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Following up the success of his S&M romance Secretary, Steven Shainberg tackles the story of Diane Arbus, the iconoclastic photographer of freaks, oddballs and the perverse.



Steven Shainberg’s new feature Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, due out this November from Picturehouse, will, much like Arbus’s work itself, undoubtedly both fascinate and exasperate viewers. Loosely based on Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 Diane Arbus: A Biography — a text which for nearly 20 years people have been trying to make into a movie — Fur barely represents the expansive research Bosworth revealed in her book. Instead the film creatively interprets the period in 1958 when the then-35-year-old Arbus embarked on her journey to become an art photographer. Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson — who had penned his earlier feature Secretary — used a bare minimum of factual elements on which to construct a modern-day fairy tale of artistic rebirth.

Like the real person, their Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) worked with her husband Allan to shoot fashion spreads, had two children and was the child of a wealthy furrier and department store magnate, David Nemerov. But fictionalized in Shainberg and Wilson’s story is the character Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey Jr.), a ridiculously hirsute stranger who moves in as Arbus’s upstairs neighbor and proceeds to coax out her creative self. While the character of Lionel is pure fiction, he acts in the film as an amalgamation of all of the artist’s real influences (her instructor Lisette Model, her mentor Marvin Israel, her one-time lover Alex Eliot, the writer Joseph Mitchell and photographers such as Richard Avedon, Robert Frank and Walker Evans) as well as a reflection of her inner demons and sexual fantasies.

Shainberg’s decision to interpret, rather that replicate, Arbus’s life was both a personal and aesthetic one. While Shainberg had never met Arbus, he had grown up in her shadow. His uncle Lawrence Shainberg was a close personal friend and collector of her work. His family had socialized with her colleagues, and Shainberg had even worked for Arbus’s friend and fellow photographer Robert Frank. For Shainberg, to simply repeat in a film the biographical events of her life would be to betray the driving passion and mystery of her art, a quality that had more to with her intense relationship to her subjects than the freakish characters she was famous for snapping. So working with cinematographer Bill Pope and production designer Amy Danger, Shainberg fashioned a world that had nothing to do with the raw B&W quality of Arbus’s work and everything to do with the dreamy inner workings of her imagination.


You grew up around lots of Diane Arbus photographs. What did they mean to you? In the same way a child might be curious about the forest if they grew up in the country, I was curious about the things that were in my parents’ world. And I was irrevocably drawn into that world — a world where Arbus is ordinary in the way that Star Wars might be in another family. We had her photos everywhere. I would go in to get a spoon, and there would be an Arbus rolled up in the silverware drawer. And whether or not I could articulate it then, there is a tone, a feeling and a mysteriousness inherent in Arbus’s work that got into me.

When did you think that you might want to make a film about her? When the book [Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus: A Biography] came out, naturally I read it. The thing that moved me in it — and that I didn’t know — was that irrevocable impulse in her that could not be denied, even at the age of 35. It wasn’t just an artistic impulse but also an impulse to discover, to follow her very quiet inner voice. She wanted to live and explore something that terrified her, and to do that despite — and with — her fear. That was the reality of her life, but it was also a metaphor of what it means to be an artist and a human being.

People who have tried to cover Arbus, like Bosworth, found it difficult to get rights or permission from her estate. Did that worry you? It wasn’t relevant. It did not interest me to recreate the photo of the Jewish giant. One of the things I consider to be a losing proposition in films about artists is trying to recreate their work. You know that Jackson Pollock discovered drip painting, so watching a scene where the actor is discovering it is boring. What I wanted was to make a work that is very much my own, but could incorporate the spirit of the artist within it.


Were there earlier biographical films that were able to do this? A few. [François Girard’s] Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is really interesting. The Francis Bacon film [John Maybury’s Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon], which did attempt to recreate his pictures in certain ways, was also interesting. Those movies, however, are somewhat obtuse, and the things that I wanted to get at demanded a more dramatic film. When you look at Arbus’s pictures, you enter a fairy tale world that is coupled with something very raw and exposed. It is a strange combination of something that is childlike in nature and aggressively adult in what it is confronting you with. And so that combination of things is what I wanted to express.

You never secured the rights of the book for yourself, so how did you come to direct the film? [Producers] Bonnie Timmermann and Ed Pressman, who had controlled the rights for years, had already developed a few scripts, and were sort of at wits’ end. They did not have a script that they liked, and they did not have a script that was makeable. They saw Secretary, and thought maybe this guy could do it. So they called me up, and I went in and met with them, and I told them of my own personal history with Arbus and of my deep connection to her. I also told them that I didn’t want to make a biographical film but an imaginative portrait. It was not going to be a $40 million period piece, but it was something that we might be able to make. We had other meetings where we talked about what that idea was, and they went with it.

You wanted to make an imaginative biography, but your story only covers a very short part of her life. I was most interested in how at 35 she became Diane Arbus the photographer. Patricia Bosworth can’t answer that question; her closest friends can’t answer it. To tell that story, the film had to be about her inner story.

You were very selective in the biographical details you incorporate. How did you decide what to put in and what to omit? Anything you could imagine at one time we considered. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes about everyone and everything in her life. For example, there were two facts about her I wanted to put in. One was the fact that she loved to go in a room and sit in the dark. The other is that she had a friend who loved to fly, and she would call her up and say, “Let’s go out,” and they would fly out around New York City. That was such a beautiful metaphor for her wanting to see everything, to be separated from the city and see it at the same time. Ultimately neither of those details made it into the film.

