'Fur' flies to screen from 'Secretary' writer

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"Fur" focus:  It's not unusual for films to take years in development in order to reach the screen, but when two decades elapse before a project gets made there's bound to be something worth talking about.

That, indeed, turned out to be the case when I spoke recently to screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson about "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." Opening today on four screens in New York and Los Angeles via Picturehouse, "Fur" expands Nov. 17 to 10 more key markets, including Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

The film reunites director Steven Shainberg with Wilson, who wrote the screenplay for his critically acclaimed 2002 drama "Secretary," for which Maggie Gyllenhaal received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress - musical or comedy. "Fur" is based on the book "Diane Arbus: A Biography" by Patricia Bosworth. It was produced by William Pohlad, Laura Bickford, Bonnie Timmermann and Andrew Fierberg and executive produced by Edward R. Pressman, Alessandro Camon and Michael Roban. Starring are Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey, Jr.

The movie's roughly 20 years to reach the screen began with the publication in 1984 of Bosworth's book about Arbus. Timmermann, who read it when it came out, was eager to turn it into a movie, but the rights weren't available. Over the years they were held at times by MGM, Lorimar, Barbra Streisand and others. Timmermann remained interested in the project, however, and her persistence paid off when the rights finally became available in 1997. She brought the project to Pressman's attention and he partnered with her and then optioned the book. About six years of development followed with three other directors attached at times, each with their own approach to the material. After "Secretary" opened to critical acclaim in 2002, Timmermann and Pressman contacted Shainberg, who it turned out had for years wanted to make a movie about Arbus and her photography and was already very familiar with her career and her family. Shainberg had worked with Wilson on "Secretary" and bringing her in finally made "Fur" fly to the screen.

"When I came on board, I had never read any of the previous drafts. I wanted to start from scratch and create a portrait of Diane Arbus from the perspective of me as a writer and Steven as a director," Wilson explained. Arbus, who died in 1971, was the legendary photographer whose work pushed the envelope in terms of the kind of medium photography became. Her images capturing the look of society's outcasts or "freaks" were a complete departure from the portrait style that photographers used at the time.

What Wilson had in mind was "to not go by the normal rules of a biopic, which can often (mean) going through all of the episodes of a person's life, but to look more at the background and the details and the themes of Diane Arbus's life and to create a film that might attempt to show the moments where her creativity ignited into her becoming an artist in her mid-30s. I still notice in biopics the problem that happens in the connective tissue between events. It always seems to be this shuffling to get to the next event because, in fact, the writer doesn't know what happened in-between. And none of us knows what happens in-between to these people. So I didn't want to pretend that I knew what happened in-between or to try to re-enact the moments of her life that we all know, but to try to create something that we could feel. I wanted to walk out of this picture feeling what it was like to become this artist rather than to know some high points of her life."

Wilson and Shainberg already had a close working relationship when they got started on "Fur." "Steven and I have known each other for about 15 years," she told me. "We met when a mutual friend thought our sensibilities might work together well. A few years later, he sent me a packet with 'Secretary' in it and asked me if I wanted to write a film. I'd been writing stage plays for 15 years. I had always meant to write films. I wanted to make films since the time I was six. I saw all the incredible films of the '70s when they came out -- when I was tiny -- 'Godfather' and 'Last Tango in Paris' and 'The Mother and the Whore' and 'Barry Lyndon' and all these big hits. I always meant to, but I didn't want to write a script and put it on a shelf. I always wanted to make a film. So I waited a long time until the moment came when thankfully Steve Shainberg came with, I think, funding ready to make this film. And I became ready to write it because I knew it would happen."

That film was "Secretary." "The reason I had stuck with theater for so long, apart from the fact that I had loved theater very much, at least the theater of the '70s, is that I could see it happen. It was so easy. You didn't need a lot of money. In fact, I could go perform it myself anywhere in Downtown Manhattan," Wilson said. "It was very important to me, and it always is, that the writer for theater and for film is part of the filmmaking, not just someone who gets paid a lot of money to write something that you put on a shelf. That's just not the way I ever saw being a writer. That's why it took me quite a while to get to that point with Steven."

Wilson wrote "Fur," she added, "in my last trimester of pregnancy, all alone in my apartment in New York City. My husband was away. And I wrote it as my (unborn) son was kicking the shit out of me. I was living next door to where Diane Arbus used to live, as a coincidence, so I had this wonderful experience of looking out my window at the same things she was looking at and I was trying to create a film that captured what she saw as she turned into an artist and what she saw of the world and what she felt.

"Early on when I was writing the film a neighbor moved into the attic above me and made a lot of noise and bothered me and I got mad at him. We became slowly friends. He was home alone all the time. He was an artist and I was downstairs alone writing. I could hear him through the pipes and I could hear him through the ceiling. I could hear him when he was going to eat and going to the bathroom and taking a bath. This sort of companionship and this sort of audio voyeurism was very important to creating the character of Lionel in the film (a mysterious man who turns out to be covered with fur-like hair) -- Lionel being the subject of Diane Arbus's photographs in the retelling of this imaginary portrait of her. So it becomes her upstairs neighbor (played by Robert Downey Jr.)."

When Wilson started working on the project, she recalled, "I said to Steven, she photographed so many people. I don't want to make a film where she jumps in and out of a cab and goes to see this person and goes to see that person and goes to see this other person and takes a photograph. That's not really what happened. And that's not really interesting to me. If you think of the photograph of the 'Jewish Giant,' the famous photograph ('Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in The Bronx, NY,' 1970), she took that 10 years after she met him. So what you're seeing is the product of a 10 year relationship -- an intimacy that grew between her and a stranger, an eccentric, someone who opened up something inside of her. I wanted to see if I could make a film about that 10 years, that moment, that time where you get to know and you cross the line and you get to know the other and you find that the other, that beast, reflects yourself as much as anything else. So the subject that I wrote into the film is not only her subject and her muse, but her own imagination."

Shainberg first approached Wilson about writing "Fur," she said, "the week that 'Secretary' opened (Sept. 20, 2002), which was so nice to happen at that moment. He told me that he'd been talking to Pressman and so we went in and met with them and we got to work right away. We met Patricia Bosworth and she's an incredible woman. We got to work right away talking about it and seeing what it is that we wanted to see in this film. And then I did the thing that writers do -- which is, I was terribly alone and struggled and fought with the script. I struggled quite a bit with it until finally it started to gel. And that was when I was able to start to make it a portrait rather than a re-telling (or) an imitation of reality.

"It's almost redundant to say 'imaginary' because what I wanted to do was create a film with Steven that was our portrait of Diane Arbus. And that meaning -- we are artists who take what is most stunning to us about Diane Arbus and present it as a portrait of her. It's not like we are filmmakers who stick by the rules and tell the highlights of her life and try to find connective tissue. That was not the way we approached it. The way I wanted to approach it was my, in fact, loving portrait of her growth as an artist."

Asked how she works when she's writing, Wilson replied, "I'm a big note card person. I prepare a lot. I prepare for months, even a year. I think I prepared almost a year on this one. And it is one of the most delightful moments about writing for me and it's also sort of a moment of deconstruction where I can let go for a while of 'what is the outline of this film?' but more 'what are the elements that I want to bring in here?' So one of the things I do is work with the cards. I don't work with a board, actually, I work with boxes of cards that I shuffle and reorder. And in a certain sense, the more shuffling and reordering I do in the best case scenario the story develops from that, the story creates itself through the reshuffling of these cards in acts. Inside that very tight structure I feel that I'm allowed to go wild, if I stay in that structure.

"The other thing I do is I go into a bookstore. I usually go to Green Apple Books in San Francisco, which is a phenomenal used books store. I go in with $500 and I look at the art books and I look at the photo books and anything that hits me that I think might have something to do with what is turning me on about this subject, I buy it. It needs to be mine. It doesn't really work with library books. I buy it. I invest in that. And then I color Xerox the images that are speaking to me the most. So in a way I trust that my instinct to associate with that image is going to pay off. I may have that image around for quite a long time and I don't see the connection, but it helps me to paint the screenplay rather than write the screenplay. It helps me enter it through images rather than through words. The other thing, of course, is that I worked with Diane Arbus's photographs in this and those conformed in the way that the story and plot and scenes came out."

Eventually, she continued, "I started to do the very left-brained task of outlining it. I don't do this do early. I think it's really death to start writing too early. I teach writing. You know, we all say, 'I have a great idea for the opening of the film. I really want to write it.' It's like, you sit down, you write it and you get to page 30 and you're like, 'I don't know what to do now.' And this can happen. So it's a very, very strict rule for myself to not start writing as much as I'm itching to do so, but to continue to outline until I have a very, very tight outline. And then when I have the tight outline -- and this is true -- on 'Fur' I wrote it in 10 days. But that's after almost a year of work.

"When I was a child I was a photographer and a visual artist. I didn't end up becoming one, but it very much informed the way that I ended up being a writer. I didn't enter writing from the word, but from the image."

