A 'Fur'-Fetched Portrait Of Arbus? Precisely! Says the Filmmaker

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

Filmmaker Steven Shainberg's voice is rising in expletive-riddled excitement, drawing warning glances from the guards at a photography exhibition at the National Gallery's West Building, and even an occasional shush .

Forgive Shainberg, but, at a moment like this, shush isn't his style. A Robert Frank photograph? He worked for the man his first year out of college and can describe and explain every single one of his photographs. Helen Levitt? Oh, she was friends with his mom, used to come out with the family to Cape Cod to summer. Look at that Walker Evans -- did you know that legendary photographer Diane Arbus was so terrified of him that upon arriving at his apartment, she refused to get out of the car?

Ah, Arbus. The reason Shainberg is here, at this moment, responding to the photographs in "The Streets of New York: American Photographs From the Collection, 1938-1958" like a hyperactive kid with the insight and intellect of a top photography critic. On Friday, his experimental take on Arbus's life -- "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus" (starring Nicole Kidman in the title role) -- opens in Washington, to much buzz and some controversy over that whole "imaginary" part.

Before he sits down to explain that decision, though, he works his way methodically and eagerly through the exhibition, eventually landing in front of one of two Arbus photographs being shown, "Female Impersonator With Jewels," from 1958.

"When I look at this picture," he says, "I feel like I've gone two doors down the hallway further." Huh? He tries to explain, gesturing to the photographs that had come before. "Arbus said, 'You guys went this far, I'm going to go two doors further .' "

And that's exactly what Shainberg set out to do with the film.

Shainberg grew up with Arbus photographs on his walls, and stories from his uncle, the author Lawrence Shainberg, who was one of Arbus's close friends until her death, by suicide, in 1971. He's had a lifetime fascination with her, with Arbus's gift for capturing the unusual and eccentric -- dwarfs, giants, transvestites -- with an authenticity that haunts some and horrifies others. The logical and safe and predictable thing for her would have been to continue her life as wife and mother and assistant to her fashion-photographer husband, Allan Arbus. Only she didn't.

The logical and safe entrance into the story of Arbus's life would have been through Door No. 1: the Hollywood biopic. Not for Shainberg. Not for the guy whose breakout film, "Secretary," a sadomasochistic love story (starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal), is about the healing power of a good spanking over the boss's desk.

He wanted to make a movie "true to her spirit and true to what my connection to her is," Shainberg says. The result, "Fur," creates a fictional relationship between Arbus (whose first name is pronounced DE-ann) and a mysterious man, Lionel, who lives in the apartment above hers. Lionel, played by Robert Downey Jr., serves as her guide as she ventures into the darker sides of society that will eventually become the focus of her photography. He is, in fact, presented as the first portrait she takes.

In other words, Shainberg went straight to Door No. 3, and stepped into a world of fairy-tale noir, one inhabited by a fictional man-muse covered entirely in fur.

* * *

Spend two hours listening to Shainberg talk -- about his life, his art, his motivations and especially about his sense of fellowship with Arbus -- and somehow it hardly seems fair to render his life entirely through Door No. 1, a.k.a. the traditional narrative.

To wit:

Door No. 1 -- a brief biographical sketch of Steven Shainberg, age 43. He grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a father, David, who was a psychoanalyst, and a mother, Diane, a psychiatrist who became a Buddhist nun. (They divorced when he was 14.) He has a sister and a half brother. His family was, as he puts it, "unbelievably literate." He went to private schools, then Yale, and studied at the American Film Institute for three years in his mid-20s. He made some successful short films, did some work for MTV, got into commercials. His first movie, "Hit Me," came out in 1996. He hates L.A.; loves New York, where he lives with his wife, documentary filmmaker Rachel Boynton.

Then there's Door No. 3 -- Shainberg on what drew him to the Mary Gaitskill short story that was the basis for "Secretary."

"I'm almost exclusively interested in what happens behind closed doors, between people," Shainberg says. "The removal of their public face. . . . Those two people in the story I just found incredibly touching. Like, who's this senator who just got nabbed?"

