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A national treasure: Bonhôte on McQueen

INTERVIEW! Ian Bonhôte on his devastating documentary about late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. McQueen is on in Berlin cinemas on Nov 29.

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Ian Bonhôte on his devastating documentary about late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen.

McQueen is a bombastic, visually arresting tribute to the trailblazing bad boy of British fashion, who killed himself in February 2010 after a long battle with depression and drug addiction. Bonhôte, who co-directed the film with Peter Ettedgui, spoke to us about crafting a film worthy of its brilliant, tortured subject.

What initially attracted you to McQueen?

I moved to the UK in 1997, as a 20-year-old at the height of Cool Britannia. London was the place to be, it was the reverse of what’s happening now! McQueen was working with musicians and artists, he was emblematic of this exciting cross-disciplinary attitude. It felt like a real democratisation of the arts was taking place – he and many of the YBAs came from working-class backgrounds. That was a huge source of inspiration for my own work.

Was it distressing to immerse yourself in his tragic personal story?

I think we underestimated how difficult it would be for people to share their memories of Lee. He’d only died six years before we started the project, and some people who’d known him still felt guilty about his suicide. Most were sceptical about talking to us, we really had to convince them that we weren’t out to dig up more seedy stories. It would’ve been easy to fixate on the sex and drugs, but I think audiences want something more sophisticated than that.

I read that the family were reluctant to participate…

They said no at first, I think they were still processing what happened. Lee’s mother died a week before he killed himself, so it was a lot for them to deal with. And Lee didn’t have children or a husband, so the issue of inheritance was causing some tension. But we got on well with Lee’s first publicist Kim Blake, so she introduced us to Lee’s nephew Gary, who in turn introduced us to his sister Janet, and gradually we won their trust. We were mindful of the fact that we were making a film about a national treasure, and they were reassured by this.

It looks like the interview process proved cathartic for your contributors.

Well I’m not a documentary maker or a journalist, so the whole process was guided by emotion – it wasn’t a fact-finding mission. We tried to make the interviews as free-flowing as possible. Each one lasted between two and four hours – we figured that if we got to know each interviewee ourselves, the audience would share in that.

How did you source the personal footage of McQueen, and did watching it change your perception of him?

The McQueen brand refused to help, so we just asked everyone we met for footage or photos. Sifting through it backed up what people kept telling us about him. He was a master manipulator, and his public persona was very carefully crafted. But this footage showed him with his guard down, and proved that he wasn’t just this difficult workaholic – he could also be incredibly kind. And we never wanted to paint a picture of him that couldn’t be backed up by his own actions or words.

Michael Nyman’s score really elevates the film as a cinematic experience…

They had worked together, and Michael performed at Lee’s memorial, so he was our dream composer. He didn’t have time to compose a full soundtrack, so he gave us his entire private library and said we could use whatever we wanted. Lee and Michael were kindred spirits – they shared a respect for tradition, but were also interested in breaking rules – so the music complemented the imagery perfectly.

Do you think London is still the creative hub depicted in the film?

No! In the 1990s, you could still find cheap studios, so you could take your time in finding your voice. Today, you can be discovered by a brand after posting five things on Instagram. I worry that younger artists aren’t incentivised to spend time honing their craft. I don’t think they’re less clever or sophisticated, but the culture has conditioned them to do things quickly, whether that’s to create or to consume.

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