On Arbus

Maui Time | November 21, 2006
Interview with director Steven Shainberg about his new film "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus."

By Cole Smithey (2486 words)

Director Steven Shainberg's long awaited follow-up to his groundbreaking film "Secretary" (2002) is an anti-biopic that dares to read between the lines of its subject's life rather than replay the common knowledge events of photographer Diane Arbus' life. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson ("Secretary") worked from Patricia Bosworth's esteemed book "Diane Arbus: A Biography" to create a thought-provoking tribute to Diane (pronounced Deeann) Arbus' artistic awakening that transported her from repressed daughter, wife and mother to becoming one of the greatest photographic visionaries of the 20th century. Only a few factual threads comprise Shainberg's adventurous tightrope narrative in which Diane (Nicole Kidman) ventures beyond the confines of her Manhattan apartment to photograph her mysterious upstairs neighbor Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), who turns out to be completely covered in fur.

I spoke to Steven Shainberg at the Regency hotel in Manhattan.`

CS: When you decided to make a movie about Diane Arbus, why did you choose to create an imaginary context for the narrative?

SS: First of all, I don't personally have any interest in straight-ahead biopics. I never walk out of a straight-ahead biopic and feel like I genuinely got to know who that person was. I think that they deal with too much time, in general, so they are essentially superficial. They just can't go into anything. They feel like the greatest hits of a famous person’s life--from dramatic scene to dramatic scene to dramatic scene.

And finally, they tell you something you already know. I'll give you one example. In “Pollock,” you have a fantastic actor, Ed Harris, who looks exactly like the guy who he's playing. More so than maybe any movie ever made. And you have a fabulously shot, beautifully lit, scene in which he discovers drip painting and it is utterly boring because you know what the scene is--you know this is the scene where he discovers drip painting. So you have already waited the entire movie for him to discover drip painting because you know that is what he did. So I find that to be an essentially empty way to go at somebody blind. I don't think it revels anything. It tells you what you already know.

I am interested in making a film about somebody that tells you what you don't know. It goes into a mystery and it goes into a process. In the case of this film it was essentially unconscious. She [Diane Arbus] didn't really know what was happening to her in 1958. It was a beautiful transformation that occurred and one of things I have always wondered about her is how did that happen. How did this woman, in 1958, at the age of thirty-five, married with two kids, doing what she considered to be banal work in her fashion photography studio with her husband, become the Diane Arbus we know? And that is not a question that can be answered literally. Patricia Bosworth can't answer it in her biography. In fact, she skips over it in her biography. This actually takes place in a section of Arbus' life that Bosworth just jumps over. I wrote a note in my original copy, from 1984 when I was 21 years old, “What happened here?” And that is where the movie is going. I have read everything that has been written about Arbus. I would challenge anyone to find an article about her that I haven't read. And nobody can address this question at all. What happened that she became the person that she did? You know this wasn't somebody doing this kind of work at 17, 20 or 25. It wasn't until she was 35 that she said, “My life has to take a different direction.” So, to explore that essential question, which has no literal answer, there was really no other movie to make.

If you look at her work her work is myth; her work is fairytale. Although the giant is a real giant, although the little people are real little people, they seem to have been spun from her own unconscious.

And she herself said that she felt like she was living in a fairytale for adults. She said this. So it wasn't something that I came along and grafted onto her life. It was something that came directly from her experience.

CS. When did you first have this idea to create this kind of film?

SS. Years and years ago. It was the only the movie I could imagine doing myself. But this is long before I even made a feature. You know, I have been thinking about this because I was around the pictures when I was a small kid, and my uncle Lawrence was a close friend of hers [Diane Arbus] and I was very conscious of her. And to some extent she was already a kind of mythical figure for me. So when Ed Pressman and Bonnie Timmermann, who controlled the rights to the Bosworth biography, said, “Have you ever heard of Diane Arbus?” I said, “I can't fucking believe this!” Barbara Streisand was going to do it. Diane Keaton was going to do it. Patricia Bosworth talks about this in her book. I would think, “Oh no! I don't want to see that movie be made, and even worse, I am never going to get to make one.” So, I have thought about it for a long time, how I had to go after the subject if I ever got the chance. Believe me, when I went in and talked to them about it, they encountered a guy that was not going to leave the room. It was a movie I really wanted to make.

CS: I was curious how you created the characters, Lionel in particular, and with the fur in specific.

SS: There were two people in Arbus' life who were very important. There were many, but two of them were Lisette Model, who was her first photography teacher, her primary photography teacher and a great photographer in her own right. One of her pictures is in Lionel's hallway as she goes down his hall. And the other was Marvin Israel, who was her lover and her mentor and her kind of artistic guru. He functioned that way for other people during this time in New York as well. He's a very influential guy—a very powerful kind of artistic inspiration to many people. In any case, there was a time where I thought if you make an Arbus movie, you've got to have a Model figure and you've got to have Marvin in the movie too. You've got to portray them. At the same time I wanted to make a film that was about her intimate relationship to one subject. And that person, whoever he was, was going to be a freak, some kind of freak--I use her word. Eventually, Marvin and Lisette got rolled into that person. So in some sense Lionel is functioning in the movie in the way Lisette, Marvin, and all the freaks functioned in her life--carrying her into her world. In some sense teaching her methodology. When he says over and over again, “Put your camera down. Take your camera off,” he is teaching her how to go about her work in the future. Which, to some extent, is what Lisette and Marvin did, but more complicated than what I am saying. In terms of his hair, once you say Lisette and Marvin are going to get rolled into this single freak, you still have to figure out, “Who is that guy?” One of the things that is fascinating about her is that the woman that became Diane Arbus was also a six, seven, eight year old girl, going to bed on Central Park West with a father that was a furrier. That's true. She must have wondered, “What is my father doing killing all these beautiful animals to make these coats. So it made a lot of sense to make the guy who takes her into her new life be a guy who is in some sense that animal that she thought about and might have cared about and might have been connected to. It’s an unconscious connection that the film is in some sense proffering.

