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The Purification of Rupture: A Conversation with Steven Shainberg

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By John Duncan Talbird.

In 2002, director Steven Shainberg won a special jury prize at the Sundance film festival for Secretary, his second feature film, an adaptation (with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson) of Mary Gaitskill’s eponymous and iconic short story. Starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Shainberg’s film transformed Gaitskill’s stripped-down story of S&M in the workplace into a modern-day fairytale. That fairytale approach would be further explored in his next film starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr., Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (also written by Wilson), a fanciful fake biopic inspired by Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 biography of the famous and controversial photographer. Like “Beauty and the Beast” fused with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), the director again explored different ways of loving.

His just-released film, Rupture is a different approach to gothic subject matter. A dark, claustrophobic sci-fi film, it tells the story of Renee (played by dragon-tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace), a single mother who is kidnapped and experimented on in an underground bunker by a shadowy group of scientists. Shainberg and I had a phone interview recently. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

Rupture seems to be a departure from your previous two films, Fur and Secretary. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the new film and the earlier two as being connected?

Rupture 02I had this idea that I took to my producer, Andrew Lazar. I realized that as I started to make the film it was going in both the direction of films that I had previously made, but also films that I was trying to make. The essential subject matter is about the relationship between what you know about yourself and what you don’t know about yourself. In the case of Rupture, Noomi’s character is put in a situation, a personal transformative experience that reveals who she really is. That’s the same experience that Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has in Secretary and Diane (Nicole Kidman) has in Fur. Thematically, it didn’t matter to me that Rupture was ostensibly a horror film or a sci-fi film.

How close did you work with screenwriter Brian Nelson (Hard Candy [2005], 30 Days of Night [2007])?

I had actually gone down a route with a playwright friend in New York. And Andrew Lazar said, ‘You know, we need to work with a more genre-oriented screenwriter.’ I agreed with him, but by that time the story and the fundamental ideas had been worked out. So by the time Brian got involved, the basic concepts were there, but there was still a lot of work to do. He and I worked closely together. He was very open-minded to try different things, so the film got sharper and sharper with each draft. It was a great collaboration.

Some will probably make connections between Rupture and the torture porn subgenre of horror, but I thought I detected influences of David Cronenberg’s “body horror” films from the 70s and 80s. Is that my imagination?

Secretary (2002)

Secretary (2002)

I’ve never seen a “torture porn” movie in my life. I love Cronenberg and I love David Lynch. They’re the only directors that I imagine could be influential for this film. The movie was shot by Karim Hussain who shot [Cronenber’s son] Brandon Cronenberg’s film Antiviral (2012). I hired Hussain because of Antiviral. I adore David Cronenberg. We were filming in Toronto, Canada and we had to hire some Canadian actors. One of the thoughts that went through my mind was to hire David Cronenberg to play the Peter Stormare part, but he wasn’t available.

The film also seems to have a little bit of an X-Files vibe especially in the manner of the paranoia surrounding the story and the way the plot unfolds.

I’ve never seen The X-Files, but I think you’re just pointing to the trippy experience that Renee (Rapace) experiences inside the facility that she is taken to. She has the same experience that the audience does early on, the experience of not knowing what is going on. And the hope is that the audience can hang on to that not-knowing and trust that the movie is going to take you to a place that is interesting. I think that storytelling mode is influenced by ‘70s sci-fi and Twilight Zone.

Speaking of Noomi Rapace, she is awesome in the film. Did you always know you wanted her to play Renee?

She and I had developed a friendship over another movie that Andrew Lazar and I had been trying to make for a while called The Big Shoe. Rapace had wanted to play one of the parts in the film and on the basis of that we developed a good rapport. I couldn’t have found anyone better for Rupture than Noomi. She has the intelligence, the physicality, and the simple capacity to be in the experience. It’s such an intense role that I was worried about what it would be like at lunchtime and how she’d get through the day, but her level of drive and intensity is just astonishing.

You’ve also got a strong supporting cast. In addition to Peter Stormare, you’ve got Lesley Manville from Mike Leigh’s films and I was glad to see Kerry Bishé. I think she’s the best part of Halt and Catch Fire and deserves to be more widely seen. She was incredibly creepy in this film.

Yes, we needed to have a group of people who you felt were all very smart and also what we thought of as the “Rupture vibe.” That’s of course a strange criteria, but the question that we would ask is “Does that person seem like they’ve had a rupture?” They could be a really talented actor, but it was important that the conspirators had this cohesive feel to them.

You know, it just occurs to me that the very concept of “the rupture” is very tied in to the idea of fear in this film. And it seems that that idea is something you’ve been interested in exploring in your previous films – fear and conformity and about how these two concepts can be at cross-purposes. Do you want to talk about how fear has been important to you as a creative inspiration?

The thing I’m probably most interested in is the way people discover their “true self” and the way fear impedes that, but also how it’s something that must be passed through for discovery to occur. Rupture, because it’s a scary movie, in some way is a purification, a barebones encounter of that idea. Renee, because she’s been forced into it by her captors, has to face that directly.

Before we talked, it was my feeling that Rupture was very different from your previous two films. But in some ways, it’s like a mirror version of them because Secretary is about “scary” S&M and how it then becomes a welcoming and positively transforming thing for the Maggie Gyllenhaal character. And Fur is about “scary” freaks, but the Nicole Kidman character’s encounter with the freaks is an opportunity for her to open up and be her real self.

Rupture 03Exactly. Rupture is coming at the same theme from a slightly different genre-based point-of-view, but also with a different kind of energy. It takes a cultural-sexual form in Secretary, it takes an artistic form in Fur.

The publicity materials point out that you worked with Andrew Lazar, the producer of American Sniper. I know he’s also done interesting small films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and the Wachowski’s first film (Bound), but I wondered how it was to work with a producer who’s pretty well known, and successful, for making big mainstream films. Can you talk about what your working relationship was like?

He and I have been friends for years before I took him the script for The Big Shoe which we were working on for a very long time. And after that movie fell apart for the third time, we thought we’d work on a genre movie that people are going to pay for. I would say that working with Andrew is like working with a perfect producer. I know that some people can be wary or suspicious of a meddling producer, but it was clear that Andrew was just there to help us make the very best movie we could. He made an enormous difference in a lot of ways – rather than challenging this cut or lines in the text, he was a really good ally.

So has The Big Shoe just temporarily fallen apart?

I’m going to L.A. on Sunday. So far we’ve cast Nicholas Hoult and Elizabeth Banks. There are five big parts and we have two of them. It’s the story of the Picasso of shoe-making. She meets a girl with a beautiful foot and is inspired to make shoes for her. It’s about the artist and the muse and the relationship between art and money.

Rupture is now in theaters and available on VOD, with a DVD release on 30 May

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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