The Oscar-winning film-maker Steve McQueen was a 13-year-old London schoolboy when he first watched Lynda La Plante’s ground-breaking television drama Widows, about four women who take over a daring robbery set up by their recently departed husbands.
McQueen, who made 12 Years A Slave, Hunger and Shame, can recall being transfixed by the six-part series starring Ann Mitchell as Dorothy Rawlins, the queen bee who takes charge of her old man’s heist ledger and recruits the other widows.
Three decades later, a fortuitous meeting at a glamorous address set in motion what would become McQueen’s fourth feature film. ‘I met Lynda La Plante at Buckingham Palace, as you do, lining up to meet the Queen at an arts event — Lenny Henry and Angela Lansbury were there — and I asked her what happened to the movie rights to Widows,’ the director told me recently at the Dean Street Townhouse in Soho.
She said the rights were with Disney. New Regency, the studio with which he made 12 Years A Slave, purchased the permissions to make the film.
McQueen had remained fascinated, over the decades, by Mitchell’s Mrs Rawlins and the diversity of the gang she gathered around her. However, he wanted to make a contemporary Widows that encompassed not just women and their empowerment but explored the underbelly of how a big city operated. So he transplanted the story to Chicago, a ‘wonderful, fertile textured city’, but also ‘full of tension’.
And for the final touch, he added a pinch of politics: describing the result as ‘political pop’.
‘I wanted to understand what makes a big city tick, as four women are organizing a big heist with the clock ticking against them.’
The handful of people who’ve seen the film tell me it’s a rollicking, breathtaking thriller, with the kind of depth only an artist of McQueen’s stature can bring to the mix.
That much was evident when I was on set for a couple of days in Chicago last year, watching a mouth-watering cast led by Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlins: a former teachers’ union official whose dead hubby Harry (Liam Neeson) was the heist kingpin.
Then there’s Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, whose late husband was in Harry’s gang but who believes she’s worthless. Plus Michelle Rodriguez as Linda: a mother of two who ran a dress shop. And finally Cynthia Erivo as Belle, the fourth member and outsider.
The ensemble includes the veteran Robert Duvall as a corrupt alderman who wants his son Colin Farrell to inherit his power base, but whose rivals — two brothers played by Brian Tyree Henry and a chilling Daniel Kaluuya — have other ideas.
When McQueen and Gillian Flynn (the author of Gone Girl) were researching the screenplay they met with the FBI, some members of the underworld and were shown around the neighborhoods that would be used for the film’s 60 locations.
The housing project where Erivo’s hairdresser Belle resides is in the Parkway Gardens area on the South Side: an ‘unpredictable environment’ with a 10ft metal fence around the apartments.
Another location had been the scene of a shooting. ‘Five people were shot and one of them died. In that particular week two people had been shot dead near where we were filming. We had to have armed guards,’ McQueen continued.
On another occasion, during filming at a large congregational church (Jesse Jackson’s regular place of worship), I heard a woman (one of the background artists filling the church) scream out.
McQueen told me later she had just learned that her father had been shot and killed by his girlfriend. ‘So, you can see that Chicago was a personality in the story, too,’ he said.
The film’s location manager, Nick Rafferty, told me McQueen wanted the districts the four women lived in to be reflective of them.
He found a posh apartment building designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the city’s Gold Coast for Davis’s elegant Veronica. Debicki’s Polish Alice was located in Belmont Cragin on the North West Side.
And Rodriguez’s Linda lived in Little Village, the Latin part of town on the city’s West Side.
‘These disparate women have to learn to come together because their lives depend on it,’ the director said.
‘I had a two-hour lunch with Lynda and one of the things she told me was that the real women she based her Widows on had their backs against the wall, and had steel and determination.’
McQueen had another link to the original series: Ann Mitchell. The actress (who starred alongside Maureen O’Farrell, Fiona Hendley and Eva Mottley and now has a recurring role as Cora Cross in EastEnders) sent a note asking if she could participate, in some way, in the film.
She has a pure, non-speaking cameo and I must ensure I’m at the opening of the BFI London Film Festival on October 10 to see how the audience reacts to it. (The film goes on general release here on November 9.)
McQueen and his frequent collaborator Iain Canning, of See Saw Films, shot Widows last summer, a month or so before the spate of bombshell sexual assault and misconduct allegations emerged in Hollywood.
Even so, re-reading my notes of conversations from the set, it’s uncanny how many folks mentioned gender and race equality. ‘I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a film about four women who are taking control of their own destiny,’ Debicki told me when we chatted over morning tea at Soho House in Chicago.
London-born Erivo, who won a Tony Award for The Color Purple musical on Broadway, and who was making her first film, marveled at the fact that there were ‘one, two, three, four’ women (she counted them off on her fingers), so socially and racially different.
Rodriguez was skeptical at first. ‘It’s supposed to be about female empowerment, but it’s called Widows! So they’re defined, literally, by the fact that they lost their husbands.’
Initially, it turned her off the film. ‘I would never play a weak woman, who relies on her man for everything. Urgh! I want to throw up. That would be my first reaction.’ But then she thought of McQueen, ‘not a man who sees one-dimension-ally’.
She met him and they warmed to each other at once.
‘There’s something beautiful about the film’s premise of four women who once depended on the men in their lives, and now have to depend on each other,’ she told me.