CS. One connection between “Secretary” and this film is the visual palate that you create. You fabricated a whole universe in “Secretary,” and here you've got this incredibly rich visual palate. How did you design that?

SS. I go through a crazy lunatic process, which is one of my favorite parts about making a movie. I basically go into a room for like three or four months by myself. I put earplugs in my ears and I essentially sit at a desk with my eyes closed for like six or seven hours a day and I draw the entire movie. And I change it and I do it over and over again and I make an enormous number of notes for each department--wardrobe department, makeup department, production, design, lighting--whatever occurs in my mind in regards to that scene. I work a scene, I work a scene and I work a scene. And I make hundreds of notes. And in this case, I think we ended up with like four thousand notes. And that gets the delivered to all the keys. To everybody's who's got an essential article of contribution to make. They are supposed to read everything, but I think, generally, they read just their department. Which I tell them they must do and I try to quiz them on it to see if they are really doing their homework.

CS: The swimming pool in Lionel’s apartment provides a pretty extravagant scene. How did you come up with that?

SS: Well that's hysterical because Amy Danger, the designer of this film and “Secretary,” and who I have done a lot of other stuff with, she and I are a great combination. She is always going to try and push too far. She should really be designing for Tim Burton, and I am always going to pull her back so that there is still a reality, so you could still believe it. But in the script it just says, “Interior, Lionel's bathroom.” The day the welders arrived to create these swimming pools the producers were like, ”Bathroom!” “Yeah but the guy is covered in hair!” It is vary hard to make some people understand that I am always going to be making a kind of fantasy. But if you go too far and you loose the reality, for me, I feel the movie is blown. So it is a very thin line. When you come into Spader's office in “Secretary,” I think you can believe that that guy has a functioning law practice. You might think, “Wow, this guy is weird and I am not sure I want him to be my lawyer.” But it is believable enough that he would live like that as a lawyer. On the other hand it is an S&M dungeon, right? It has got to be both. So when you go up the stairs in that building in “Fur,” you have got to believe that in New York in 1958 the first floor could be absolutely renovated. It is beautiful. That's where the public comes in. But as you go up, it could become more and more decrepit, right? You can believe that. At the same time you have to also feel you are entering another world. And both of those things have to function simultaneously throughout the movie. And that is part of what's fun.

CS: The lady with no arms seemed to live close to Lionel for a reason. What was that?

SS: She had a whole back-story and there were more scenes with her and I took them out. I took most of them out before we shot. I just said, “You know what? I think this is going to play better if I don't answer that question in the movie.” But, she [Diane] does say in a scene, “Who is Alphea?” and Lionel says, “She is an admirer. She is an admirer of me.” I think they were in a sideshow together and she fell in love with him and she has sort of become his helper and sort of a weird-ass stalker. She loves him. One of the things about Downey's portrayal, and this is something we talked about, I didn't want Lionel to be the withdrawn, hurt, damaged freak. He's sexy. When he goes in a room the women think, “Wow! I would love to kiss him, I would love to sleep with him!” That's how they feel. He's got an enormous amount of charisma. And so does to some extent Alphea, the armless character. She is just drawn to him. She wants to be near him. She wants to be a partner with him. Also, many things in the movie are functioning in several ways. When Nicole [Kidman] goes into Downey’s place, right before she's about to meet him he has her pour some tea. She looks out the window and what does she see? An armless women drinking tea. She is in the process of becoming part of his world. In some sense she is becoming that person that Alphea use to be to Lionel. You can read that in the film if you want to because it is there.

CS: What makes Nicole Kidman work for your vision of Diane Arbus?

SS: You have to understand that since the movie is not a literal vision. It is a dream. I wanted somebody that didn't look like her, first of all. I wanted somebody that would take you into that alternative space. So from that point of view she was great. But more importantly what I was really trying to do was find somebody who I felt could portray the inner transformation that she is making. And if you know Nicole Kidman or if you see her work, she strikes me, and it proves to be true knowing her and working with her, she struck me as a woman of enormous curiosity. Somebody who truly wishes, like Arbus, to discover other worlds and to experience those other worlds and to be as intimate as possible with them, to do that with enormous capacity and sensitivity and openness. That's what the part is. When I sat down and talked to her about the script and who Arbus was and what this very particular experience is that we were trying to portray in the film, that is exactly who she seemed to be. And that is exactly what she goes after in life. So there is obviously not an external similarity, but I think there is an internal similarity.


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