Steven Shainberg, the director of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane

In Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, director Steven Shainberg—whose previous project Secretary was a Sundance darling—has imaginatively reconstructed the biography of Diane Arbus, enacted by Nicole Kidman

“It’s easy to make a film,” said Shainberg, “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 fairytale and the unconscious, it didn’t interest me to make a film that was just a straight-ahead bio pic. I was interested in the mystery of her inner life. “

Once when Arbus was queried why she chose “freaks” as her subject matter, she 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.”

Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus in Fur.

“What’s interesting about these statements that she made,” Shainberg ventured, “is that 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.”

I inquired how the character of Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) was developed, and Shainberg admitted that the character was “totally made-up.” He expanded, “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.”

Director Steven Shainberg and Nicole Kidman view scenes on the set of Fur.

I noted that Fur plays intriguingly with masks, persona, appearances and the surfaces of things—skin and the fur—and Shainberg agreed that Arbus was trying to shed restrictive demands of conventionality on her life. The notion of unmasking further reminded me of the well-publicized enmity between Arbus and Susan Sontag, articulated in Sontag’s 1973 essay on Arbus in On Photography. Sontag expressed her discomfort with the face beneath the mask being exposed.

Shainberg admitted his disagreement with Sontag’s position, which he finds absurd. “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.”

“Film is an unbelievably literal medium,” he continued, “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.”