The legendary Lee Alexander McQueen is the subject of the new documentary McQueen opening in Chicago Aug. 3.
The movie examines the troubled life of the fashion designer from his early days at Givenchy to his untimely death in 2010. Although people may not know all the reasons behind the openly gay designer's suicide, many ideas are presented in 111 minutes.
Writer/co-director Peter Ettedgui and co-director/producer Ian Bonhote explore McQueen's legacy by interviewing friends and family while covering his rise to fame.
Windy City Times: How did you two start working on McQueen in the first place?
Ian Bonhote: I was approached to direct the film. We got together and Peter wrote the narrative structure of the film. It was an intense project when we started to make it. We realized quickly that we were making the film together so it made no sense to have different roles.
Peter Ettedgui: That is why we wanted to make the film. I think both separately and together we were both profoundly moved by his story. We saw it not as a fashion film, but really as a story about the human condition.
How does someone from the modest background of McQueen become a global superstar fashion designer by the age of 26? There is a mystery on why he decided to end it all at the peak of his power and ability.
For us as storytellers there was terrific material to pick from, understand and transmit to an audience.
WCT: What did you find when you explored his background?
IB: What we found out is that it wasn't one single thing that pushed him over the edge. I think it was a combination. His mother was such a rock and raised him. She made him believe in himself so her death was hard on him.
The other thing is that he had created a very successful business and he didn't want to let it go. At the same time he wasn't finding the happiness with it because of the demands of the work and running the business. It was constantly too much.
PE: There was also a slow burning childhood trauma that conditioned his ability to form relationships and trust people. It was exacerbated by the isolation and loneliness that came with fame and celebrity.
Some people want one answer like a rosebud that tells them why he decided to end it all. We looked at it like a cocktail of aspects of his life.
IB: There were many reasons.
WCT: It seemed like his love life was very complicated, also.
IB: People say Lee was a romantic and he never found the right love. He had very strong relationships throughout his life, you are right. [Toward] the end of his life, there were loads of romantic flings, but nothing that anchored him.
I don't believe it was the only aspect, but I do believe a person's love life can stabilize someone.
WCT: Were there sections that didn't make it into the documentary that you wish were still in it?
PE: You have to be ruthless and lose your darlings in order to tell the story that you really want to tell.
IB: An ocean of information was available.
PE: We felt we had a very strong emotional line, which meant that certain details about his practice and how he worked fell by the wayside. We had to balance all of the elements of the story so there might be some sensational things that hit the cutting room floor, such as the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
If you hit those things one time too many, then suddenly your movie becomes about that.
For us it was about focusing on the most important thing and how do we do that. We don't feel regret about any particular moments though, maybe in the moment when we chucked it out, but not now.
IB: After seeing the audience reacting now when we are showing the film, I don't feel we are missing anything. Everyone is feeling a rainbow of emotions now.
WCT: Did you ask the singer Bjork to be in the movie?
IB: We did, and she was close to saying yes. We realized that celebrities or pop stars were not the direction we were going with the film. We never pursued it actively. We concentrated on the more intimate friends and family. We put controversies in the film that nobody had heard of.
Many people feel alienated by the weird world of fashion. We wanted our film to touch people from all walks of life and people that know nothing about fashion.
If we have fashion commentators, then it becomes a typical fashion film.
PE: The other thing is that our focus was on his fashion shows. Bjork's relationship with him was directing her videos. That is where we had to make choices.
WCT: Was it difficult to obtain the rights to the Michael Nyman music?
IB: We sent him an early edit of the film and he really liked it. They had worked together and through his music Michael was able to talk about Lee.
WCT: Are either of you gay, to identify with that part of McQueen's life?
PE: No, neither of us [is] gay.
IB: A lot of people think we are gay now because we look like a 40-year-old gay couple! [Laughs] We even finish each other's sentences.
PE: A few people have made that assumption and it is quite funny. I think both us feel like misfits and outsiders. I think that enables us to understand, not to sound patronizing. It has certainly given us a sensitivity.
I think it is easier being gay now than when McQueen was growing up, especially in a patriarchal, working class environment. That was a difficult world to come out of.
IB: We tried not to make any issues about his sexuality. We introduced his boyfriend as naturalistically as possible.
My grandfather came out at 72 years old, my business partner is a trans bisexual lady and 30 percent of my employees are from the LGBT community so I have that connection.
The way we think of Lee is he had a different perspective on things but it has never defined him. We showed it in a subtle way.
WCT: Peter, what are your thoughts on the musical Kinky Boots after producing the original movie?
PE: I love it. It was a wonderful experience to make that film. It is great when something you worked on for five years takes on a second life.
I remember going to New York to attend some of the early rehearsals and being completely shocked that they decided to stay faithful to the story as we told it. To not set it in North America was a very brave and ballsy decision by Daryl Roth, the Kinky producer.
WCT: What are you working on next?
IB: We put so much emotionally and physically into this film so we need a little bit of time to find the right project. You don't find amazing characters or stories that easily. I think me and Peter are looking for something as good or even better than McQueen.
PE: And different as well. It took a couple years after finishing my previous documentary about Marlon Brando to find this one. During that time I was looking around for a subject I wanted to engage with that would take two years of my life, because that is what it really is. That's the trick.
IB: Stay tuned!