Steven Shainberg

by Andrew Fierberg


Nicole Kidman, Teddy Tilkin, Genevieve McCarthy. All images from the film Fur. All photos by Abbot Genser, © 2005 Picturehouse.

Somewhere there is joke about a producer and a director going into a bar. The most interesting part of the punchline might be how nonverbal the important parts of the relationship become. Indeed, in our successful partnership, a sense of trust and intuition allows each of us to do his own job without overarticulating the inner workings of intent. One would imagine the opposite: that the obsessive day-to-day communication would leave very little left unsaid. Perhaps a lot has been discussed between Steven Shainberg and myself, but the meaning still needs to be unraveled.

Our first film together, Secretary, has gone on to achieve cult status, if only for launching the career of the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, revitalizing James Spader’s career, and turning cutting/spanking films into a genre. Our second, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr., has just been completed and will be released by Picturehouse this November. After a good three years living with this Arbus project, with both of us doing what needed to be done to get the film funded, shot, and then finally finished (while forming the production company Vox3 films with Christina Weiss Lurie), I don’t think either one of us knew how the other would put the film into a personal context. How has the process entered our individual memory bank? How are we to begin articulating the absurdities involved with working in the film business in general, and on this film in particular? Which vignettes from the journey will become parts of our private storybooks? When we first presented Secretary at the Locarno Film Festival, we did a Q&A and, after I responded to a very short question with a rather long answer, Steve looked at me and, playing to the audience, said: “Wow! I had no idea you felt that way.” We both find we can surprise each other by turning what seemed to be a collective experience into our own set of private reflections. When the film is finished, there is a brief moment for the director and the producer to reminisce and reflect on the process, just before the demands of promotion (both of the film and of oneself) cause selective amnesia. So, before we start to believe all the hype, and are forever changed by how the audience and the reviewers respond to Fur, here is a fairly unscripted exchange between the two of us.

Andrew Fierberg You directed the film Secretary, which I produced: a cult hit that carried us into weird areas in our careers and changed how people approach our work. Now comes Fur, “an imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus.” How was it that the Arbus project came to you?

Steven Shainberg I look at the Arbus project as some sort of bizarre, karmic occurrence. For 15 years I’ve thought about making a film about her in one way or another and at various times, even in film school, had pursued the rights to the Patricia Bosworth biography, the only one written on Arbus. When Bonnie Timmermann and Ed Pressman, who controlled the rights to the Bosworth biography, brought it to me, I thought, this is perfect: not only was it a film that I had hoped to make, but it also seemed like the perfect film to follow Secretary. We could have gone on to make a more “Hollywood” film, but my own interest in Arbus was so personal and so deep that it was an irrefutable subject matter to pursue.

AF Why did Bonnie and Ed think it was an appropriate project for you?

SS They didn’t know about any of my personal connections to Arbus. They saw Secretary and thought, Here’s a guy who made an intimate and compelling movie about a female character, a movie that was able to be at once humorous, sexy, odd, perhaps slightly perverse, and somehow open and innocent, qualities that to some extent are inherent in Arbus’s photographs. My personal history with Arbus has to do with growing up around her photographs, having them on the walls of my childhood home. My uncle Lawrence Shainberg, who’s a writer, was one of Diane’s closest friends later in her life. Arbus was deeply part of my own visual and psychological upbringing. I even see Arbus in Secretary! Her work is built into my eye and what I want to do when I make a film, just instinctually. It seemed perfectly bizarre when Ed and Bonnie thought I would be right to direct the film.

AF This takes me into one of the most fascinating parts of the story outside the actual movie: the issue of appropriation. The idea that individuals or corporations can control the images or the music or the sounds that we grow up with drives me crazy. Many people have come in conflict with the Arbus estate for as long as Diane has been dead. You should have the right to talk about your deep, intimate connection to her images. Somehow you cracked through that by bringing your special approach to it.

SS This is a really compelling question about art. Once you put something into the world, whose is it? All work, once it becomes public, lives or dies in the world. In terms of Fur and Arbus, I wasn’t particularly interested in putting her photographs on film. That was a no-win situation. To take an Arbus photograph and try to re-create it on film wasn’t something that intrigued me. I wanted to answer the question, How did this woman, who in 1958 was 35 years old with two children, living essentially as her [photographer] husband’s assistant and as a housewife, become the great artist Diane Arbus? It’s a spiritual, emotional, psychological, artistic question. The movie became about finding an imaginative solution to that question, because there is no literal answer to it. Bosworth can’t answer it, Diane’s best friends couldn’t answer it, yet that is part of her tremendous adventure.

