Not a Pretty Picture

Photo: Abbot Genser/Courtesy of Picturehouse

There’s no safer formula than the biopic. It worked for Ray, Walk the Line, and Capote—and it seemed as though it could work for Fur, too, especially since most audiences know Diane Arbus only through her haunting photographs. But director Steven Shainberg was sick of Behind the Music clichés.

“No matter how good Will Smith may be playing Ali, or Ed Harris playing Pollock, that straight-ahead, greatest-hits approach doesn’t work for me,” says Shainberg, who broke through with the kinky indie Secretary. “You already know everything that is going to happen.”

So Shainberg decided to gamble. “This is not a biopic at all,” he says. “It’s an imaginary portrait that tries to capture the otherworldly, hallucinogenic, mythological quality of her photographs.”

Not in any obvious way, mind you: There will be no restaged photo shoots of Arbus, played by Nicole Kidman, and Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant (“Hokey,” says Shainberg). No answers to biographer Patricia Bos­worth’s allegation that Arbus slept with her subjects. And, most shocking, no third-act suicide.

“I didn’t want to just write a string of events,” says screenwriter and playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, “with her taking photographs of freaks and then she kills herself: Snap, snap, snap, kill … ”

Instead, Fur narrows the depth of field, focusing on Arbus’s life during just three months in 1958, long before her most influential work. “At the age of 35, with two children, having worked for fifteen years with her husband in their fashion-photography studio,” says Shainberg, “she came home one day and said, ‘I’m not going to work with you anymore. I’m going to take my own pictures.’ ”

In Fur, Arbus stews at home on the Upper West Side and fantasizes about a mysterious neighbor: Robert Downey Jr., who Shainberg says is a “metaphoric and literal freak—all the people she went out and photographed, rolled into one.”

It’s a juicy role for Downey, but Kidman will be the one in extreme close-up. “I wanted her stripped,” Shainberg says, noting that she can be “too contrived” in some Hollywood films. “I didn’t want Nicole to do Arbus, to walk like her—all that stuff actors do when they play real people.” Of course, that’s the stuff audiences (and Oscar voters) tend to like—a fact not lost on Shainberg: “I’m not sure that there’s ever been a film that deals with a real person this way,” he admits.

Fur, Directed by Steven Shainberg, Picturehouse; opens November 10 (R). Next: Q&A With Sherrybaby Star Maggie Gyllenhaal

Not a Pretty Picture