After seeing Steven Shainberg's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus earlier last month after one of its first press screenings, I wrote up my reaction. I was delighted to meet up with Shainberg at the Ritz Carlton, anticipating the film's nationwide release November 10. He was a friendly and charming fellow, eager to talk about his imaginary portrait.
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Michael Guillén: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today, Steven. I recently had the opportunity to interview David Thomson with regard to the release of his appreciation of Nicole Kidman.
Steven Shainberg: He's a fan of this movie, that's for sure.
MG: Yes, he is. He's the one who first recommended I see it. What struck me about his appreciation of Nicole Kidman—I can't really call it a biography—is this aspect of the "may-have-been." It was then interesting for me to see your own imaginal reconstruction of biography. Already in some of the reviews, critics are complaining the film is not what they would consider biographically accurate; but I felt it was an accurate—if imaginary—portrait.
Shainberg: Well, I agree with you obviously. It's easy to make a film—in my point of view—where you slavishly recreate the literal biographical narrative of someone's life. That, for me, never adequately conveys who someone was. When you have a person who is so complicated and so mysterious as Arbus, and whose work is connected to fairy tale and the unconscious, myth and so on and so forth, it didn't interest me to make a film that was just a straight-ahead bio pic. I was interested in her inner life and in the mystery of her inner life. If you read Patricia Bosworth's biography and you read all the articles that have been written about her and you read the museum catalog, on and on and on, nobody can tell you truly what was going on inside her. Why she was drawn to doing this work. Why at the age of 35 she left her husband, broke up her family, stopped working in the studio with Allan and went off to do this incredible, dangerous, daring, profound body of work. There's no literal answer to these unbelievably compelling questions. The only answer from my point of view, with my limitations, was to make something up that might reflect back on those motivations and might actually give you the feeling of what she was going through.
MG: Once when she was queried why she chose "freaks" as her subject matter, Diane Arbus responded: "Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats." Her facility for intuiting this aristocratic nature seemed to captivate Arbus and I felt your film showed that moment of aesthetic arrest when she first saw Lionel.
Shainberg: What's interesting about these statements that she made is that—and I think that that's a fantastic thing she said, beautiful and mystical—but, in terms of the film, those are only things that she can say four, six, seven, eight, ten years after the time period of this movie. In the time period of this movie those connections are being made deep inside of her unconsciously and it's as if the character is going through a dark tunnel holding onto a string with her eyes closed and just following that string through the tunnel. She doesn't know where she's going but she keeps following it. To some extent, I think that was true about Arbus for a long time before she was able to come to some intellectual or linguistic explanation for what she was doing. For a long time she was really doing something that she needed to do that was deeply compelling to her, despite what society might have thought, despite what her parents might have thought, despite what it would do to her family and so on and so forth; she needed to do it. In a way that's what the movie addresses: that need and what that need consisted of. How fantastic and inspiring it is that she did follow it. That she didn't say, "Oh this is something I mustn't do because of all these other things in my life." One of the things to remember is that all of this unbelievable articulateness that she had didn't come for a long time until after the time period of Fur.
MG: So in developing the story, in coming up with your imaginative resolutions to the limits of biography, had you already crafted what you were going to do before Kidman approached it as a property?
Shainberg: Bonnie Timmermann and Ed Pressman, two of the producers who owned the rights to the Patricia Bosworth biography, had already developed a couple of scripts before they came to me. When they brought it to me, I was very involved with Arbus in my own mind. I knew a lot about her. I had grown up with her pictures as a kid, and so on and so forth. And I had a basic framework for how to make the film. By the time Nicole got involved, there was already a financier involved, there was a finished script, there was actually a production in place and Andrew Fierberg, who produced the movie, had already done a lot of pre-production with me. So she came on board when we were pretty far down the line.
MG: In terms of the Arbus estate, the family, how have they reacted to the film?