AF The first person you thought of casting in the role was Samantha Morton. I remember being in Los Angeles preparing to shoot the film there. We were driving to a post-production house and I got a phone call from her agent in London. We had bad reception, so I had to pull over. There were, like, six of us in the car, and I was screaming at the agent: “I don’t think you understand—she’s walking away from the project because we won’t fly her boyfriend over first-class! Are you really making it about that little amount of money?”

SS You’re leaving out the best detail about that call—

AF You mean the real drama?

SS Right, there was an accident right in front of us! A car was on fire in the middle of Venice Boulevard.

AF Yeah, I remember.

SS So that was happening in front of us, and there was also an accident occurring telephonically. The potential film was on fire!

AF So Samantha drops out. Then, through the work of Bonnie Timmermann, we get the script to Nicole Kidman, and after meeting with you, she accepts the role. Most people, when they think of Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus, might roll their eyes and go, Great, is she wearing a prosthetic nose? Did they lop a couple of inches off her knees? But you were not making this kind of straight-ahead film, were you?

SS With Fur we had to combat the idea of the biopic. The unfortunate thing with movies about real people is that they generally follow a literal path. They deal with the greatest hits of that person’s life: their drug addiction, then their healing, then their artistic rebirth, that sort of thing. Then they put gray in the actors’ hair and add wrinkles to their faces, and they do these things that I always find to be extremely hokey, no matter how well done. I didn’t want to put somebody up on screen who was pretending to be Diane Arbus. When I first had conversations with Nicole Kidman about it, she asked me, Should I listen to tapes of Diane talking? I said to her, Absolutely not! I don’t want you “doing Diane.” What I want is to explore from our point of view what was going on in Diane’s interior life. How do we see it? And that is going to come out of your voice and your body. What we’re after is the truth of her experience as we imagine it.

I’m interested in the question of what arose in her that could not be dismissed. What compelled her that was so dangerous and threatening and inspiring that it took her, a woman in middle age, into such amazing, outrageous, and daring places? That doesn’t require somebody to talk like her or walk like her; it requires somebody to live like her.


Nicole Kidman in Fur.

AF There is an extraordinary leap from Samantha Morton to Nicole Kidman. They are in so many ways polar opposites as actresses. Can both of those people live in your vision of the Arbus experience?

SS From a directing point of view, what’s always compelling to me is: What can I find with this person that will be different from what they’ve done before, that will be an aspect of the truth of the character? You’re never going to get somebody who can do everything conceivable that the character might require. The actor is going to bring who they are and, for that reason, you are going to have a certain emphasis on a particular quality. With Nicole, you are going to get something that’s slightly hidden but, potentially, very vulnerable if you can find a way to see that vulnerability vibrate underneath. In Fur, we had a woman who was hiding things from her husband, and who was having feelings come up in her that she couldn’t understand but that would be apparent to the audience and, simultaneously, that she would still be trying to control. There’s something about Nicole that is never ever obvious. There’s always intrigue. In the film, when she’s slowly moving into the Arbus life, the character doesn’t know what’s happening to her. That was an experience Nicole came to the movie wanting to have, and that’s why the performance works.

AF Lionel, the person she opens herself up to in the film, is a composite of many people from Arbus’s life. This character, played by Robert Downey Jr., provides an opening into a porthole unknown to her, one previously documented only by what might be called freak photography: photographs of people with deformities, the turn-of-the-century photographs where people learned about hidden worlds, where faces were not about humans but about disease or exploitation of shock value. Lionel has lived in that world; he has been photographed as non-human, and he’s at the end of his journey. What does he do for her in terms of how you view photography? Why do you consider Arbus a transformational artist?

