Widows is a different type of film for director Steve McQueen. Known for terrific dramas such as Shame, Hunger, and the Academy Award-winning 12 Years A Slave, McQueen’s films have never been about mainstream appeal. That’s about to change. Viola Davis leads the ensemble of Widows, a heist-film that includes a group of women who must complete a robbery to survive. A debt was left to them by their late husbands who did not complete a heist of their own.
The actors McQueen has assembled for Widows is nothing short of spectacular. Besides Davis; Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya and Robert Duvall are a few of the supporting cast members. For everything to come together for this incredible cast, McQueen turned to his trusted collaborators, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Joe Walker.
During the world premiere of Widows at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I had the opportunity to interview both Zimmer and Walker. We talked about their collaboration with McQueen and what each of them brings to this fantastic new film.
Sitting down in a room with Zimmer is akin to talking to a rock star. His film scores have provided color to films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, Interstellar, and Blade Runner 2049 among countless others. During our conversation I learned that Zimmer had never attended music school, so he would fit right in with Film School Rejects. He said “[Joe Walker] actually went to music school, which is really helpful. In a funny way, there are two scores going on in this movie. There is mine and then there is the way Joe composes with cuts and his use of sounds. [It] just sounds elegant to me.”
Zimmer and Walker have collaborated since the late 80s when they both worked on the BBC TV show, First Born. The show was a big hit, according to Walker, and it starred Charles Dance best known nowadays as Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones. For those unfamiliar with Joe Walker’s editing work, he has been working with McQueen since the directors first feature Hunger. He also works with director Denis Villeneuve and edited films such as Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049. Walker told me how his music school background helped him transition to film editing. Walker said, “I think it is the same thing. I was a composer for a long time and a sound editor as well. I’m very alive to using sound, sound effects, music, and silence. I see it as the same kind of approach.”
Widows is not an original idea devised by McQueen. It is based on a 1983 British TV series created by Lynda La Plante. Zimmer was on the set of the original series and he told me that, “I was working for a composer named Stanley Myers, who was working on a television series called Widows. I was the tea boy. I knew more about this movie than anybody else on the team which meant I knew nothing.” His experience on the TV show didn’t give him that much of an advantage when working on McQueen’s Widows. Zimmer had more to say about the TV series. “I love the television series. I don’t know if it played in America. There is a wonderful writer, Lynda La Plante [writer of Widows TV show]. To me she was the one who invented the role of strong women on television.” The film has an additional meaning for Zimmer since he told me a little about his childhood. “My Dad died when I was very young, so I grew up with watching a woman fight the world. And fight for her child. I just saw what my mom went through and if I can in any way, honor the struggle and at the same time, embarrass all those bastards. I’ll do it.”
When I spoke with Walker, I really wanted to emphasize scenes that stood out in the movie. One of the first cuts in the film is memorable because it shows Davis and Neeson in the throws of passion, but it is cut against the failed heist attempt of the men. Walker shared his thoughts on that sequence. “The first cut into the van is a good one because it’s [Neeson] being playful with [Davis] in a way that’s aggressive. It’s meant to be a very quick arresting piece of visceral action. Reassuring people that there are really big twists and turns in this film.”
Another scene shows Colin Farrell, who is a political candidate, and his secretary conversing in the back seat of a car. We hear the conversation, but we don’t see the actors. Instead, we are guided through the district that Farrell’s character is campaigning in. The care ride continues and shows the one he lives in. Walker shared his interpretation of the scene. “I can’t speak for Steve [McQueen] on this one, but I always felt it had that feeling of, that shock of, Trump arriving in a coach, but you’re hearing his closeup recording on a microphone. Where he famously says “Grab them by the pussy.” You’re seeing the outside world that this guy is in business in. But also his inner thoughts. Then you are seeing Chicago and this incredible disparity between rich and poor in a few blocks.” It is an unusual scene to see in a major Hollywood product and Walker told me it was a point of contention. “We fought very hard to preserve [this scene] because it’s a hard sell in a more commercial environment. I’m really proud that we put that in. I think it’s a real signature move.”
When I finished talking with Zimmer I had asked him about McQueen and what he brought to the movie. “[Steve McQueen] has a huge heart and there’s a huge concern, there’s a huge conscience that about the place of women in this world. The casual disrespect. The casual brutality that they endure on a daily basis.” Widows was a BBC show three decades old, but its message and themes still hold up in 2018. I had asked Zimmer what his reaction was to seeing the finished film for the first time. “My reaction was, Thank God it’s Steve McQueen making this movie.”