Shainberg: I don't think they've seen the movie. I don't know if they ever read the script. I suspect that they did. As you probably know, her two daughters are very controlling about their mother's work, which is something that I understand. I don't personally have any problem with it. It's not like I'm antagonistic to them or anything like that. I respect how they feel about their mother. After all, she is their mother. But having said that, she is also Diane Arbus. She is an iconic deeply important person to a lot of people. In that sense, her work has gone out into the world and the world responds to it. This movie is just one of those responses.
MG: What is it in her work that people are responding to? What is the allure of her vision?
Shainberg: That's a great question and maybe the most important question about her. People have been trying to answer it for 35 years now. There is a phenomenal intimacy in those pictures. Not just what the subject of the photographs has revealed to her but somehow what she has revealed to the subject reflected back into the camera. Those pictures, many of them, are about a deep relationship with the person that we feel in the room, her, behind the camera. That's one aspect of them. Another aspect of them is that they challenge us with our own terror and our own prejudice and our own squeamishness and our own recoil. And they demand that we admit something, which we might have trouble admitting to ourselves.
MG: Another quote of her's I like is where she says every photograph harbors a secret about a secret; the more it tells you, the less you know. I like how at the end of your film there's this exchange between Diane and the nudist.
Shainberg: That's where it comes from.
MG: Diane tells the nudist to tell her a secret or story and the nudist counters by saying, "No, you tell me first." That exchange reflects this intimacy that you're describing. Something was exchanged between Diane and her subjects that is very powerful for people who look at her photographs. In the development of the story, how did Lionel come into mind?
Shainberg: He's totally made up. One of the things I knew about the film was that I wanted to make the movie about the relationship between her and a single photographic subject. In her life she had several people who were very important to her but two of them were Lisette Model, who was a photography teacher and a very great photographer herself, and Marvin Israel, who was her lover, her artistic svengali, her mentor and a person who was very important to a lot of artists at that time in New York. He was a dynamo in pushing people to realize themselves. At one time in my mind Lisette Model and Marvin were people we would portray in the film, because they were so significant to her in how they got her to do the work. At the same time, because the essential conceit was her and a single photographic subject—who in my mind had to be a freak—Marvin and Lisette's role in her life got rolled in to Lionel. He became a psychological, emotional, artistic composite of Lisette Model, Marvin Israel, and all the freaks that she eventually photographed. That's part one. Part two is that it was always startling to me and a fact of enormous contemplation that the person who became Diane Arbus as a little girl growing up on Central Park West in New York, had a father who was a furrier. If you imagine a six, seven, eight, nine-year-old girl lying in bed at night knowing that the father who just kissed her good night, who she adores, spends his day—in her mind, possibly—killing beautiful animals to make coats, there is some crazy mysterious unconscious connection between that woman who becomes Diane Arbus and that little girl. In the end it made perfect sense that the Lisette Model/Marvin Israel/freak character be the guy that Lionel is.
MG: I liked that her journey with him was initiated by the mask. What I caught was her awareness that she was in a mask, she was in a persona that was constrictive, a persona of propriety that was stifling her. Then she saw this mask being taken up the steps and I loved that because I love masks; I like to study them—
Shainberg: Me too.
MG: —and I was intrigued by your play with the masks, persona, and the surfaces of things—the skin and the fur—I really liked that.
Shainberg: You're absolutely precisely right in talking about it in terms of the process that the Arbus character is going through. It's also true that that's what she was after in her own work, was to unmask her subject. One of the things she talked about is we have a face that we present to the world and that face is a kind of mask. Then we have the face that exists underneath the face that we present to the world, and it's that face that she was always trying to capture. She does need to be unmasked in the film definitively. Lionel also—as the subject of her picture, the one picture that gets taken during the course of the film—he also needs to be totally unmasked.
MG: The film's website capitalizes on the iconic agent of that unmasking: the razor blade.
Shainberg: Do you know Chip Kidd?