SS The character that Robert plays is not only a combination of real people in Arbus’s life but also somebody who is turning photography, by way of turning the Arbus character, in a more intimate, personal, confessional direction. In compelling her to do her work, he shifts photography into a new realm. Part of that new realm is taking what was previously pure documentation, and taking the aspirations of medical and anthropological photography, and adding an element of personal experience. That had not been done before. She—I don’t want to say invented because I don’t think she was trying to invent anything, really. She was doing what aesthetically felt right. By felt right I mean reflected her interior life in an exterior form. That’s what I think she was after. That’s one of the reasons I find her to be such an important figure. When I make a film I’m trying to make something that looks right to me. It’s very hard to explain.

AF The Arbus character gets into the skin of the people that she’s photographing, which is the opposite of a documentary style.

SS Marvin Israel said about her—and this was a gateway into the film in my own mind—that the pictures Diane took were like her trophies: “what she received as an award for her adventure.” I think that statement of Marvin’s is only partially true. Diane was extremely involved in making pictures and she was an aesthete of the highest order. Having said that, it was equally, desperately important for her to directly and intimately experience and to make contact with a world that she had felt shut off from.

AF Do you feel that her family has tried to sanitize that experience? The presentation of her photographs [in last year’s retrospective], the first show in 30 years, removes all of that messiness she lived through from the time she left home to the time she took her life.

SS No, I don’t think that they’ve tried to sanitize it. The retrospective is one of the greatest art shows ever put up. It had an enormous amount of her written material, which provided another dimension to her photographic work. I do think that there are “darker,” “scarier,” “threatening,” perhaps—from some people’s point of view—“off-putting” elements to the way she lived in the last ten years of her life that a lot of people don’t want talked about. To some extent that’s legitimate; there are all kinds of things about my parents that I wouldn’t want people to know. It’s a question of privacy. The wish to protect is legitimate, and the wish by others to find out is also legitimate.

AF That’s the conflict at the core of the art-making process when you’re working in biography of any sort.

SS In talking to people over the last couple of months about what movie comes next, because we’ve just made a movie about a real person, we get calls like: “Well, you’ve done a biopic”—which we haven’t—“so what about this other biopic?” The nightmare of this, of course, is that around real people, dead or alive, are other real people, and while everyone’s feelings and their desire for a project to be a particular way are legitimate, I have to be able to make the movie that I want to make. With a real person, you run up against things that you just don’t run up against with imaginary characters.

AF There is a history of major cultural figures who broke through in the ’50s into the ’60s and who have become the icons of our generation yet are hard to represent on film. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, for instance, has proven very difficult to make into a film. These icons have influenced people who make art to such a degree that the expectation and the peer judgment is threatening. I’m sure there are people who think that they know the Arbus story and will feel that this film is not it. I guess that’s going to be part of having the film live once you’re done with it.

SS The name of our company, Vox3, is about voice. We are focused on making films that have some kind of personal voice. When we went to make this movie, the point wasn’t to make the definitive Arbus film. Somebody else can come along and do the soup-to-nuts, childhood-to-death film that deals with her suicide and her life on Central Park West as an eight-year-old and so on. Just as Diane went in and took Arbus pictures of people, I’m going in and taking my picture of her. I don’t know how to make any other movie. That’s what causes you to stick with it through the nightmares and through the opposition and all the problems that you have making any movie: the powerful feeling you have for the subject matter.


Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr. in Fur.

AF When you were originally thinking about the film, you knew that there were all these Arbus scripts floating around. For example, Barbra Streisand and Diane Keaton owned the rights to the story at different times. In particular, there were two active scripts on Ed and Bonnie’s table. How did you go about finding the film that was true to yourself?

SS The fundamental, compelling relationship I could imagine going at had to be her and a “freak.” Erin Wilson, the screenwriter, and I went through many, many possibilities, from giant to dwarf. In the end, we came to one that was unique, and it had an absolutely wonderful connection to her childhood.

AF The central pivot of both Secretary and Fur is such an untraditional couple. Both films are about self-exploration and coming out of a place in which the character felt pressure from society to hide. Inside both central characters of Secretary and Fur there is a truer self waiting to emerge. With Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in Secretary, it’s a sexual issue; with Arbus, it’s much more of an artistic issue, a drive to express herself. The will to create.

SS My parents were both psychoanalysts. The process of psychoanalysis is to make that which is hidden apparent, and therefore to live in a different way. It’s a pretty serious personal issue that you are pointing to! But hell, I may have gotten it out of my system now! (laughter)

AF You’re very involved in Buddhism. A small percentage of the American psychoanalytic community is involved in American Buddhism.

