Director Steven Shainberg’s long awaited follow-up to his
groundbreaking film Secretary (2002) is an anti-biopic that dares to
read between the lines of its subject’s life rather than replay the
common knowledge events of photographer Diane Arbus’ life.
Only a few factual threads comprise Shainberg’s adventurous
tightrope narrative in which Diane (Nicole Kidman) Arbus’ artistic
awakening that transported her from repressed daughter, wife and mother
to becoming one of the greatest photographic visionaries of the 20th
I spoke to Steven Shainberg at the Regency hotel in Manhattan.
MAUI TIMEWEEKLY: When you decided to make a movie about Diane Arbus, why did you choose to create an imaginary context for the narrative?
STEVEN SHAINBERG: First of
all, I don’t personally have any interest in straight-ahead biopics. I
never walk out of a straight-ahead biopic and feel like I genuinely got
to know who that person was. I think that they deal with too much time,
in general, so they are essentially superficial. They feel like the
greatest hits of a famous person’s life—from dramatic scene to dramatic
scene to dramatic scene.
I am interested in making a film about somebody that tells you what
you don’t know. It goes into a mystery and it goes into a process. In
the case of this film it was essentially unconscious. She [Diane Arbus]
didn’t really know what was happening to her in 1958. It was a
beautiful transformation that occurred and one of things I have always
wondered about her is how did that happen.
How did this woman, in 1958, at the age of 35, married with two
kids, doing what she considered to be banal work in her fashion
photography studio with her husband, become the Diane Arbus we know?
And that is not a question that can be answered literally.
When did you first have this idea to create this kind of film?
Years and years ago. It was the only movie I could imagine doing
myself. But this is long before I even made a feature. You know, I have
been thinking about this because I was around the pictures when I was a
small kid, and my uncle Lawrence was a close friend of hers [Diane
Arbus] and I was very conscious of her. And to some extent she was
already a kind of mythical figure for me.
So when Ed Pressman and Bonnie Timmermann, who controlled the rights
to the Bosworth biography, said, “Have you ever heard of Diane Arbus?”
I said, “I can’t fucking believe this!” Barbara Streisand was going to
do it. Diane Keaton was going to do it. I would think, “Oh no! I don’t
want to see that movie be made, and even worse, I am never going to get
to make one.”
So, I have thought about it for a long time, how I had to go after
the subject if I ever got the chance. Believe me, when I went in and
talked to them about it, they encountered a guy that was not going to
leave the room. It was a movie I really wanted to make.
What makes Nicole Kidman work for your vision of Diane Arbus?
You have to understand that since the movie is not a literal
vision—it is a dream—I wanted somebody that didn’t look like her, first
of all. I wanted somebody that would take you into that alternative
space. But more importantly what I was really trying to do was find
somebody who I felt could portray the inner transformation that she is
And if you know Nicole Kidman or if you see her work, she strikes
me, and it proves to be true knowing her and working with her, she
struck me as a woman of enormous curiosity—somebody who truly wishes,
like Arbus, to discover other worlds and to experience those other
worlds and to be as intimate as possible with them, to do that with
enormous capacity and sensitivity and openness.
When I sat down and talked to her about the script and who Arbus was
and what this very particular experience is that we were trying to
portray in the film, that is exactly who she seemed to be. And that is
exactly what she goes after in life. So there is obviously not an
external similarity, but I think there is an internal similarity. MTW