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After bursting onto the photography scene, Diane Arbus (Nicole Kidman) was acclaimed as one of the most daring and innovative photographers of the 20th century, and her pictures of outsiders, the bizarre and the everyday made her legendary. Set in New York in the late 1950s, director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson (collaborators on Secretary), conjure an image of the visionary artist by intertwining a fictional romance with aspects of Arbus' life in order to explore her mysterious artistic development. Based on the book by Patricia Bosworth. Co-starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jane Alexander.

 Fur • An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

If I knew one thing about a film that approached the life of Diane Arbus it was that it had to open in a nudist colony. The ratings board aside, this approach immediately raised a casting conundrum that Ellen Parks, the endlessly inventive casting director of Fur, and I had never faced: How could we go about casting nudists who actually have to act with Nicole Kidman? As anyone who has ever watched porn knows, willingness to take off one’s clothes in front of the camera does not usually go hand in hand with acting talent. Still, we had a young production assistant watch plenty of the latest down and dirty material emanating from the San Fernando Valley in the hope of discovering a couple of people who might be able to say a line or two without sounding wooden, false or utterly self-conscious. No such luck. Besides, their bodies were just too California-toned. I was searching for physiques that would look real for 1958 New Jersey, a time and place before the ubiquitousness of the Bowflex, pilates, personal trainers, implants and human growth hormone. Real flab, droopy breasts, flesh, wrinkles and hair in all the wrong places would convey more accurately and powerfully the reality of the body and, more importantly, the reality that I thought Arbus had gone looking for in her life.

So we tried real nudists. These are people who either go to nudist colonies or, even more interestingly, practice urban nudism. That is, people who get together in the city, behind closed doors, to be naked. There are more of them than you think, and my hope was that some of them might be able to act. We already knew, after all, that they were willing to take off their clothes in front of groups of other people. Who knows, they also might be willing to do so in front of a camera and film crew.

Investigating this community, I found myself one night in a West Village restaurant surrounded by naked bankers, lawyers, journalists and otherwise shockingly “average” New Yorkers. Drinks were served behind curtains that hid this naked private world from the street. A short program ensued, which consisted mainly of sharing the upcoming calendar of events—naked bowling, naked work-outs, naked almost anything. Only one woman poked fun at me for remaining clothed, saying, “How do you expect to direct this film if you won’t take your clothes off now?” She was coy, about 60, vice-principal at a private school. Her nudity confronted me with my own overwhelming bashfulness and insurmountable body-shyness. I shared dinner with two men, a corporate litigator and a commercial ceramicist. I was glad to be seated and exposed, therefore, only to their upper halves during the meal. Later, everyone put their work clothes back on and disappeared out the door and into the public world. Several people intrigued me (perhaps they could play the necessary roles?), but when Ellen and I got them into the casting office and in front of her small video camera, they clammed up and tried to “act.”

We turned back to the Screen Actor’s Guild, only to find that most actors refused to even come in to audition. Although Ellen and I explained over and over again that no sex was going to be photographed, that Bill Pope, the cinematographer of the Matrix films and the Spider-Man films, would be lighting Fur, and that the whole point of the scenes was to convey, in the nudity, the fundamental, inherent beauty in every human body, only about one in 50 actors would even consider talking to us. When they did come in I was faced every time with that disturbingly uncomfortable moment: “Okay, terrific…uh…so…we should…well…would you mind…could you…I’m sorry to have to ask you to…uh….” Then they would take off their clothes. Some would disrobe carefully and quietly, folding everything neatly; others would do so with startling speed, leaving everything in a dorm-room pile. It’s shocking to see someone whom you don’t know take off his clothes after a few minutes of idle chitchat. The people auditioning were definitely offering up a kind of exposure (physical and emotional) that one rarely experiences. At first I was horrifyingly embarrassed, ill at ease and otherwise discombobulated. One woman, I’ll never forget, had to wait in the adjoining office for about a half hour when we were running behind schedule. When she was finally called into the room by the casting assistant, she peeled off her loose summer dress in one fluid motion as she strode across the room to shake my hand. Anxiety, exuberance and the sheer dare of the situation had overwhelmed her. I’m rarely tongue-tied, but I don’t think I spoke a single word for that entire session. Maybe I managed to say “Thanks” at the end as she put her dress back on.

After awhile I got used to it and, perhaps a little bit like Arbus herself, I started to see the essential grace of each and every physical form. I don’t know how this happened, it just did. Every body, somehow, began to look desperately sweet, vulnerable, pure, and, yes, beautiful. I would come away from these casting sessions (and those in search of Little People, Giants, Obese Women, Twins, etc.) so flabbergasted, moved and opened up that I’d see everyone on the street as phenomenally gorgeous and photographable.

When we did finally cast the parts, we brought the chosen actors in to read together. By then the nudity was no big deal. The actors took off their clothes and played the scene, with Ellen acting Nicole Kidman’s part. I listened to their voices, the rhythm of their speech together, the pauses, and made suggestions for changes and adjustments. We talked about the characters, why they were nudists, how they felt in the scene talking to Diane Arbus, and so on. The usual stuff. It was compelling and mysterious and simple too, like any other scene really, only…naked.