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Steven Shainberg Talks About "Secretary"
Interview Courtesy of Lions Gate Films


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In this interview provided by Lions Gate Films, director Steven Shainberg talks about the difficulties of getting "Secretary" made and the casting process:

How did this project come about?
Shainberg: The film started as a short story by Mary Gaitskill. The book in which the story "Secretary" appeared in was called "Bad Behavior," which came out about 10 or 11 years ago. I read the story at the time it came out and just loved it and loved the whole collection. When I was in film school at the AFI, I made a short from the story which was about 22-23 minutes long and, even though we shot the film in a very quick, rudimentary way, a lot of people in Hollywood got interested in my making a feature from it. But when I would go around and tell them that in the feature, this was not a character who "gets over" her "problem," that the paradigm for this story is not a "person overcomes personal problem movie," like alcoholism, or narcotics or whatever, but that she discovers something beautiful and wonderful in the office with Mr. Grey. So, when I would express myself that way, people thought I was crazy. And nobody would develop the story and do it, so I put it aside for about 4-5 years. In the interim, Erin Wilson, who is a playwright in New York and a very close friend of mine, and I were looking for something to do together and we tried a bunch of things and nothing clicked and we thought "let's take a look at 'Secretary' again." I looked at a few movies, one of them being Jane Campion's film "Sweetie" and I looked at a lot of Mike Leigh and I realized how I could expand it into a feature where (a) it wouldn't be too expensive and (b) people might actually do it. And so Erin and I worked on the script for about a year and from there I went looking for producers and financing ...but it was very much a story and a project that stuck around in my head, and here we are...

Why were you able to get the funding to make the film the second time around?
Shainberg: Because I wasn't in Hollywood. About 7 years ago, I made a decision to move back home to New York from Los Angeles. This may sound insane, but I was driving down La Brea on my way to a meeting and it was as if some being came into my car and was sitting in the driver's seat and said the words out loud -- "It's time to get out of here -- now." So I peeled off La Brea and went home and instantly made a reservation to come back to New York. Essentially, I fired everybody that was in my life, my agent, my lawyer, my manager, my girlfriend and came back to New York. New York independent producers are much more interested in material like this than people in Los Angeles.

That was the beginning of a long series of things on this movie that just weirdly went right -- really oddly went right. For example, finding my producer Andrew Fierberg. He runs a company called Double A films with a woman named Amy Hobby and they had made a film called "Sunday" directed by Jonathan Nossiter which I liked a lot and on the basis of that film and the recommendation of a friend of mine, I brought him the script. Their first reaction was "this isn't soft-core porn, is it?" And I said, "Oh God, no!" You can't imagine how many people -- producers, actors, finance people -- were wary of it in that way. And it's understandable but it was extremely difficult to communicate, in the "search for the right producer" period of the movie, that the film not only was going to be sexy and intimate but also innocent and funny. That you could take this kind of material, have it play dark and moody, but also have it play with a very subtle sense of humor. To me, that was the joy of making the movie, that you could have all those things functioning simultaneously. Not only simultaneously, but from moment to moment, shifting them for the audience. And then, in terms of the things that went right, finding Maggie Gyllenhaal!

How did Maggie become part of the film?
Shainberg: Like all independent movies, the first thing you're looking for is a name actor who will justify your financing and, in this case, everybody passed but in the process of going down the A list, I said to a casting director, "We all think this is astounding but they all in the real world might be afraid of it - we better look at other people." And I looked at about 60 people. The first one I looked at was Maggie. Number 1. And after she came in, I called Andy Fierberg and said "I know we've never worked together before and you're going to think I'm crazy but I just saw the girl." I'm sure he thought "no, it's just your enthusiasm because you're hearing the words aloud for the first time." Then, in the course of casting, we brought Maggie in two more times over the next three months, and each time, she was better. And, to James Spader's credit, once he was on board, I showed him her tapes and said, "Listen, this is the girl that I want, please look at it and see if you're comfortable with her," and he looked at the tape and said, "Absolutely."

