It’s been a long wait for a new film from acclaimed director Steve McQueen, but now, five years after 12 Years a Slave, his follow-up has finally arrived. Based on a 1983 BBC mini-series, Widows focuses on the recently widowed wives of a crew of thieves, who are now being forced to pull off a heist of their own or risk being killed by a local gangster.
As you would expect, the film once again demonstrates McQueen’s uncanny visual eye, something that is guided by his long-running collaboration with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Given the importance of the cinematographer and director relationship, and the rareness of such a long-running one, we spoke to Bobbitt about how he collaborates with McQueen, and how Widows came together.
Talking Out a Shared Aesthetic
Sean Bobbitt first met Steve McQueen nearly two decades ago at a French pastry shop in Soho in London. Discussing the possibility of collaborating on an art installation, Bobbitt was struck with creative love-at-first-sight. “After we’d had a cup of tea and a chat, I thought, ‘I want to work with this guy,’” he admits.
That day’s chat would mark the first of many conversations that the cinematographer and director would have, as well as establishing the bedrock of their four feature-film collaborations, including Widows. For almost 20 years, their conversations about films (their own and others’) has played a crucial role in their work together. “We’ve discussed and looked at so many films together over time,” says Bobbitt. “We’ve spent some wonderful times just watching and talking about films, trying to discern what it is within the film that makes it the film it is and thinking, ‘How could we use those things?’ Because of all that discussion, the aesthetic that has developed is very similar between the two of us. There’s a great understanding.”
Sean Bobbitt and Steve McQueen on the set of 12 Years a Slave
The pair continue to foster those conversations on upcoming projects by having Bobbitt get involved much earlier than most cinematographers who only get a few weeks. Bobbitt has known of McQueen’s interest in Widows for years, and that extra time has given the cinematographer a significant benefit. “The closer you get to the film shooting, the less time the director has for a specific discussion as he’s becoming inundated with all the other heads of department coming in and decisions having to be made,” he explains.
A Different Kind of Heist Film
In early conversations about Widows, Bobbitt and McQueen aimed for two goals for their movie. The first was a desire to make their film authentic. “These were real people, real women specifically, doing something very real and very dangerous,” he says. “If we could succeed in that, then the film would succeed.” Widows wouldn’t be so much like a gang of Ocean’s 11 thieves desiring a life of luxury, but more would-be-thieves in genuine need of money to save their lives.
The second goal was for the film to not be entirely removed from its genre ancestors. “We watched a number of classic heist thrillers, and felt Widows should have all of those elements of the thriller heist genre,” Bobbitt says. In other words, they once again aimed to discern how other movies (like Heat) made them what they were, and how they could not just draw from them, but find ways to subvert them for their own take on a heist film. Each McQueen and Bobbitt movie has been different from the previous one. “We do have that common aesthetic, but neither of us want to make the same film again,” says Bobbitt.
Liam Neeson and Viola Davis in Widows
Despite all the conversations Bobbitt and McQueen have about a film prior to shooting, one thing they don’t discuss is how to actually shoot it. That’s because they’re waiting for something that only happens during production. “We’ll talk about a scene beforehand, even months in advance, in very rough terms. But until we actually see the performances, we don’t really talk about shots at all,” he reveals. That decision represents a shared collaborative philosophy. “We’re not imposing the ideas on the story, in a visual sense,” Bobbitt says.
Instead, creative choices are felt and discovered. Take a scene where a gangster, played by Daniel Kaluuya, menaces two men by forcing them to rap for him. It’s shot in a captivating way, with a Steadicam doing a 360-degree turn around the characters, before culminating in a shocking moment of violence. That approach wasn’t decided on until the day it was shot. “It wasn’t until we saw the performances that the shape of it appeared,” says Bobbitt. “We were able to very quickly just flesh out the whole movement of the camera in relationship to the movement of the actors.”
Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows
Those in-the-moment creative responses all come from their shared instinctive philosophy. “It’s a gut feeling. It’s something that has been informed by years of discussion and exploration, or very specific ideas that have been laid down in relation to the film itself.”
The Director Is Still King
As collaboratively in sync as McQueen and Bobbitt are, the cinematographer still takes his final cues on each shot from his director. “There’s a huge amount of trust and respect between the two of us, but I would always take the idea to Steve first and present it. If he likes it, fantastic. If not, then we’ll think of something else. It is collaboration, at the end of the day,” he says.
Sometimes that collaboration can happen wordlessly. Widows called for visual simplicity, and while occasionally Bobbitt could stray a little from that, McQueen would be there to silently remind him. “Some shots I would set up would be very complicated and very fancy,” says Bobbitt. “He’d just look at me, wryly shake his head, and I’d realize, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’”
Honoring that dynamic is advice Bobbitt would impart to any cinematographer looking to forge a fruitful collaboration with a director. “The key is trust and respect, and having an open mind, but also never forgetting that they’re the director. It is their film. The job of the cinematographer is to realize through manipulation of images the desires and objectives of the director,” he says. “Listen to what a director says and listen very carefully, because they’re telling you what it is that they would like to happen.”
The Importance of a First Conversation
There’s one last bit of advice that Bobbitt can impart, one that goes back to his first meeting with McQueen. That first conversation wasn’t just foundational for their collaboration — any first conversation between director and cinematographer is foundational for a good collaboration. “That initial interview that you do with a director is absolutely crucial, because it’s trying to determine what the personality of that director is.”
That will not only inform what their aesthetic ambitions and expectations are, but also how to work together when a film gets underway. “During that first period of pre-production, my job is to figure out who I am in relation to the director. What am I supposed to be doing? Some directors are incredibly visual, and have very strong ideas, so my job is to realize those ideas. Some directors are more performance-based, and not that visual at all, and in that case, it’s my job to come up with the visuals and aid in creating the whole world of the film. Some are somewhere in between. You’re constantly assessing what your role is, and doing your best to realize the ideas and concepts of the director in relation to the film.”
Top image: Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows. All images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.