been lauded by critics since its premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Set in the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, the film chronicles the events that led to the hunger strike in 1981 that resulted in the deaths of 10 Irish Republican Army prisoners. It was a crucial chapter in the history of the Troubles, as the maltreatment of the inmates came under the international spotlight. McQueen recreates the conditions in the prison with an aesthetic eye - the most staggering sequence is an uninterrupted 22-minute take on the conversation between strike leader Bobby Sands and a priest about the rationale behind the prisoners' political struggles.
Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands, says he is concerned the film might open a can of worms. Do you agree?
People are much more intelligent than you think - and people [in Northern Ireland] were living with [this] for 26 years. It's a case of reflecting on the recent past and having a debate in an intelligent fashion. What's happening in front of the camera is the 'past', while behind the camera, in the room, are people who have relationships with people who wore the blankets, or prison officers involved in the situation at the time.
Are you worried some people in Northern Ireland will be put off by a film re-enacting the hunger strikes?
I would hope that they have an open mind ... I identified as much with Raymond, the prison officer, as [prisoners] Davey and Gerry. It's about asking all the hard questions. There was controversy in Britain because they hadn't been living [with this history] but people in Northern Ireland had. And I respect them immensely for that.
You say Hunger isn't meant to be political. Is there a message you want to express?
It's based on politics, that's for sure, but it's about human beings. I'm interested in the details, things which were not written down in historical records, the information in between the words. What was the weather like? What did [the prisoners] smell like? How did they use their piss? How did they communicate with the 'comms' [covert devices used to exchange information]? It's the texture I'm interested in - the history and the politics take care of themselves.
What do you think of the strikers' use of their bodies to continue their fight?
Because of the constraints of the environment, they protested in the only way they could. Interestingly, two or three days after Bobby Sands died, [American film critic] Pauline Kael had a conversation with [filmmaker Jean-Luc] Godard, and Godard said people like Sands were important because they were 'childish'. And I was like, what the hell does Godard mean by that? And I realised: it was like the image of a child sitting at a table with their parents saying: 'You're not leaving the table until you finish your food'. The parents have already chosen what the child wears, what time he goes to bed, and what he eats - and the only power the child has is in [refusing to eat].
You portray the harsh treatment of prisoners vividly.
What happened in that situation was formal violence, structured chaos. It's [the wardens'] way of doing it; it's very much matter of fact. It's not just that the architecture of prisons is structured, the violence is ritualised.
How different is it to be working on a feature film rather than in films for art installations?
I don't split it - I don't see myself as an artist or filmmaker. I just see myself as the guy who makes stuff ... I don't have a studio for example, because I don't want to think of myself as an artist. I could go to the refrigerator and pick out a yogurt, or scribble on a piece of paper - to me it's the same thing.
What's the most difficult thing to overcome in this artistic crossover of yours? Nothing. I think filmmaking is one of the easiest things I've done. There's some guy who gives you a cup of tea and before you finish, some guy takes it away for you. [Laughs] And there are all those professionals to help you - what's there to complain about?
Are you a cinephile, and how much do your favourite filmmakers influence your work? [Taiwanese filmmaker] Hou Hsiao-hsien's work is so beautiful. I love watching his stuff. He's not flexing muscles, he's just considered ... [but] when I'm on the set, I don't think of Hou or Godard, I'm thinking of how I am going to make this work, how I'm going to film this in one or two shots. I'm thinking of getting it done.
Hunger is out on DVD next week