The New McQueen Documentary Is Not a Fashion Film

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui walk us through their excellent, emotional, and extravagant documentary fresh off its premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.
Reading time 11 minutes

Every year, New York City plays host to the Tribeca Film Festival, where independent features, documentaries, and short films make their debut at theatres all across the city, celebrating on-screen narratives that both inspire and disturb among a lexicon of other reactions. While this year was no exception, one documentary, in particular, would turn Tribeca on its head, fueled by anticipation from the not only the world of film but the world of fashion, as well. 

Yes, McQueen was the name on everybody's lips during the cinematic weekend. Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Etedgui, it chronicles the life of the legendary Alexander McQueen, whose impact on the fashion world and beyond is still very much present, despite his death on February 11, 2010. 

It's the most intimate look inside a notoriously private life, featuring interviews with the designer's family, friends, and close collaborators. Sandwiched in between stunning archival footage and homemade video, it offers viewers a rare glimpse into McQueen's crazy, chaotic, poetic world. 

But don't be fooled. McQueen is not a fashion film, as it's directors will tell you, a work of art itself that wasn't easy to bring to life. "We started off with a very strong sense of how to tell the story, but we did not have any access to anyone," Ettedgui tells me in a booth at the Roxy Hotel. "There was also a kind of slight wall of silence."

McQueen Trailer - In Cinemas June 8

Similar to their protagonist, the two decided to persevere against any opposition, performing detective work and approaching the documentary piece by piece. The result? An extraordinary journey into the life of an extraordinary man. 

L’Officiel USA spoke with Bonhôte and Ettedgui about telling McQueen’s story. 

How did you both begin working in films? 

BONHÔTE I was a child actor in Blue by Kozlovsky. In my teenage years, I was really into electronic music, so I started to do club visuals on the side of acting. I moved to New York for a bit to study film and then moved to London. I got thrown out of film school and started doing music videos and set up a production company we sold to Vice Media two years ago and then set up a new production company. McQueen is my second feature film. 

ETTEDGUI I started working in the industry as an assistant to Ken Russell, the British director. While I was working for him, I started writing screenplays and then moved away and wrote scripts for the best part of a decade, both television and film. Then went on to a film about Marlon Brando called Listen To Me Marlon. It was an eye-opener into how extraordinary the whole format of cinema documentary can be and what you can do with it. After Brando, I was kind of really looking for something that would be as creatively satisfying [which is] how we came to make McQueen. I was fascinated by the story of Lee McQueen. 


Why Lee? How did this come about? 

ETTEDGUI McQueen’s story, independent of fashion, is just such a great story. I heard that Ian was potentially attached to a McQueen documentary and I made a beeline for [him].

BONHÔTE Similar to Peter, [I thought] Lee’s life [was] extraordinary. Not only the rags to riches, not only the sad events, but visually what he had produced laid itself to be a film. He represents a certain time in Britain and a certain openness and a creative explosion which, I think, won't be equaled for a long time, so it's historically anchored within a moment.


Did you know Lee? 

BONHÔTE [No.] We had a certain objectivity I think is very good for filmmakers. It allowed us to keep an open mind and an objectivity, which I think, as filmmakers, is essential. I am very proud of the film because we were completely happy to accept that we didn't know Lee. We were not his close friends. But at the same time, not being a close friend made us capable of taking a step back and letting those who were close to him talk. We didn't get interviewed we didn't put our own stand on it. We let people tell us their story and Lee's story through them.


What was the research process like? 

BONHÔTE People need to get to know you, so basically we researched Lee's life and everything that has been written, recorded, or photographed. Then we started making lists to see how we could tell the story that Peter had thought of and get the story through the five chapters, which ended up becoming five tapes. It's a mix of detective work, a mix of gaining the trust, a mix of jumping in and trying. There's a lot of things about Lee's life that you could try to sensationalize and we were very conscious of that. We were very conscious as well, that Lee only passed away eight years ago, so it's still very raw for a lot of people. We just felt that we had to be very careful how to handle all of that.