SS It’s fundamental to my upbringing and my point of view. We have certain modes of thinking and aspects of our personal perspectives that are shaped by how we grew up and what ideas were implicit in our world. For me, a film must always have a real personal problem. The character has to be suffering from something, whether they know it or not. That can be comedic. Certainly Buster Keaton’s characters are suffering from something. The guy is in incredible pain and it’s hysterical. Jim Carrey is suffering from something terrible in every movie. That’s where the humor comes from. But people who are awakening and who are growing and who are not being destroyed by their problem, I find that very moving. Someone who is an outsider and to some extent who’s a fluke is somebody that I connect with. I don’t connect with the ordinary guy. I have strong feelings for the person who’s really in serious trouble.

AF That’s why we’re friends!

SS (laughter) Rachel Boynton, my wife, says to me that most of the people in my life are clearly outsiders in one way or another. It’s not by some conscious choice; it’s totally unconscious.

AF So the process of working in film allows you to explore this and exorcise your own outsider demons in some way. You’re always very immersed in the process of making a film.

SS If I honestly look at all the people I’ve made movies about, they are desperately searching for an intimate experience that feels visceral and alive and without shame. All of the feelings that they’re having are very unusual to them. Every time I’m finishing a film, I think, Christ, do I want to go through this again? But the thing that is compelling is that you are forced into these intimate situations with the DP, the actors, the editor. As the director you are going through these very powerful, sometimes overwhelmingly intimate relationships and moments.

AF And outside your filmmaking, you are shy. You go to the same restaurant; you’re probably the most predictable person I’ve ever met.

SS Exactly! Flaubert said something like, live the most bourgeois life you can, and in your work be the iconoclast, in your work be daring. I am definitively fearful. I wear my seatbelt in the back of cabs. I worry when Rachel leaves the apartment. But when it comes to making a film and the essential subject matter of the movie—that’s where I’m reaching for something that puts me at risk.

AF But it also puts you in touch with something that you feel very strongly about that is almost, well, maniacal. This doesn’t mean you don’t collaborate. But you, as a director, have a clear idea that directing means that you make the decisions and then you live with them.

SS I love to collaborate with people who I believe understand what I’m after and with people I respect intellectually and artistically, like you and Bill Pope [the cinematographer] and Amy Danger [the production designer] and Erin Wilson and certainly the actors. But at a certain point, I don’t think anyone really knows what I have in my head. And I definitely have something in my head that I’m after. If the film is going to have a specific feeling, it needs to come from a single person. It’s not about me being a control freak—although I probably am. But the film has its singular voice because ultimately I am making those choices. This movie that we’ve just made is an intensely personal endeavor. I want to hear what you and other people whom I trust have to say about it, but I know where my lines are drawn in order to keep the film connected to that essential feeling I have about what it needs to be. There are all sorts of ways to make a movie, but I can only go into it in the way that I do.

AF Many people look at me with this strange sense of pity when they see the directors I work with. And it’s mostly because of this issue of how personally they take filmmaking. Each one of them—from Lodge Kerrigan to Sally Potter to Michael Almereyda to Zoe Cassavetes, have to be able to connect to the personal story that they’re telling in order to be who they are as filmmakers. These kinds of films take a big strain to produce, they exhaust the people around them, and they’re usually underfunded. People who make these kinds of films are not supported by the film industry, and they’re certainly not supported by the state or by the cultural industry here in the States.

SS Why do you think you’ve wanted to make only those kinds of movies?

AF I’ve always felt that my whole process of being a producer is to confront and to learn about things that are not my own personal obsessions, stories that I would not normally initiate on my own.

SS Yes, that’s why you and a few other producers are keeping personal American filmmaking alive.


Steven Shainberg (second from left) directing James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal on the set of Secretary (2002). Photo courtesy of Lions Gate Films.

AF We went through this process with Secretary where I was the last person you came to and I read it and said, “If you can make this film as funny and as endearing as I think it could be, I’m with you.” I bring an enormous amount of support and respect to the directors that I work with. I don’t confuse my role, I don’t pretend that this is my story or that I could do this without you, or that I have a better way of telling it. I bring my own personal and problem-solving skills and experience to try to find a way to make the best film that you or Sally Potter or Lodge Kerrigan can make given the financial limitations. On Fur we had a lot of fun with the deal, since it kept shifting.