The three main real-life figures in the film are her mother and father and her husband Allan. But you give her two children, Doon and Amy, different names. How come? For one I didn’t feel that I had enough information from the Bosworth biography to represent them. The second reason is that a woman who would name her eldest child Doon is not the same person that we wanted to portray at the beginning of the film. In order to emphasize the dramatic arc of the character, from a woman who is enclosed and tight to a woman who lets her hair down and goes to a nudist colony, we needed to start with someone who would never name her child Doon.

How did you come up with Lionel, who seems to be an amalgamation of many people in Arbus’s life? Erin and I had lots of conversations about different kinds of deformed people — giants, dwarfs, etc. — for Lionel. We eventually arrived at Downey’s character for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Diane’s father was a furrier. One of the things that interested me — especially as the child of two psychoanalysts — is what the connection is between the six- or seven-year-old daughter whose father killed animals to make beautiful coats and the artist she would become. When you see furs, really expensive furs, there is an uncanny desire to connect with them sensually, and at the same time they carry a certain amount of horror. And I think that this fact about fur is in Diane’s photos.

Your imaginative portrait contains aspects of sexual dominance and tutelage that you also explored in Secretary. Is that a coincidence, part of your aesthetic, or are you just kinky? To be honest, that sexual aspect is perfectly natural for Erin and me. And it is also part of Arbus’s biography. Marvin Israel, who was her mentor, was someone she longed for but who would not leave his wife for her. So Diane would wait for hours on end outside Marvin’s apartment for him to come out. If that is not an S&M relationship, I don’t know what is. Also, much of her later work was very sexual. She would photograph S&M clubs and join in orgies. I also think that an S&M relationship is inherent in the relationship between artist and subject, as well as in the making of a film.

Interestingly, when many filmmakers attempt biopics of artists, they attempt to master and control their subject’s art, recreating it on their own terms. I think that it is embarrassing. In Frida, when I see the paintings of the Frida Kahlo move, I cringe. Filmmakers and cinematographers are constantly using photographs as source material to figure out the visualization of stories. And that is all fine. But to literally recreate an artist’s work — it doesn’t appeal to me in the least.

So how did you, cinematographer Bill Pope and production designer Amy Danger come up with the film’s look? It was because of what Arbus was experiencing when she was 35 in the three or four months before she transformed herself into a photographer. I think that she must have felt that she was falling into a rabbit hole. Arbus herself said that she felt that she was living in a fairy tale for adults. It was that Alice in Wonderland experience, like she was falling into a world that was scary, attractive, violent, sexual and which she could not help entering. And that dreamlike experience was what the movie was about. That is not the look of a Diane Arbus photo. It was more like floating down this river and coming around the bend to see an amazing future.

You didn’t want to make the film look like Arbus’s work, but you also cast Nicole Kidman, who doesn’t look like Arbus. Why Kidman? Whenever I see a biopic, no matter how much the person looks like the person they are playing, it just looks like a bad high school play to me. There is no way that Will Smith is going to look like Muhammad Ali. Some of the producers, who didn’t completely get what we were making, would say, “Here are the top five people who are short and have dark hair and big eyes.” But this wasn’t the enterprise at all. I was after someone who could go through the transformation. From that point of view, the innocence of Kidman — her childlikeness and the sensuality — was exactly Arbus, and was right for the movie. I always thought she would be perfect, but I never thought we would get her.

What happened when Kidman said yes? Our budget doubled. We had originally cast Samantha Morton, who’d said yes, but then walked away from the movie because of money. But then with Kidman our budget doubled, and so basically the movie I was able to make was only made through her being in it.

What was that movie you wanted to make? Certainly it wasn’t about realism. I can’t stand realism in the movies. I am not at all interested in following someone around the streets of New York. What I am interested in is the way in which the conscious and the unconscious are always present together. In Secretary, for example, when you enter the lawyer’s office, you might walk out because it is a bit weird, but you might also sit down and talk about your case because it is real enough. For Fur, it seemed natural to combine dreamlike environments, like where you go into someone’s bathroom and the tub is a swimming pool. The apartment becomes an externalization of an inner experience. I want the viewing process to transport you, not just in how you feel but also in what you might dream the next night.

How did you work with Bill Pope to get that look? First thing you have to know is that when you have a film about Arbus, every cinematographer in the world is available to you. Bill Pope has been a friend of mine for 15 years, and although he had never made a film that looked like this, I knew we could sit down and talk through what I was after. So we would look at movies together, and I’d say, “Not quite like that, more like this,” and he would get it.

It’s interesting that so many cinematographers responded so strongly to Arbus’s work. It is clear what her influence has been in American photography, but what do you think her influence in American cinema has been? For one, the opening up of subject matter is something that she had a large part in. I don’t think that we would have gotten a lot of films, like Boys Don’t Cry or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, without Arbus saying that it was okay to focus on these people. I also think that she took ordinary subjects and made them look unreal. I see [her] pictures in the Coen brothers’ films or in something like Harold and Maude. She opened a door, and a lot of stuff came out.


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CAMERA: Panavision Platinum.

FILM STOCK: Kodak 5218.

EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Media Composer Version 12.0

COLOR CORRECTION: DVS Clipster and DaVinci 2K Plus for color grading.


CARAVAGGIO: Derek Jarman’s 1986 stagy and homoerotic bio-pic of the Italian Renaissance painter pushed the bounds of staid biography into a more personal meditation on desire and creativity.

FREAKS: Tod Browning’s eye-opening 1932 drama, made all the more remarkable for being an MGM studio release, was a film that Arbus saw and was clearly influenced by.

HIGH ART: Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 melodrama about a photo editor falling for a destructive heroin-addicted photographer was a thinly disguised portrait of Nan Goldin.

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