Film: Picture This

Steven Shainberg's Fur investigates the early inspiration of Diane Arbus

Nov 21, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Picturehouse Films

Nicole Kidman stars as Diane Arbus in Fur.

When asked the dreaded question, filmmaker Steven Shainberg actually coughs on his espresso in his hotel suite and then struggles to clear his throat. He really dislikes it!

But here it is, anyway. Why, if he were making a film about iconic New York photographer Diane (pronounced "Dee-ann") Arbus' life, wouldn't he focus on her mysterious suicide at age 48 in 1971? Since the subjects of her most memorable work were societal outsiders — transvestites, nudists, carnival performers, the famous "Jewish giant" — people have always wondered if she killed herself because she had seen too much. Gotten too close to the abyss.

But Fur, the film about Arbus that Shainberg has directed (and that Erin Cressida Wilson wrote) doesn't go there. It isn't about her death. Starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, it's rooted in a fantastical occurrence that Shainberg and Wilson pretend happened in 1958.

Here's Fur's scenario: Arbus, at the time still a repressed housewife and mother helping with her husband's commercial-photography business, becomes enamored with a new upstairs neighbor, the at-first masked Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.).

His body is completely covered in fur-like hair. And that becomes her impetus to begin taking the strange photographs that changed her life. In the film, her career starts with Lionel. (Arbus really did turn to her groundbreaking photojournalism and away from the safety of her family relatively late in life.)

Fur's bizarrely fictional, almost supernatural re-imagining of Arbus' life has netted it some tough reviews in cities where it's already opened. Critics have wondered why, with all the raw drama in Arbus' actual life, Shainberg has her seeking furtive meetings with a semi-wolf man. At times, they have noted, it seems closer to Alice in Wonderland or Beauty and the Beast than the real world.

"I don't like biopics," Shainberg says, recovered from his coughing fit during a recent interview in Beverly Hills. The trim 42-year-old filmmaker, who first came to prominence (with writing partner Wilson) with 2002's creepy and erotic Secretary, is now relaxing in a chair with one foot propped on a coffee table. "I think they are in general superficial, and they seem to me like the greatest hits of someone's life. One of the problems with biopics in general is they deal with too much time.

"I didn't want to treat Diane Arbus that way," he says. "I wanted to treat her in a deeper way, and also ask what I think are deeper questions about her. I was fascinated by the fact that she was 35 years old, married with children and doing banal work and then her life changed. She was able to connect with something inside herself. I think that's an incredible, beautiful, celebratory act.

"Everybody who knows a little about Diane Arbus knows she killed herself, and everybody knows she took these freaky pictures," Shainberg continues. "But that's not the Diane Arbus story I connect with when I think of her. I think of her as an unbelievably adventurous, courageous, determined, ambitious, powerful, daring, incredible person. So it made no sense to focus on that aspect of it (the suicide).

"One of the mysteries of her work which directly fed the idea of Fur was that there's something going between the person we don't see — Diane Arbus — and the person we do see, the subject of her photos," the director says. "That's the birth of Fur — wondering about the person in the room behind the camera and her relationship to the picture. What was her own need that put her there?"

Fur is inspired by Patricia Bosworth's Diane Arbus: A Biography and produced by, among others, Bonnie Timmermann and Edward Pressman. In a recent Vanity Fair article, Bosworth talked about the difficulty in getting the film made.

When Timmermann and Pressman contacted Shainberg because they had liked Secretary, he was especially pleased. His family knew Arbus in the 1960s. His uncle, writer Lawrence Shainberg, was a friend and collected her photos. And his parents — both psychiatrists — had prints mounted in their Manhattan townhome.

It also was where his father maintained his office at the time. Although still a child, Shainberg was subconsciously influenced by having those photos around in his family home.

"It wasn't until later that I could look back on that and think, 'Wow, I was really looking at those pictures a lot,' " he says. "And it's interesting that (the producers) saw Secretary and thought, 'Maybe this guy could figure out a movie about Diane Arbus.' I think there is Arbus in Secretary, some quality I definitely absorbed from having those pictures around."

He might also have absorbed the context in which he was seeing those photos — in a house where strangers were always coming and going for closed-door meetings with his father.

"I'd see people going up the stairs into my dad's office and they'd look just like you and me," Shainberg recalls. "And then later on at night over dinner my parents would talk about their patients and we'd find out what's really going on with that guy who looks just like every other lawyer or academic or whatever he was. We'd find out the real story.

"At least for me, there was a learning and awareness of the complicated mysteries of those people, and the strangeness and the fact that my parents had compassion for them and wanted to help and understand them," he says. "They didn't treat them as weird or as 'other.' I think that has some connection to Diane Arbus' work, but obviously has some connection to my bent." ©