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Interview with Steven Shainberg, director of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Review of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Steven Shainberg directs Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus about 20th Century photographer Diane Arbus (Kidman) who has a romantic affair with her neighbor, Lionel (Downey, Jr.), who has hair covering his entire body. Steven Shainberg directed the critically-acclaimed film Secretary, which helped to launch Maggie Gyllenhaal's career. I had the privalege to interview him.

Picturehouse will release Fur: A Portrait of Diane Arbus on November 10th, 2006.

NYC MOVIE GURU: When did you decide to direct this film?

SS: [Many] years ago. It was the only movie I could imagine doing myself, but this was long before I had even made a feature [film]. I had been thinking about this because I was around her pictures when I was a small kid and my uncle, Lawrence, was a close friend of hers and I was very conscious of her. To some extent, she was already a kind of mythical figure for me. The [Diane Arbus] movies would get announced over the years, [and] Barbra Streisand [and] Diane Keaton were going to [play Arbus]. Patricia Bosworth said this in her Vanity Fair piece. I was thinking, “Oh, no! I don’t want to see that movie get made and, even worse, I’m never going to get to make one.” So, I had thought about it for a long time how [I] had to go at the subject if I ever got the chance. When I went in and talked to them about it, they encountered a guy that would not, like, leave the room. It was a movie I really wanted to make.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you decide to make this an “imaginary portrait” of Diane Arbus?

SS: First of all, I don’t, personally, have any interest in straight-ahead bio pics. I never walk out of a straight-ahead biopic and feel that I’ve generally gotten 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—dramatic scene after dramatic scene after dramatic scene. [Second of all], they tell you something that you already know. [For example], in Pollock, you have a fantastic actor, Ed Harris, who looks exactly like the guy he’s playing, more so than in any movie ever made. You have a fabulously shot, beautifully lit scene in which he discovers drip painting and it’s utterly boring because you know what the scene is. You know, “Oh, this is the scene where he discovers drip painting.” You know [that] in general, so you’ve already waited the entire movie to discover [it] because you know that’s what he did. So, I essentially find that to be an empty way to go with somebody’s life. I don’t think it reveals anything. It tells you what you already know. I’m interested in making a film about somebody that tells you what you don’t know, that goes into a mystery and that goes into a process, in the case of [Fur], that was essentially unconscious. [Diane Arbus] didn’t really know what was happening to her in 1958. There was a beautiful transformation that occurred and one of the things I’ve always wondered about her is “How did that happen? How did this woman, in 1958, at the age of 35, 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?” That is not a question that can be answered literally. Patricia Bosworth can’t answer in it in her biography [of Diane Arbus]. In fact, she skips over it. If you read her biography carefully, the movie actually takes place in a section of Arbus’ life that Bosworth just jumps over. In my [original 1984] copy of her biography, I wrote a note that said “What happened here?” and that’s where the movie is going. I’ve read everything that [has] been written about Arbus. I would challenge anybody to find an article about her that I have not read. Nobody [addressed] this question at all: What happened that she became the person that she [was]? This wasn’t somebody who was doing this kind of work at 17, 20 [or] 25—it wasn’t until she was 35 that she said, “My life has to go in a different direction.” So, to explore that essential question, which has no literal answer, there’s really no other movie to make. If you look at her work, her work is myth. Her work is fairy tale. [It] has all the qualities of [being] sprung from her unconscious. She herself said that she felt like she was living in a fairy tale for adults. So, it wasn’t something that I came and grafted onto her life. It was something that came directly out of her experiences.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you choose Nicole Kidman to portray Diane Arbus?

SS: You have to understand that the whole movie is not a literal vision—it’s a dream. If you know what [Diane Arbus] looked like, if you’re friend of hers, or a scholar, or if you know about her, or if you look at [Patricia] Bosworth’s book and you see the pictures of her, I wanted [to cast] somebody who didn’t look like her. I wanted somebody who would take you into that alternative space. So, from that point of view, [Nicole Kidman] was great. But, more importantly, what I was really trying to do was to find somebody who I felt could portray the inner transition that she’s making. If you know [Nicole Kidman] strikes me, and it proves to be true, knowing her and working with her, as a person of enormous curiosity. [She’s] somebody who truly wishes, like [Diane Arbus], to discover other worlds and to experience those other worlds and to be as intimate as possible with them. [She does] that with enormous capacity and sensitivity and openness. That’s what the part is. When I sat down and I talked with her about the script and about who [Diane] Arbus was and what this very particular experience is that we’re trying to portray in the film, that’s exactly who she seems to be. And that’s exactly what she goes after in life. So, there is, obviously, not an external similarity, but I think that there’s an internal [one] and that was the reason [why I chose Nicole Kidman].

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you end up with the character of Lionel?

