Steve McQueen’s recently-released Widows is a late contender for the film of the year. A taut, stylish heist movie, it’s one of those rare pictures which sits as happily in a multiplex as it does the independent arthouse venue you know you should frequent a little more than you actually do.
Blessed with a powerhouse performance by Viola Davis – who leads as the icily intense Veronica Rawlings, widowed wife of Liam Neeson’s bank robber, Harry Rawlings – and the kind of ensemble cast – Robert Duvall! Michelle Rodriguez! Colin Farrell! Daniel Kaluuya! — most directors would kill for, Widows establishes Steve McQueen’s position as one of the great filmmakers of the 21st century.
Like the artist-cum-director’s previous features — Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, Widows is a supremely good looking film. One thing that really struck us here at It’s Nice That as we sat slack-jawed during a screening a few weekends back was just how great the sets felt. So, we did a little bit of research, and got in touch with the creative behind them, Chicago-based architect and set designer Sharon Samuels.
“I was hired by the art director,” she tells us. “I had worked with one of the members of the art department on another project and they were in need of a set designer, so I was offered the opportunity to come on board! Widows is my first feature, so it was quite an amazing opportunity and the fact that it is a Steve McQueen project is a bonus.”
For the past 15 years Sharon has worked as an architect and feels that “whether you are creating a building, or a film set, your job is to tell a story from the narrative you are given.” When it comes to architecture, the narrative comes in the form of the client’s program and requirements and in film, the narrative is the script.
“While practising architecture, I always tried to think about the end user in mind, thinking of how they would feel about the space," Sharon says. “The same thing goes when working in film – in the end everyone will have their own opinion, but you still want to always consider the human aspect of it.”
On Widows, Sharon worked with both the production designer and art director to enable Steve McQueen’s overarching vision. “The production designer sets the overall vision for the film in line with the director’s vision,” she tells us. “The art director then guides the creation process from concept to completion keeping an eye on budget and making sure the director’s vision and production designer’s intent make it through to the end result.”
From delipidated street corners to the inner-city Americana of a bowling alley bar via opulent hotel suites and the vast, contemporary churches that the US does so well, Widows makes fantastic use of Chicago itself. “I was born and raised in Chicago and some of the locations we used I never even knew existed,” Sharon explains. “There were a few scenes shot within five miles of where I live on the south side which was super exciting! I feel like sometimes certain parts of the city do not get exposure and it was nice for those areas to get some notice. The city is much more than downtown and Widows did a great job in giving those areas attention.”
“Since I started working in film and TV, I think my view has changed,” Sharon says when we ask if watching a film you’ve worked on feels different to slumping onto the sofa of a Saturday evening with a bag of popcorn for company. “I was always interested in the ‘look’ of films and shows which stemmed from my career in architecture but now, I am more attentive to the design, sometimes more so than the story. When I watch something, I have worked on I pick it apart a little more than usual, and unfortunately for whoever is watching with me, I give more commentary than asked for!”