Secretary director Steven Shainberg talks about female leads, arachnophobia and Peter Dinklage on the occasion of his latest film, which marks his first foray into genre.
It has been 14 years since Steven Shainberg’s brilliant indie breakout hit Secretary and 10 since his last directorial effort, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Always following his own individual path, Shainberg returns with a horror/SF tale that feels like a cross between X-Files and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Noomi Rapace as Renee, an arachnophobic single mum kidnapped by a group of sinister strangers with mysterious aims.
Rupture premiered at Fantasia in Montreal in July 2016 where Virginie Sélavy met Steven Shainberg to talk about his interest in female leads, his adoration for Peter Dinklage, and the spider metaphor.
Virginie Sélavy: It’s been 10 years since Fur, why has it taken so long for you to make another film?
Steven Shainberg: It’s all about money. I had my children, whom I adore and try and spend as much time with as I can possibly can, but the answer is, it has been impossible to get my other movies made. In the time that it took me to get Rupture made I’ve had seven other movies projects. Some of them are cast partially, two of them got very close to getting made, and every single time the money was not there. That’s the reason it’s been that long.
This is your first foray into horror and SF. What led you to make a genre film?
It is a genre film in certain ways, but in other ways it’s exactly the same movie as the other seven movies that I haven’t made and the movies that I have made, in that it’s the story of a person who is confronted with an unusual situation and has to discover who they are. For whatever reason, all the things I’m interested in are always about that kind of personal discovery within yourself, about who you really are and identity. When I started, I had this idea for this movie and I started talking to this producer about it. Originally it wasn’t a movie I thought I’d be interested to make, and then as I started working on the story and as we developed the screenplay I realised, ‘this is that movie, I’m making that movie again’. And I thought it would be interesting to see if that kind of story could be told in a different context. It is a movie about somebody who has to confront their fear in order to transform into who they really are. That’s the story of Secretary and that’s the story of Fur. And that’s the story of the other movies as well. So in that sense it is really no different.
In the films you’ve made, self-discovery also comes through pain, is that fair to say?
There’s pain, which is also part of self-discovery and change, and there’s confusion, and fear. Those I think are the doors through which we have to pass in order to get anywhere and in order to have any kind of truth about ourselves. And girls are more fun to look at than boys.
Yes, you clearly like female characters.
When Kieslowski made Red, White and Blue, he was asked why all his heroes are women, and I think his answer was something along the line of ‘they’re great to look at’. And you do have to look through the lens at them for a long time, and then you have to be in the cutting room with them for a long time, and then you have to go out into the world with them for a long time, and I think I’m inclined to love them, and adore them, so that’s what leads me in that direction. But then, most of the movies I’m trying to get made have very strong male characters and I think to some extent that’s a desire to change that. But that’s pretty much been my inclination.
Do you have to be in love with your main character?
You have to be in love with all your characters for sure, even the ones that are horrible, at least understand them and want to connect with them in some way. But the protagonist of the movie, yes, you got to love that person. That’s what’s hard about making a movie. I’ll just give you an example. I have a movie that the rather fabulous Peter Dinklage is going to play the lead in and I totally adore him. So because of that feeling that I have for him it’s exciting to think that we can make that movie. He’s a guy.
Despite the similarities between Secretary and Rupture the big difference is that in Secretary there is some kind of resolution, whereas Rupture is open-ended – it seems made for a sequel.
From your mouth to God’s ears. There were various endings for this movie, the intention and the hope were that the movie would make a shitload of money and that we would get to make another one. That’s why the ending is open-ended. Because this tells a very simple first-beat story of Renee becoming part of them. And the thing that happens between her and them, and then between her, them and her kid and then the world, is not part of this movie. It’s supposed to be part of other movies. So that’s the reason.
Why did you decide to focus on a single mum? Did that have special significance for you?