MG: No, I don't.
Shainberg: Chip Kidd is a fantastic book designer. For some strange reason I thought of him to do a poster and I contacted him out of the blue and I said, "Listen, you don't know me, we've never met, but I think somehow you might dig this." We met and had a drink. He's a fantastic guy. We showed him the movie. He calls me up and he says, "Okay, I love the movie and I know what it should be. But I'm not going to tell you, I'm just going to do it." So I said, "Okay, man." Two weeks later he says, "Come to my office" and he's got a mock-up done and he's got a curtain over the mock-up. I go into his office and I'm sitting there and we're having a chitchat and I'm like, "Okay, man, c'mon. I'm not here to find out about how your day was, let's see it!" He whips it off and I looked at it. First of all, it was big, I looked at it and I thought, "Man, that is so fucking cool."
MG: Because it is the agent.
Shainberg: It is the thing! Not only that but, when it's larger, it's very sexual as an object. It's like a dildo. Do you know what I mean? It's like a dildo, it's threatening, it's violent, it's beautiful, it's obviously the agent of revelation. It was so brilliant, I thought.
MG: I liked it too. What it made me think of was—in the well-publicized enmity between Arbus and Susan Sontag—Sontag seemed to be expressing the point of view that the face beneath the mask—what you've been describing—was unacceptable. She was comfortable with the mask but not with the portrait of the face beneath it.
Shainberg: Listen, the Sontag position—you're talking about in On Photography?
Shainberg: It's not a position that I agree with at all.
MG: Nor I.
Shainberg: Have you read it recently?
MG: Yes, when the movie came out I read it again. I was flabbergasted, to tell you the truth.
Shainberg: You've got to read that and think, "Wow, this is a person who really didn't understand this work." To some extent, I feel like it's better off left like that. It's so limited in its point of view. Susan Sontag was a brilliant woman and On Photography has many fabulous things to say about photography, the experience of taking pictures, the metaphor of taking pictures, and so on and so forth, but, what she specifically had to say about Arbus I just think is absurd.
MG: In alignment with that, I feel that already some of the critical reaction to Fur is missing the point.
Shainberg: Some of the reaction to Fur is a lot like some of the reaction to Arbus's work.
MG: Exactly. That's what I was going to say. It's as if people come with a predisposition of what they want to understand is the biography of a person. You have done a creative thing just as David Thomson did in his biography of Nicole Kidman. You suggest that our understanding of an individual is not necessarily the data points of their lives as much as our interaction with who that person represents to us.
Shainberg: We could go down this path and we would be talking for a long time—which would really be fucking fun—but film is an unbelievably literal medium unless the person who's making the movie can transcend that. If I show you a rabbit on the screen, I'm showing you a rabbit, you see a rabbit, there is no way I can get around that, there's nothing I can do. If I paint the rabbit pink, it's a pink rabbit. If I paint the rabbit blue, it's a blue rabbit. You are going to see a rabbit. For me to get that rabbit to function metaphorically and, in some sense, symbolically extend itself beyond its literalism, I have to perform a sleight-of-hand. People come into the theater expecting literalism because that's what they're used to. They're not used to having a poetic experience in the theater. If I showed you Cocteau's movies now, if we put out Cocteau's movies, do you think people would understand them? No. People don't have the patience for that. They don't have the wherewithal to accept cinema as something which can be more or other than the literal and that is true in spades when it comes to taking a significant historical figure and portraying them. So the film, I recognize, demands a great deal of openness from the audience. To some extent we are trying in all ways to prepare the audience for that. An imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus. When you first go in, I put up two cards that tell you, "Don't expect that. This is a different kind of movie. Please. Open your imagination and your body to that kind of experience."