SS: There were 2 people in Arbus’ life who were very important [to her]: Lisette Model, her primary photography teacher—a great photographer in her own right. One of her pictures is actually in Lionel’s hallway as [Arbus] goes down his hall. The other was Marvin Israel who was her lover and her mentor and her, kind of, artistic Svengali. And he functioned that way for other people during his time in New York as well. He was a very influential guy. In any case, there was a time where I thought [that] if [I] make a Diane Arbus movie, [I] got to have a Model figure and got to have Marvin, too, in the movie. [I’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 going to be, had to be some kind of a freak. Eventually, Marvin and Lisette got molded into that person. So, in some sense, Lionel is functioning in the movie the way Lisette and the way Marvin and the way all the freaks functioned in her life, carrying her in her world—in some sense, teaching her methodology. When [Lionel] says, over and over again, “Put your camera down. Take your camera off.” he’s teaching her how to go about her work in the future, which is, to some extent, what Lisette and Marvin did. One of the things that is fascinating about [Arbus] is that the woman that became Diane Arbus was also a 6, 7, 8 year old girl going to bed on Central Park West with a father who was a furrier. She must have wondered, “What is my father doing killing all these beautiful animals to make these coats?” And, 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, an animal—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.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was Althea’s, the lady-with-no-arms, relation to Lionel?

SS: She had a whole back-story. There were more scenes with her and I took them out. I took most of the out, in fact, before we shot. I said, “You know what? I think this is going to play better if I don’t answer that question in the movie. But, [Diane Arbus] does say in the scene, “Who is Althea?” and Lionel says, “She’s an admirer. She’s an admirer of me.” I think that they were in a side show together, she fell in love with him and she, sort of, becomes his helper and also, kind of, a weird-ass stalker. She loves him. One of the things about [Robert Downey Jr.]’s portrayal is that I didn’t want Lionel to be the withdrawn, hurt, pained, damaged freak. He’s sexy. When he goes into a room, the women look at him and think, “Wow, I would love to kiss him. Wow, I would love to sleep with him.” That’s how they feel. He’s got an enormous amount of charisma. So, to some extent, Althea is somebody who you feel that from. She’s just drawn to him, she wants to be near him, [and] she wants to be part of him. Also, many things in the movie are functioning in several ways. When [Diane Arbus] goes into [Lionel]’s place, right before she’s about to meet him, he has her pour some tea. She looks out the window and [sees] and armless woman drinking tea. [Diane] is in the process of becoming part of [Lionel’s] world. In some sense, she’s become that person that Althea used to be.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you design the visuals?

SS: I go through it [in] a crazy, lunatic process which is one of my favorite parts about making a movie. I, basically, go into a room 3 or 4 months by myself, I put earplugs in my ears and I, essentially, sit at a desk with my eyes closed for, like, 6 or 7 hours a day. I draw the entire movie and I change it and I do it over and over again. I make an enormous number of notes for each department—wardrobe department, make-up department, production design, lighting and so on and so forth. Whatever occurs in my mind in regard to that scene, I work a scene [over and over again]. In this case, I think we ended up with, like, 4,000 notes. And that gets distributed to everyone who has an artistic contribution to make and they go through [it]. They’re supposed to read everything, but, generally, they read their department’s [notes], which I tell them that they mustn’t do and I quiz them on it to see if they’re really doing their homework. In any case, that begins the conversation. It’s not like they’re doing what I tell them to do. It’s like, for example, deciding that everything downstairs in terms of color in her apartment will be muted and as we ascend to his apartment, more and more of the walls will be stripped back and more color will come out and when we go out into the world, [Arbus] will discover and even more vibrant world via paint and light and so on and so forth. These are basic conceits for the film which then get more explicitly worked out in the notes and then transformed over and over again as you hire people who are fantastic at their jobs and start a dialogue [with them]. [Fur] and Secretary are extremely, carefully designed films. That’s part of the pleasure—I love that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you come up with the design of the pools?

SS: Amy Danger [is] the designer of Fur and Secretary and I’ve done a lot of other [projects] with too. We’re a great combination. She’s always going to try to push too far—she should really be designing for Tim Burton. I’m always going to pull her back so that there’s still a reality—you could still believe it. But, in the script, it just says “INTERIOR LIONEL’S BATHROOM”. The day that the welders arrived to create these swimming pools, producers were like “What the f*ck? [This is supposed to be a] bathroom! The guy is covered in hair!” It’s very hard to make some people understand that I’m making a kind of fantasy. I’m always going to be making a kind of fantasy. But if you go too far and you lose the reality, for me, I feel the movie [has] blown. So, it’s a very thin line. When you go up the stairs in this building in Fur, you have to believe that in New York in 1958, the first floor could be absolutely renovated, but, as you go up, it can become more and more decrepit. At the same time, you have to also feel that you’re entering another world. Both of those things have to function simultaneously throughout the movie. That’s what’s fun.

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