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Director Steven Shainberg has just made a film about photographer Diane Arbus, with genuine movie star Nicole Kidman in the title role. But don’t get him started on typical Hollywood biographies. “I hate biopics in general,” he says. “To me, they’re so boring. They just tell you something you already know. Do they really need to show you that Jackson Pollock discovered drip-painting? It’s ridiculous! As a filmmaker, it’s incredibly dull. In the theater, it’s even more dull.”
“It drives me crazy,” he continues. “And they just keep making them! My god! ‘Really, Johnny Cash sang in Folsom Prison?’”
“I want to make a movie where you and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “Where there’s an entire mystery to how this person evolves. If I show you a scene of Diane Arbus killing herself, what are you going to learn from that? You know she killed herself.”
Actually, you may not, but Shainberg does. The 43-year-old director of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is something of an authority on the subject and discusses Arbus’ photography in manner not unlike that of his movie: thoughtful yet cocky.
“I grew up in a house full of photographs that included Arbus’,” he explains. “My uncle Lawrence Shainberg, who was a writer, was a very close friend of hers. We had her pictures in our house, and he had her pictures in his house. So at a very early age, I was looking at her work, and I think was taken by her work. Trippy, right?”
Shainberg, a New York City native, admits that as a boy he found Arbus’ photographs of twins, nudists, sideshow “freaks,” and other unusual people a little scary. “There was definitely something frightening about her work. But I am temperamentally curious about what scares me and why. So that was a path to asking questions about her work. And certainly being very curious about the person who was doing it. That’s one of the things that is so mysterious about her pictures, is how much you feel her presence in them.”
The director compares Arbus’ sensibility to his own, suggesting that the kinship was apparent in his 2002 film, Secretary, a white-collar-bondage romantic comedy. “There’s a reason why Ed Pressman and Bonnie Timmermann, who controlled the rights to the book, when they saw Secretary, they thought, Here’s a guy who could make a film about Arbus.”
“They called me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Diane Arbus?’ I said, ‘Are you fucking kidding? Heard about her? I’ve wanted to make a movie about her for 15 years. I grew up with her photographs. I know more about her than anybody could. I could teach a college course on her.’ But they didn’t know any of that. They just responded to the film. There’s got to be some connection. I’m not exactly sure what it is.”
For years, Shainberg tried to get the rights to what he calls “that fucking book”—Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A Biography. “I would always feel terrible when I saw the next Arbus movie announced. I’d just read about it and go, ‘Oh, God. I hope that doesn’t get made.’ So it was just a total gift, and such a bizarre karmic coincidence, that they brought it to me.”
Yet when Shainberg and scripter Erin Cressida Wilson (who also wrote Secretary) got custody of the biography, they used almost none of it. Instead, they constructed a fictional scenario about a relationship—with the invented Lionel, a fur-covered man played by Robert Downey Jr.—that led to Arbus’ first professional photograph.
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“That was the original pitch to Bonnie and Ed,” the director says. “The taking of the first Arbus picture. Everything that you know about her comes after the movie. So if you know a lot, you’ll understand the movie more in terms of her real life. But for the people who know a little, it’s very helpful, I think, that none of it is literally in the film. It’s all after the film.”
One reason for using Bosworth’s book sparingly is that “there’s so much detail in there. It’s just voluminous. There were so many fantastic things about her. There’s 10 movies in there.”
The fictionalization of the photographer’s story was designed, the director says, “to open your mind to a different kind of movie about people you know. Forget about the thing we call a biopic. This is a different sort of experience.”
Shainberg admits that the producers were nonplused when he first aired the idea of an imaginary biography. “But I think I caught them at the exact right moment. Because they tried a lot of other things. They were sort of at wits’ end. Also, I did have this big reservoir of feeling for her. And I had this personal connection. So that in some sense legitimized this very unusual approach. It gave me a certain status.”
Even so, financing the $12 million movie was not easy. “A lot of people said no,” the director allows. “Nicole Kidman helps a lot.”
In part, Fur was inspired by one of Shainberg’s favorite films, Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. “The main thing about it is, that’s an actor encased in an immovable mask. It has no flexibility; it doesn’t move with his muscles. Yet you totally believe that that’s a person. And you totally believe that he and Beauty are having a relationship. What I used to say to Robert was, ‘Don’t play the hair. This guy has lived in this.’ Because if you play the hair, you’re betraying that aspect that Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast taught us. The beast is from another world, but he’s absolutely human, and he knows things about her that only he could know.”
“The idea to do that did not come from Cocteau,” he adds. “It came from Arbus’ life. She was Beauty going into the world, trying to find the Beasts. Her life is Beauty and the Beast. It makes perfect sense.”
The film opens with Arbus’ first photographic excursion to a nudist camp, a scene Shainberg argues is not just logical but also essential. “I knew that a movie about Diane Arbus had to open in a nudist colony. Metaphorically, it’s perfect. To open the film with that, I think, makes you feel the way people first felt when they saw Arbus pictures. There’s discomfort, there’s shock. Embarrassment. There’s laughter. There’s disgust. And possibly, there’s actually beauty and acceptance. And it lets you know that you’re in for something that’s different.”
Arbus is told she must disrobe to enter the camp, and her nudity symbolizes her birth, or rebirth, as an artist. “A lot of the movie is about stripping away, about dropping artifice,” the filmmaker says. “It’s about baring yourself. Something has to happen to her to make it possible for her to go out into the world and do the work she did.”
One of the distinguishing aspects of that work, Shainberg believes, “is that it’s not what the subject is revealing to her, it’s what we feel she revealed to the subject, reflected back at the lens. We don’t see the subject’s secrets. We see the secret they shared. That’s what’s so flabbergasting about them. It’s not just a photograph of a person; it’s a photograph of a profound exchange. That’s what the love scene’s about. I love to see that. Better than an action movie.”
In fact, the filmmaker dislikes contemporary action flicks as much he does biopics. He’s a practitioner of zen meditation, which he says “sure as hell does” shape his approach to filmmaking. But he also credits his time working as an assistant to master film editor Howard Smith, who used to say, “Don’t use the cut to energize a scene. That’s cheating.”
“For me, most films that have been made in the last 10 years are cut too fast,” Shainberg says. “The director doesn’t trust the fact that the audience will stay with that person, just out of sheer curiosity. I feel the executive saying”—he goes into frantic voice—“‘OK, OK, we get it! Push to the next scene! Push to the next scene!’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t get it. I want to stay with the person in that room a little bit longer.’”—Mark Jenkins