MG: I wonder why people are so resistant to that? I felt fortunate in having talked to David Thomson because one of the questions I asked him was—as a person who interviews many people and talks to people, what are you looking for?—because I'm a fairly new person in this field; I'm just starting to interview a lot of people and I have particular concerns that I'm interested in so I asked him, "What is it that you're looking for?" He said, "I like to find out the moment when someone becomes themselves." Then I went to go see your film….
Shainberg: …and that's what it's about.
MG: That's what it's about. In contrast to critics who are saying, "Well, why didn't you mention her suicidal tendencies?"
Shainberg: Let me address that because I think that's very interesting. There are many things that people might say about the film, let's say, negatively, which in fact are in the movie. Let's just address that one thing. Patti Smith, the singer, who I had never met, called me up, got my number from a friend, had seen the movie, called me up and said she loved the movie, and she said to me, "Wow. You were even able to get her suicide in the film." And I said, "Yeah, of course." When Lionel swims off and kills himself. When he takes her to see a dead body. How much more explicitly do you need to have her exposed to her own death 13 years later? It's in the movie. One of the things he's teaching her is that taking the risk that she's about to take, discovering herself, making this change in her life, requires an experience of and a connection to her own potential death. It is in the movie. Yes, again, I don't show her cutting her wrists and taking barbiturates and dying in the bathroom.
MG: You don't need to.
Shainberg: I don't feel like I need to but also I think that interpretation of Arbus's life is in and of itself a cliché.
MG: It's too literal.
Shainberg: It's too literal but it's also not the only story. When you read the Bosworth biography and when you look at her amazing work and the rooms that she put herself in and the people that she exposed herself to, I look at her life as this tremendous fabulous wondrous incredible journey and transformation.
MG: When I first wrote about Fur, the structure that engaged me was when she was at the nudist colony and they told her she had to remove her clothing and she said, "I need a moment" and the movie is in the moment.
Shainberg: Exactly. Like a picture taking.
MG: Yes. I loved that. I thought that was very well-done. The other thing that I went with—just because of the way that I am—I loved that this carnivalesque resonance that she was experiencing was accessed by a ladder that led into her attic. Where did that image come from?
Shainberg: Again, thinking about it as fairytale, thinking about it as metaphor, in a sense she's going into her own mind. She's opening up her own head and in her own head all these things come down.
MG: That's exactly how I took it but I always like to confirm that I'm seeing the movie that you made and not reading too much into it.
Shainberg: [Laughs.] Believe me, of all the people I have talked to, you have seen the movie I made the most.
MG: In terms of the acting then, Robert Downey, Jr. is phenomenal in this movie. Number one, I think he's one of our finest actors but what he was able to convey with—and I am interested in knowing how you interacted with him to achieve this—the liquidity of his eye, how he could get so much across hidden behind that mask of fur, how did you work with him on that?
Shainberg: It was fantastic. The key to this whole movie and the key to his performance was that he did trust his face and his eyes. Robert is phenomenally talented with improvisation. He's incredibly clever. He's linguistically sophisticated. He's a formidable energy. All you have to do is see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and you know the guy can [clicking his fingers twice] go! In a sense all of that had to be taken away from him. What's interesting for me always is to take an actor who does one thing and take him and let him do the opposite, do something else. It's like James Spader, who can be very cold and withdrawn, to see underneath his incredible vulnerability, that's beautiful and obviously part of him. So to get Robert to be still and just trust the fact that, if you look at her and you're connected with who the guy is and what he's gone through in his life and the fact that he's dying and so on and so forth, if you connect with all those things, they will be in your eyes. It's all there. He has tremendous wonderful and painful life experience. All you have to do is sit there and look at him and it's there. In addition, his eyes are beautiful and incredibly poignant.
MG: The image that comes to me is from Jungian psychology. They have a term scintilla which is that glint of light in dark water, consciousness emanating from darkness, or the light within darkness. His eyes and his voice were unbelievably expressive. I was quite impressed.
Shainberg: That's one of the tremendous pleasures of the movie. You get to feel that from him.