This is the reason why they take her when they take her. She’s primed for the ‘rupture’. This means that there are periods in your life when you are vulnerable and when you’re more fragile and you’re not as strong as you might have been a couple of years ago or you will be in the future. But at that moment some real change can occur for you. And that’s why she’s a person who is saying to her friend on the phone and to her kid, ‘I’m going sky-diving’. Who goes sky-diving for the first time? It’s a person who is looking for a new feeling, they are looking for something in themselves that they can release, for a kind of transformation. So she has this fragile relationship with her ex-husband who is insensitive to her, and she’s vulnerable and she’s tender and she’s looking for a change and that’s the moment when things can happen for you.
You always seem interested in marginalised characters, people who are different for one reason or another.
Yeah. The thing is, problems are what’s interesting. The movie has to have somebody in a problem, and I’m not drawn to the ordinary guy who is angst-ridden about his suburban life unless he’s nuts and really on the edge. I guess I grew up as an unusual person in various ways and so I feel connected. My wife says, ‘you’re much more Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper’, [laughs] and it’s true! I would rather cast Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper!
The actors are all terrific. How did you cast the film?
It’s one of the ironies of low-budget filmmaking that for most supporting parts you can’t afford another big name. And my translation of that is, ‘oh, we get to cast people who are great and right for the movie’. If Renee goes to that facility and all those people are faces that you know, people you recognize, you will not be scared because you know who they are. But if you don’t know who they are it’s much more unnerving. So we had to cast certain people out of Toronto because of our Toronto deal, but we could also bring some people. So for instance we brought Lesley Manville, who from my point of view is one of the greatest actresses of the world. I never thought she would do it, but she was free, in between two movies, so it was amazing to have her, I love her. And the same thing was true with Michael Chiklis and Kerry Bishé and everybody else, and certainly with Peter Stormare. It needed to be a group that had a certain coherent internal vibe. And the criterion was, is this a person who feels like they’ve ‘ruptured’ in their own lives? That’s what Andrew Lazar the producer and I would assess during casting. ‘That guy is awesome but he’s wrong for the movie. He hasn’t ruptured yet.’ [laughs] I’ve ruptured many times… [laughs]
What inspired that idea of transformation coming out of terror?
It’s something I understand, what you have to move through and be capable of working with in your life in order to arrive at something new for yourself. The spiders in the film are merely a metaphor, and we all have those things crawling all over us all of the time. Most of the time most people can’t transcend that. One of the things that I like about the movie is that everyone else is saying, ‘what do you want from me?’, all the people who are in the facility, and they never answer the question, except to say, ‘it’s entirely up to you’. And that’s the truth, it’s entirely up to you.
What’s great is that you never know if they’re good or bad guys, their ultimate aim is never made clear.
That’s absolutely true. That’s the experience we have in our own lives with people who are working on us. Whoever is saying to you or to me, ‘this is where you’re failing’, or ‘this is your problem’, or ‘you need to…’, or ‘how come you can’t ?’, ‘what’s stopping you?’, we’re suspicious of them. We don’t know if they’re good or bad. They might be loving and gentle but they might be insisting that we do something hard. Or they might be threatening and suggesting that we might be doing something easy and good for us. So we are confused about it. Our experience of it is confusion.
And this goes with the fact that in the movie you show two people transform, the two most beautiful women in the cast, and the transformation looks disturbingly ugly, so you have this contrast between beauty and monstrosity.
Yes, but that’s also about one of the things that we are terrified of: if we make that transformation we will become something horrible to ourselves and to others. Or not necessarily something horrible, but something unknown, and unknown and horrible are right next to each other. You can’t have them transform into something beautiful and lovely because that’s not how we experience the fear of transformation, that’s not how we experience the challenge of all these things. We’re afraid that there’s something ugly in us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be afraid of it. If it was just something beautiful that was going to be revealed it’d be very easy. We’re ashamed and terrified and disinclined. This is precisely the metaphor of the movie and how it operates throughout the whole film. And that’s what made me want to make it. Yes, it’s a genre movie, but it’s really a movie about spiritual existence.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy