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New York Cool - Interview

Wendy R. Williams talks with the cast of Fur

Fur Press Day
Monday, November 6, 2006
Waldorf Astoria

Photo Credits Wendy R. Williams
(Opposite Photo:
Harris Yullin and Jane Alexander)

Wendy R. Williams Talks to Actors Robert Downey Jr., Jane Alexander and Harris Yullin, Biographer Patricia Bosworth, Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and Director Steven Shainberg

Diane Arbus speaks to me. She had this incredible eye and curiosity; she saw the New York that I longed to see. So I have always gone to see any Arbus exhibits I can and also those of her mentor and friend, Marvin Israel:

& www.newyorkcool.com/archives/2005/September/arts_3.html

I recently reviewed Steven Shainberg’s fanciful new film, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.

Nicole Kidman and Ty Burrell in Fur

Steven Shainberg’s
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Opened November 10, 2006

Starring: Nicole Kidman; Robert Downey, Jr.; Jane Alexander; Harris Yullin; and Ty Burrell.

Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Steven Shainberg’s (of Secretary fame) film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is a dreamlike reinvention of Arbus’ life and an attempt to use the art of film to portray the inspiration that compelled Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) to leave her semi-conventional life as the wife of a fashion photographer in Greenwich Village and become a world class photographer. In the same manner that a modern art portrait only represents the feeling or essence of a subject, this film does not attempt to tell the real story of Arbus’ life, but only a story about how Arbus might have felt.

The film is mostly set in the apartment house where Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) lives and works with her husband Allan Arbus (played by Ty Burrell) and children. Her apartment is a marvel of 1950’s beige chic, as is Kidman at the beginning of the film and her parents (played by Jane Alexander and Harris Yullin) throughout the film. And one night, while hosting a fashion show for her father’s fur line, Arbus escapes for a moment to look out the window when she catches a glimpse of her new upstairs neighbor, Lionel (played by Robert Downey, Jr.). Lionel is wearing a mask so all she can see are his eyes, but that one glimpse bewitches Arbus and compels her to don a blue dress and make the journey up the stairs and into Lionel’s blue world. Lionel is a sophisticate who lives in an apartment with beautiful deep blue walls and a huge roman tub in his bathroom (I told you this was a fantasy). Lionel is also a wigmaker and former circus freak who suffers from a rare form of hirsuteness that makes him look like a sexy version of the Wookiee in Star Wars .

Lionel befriends Arbus and introduces her to his world of circus freaks. And by doing so, he opens her eyes to see herself as what she really is - a voyeur. The film then continues with her story as she tries to integrate her world upstairs (of the imagination) with her real life downstairs.

There are metaphors in the film. Arbus’ parents are famous furriers and Lionel is covered with fur and Arbus feels compelled to both liberate herself from the oppressiveness of her parents and to liberate Lionel from his earthly covering of fur.

This is also the kind of film that you either love or hate (I loved it). Arbus has become an icon to many people. She had an unflinching eye on the world and her portraits have attracted a cult following. And because she was such a powerful artist, most of her admirers feel like they own her and own their own interpretation of her. And many critics have objected to this fanciful portrayal of her life, stating that Arbus herself was the ultimate realist and not some piece of modern art to be interpreted at will.

But I think this film will survive the initial shock to the senses and develop a cult following. Because all art takes a while to “settle in” with the eye.

The film is extremely well acted and boasts a stellar cast. Robert Downey Jr. and Nicole Kidman have a lot of chemistry together; they work equally well as pals and as lovers. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (using Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Diane Arbus as inspiration) had written a sophisticated and fanciful script. And Shainberg has told his story of compulsion in a masterful way; it is a story of magnets and iron and their inevitable collision.


Interview with Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr.

Question about why he decided to act in the film.

The director was very infectious and then I thought, “I want to do this and be able to play with it.” My character felt compelled to guide Diane on a journey that he has already taken. You can’t tell the messenger that he is just a messenger. He has an urgency to have some kind of legacy. Everything makes sense when you have the right attitude. The key to acting in Fur was about trusting the other actors and the director. When we filmed the scene where Diane looks out her window and first see Lionel standing on the sidewalk, we did it with both of us looking a card. You have to trust the process. I can’t phone it in, I love it too much.

Question about the costume.

Robert Downey Jr.: I took six hours to put on the make up ( Downey’s character is covered in hair from head to toe – think the Wookiee in Star Wars)

Question about whether he got very hot in the hair covering.

Robert Downey Jr.: I was not overheated one time. Once it is on you, you might as well accept it.

Question about working with Nicole Kidman.

Robert Downey Jr.: Nicole is really smart and is technically one of the best actors out there. I am a happily married guy but there were some pretty great days on the set.

Question about whether he wants to direct himself.