You mean former congressman Mark Foley?

"I found Foley, like, so touching. It's so amazing. The need and -- it's not even desperation, because that's almost pejorative -- but the energy is undeniable. It's fantastic. And beautiful. And everybody knows about that, in one form or another. Not necessarily teenage boys. But everybody has a connection to that desire and to that pain and to that conflict. And I find it really touching that people go through it."

* * *

"Secretary" was a collaborative project between Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, who also scripted "Fur." A mutual friend set up Shainberg and Wilson on what she refers to as an "artistic blind date" years ago because, she says, the two seemed to have "similar sensibilities."

As in?

"Sense of humor," she says. "Sense of power relationships. Sense of what is erotic and sensual and dirty and fun. Sense of what is most emotionally moving about seemingly creepy subject matter. These are all things we share, along with a political incorrectness. The bottom line is, we're both committed to dealing with typically dark subjects . . . and revealing the beauty and vulnerability of that which seems scary and horrible."

To going two more doors down the hallway, as Arbus did.

"After 'Secretary,' I was wanting very badly to find something to make that I really cared about," says Shainberg. The rights to Arbus's story -- specifically "Diane Arbus: A Biography," by Patricia Bosworth -- were always owned by someone else, though no scripts ever made their way into production.

Then one day the producers currently in possession of the film rights -- Edward Pressman and Bonnie Timmerman -- called him, Shainberg says, and asked, "Do you know who Diane Arbus is?"

Shainberg -- now seated in a National Gallery cafe -- widens his eyes to emphasize his shock. He and Wilson signed on.

So what happened when they told the producers that their vision of the film involved a fictional guy who lived in an apartment upstairs from the Arbus family . . . and happened to be covered in fur?

"It was hysterical because no one knew what to say," Shainberg says.

But everyone bought in, including Downey, who had to undergo three hours a day of "makeup" -- getting fur glued on -- before shooting.

(An on-set aside: Jane Alexander, who plays Arbus's mother, has always been a "major" fan of Downey's. But because of their limited scenes, she never saw him without his "fur" until she went to say goodbye. Downey was bent over with a towel on his head. When he flipped back up, Alexander, well, let's let her tell it: "I gasped because I was only two feet away from such a wonderful-looking man. Oh, he's handsome.")

Downey's character is designed to represent the two biggest influences on Arbus's professional life -- photographer Lisette Model and painter Marvin Israel -- as well as the eccentric characters who were the hallmark of her work.

"He is at once her subject, her object of desire, he is her imagination, her muse, and he's also her mentor," Wilson says. "I needed him to be otherworldly. I needed him to be from a fairy-tale world."

Shainberg goes on to explain:

Arbus felt that "in going out into the world to make pictures that she was having an 'Alice in Wonderland' experience," he says. "So that idea of the myth and that idea of the fairy tale wasn't something that I imposed upon her life. It came from things she said. And it also comes from her work. Her work has all the qualities of a fairy tale -- giants and dwarfs and transvestites. It is a kind of in-the-rabbit-hole world."

Shainberg's "incredible vision" and "inventive" script (to quote Alexander) attracted an all-star cast, headed by Kidman and Downey. The Shainberg-Wilson team even won over Bosworth, whose much-praised -- but much more straightforward -- biography is also a basis for the script.

"I do think it's true to the spirit," Bosworth says. "You see her evolving. You see her getting born, being reborn, beginning to explore the dark realities she's always been fascinated by."

Shainberg, she says, "wants to push the envelope. He is daring. He is gutsy."

The gamble now is whether viewers are willing to take that journey and embrace what's behind Door No. 3. Not that the risk would ever have stopped him.

"I like," he says, "to keep going further and further down the hall."

* * *

Door No. 1: Shainberg's favorite Arbus photograph (offered in response to a query): "The couple on a lawn with a boy behind them with a plastic swimming pool" ("A Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y.," 1968).

Door No. 3: Shainberg's favorite serial killer (offered up without inquiry while he's having his photograph taken at the National Gallery): Jeffrey Dahmer. "Because he ate them. He ate them!"

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