MG: Working with Kidman, what was that like for you?
Shainberg: For some reason when she became interested in doing the film, I went to Sydney to have dinner with her and to talk about the movie. It was one of those meetings where 15 minutes into the dinner it was like we'd known each other for 20 years. I can't explain it. It just happens in your life where you just meet somebody that you know you're going to be friends with for a long time. It was a filial relationship. It was like she was my sister. I can't explain that, but, we just really trusted each other and I adore her as an actress. That was just the beginning of working together and it developed positively from there. She is an actor who is incredibly alive between action and cut. She is totally present. She's completely giving to the other person. Her only question of the director truly is what do you want? So if she doesn't give a good performance in a movie, which frankly is rare, you've got nobody to blame but yourself. She wants nothing more than to get at the character as deeply as she can.
MG: So what did you want of her?
Shainberg: Obviously, because this is not a biopic and because it's a deep unconscious journey, it wasn't important to listen to Arbus tapes. It wasn't important to walk like Arbus or talk like Arbus, all those things that people do. I said, "None of that. Our only task here for you is to connect with what this person is going through." Much of that, by the way, is unspoken, it's all in her eyes, it's all in how she's moving, how fast, how slow, how scared, and on and on. We talked a lot about what is it that she's feeling in this life in 1958 with her husband and her two kids. What is it that's gnarling inside? What is it that's growling inside? What is it that's pushing up against the barriers inside and how are you handling that and how are you responding to that and how do you feel it? What is it you long for? And so on and so forth. All of those things by the time you start shooting have to be alive in the actor and I think they are alive in her.
MG: Definitely. What is it that you hope this movie will do? How are you hoping it will be received—other than just loved—what do you want?
Shainberg: Again, it's a portrait of an internal process and that process is very important to me. I think it's the most important thing that somebody can possibly experience.
MG: How to find your creative authenticity?
Shainberg: How to find your authenticity. It may be creative. It may be something else. It could be anything. It doesn't have to be about making art. But I think that the fact that this woman risked everything to find that because it was so deeply propelling her, I don't think that's a strange story. I don't think that's weird. I've made a very unusual movie but I don't think that those fundamental feelings are unfamiliar to most people. I think that they're more than familiar.
MG: In this time and age when we're so bombarded with ready-made forms the quest for authenticity is more important than ever before. I know I approach films in that way. I look at images to see which images speak authentically or which images are contrived and manipulative. That's why it's so refreshing to watch a piece like yours where the audience is asked to imagine and to invest energy into the film. So what's next for you?
Shainberg: This film is really subtle and poetic and lovely and beautiful to look at, and all that, and that was fantastic. The aesthetic experience was just so fun. But when I see the movie, it makes me want to make something even more dangerous and daring and really talky where people tell you how they feel, and they're expressive and they're raw, and they act on things, and break things, and mess up, where it's just more blatant. Just because the finessing of these images in Fur and the finessing moment to moment with subtle emotions, it makes me want to make something out of brick now. I feel like I've made something out of delicate china. When I watch it, I'm like, "Ah, fuck that, man." I want to make something that just hammers you, hits you over the head, where you're like, "Oh my god." Ten minutes into the movie you're like, "What the fuck am I seeing?" I'm working in that direction.
MG: Has something come to you?
Shainberg: Oh yeah, I have a whole bunch of stuff. I have maybe three, four movies that I want to make. Two of them are in that vein. One of them, again, is a continuation of this sort of style. I think I'm going to wait on that one and maybe do that after this much more aggressive movie.
MG: Well, I do want to congratulate you on Fur. You have created a lovely, delicate, cryptic piece that honors Diane Arbus. Thank you for taking the time.
Shainberg: Certainly. A pleasure. Delightful.
Photo of Steven Shainberg by Jeff Vespa, WireImage. Cross-published on Twitch.
11/09/06 UPDATE: Cross-published in abbreviated form at Entertainment Today.