Don’t call it a Diane Arbus biopic

It didn’t take director Steven Shainberg long to find his next project after the breakthrough success of 2002’s “Secretary.” In fact, it just fell into his lap.

Shainberg, 43, spent his formative years in a New York City townhouse filled with the early photography of Diane Arbus, then a relative unknown still perfecting her style of shooting stark, often disturbing images of people on society’s fringes — dwarves, transvestites, prostitutes — and of ordinary men and women made memorable by her unsentimental approach. For 15 years, he had tried unsuccessfully to acquire the rights to Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Arbus, hoping to make a film about the artist whose unique portraits he’d collected all his adult life. Then, as the accolades for “Secretary” poured in, he received an intriguing offer: Casting director Bonnie Timmermann and producer Edward Pressman, who held the rights to Bosworth’s book, wanted to meet with Shainberg about a cinematic treatment.

The result? “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” which finds Nicole Kidman playing the renowned photographer just as she begins to refine the vision that became her signature. The film is hardly a conventional biopic — it documents only a short but definitive period in the artist’s life — and that’s just fine with Shainberg.

“It was such a bizarre coincidence, how this all came together,” he says, recalling his meeting with Timmermann and Pressman. “After we met, there was no question that I was going to get this movie, that they were going to let me try this crazy approach. A straightforward biopic set in late-’50s might have required a budget of $30 or $40 million, and from a practical standpoint, this would cost less.

“Personally, I never wanted to make a traditional biopic. You already know how they end. Everybody knows that Johnny Cash played at Folsom Prison. That’s not interesting to me. I wanted to make a movie that captures the essence of the character’s spirit, that reflects how Diane Arbus’ work has affected me throughout my artistic life. It’s a movie about the dialogue between her and me, and my love and respect for her.”

Like “Secretary,” a provocative drama about the sadomasochistic relationship between an obsessive-compulsive lawyer and his stunningly submissive assistant, “Fur” deals frankly with the sexual urges of its central characters — Arbus, who yearns to break free from her role as subordinate housewife, and Lionel, a mysterious neighbor who helps her realize her latent carnality. It is bold, unapologetically challenging material, the kind Shainberg eagerly embraces.

“Those are the things that interest me. I’m interested in things that don’t get talked about, things that are hidden. Otherwise, what’s the point of making a movie?”

“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

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