How does she actually do her writing? "Well, I wrote on my big, fat stomach of my baby about to be born," she told me, "on my living room couch, on my laptop with crossed legs and all my papers around me. I don't do this anymore because now I have a two year old, but what I used to do is I would go on these wonderful marathons -- 24 hour a day writing (sessions). That's how I did it in 10 days really. I would write and write and then I'd watch a movie or two. And then I'd sleep. And I'd order in food. And then I'd write and write. My God, it was like a love affair without a man. I can't do that anymore, but I'm definitely not a person who writes for a few hours a day. I write a lot at once."

As for when she writes, Wilson said, "first thing in the morning. It's whenever I wake up, which at this point is 8:30. It's not that early. My father was an English professor and he wrote linguistic books. In order to be able to write because he had a kid, he'd wake up at five every morning and start writing. I would always hear him. He actually tried to climb down the back wall into the garden and enter his office that way on several occasions to avoid (waking) me, but I would follow him. I would go down -- of course, I was terribly in love with my gorgeous father -- and I would pretend to type with him. So it was obviously very ingrained behavior. That's how (writing early in the morning) started, I would imagine."

Working with Shainberg was made easier because "we know each other quite well. We talked quite a bit when I first started to outline and gather materials. And we would exchange books and images. And then I wrote it. The shock of the thing is -- the screenwriter wrote the screenplay. It's like, believe it or not, the actors did not make actually everything up. I recall at the time that he was very busy in development with other screenplays so on a certain level I felt like I was in a little bit of a hurry to get this done and sort of make it in a way that would attract him to make it his next film because it didn't look like it was going to be. But thankfully it was."

While she's writing Wilson never has actors in mind to bring her characters to life on the screen: "I never write for actors because it's not the way that I see the characters. I can't work from that. I write people and the actors come afterwards for me."

She showed Shainberg a rough draft of the screenplay, she said, explaining, "I wrote a muddle-through about half-way through. That was a good document from which to start talking. So we talked some more after that muddle-through and then I went away and lived desperately alone (writing). You have to be alone to write. I mean, I think so. When I first started to write, which is 20 years ago, I said to my agent, who's still my agent, 'It's too lonely. I want to do it with someone' and he said, 'Well, what did you think it was going to be?' And then I thought, 'God, he's right.' And then I realized I really love being alone and I fell in love with being alone."

Wilson, who lives in Santa Monica and has a rent controlled apartment in New York off Washington Square, doesn't have a office in which to write. "In Santa Monica I write one foot away from my bed in the bedroom on a desk," she said. "I use Final Draft (software to write). It's great. It's magic. Just hit Return and it does the next character. I love it."

Filmmaker flashbacks:  From June 16, 1988's column: "The notion that it's difficult enough to break into film directing but even tougher if you're a woman is readily confirmed by Martha Coolidge, whose credits include the hits 'Valley Girl' and 'Real Genius.'

"'Any additional problem you have (makes it harder to direct),' Coolidge told me. 'Living in New York could be one. Living in Seattle could be another. But being a woman director is definitely a drawback.'

"These days, as you might expect, Coolidge has enough success as a director under her belt to keep her working as a director. After all, she made 'Valley Girl' on a $350,000 shoestring and it went on to gross over $17 million domestically for Atlantic Entertainment?

"After the success of 'Valley Girl' is it easier for Coolidge to work now? 'Of course, it's easier,' she says. 'It's never easy in this business, but it's definitely easier. And I think it is easier for other women to get their first films or second films. That's not just because of me. I would say it was 'Fast Times at Ridgmont High' (directed by Amy Heckerling) and 'Valley Girl' that came along at the same time. Those girl films made money and that was kind of a first breakthrough. Now you have every year new women getting their first films and more women getting their second, third and fourth. So what you have is a backlog of experienced people.'

"Of course, that experience is limited to films of a certain budget. 'Another argument is, 'Okay, so you're going to do a $20 million picture.' Then you want to consider people who've done other $20 million pictures, which is perfectly understandable. And you would say, 'Well, there are no women who've done that.' Sometime there'll be that breakthrough. As each one of those categories is broken out and a woman makes a big budget picture that makes money, a serious picture that makes money, an action picture that makes money that'll open up. It's just a very big battle.'"

Update: Martha Coolidge has been working steadily ever since. Among her successes over the years are the critically acclaimed drama "Rambling Rose" (1991), starring Laura Dern, Robert Duvall and Diane Ladd, for which Dern and Ladd both received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for lead and supporting actress, respectively, and for which Coolidge won the Independent Spirit Award for best director; the comedy "Out to Sea" (1997), starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; and the comedy "Material Girls" (2006), starring Hilary Duff, Haylie Duff and Anjelica Huston.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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