SS The deal kept shifting due to your immense skills!

AF The more we brought to the table, the more it became apparent that the budgets were not adequate. It’s finding a way within the resources to make the best possible film that the director wants to make. Everyone kept being faced with a choice and at any time you, or the financiers, could say no. This drama gives me a kick. It’s not just about the deal-making.

SS There are ten thousand ways to cut the cake. The choices you make in the allocation of resources—that’s the thing about filmmaking that people don’t understand, how significant and important and crucial the point of view of the real producer is. Most people have no understanding of the complex dialogue between the producer and the director about how to realize something onscreen.

AF It’s similar to the construction of a house. What one is doing is dreaming something up, imagining something that never existed before, and selling the concept, then coming into direct conflict with the realities of the market and the fear of what you’re proposing. What you have to do as filmmakers is find a solution to the problems and in that process, the relation between producer and the director and all the creative people we surround ourselves with can become profound. It’s what keeps the juices going.

Let’s talk about the future. The process of making two films in a row, both Secretary and Fur, that are primarily stage movies, is interesting considering you’re a New York City hermit and you love the city, and New York City streets are one of the great things to film. Do you feel the need and desire to go back into the stage, or are you looking forward to break out into the real world?

SS Well, when I look at Fur I’m amazed by how much of the aesthetic quality that I was looking for in the exteriors we were able to get. My impulse with an exterior is to look at it and think: what can I do with it? Would I paint all the doors red? Cut all the trees down? Put trees in? I’m always working from an image that I have in my mind already. But in looking at Fur, I realized something pretty simple: you just can’t imagine everything. In reality, things exist that are pretty fantastic and if you can appreciate what you can see, the film can gain an authenticity, and that’s compelling.

AF One needs to have a certain ability to plan, and make a storyboard and a shot list. But if that blinds you to the reality in front of you—

SS Both intense preparation and spontaneity are necessary. The person who thinks they’re just going to show up and “feel the location” is lost. But simultaneously, as you say, if you’re too rigid you’re also going to be totally freaked out by all the things that might, can, or will be different from what is on your plan. I’ve never had a shooting day where I went in with a shot list and got all the shots. It just doesn’t happen.

AF Similarly, we made the film with a certain kind of musical score in our brain. Then Carter Burwell, the composer, came in and brought something completely different to the story.

SS Carter beautifully understood what the deeper layers of the movie were, and that the role of the music was to portray the unconscious journey of the character. And that’s what the music conveys. He was exactly the right guy.

AF Fur is almost a fantasy production. You have Bill Pope, who shot The Matrix, Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Bridges, one of the great costume designers working today; Erin Wilson, Carter doing the music. What made this possible?

SS It sure wasn’t money! It was a fantastically unusual script, to start with. Take the name Diane Arbus out of it and it’s still fantastically unusual. Arbus, for many people, is a very significant person. Also, all of these people liking Secretary helped.

AF The film was forced to go into production rather quickly because of Nicole’s availability. Shifting the shoot from LA to New York was a big deal. We had been prepping this film for six months to be in a different location. Did you feel that this was helpful in some ways, that you just had to jump in and not think about it? We had seven weeks to make 1958 New York.

SS I will never forget standing on the stage in Brooklyn, seven weeks before we were going to start shooting, and there was no lumber there! It had not arrived. Seven weeks before we were going to shoot! We’re building an entire apartment building! How is that going to possibly happen? Well, it did, with about a day to spare. It’s almost inconceivable. But we did it. And it’s really because of you and the construction guys and our production designer, Amy Danger, and the effort that was put in to pull it off. That’s the dare we took when we said to each other, “Let’s do it.” As you know all too well, this is not an art for the faint of heart!

AF In Secretary there’s a moment when James Spader says to Maggie, “Get it right.” Do you think you got it right? Or do you need to be spanked?

SS (laughter) I think we got a lot of it right. There was a $30 million version of this movie, a $25 million version, and a $20 million version, and each had more stuff that would have made the movie different, but not necessarily better. I think its heart is in the right place and the feeling of it is there and we got a lot of what we intended to get. Luck, prayer, and a monumental amount of preparation, and sometimes you might just be okay, huh?

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BOMB 97
Fall 2006
The cover of BOMB 97
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