Robert Downey Jr.: I am sort of a bi, not a triathelete. Do I really want to watch the actors going to Starbucks on break while I stay behind to set up for the next scene?

Question about how he see his future.

Robert Downey Jr.: It is not that hard to be original and prophetic. You see what is going on now and then just look down the road.

The Interview with Director Steven Shainberg

Steven Shainberg

Question about why he decided to do an imaginary story of a real person's life.

Steven Shainberg: I don’t like straight up biographies. They never get below the surface; they tell you what you already know. Diane Arbus did not know what was happening [about to happen] in 1958. How did she become Diane Arbus? The film actually takes place in a section of Arbus’s life that Patricia Bosworth’s biography jumps over. When I was reading the biography, I made a note in my copy of the book, “What happened?” And to explore that type of question, there was not other movie to make. Her work is myth. Diane herself said she was living in a fairy tale for adults.

Question about the origin of the character of Lionel (played by Robert Downey Jr.)

Steven Shainberg: Diane’s teacher Lisette Model and Marvin Israel were very influential on Diane’s work. Both Marvin and Lisette were rolled into the character of Lionel. Lionel depicts all the freaks in her life. But I didn’t want Lionel to just be a freak. He has an enormous amount of charm. The armless woman [on of the circus freaks in the film] just wants to be close to him; she is a sort of weird-ass stalker.

Question about the casting of Nicole Kidman.

Steven Shainberg: I wanted someone who did not look like Arbus. Someone who could show the inner transformation. Nicole wants to discover other worlds.

Question about the name of the movie, Fur.

Steven Shainberg: Her father was a furrier and there was the question, “What is my father doing to these beautiful animals?”

Question about his process.

Steven Shainberg: I go into a room for three or four months and draw the entire movies. I have an enormous amount of notes for each department – four thousand notes - the details like the fact that the downstairs apartment is muted but there is more color upstairs. As you go up the stairs, thing become more decrepit. This is an extremely carefully designed movie. The pool and the interior of Lionel’s bathroom, but you have to believe that it could be real.

Question about whether he was influenced by Diane’s teacher and mentor Marvin Israel’s Dog paintings?

Steven Shainberg: The character of Lionel was definitely inspired by the Israel’s dog paintings.

The Interview with Jane Alexander and Harris Yullin

Harris Yullin and Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander and Harris Yullin play Diane Arbus’ parents, Gertrude and David Nemerov.

Question about how they felt about working on such a different type of story [an imaginary tale about a real person].

Harris Yullin: I was intrigued by the story about the birth of this creative process. And it was a chance to work with Jane! And to make some money doing that!

Jane Alexander: I’ve known Harris for years. I met him back in the 60’s. he was/is one of the most handsome men in New York; he was dashing.

Question about working with Steven Shainberg.

Harris Yullin: Steven Shainberg had a very strong vision or how he wished this film to be.

Jane Alexander: I actually met Diane Arbus. And [in the film] all these characters are [supposed to be] depicted from her point of view so they are all necessarily pulled and distorted. Steven has a very strong artistic vision. [For instance] he wanted us to smoke a lot. How do you play an extension of another’s mind? [Well] you follow the script – the costumes and the hair helped a lot.

Harris Yullin: Steven is pretty meticulous.

Jane Alexander: Very, very.

Question about the connection between artistic genius and madness.

Jane Alexander: Most artists are pretty healthy, generally.

Harris Yullin: You hear about Van Gogh and his ear but you don’t hear about Matisse living on to an old age.

Interview with Biographer Patricia Bosworth
And Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson

Patricia Bosworth and Erin Cressida Wison

Ms. Bosworth and Ms. Wilson entered the room laughing and told us that they were both from San Francisco originally and both went to the same private girl’s school, Miss Burkes.

Patricia Bosworth: We are both rebels as writers.

Erin Cressida Wilson: Patricia Bosworth’s incredible book is a box of jewels that [when I was writing the screenplay] I could just reach in and take something out when I was trying to find the background for the screenplay. To see how Arbus became herself in her own mind.

I was born into a world that housed her (Arbus’) imagination and was incredibly influenced by her as were most of my contemporaries. She pulls you in and pushes you back and the pulls you back in again.

Patricia Bosworth: To see how she removed the white glove of her mother’s hand from her eyes.

Erin Cressida Wilson: Imagine a character who covered her daughter’s eyes and who smoked.

Patricia Bosworth: Her mother was always forbidding her to do anything and that is the key.

Question about working with Steven:

Erin Cressida Wilson: Stephen and I have know each other for fifteen years. When we were working on the script, I heard some noise upstairs and that was the inspiration for the neighbor upstairs.

Question about whether you are worried that the audience just won’t get it.

Erin Cressida Wilson: I never think an audience is dumb.

Many thanks to the cast and creative team of Fur for talking with New York Cool.




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