Which interview surprised you the most? 

BONHÔTE For me, it would be the family. It's not a fashion film, so, this connection with family, you know, it's important. Because you share a lot and I think if you have a really long partner, life partner maybe, but Lee never had that. Whereas the family, from when he was born until his passing were there. As I said, they didn't share every day, they don't know everything about the fashion side and all the rest of it, but we touched that with the colleagues, and collaborators and friends.

ETTEDGUI I was going to add to that, that Gary, McQueen’s nephew, did have contact with the business over a six-year period every single day when he was working with McQueen. We didn't really know his story and somebody said to us, "You've got to interview Gary," because he's kind of very like his uncle in many ways: the same background, and was really quite brilliant in terms of his visual aesthetic. What he brought to the company has never really been talked about, so that was a surprise, I suppose. And then Gary sort of like, his emotion when you watch him, you can feel Lee through him almost and you could definitely feel the loss of Lee through him. 

What do you think attracted people to McQueen? 

ETTEDGUI As far as what attracted people to McQueen, it wasn't just the genius and the vision, although that was vital, it was also the guy himself. Intensely charismatic. You know, you kind of wanted to give your life to him because he had kind of a quality and a charm and a vivaciousness, and made a difference to the world that they were all working in. Ian puts it very well that he was like the tip of an arrow.

BONHÔTE Like the tip of an arrow and basically a lot of people and contributors helped push him forward, but he was the tip of the arrow. In a way, yes he got the celebration, but he got the hit, as well. He was that person. He cleverly used all of the people's energy to drive the business and the vision forward, but that left scars as well as celebration.


What made McQueen a revolutionary? 

BONHÔTE I think he brought in themes that people hadn't seen yet on catwalks. I think a lot of young designers now think about the quality of the material, but Lee was all about the ideas. All of his ideas and all the concepts in his shows are autobiographical. You can learn about him looking at the shows. You can extrapolate, you can understand, and I think that makes it a great example for the young generation. [With] some of the themes he explored, he wasn't scared to tackle social [and] political taboos. 

ETTEDGUI He was so ahead of his time. You think about everything that's going on at the moment and diversity that's very Lee. I remember a quote from when we were doing research from Galliano saying, "I dress women to make a man want to seduce her." [But] with McQueen, it's sort of like, "Fuck that for a start.” I want to dress a woman so that she feels she can go out into the world and be herself.

Who would you say this film is for? Is it for anyone specific or is it kind of for anyone?

ETTEDGUI You're going to love this film because it's an extraordinary story of an extraordinary man. We felt with McQueen, this was somebody who, you know, a lot of the telling of his tale had slightly become too mired in the darker side of his life or had been used as tabloid fodder.

I think we both felt very passionately that there was room to tell the story in a way that would show his light as well as his dark, and that this story was a universal story. It wasn't just for the fashion business. It was for people who wanted to have an experience that would take them out of their lives and take them to the most extraordinary visual places and also give them an emotional sort of roller coaster ride that would leave them being very cathartic in the end. 

BONHÔTE It's a movie with an emotional journey. Even the way we structured the story, we didn't start when he was born, we started with his work. His birth for us, in our approach to the film, was with his work. Then we revert back and we explain a little bit about his childhood because it was relevant to his work. 

Is there anything someone should take away from the film? A call to action or lesson to be learned? 

ETTEDGUI [That] you can do the impossible in a sense. Being told you can't start your own business and do your own collection because you don't have any money or connections and doing it. Being told that you can't make a piece of metal or wood look like fabric and saying to this designer, yes, you can do that.

BONHÔTE He touched a lot of people. Creatively and emotionally. I think he was a very simple man, he wasn't pretentious. Everybody says he was so humble and I think that just reminds people that money or fame, it's all bullshit. 

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