Did she have any reservations about playing the role?
Shainberg: She had reservations that were about different things than one might think she would have reservations about. Like about how to play things tonally, but as far as doing the "stuff" that she needed to do, no. You hear this said about actors sometimes, that they're fearless, but she really is. How did the film evolve during the course of production?
Shainberg: As you're shooting, you're cutting, and you start to see what's happening. And what was happening was that the heart of the movie was so clearly between James and Maggie that what we needed from the world outside the office just needed to be sketched in, it didn't need to be detailed. And in the script there was more detail. For example, there was a lesbian character and, in the way that the Jeremy Davies character functions as a possible alternative life for the character, the character of Allison functioned as another alternative, a lesbian alternative, but that became unnecessary. And so the world outside just got thinner and thinner because we didn't need it. We listened at each point -- in pre-production, while we were shooting, and in the cutting room -- to what the film was telling us and it was just obvious that you wanted to be back in the office. And it's funny, it was something we knew when we were shooting but it just became more glaring as we went along.

What was it that you saw in this story ten years ago that so compelled you that you had to make this film?
Shainberg: It deals in the way in which sex, love and power are all inter-related and I was very interested in doing a love story that was different and that would deal with these kinds of issues but not in a creepy way or a dark way but in a way that had a sort of lightness and beauty to it. I don't think that there's anything odd, at all, about what they're doing. I think what while what they're doing is perhaps metaphorically bigger than the way many love relationships work in reality, that all relationships have these aspects. They have tops and bottoms that shift and change and it's always a question of, in some sense, manipulation that segues into honesty and connection and then segues back into something else. The problem with most love stories in my opinion is that they're too simplistic. Also, Mary Gaitskill's authorial voice in the story was one that, for whatever instinctual reason, felt so familiar to me and it's strange, because she's writing from the point of view of a young woman who's very odd and much more disturbed in that story than in the film but it just really resonated. It just compelled me, instinctually. So does the film work metaphorically as well, as a story about this particular couple and then as a metaphor for all love relationships?
Shainberg: Absolutely. On the one hand, obviously these are two extremely particular people, Mr. Grey and Lee, who have by dint of their particular complexities, found each other. But at the same time, the way in which power functions between them and the way in which power is erotic between them is I think familiar to a lot of people, whether or not they're engaged in these types of specific activities or not.

The movie that made me want to make movies was "Blue Velvet." You read about where people say I loved watching Antonioni or I loved watching Truffaut, and I did, but when I came out of "Blue Velvet" I was so compelled and I remember reading an article in which David Lynch was asked a question about generalizing his characters and I remember him very adamantly saying, "No, no, no, this is a movie about just these two people." And that was a really powerful lesson. You don't make movies about "men" and "women." You make movies about this guy and this woman and if you get them right, you'll automatically connect with a lot of people. So I was much more involved in "who is Lee" and "who is Mr. Grey" than trying to make some sort of generalized statement.

How have people reacted so far?
Shainberg: With surprise. And some people are shocked, and they tend to be from the older generation. I had anticipated, because of the point of view of the movie and because of Maggie's performance, that young women would respond really strongly to the film. At Sundance, that was overwhelmingly true and to the point where it was kind of shocking. That particular demographic was so wildly enthusiastic. I think it's because it's a movie about a young woman who has very particular needs and doesn't shy from them and learns to not just accept herself but flower in them and to feel that what she is is good. That's true about the character and it's also true about any particular kind of sexuality. I think a lot of young women are probably fearful or embarrassed or cautious or hiding whatever their particular sexuality might be. From the most odd to the just slightly abberrant. And so when you see somebody who expresses themselves with such honesty and strength, I think that's extremely compelling. There's a kind of beauty about the way in which Maggie discovers love. On the one hand, the movie is very erotic while on the other hand, it's quite romantic so - what's not to like?

And men?
Shainberg: The one interesting thing is that some older men seem to be slightly threatened by the movie. Which I also think makes sense because in some way, the powerful male figure is revealed to be vulnerable and disrobed and that I think can make men feel self-conscious about their traditional dominant role as a man.

And even though he does some sadistic things to Maggie, he's never scary.
Shainberg: Right, he's never scary but he is scared, he's scared of love and I think a lot of men are. His character has a tremendous amount of self-hate for what he wants and what he needs and he's really the one in the movie, ironically, who thinks there's something wrong with him. And I think a lot of men do so it's not surprising that, since that aspect of this character is revealed through Spader's performance, that is somewhat threatening. People have a very personal, visceral reaction to this film and that's great.


SOURCE: Lions Gate Films


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