The Shame director tells Screen why he made a film about one of society’s biggest taboos.

The opening scene of Steve McQueen’s Shame sees a man lying naked on a bed, covered from the waist down by a tangled, tousled sheet. The scene is framed as exquisitely as a Renaissance painting, and the blue of the bedcover is evocative of Delft blue china, of a Dutch master such as Vermeer. It is no surprise perhaps, as McQueen has an artist’s eye. After all he won the UK’s best-known art award, the Turner Prize, in 1999 for his visual artwork.

But, no. McQueen guffaws with laughter at the very thought. “That was the sheet in the cupboard at the time,” he explains. “Was it white or blue?

“I’m just quick, There’s no storyboard. I just see it and shoot it. It’s all about being in the moment. We shot in 25 days. We just go for it.”

The man in the opening scene is Michael Fassbender, the German-born, Irish-raised actor whose breakthrough role was in McQueen’s feature debut Hunger as real-life IRA prisoner Bobby Sands. In Shame, Fassbender plays Brandon, a seemingly insatiable sex addict who is unable and unwilling to forge an authentic human connection with anyone, including his wayward sister Sissy played by Carey Mulligan.

Fassbender and Mulligan both first appear on screen completely naked. Their performances have been hailed as raw and intimate and often uncomfortably revealing. McQueen’s job was to make them feel safe. “Actors are often like thoroughbred racehorses,” he muses. “They come into a situation and they can feel if anything is wrong. Once they realise it’s a safe environment where everyone is getting on with everyone and everyone likes coming to work and there is a camaraderie, then we’ve created a place where people can take risks.”

How does McQueen, as the director, create this harmonious mood? “I’m just myself,” the softly spoken film-maker suggests. “I’ve learnt from Robby Müller, the cinematographer, to just be yourself. He was so eccentric and so weird and I thought he happens to be one of the best cameramen in the world and if he manages to be totally himself then it means I can be myself. One doesn’t have to be some dictatorial asshole, shouting and screaming. You can ask people nicely.

“A good leader, I think, is a person who doesn’t necessarily know what they want at a certain moment but has an idea of what they want and can communicate that.”

McQueen, who was born in London and now lives in Amsterdam, wrote the script with Abi Morgan. He says the actors generally followed the screenplay as written. “But if the words don’t fit, I like to use improvisation, either in rehearsal or on the set. They don’t move that far away from the words sometimes but find a different rhythm for the words so it feels right.”

Is he a director who talks a lot during the shoot?

“The talking is done before the cameras start rolling,” he explains. “It’s like training for the Olympics 100-metre race. You train for four years for that 100-metre dash. Everything has to happen before so that when you’re on set you’re ready to go. It’s a case of a nudge or a wink by then.

“There are moments of crisis when things don’t work out so you have a one-to-one with the actor, and breathe a breath into the lungs. There were a couple of moments like that. But it’s about knowing they can do it. The crippling thing with acting is fear. What I have to do somehow is take the fear out of the equation. Directing has the tendency to be a very macho discipline. It doesn’t have to be. It can be very feminine.”

Shame is produced by Emile Sherman and Iain Canning’s Anglo-Australian outfit See-Saw Films and backed by Film4, the former UK Film Council and LipSync. It shot in New York earlier this year and McQueen was editing right up to the world premiere in competition at Venice in September. Shame then screened in Telluride, Toronto and many autumn festivals. Momentum Pictures, which pre-bought UK rights, is releasing the film on January 13. HanWay Films handled international sales.

Fox Searchlight opened Shame on December 2 in the US where it was assigned a NC-17 rating, exciting chatter for its graphic, copious depictions of consensual, if fairly joyless, sex.

It would be difficult to make a film about sex addiction any other way. McQueen says a lightbulb went on in his head when he and Morgan first considered it.

“The whole idea of sex addiction is one of those things where it’s there, right in front of people’s faces, but they are not talking about it. It’s the elephant in the room,” says McQueen. “Abi said the film was like a dog whistle going off in the cinema. About 88% of internet use is pornography but certain computer companies would not allow us to use their computers because we were dealing with pornography, even though most of the time [their computers] are being used for that.”

But how do you make a film about the impact of pornography without incorporating elements of pornography on screen yourself?

“This is not pornography,” answers McQueen, bristling visibly. “This is a film about a guy who is a sex addict. There are images in the film that interpret sex. The way it’s filmed is very different. Pornography is filmed in the way of fantasy and I don’t think our film is filmed in the same way. The threesome, which I would say is a foursome with the audience included, has something of a fantasy quality but at the end of the day it’s a tragedy.”

McQueen shot the film in New York as that is where they found the experts on sex addiction. “They introduced us to recovering sex addicts and I just thought, ‘Why don’t we shoot the whole thing in New York?’”

He used a mainly US crew, including cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Judy Becker. “The crew was amazing,” he enthuses. “This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with people in my life. They worked so hard and we had a real camaraderie.”

The director now hopes to use as many of the Shame crew as possible on his next film, also set in the US, called Twelve Years A Slave, which will shoot next summer. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, an educated black man abducted from Washington and sold into slavery in the South in 1841. UK actor Chiwetel Ejiofor will star in the film with Fassbender and Brad Pitt, who is producing the project through Plan B Entertainment with River Road Entertainment. Summit has sales rights.

Before that however is an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. And McQueen is still fully immersed in the business of Shame. “I haven’t relaxed yet,” he sighs. “I am still on the road. I remember when I finished Hunger. I had been talking to all these people who had killed people, who had done horrible things to each other. For the film I was very focused but when you come out the other end, the reaction comes out and you end up digesting it. I had a huge rash under my arms. I haven’t got there yet. I’ve got to go running and chill out.”

So why do it? Why immerse himself in the disquieting world of sex addiction?

“I don’t have a choice,” McQueen says simply of what he sees as the urgent need to ignite a debate about the epidemic of sex addiction and online pornography. “Me as who I am. I don’t have a choice.” See. He is an artist.