Streisand wanted to star as Diane. There was a rumor it would be called The Singing Photographer.
Israel had seen in Diane an original talent that needed to be pushed. For 12 years he cajoled and promoted her. But Israel' first allegiance was to his wife, the frail artist Margie Ponce. Arbus often spoke of how envious she was of Ponce, because "Marvin would never leave her." Diane admired him for his loyalty, but it depressed her, too.
The last day of Diane's life, Israel was spending the weekend with his wife at Ayedon's house on Fire Island instead of being with her. That night Diane slit her wrists, swallowed sleeping pills, and then curled up in her empty bathtub. As I wrote in my book, there was even a rumor that she set up a camera and took pictures of herself as she lay dying, but no such photos have ever surfaced. In her appointment book from July 26, the words "Last Supper" had reportedly been scrawled.
On July 28. 1971, after failing to reach her all weekend, Marvin Israel rushed to Diane's apartment. He let himself in with the key she'd given him and found the body. Then he called three friends: the writer Larry Shainberg, the attorney Jay Gold, and Richard Avedon. They all came to the apartment and waited with Israel for the police.
It Gets a Little Ugly
Throughout the summer of 1997, Timmermann and Pressman kept making me revise my drafts. After the sixth treatment they told me they liked what I'd written and introduced me to Mark Romanek, a talented young music‑video director who'd worked with Madonna and Michael and Janet Jackson, among others, and went on to direct Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.
We met at the Royalton, on West 44th Street. Romanek was bearded and superserious. He told me he'd originally wanted to be a photographer. He was from a wealthy family in Chicago, so he understood Diane's need "as a rich kid" to explore other realities.
He did not like my idea of focusing on Diane's emotional relationship with Marvin Israel. "Too tidy," 1 recall him saying, and, besides, he had "no interest in relationships." He wanted to concentrate on Diane's art.
A few weeks later, I flew out to the West Coast to meet with Romanek again and with Roger Avary, who had co‑written Pulp Fiction with Quentin Tarantino. Pressman thought Avary could serve as a balance between Romanek and me.
I arrived at LAX around noon, suffering from an abscessed wisdom tooth. I went directly from the airport to a dentist's office and arrived at Pressman's penthouse office near Sunset Boulevard giddy from painkillers.
Romanek was already there, dressed in black exercise togs, a dour expression on his face. Timmermann was there, too she hugged me nervously. We were surrounded by posters of Pressman's movies: Wall Street, City Hall, Das Boot.
Soon we gathered in an airless conference room, and then Roger Avary arrived, looking disheveled but genial. He had a wild, hooting laugh and a sweeping, extravagant mustache that reminded me of Salvador Dali's.
It turned out that Avary was writing a screenplay about Dali‑"so I grew my mustache this way," he said with a grin. Then he told us he couldn't work on the Arbus project after all, because as soon as he finished with Dali he was going to Ireland to work on a film based on Beowulf.
However, he did have one suggestion. He said that when he and Tarantino were writing Pulp Fiction they'd sketched episodes onto dozens of index cards under headings such as "Shooting scene," "Stabbing scene," and "S&M homosexual rape scene" and then tossed the cards onto the floor to see where they landed‑"like some gigantic puzzle."
I told him I liked the way they'd bookended the movie‑the diner scene at the start, the diner scene at the end. Avary laughed his crazy laugh and said, "We just put those scenes in as an afterthought. So you'd think we had a construction. But we didn't."
The meeting ended five hours later with the suggestion that Romanek camp out in New York and we try writing together until we came up with something.
For the next 10 days Romanek and I sat in Pressman's huge West 57th Street office throwing ideas and concepts and snatches of dialogue back and forth. Soon the room was littered with bags of half‑eaten takeout and stacks of classic movie videos that we might run for inspiration‑Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, Federico Fellini's 8'/2.
For a while the only thing we agreed on was to start the movie with the same image of Diane teetering on the window ledge. But Romanek kept dictating and I kept scribbling away on a yellow legal pad, and finally we completed some pages we both liked. That evening, I gave the pages to Pressman and Timmermann. They suggested I write a memo detailing what 1 thought Romanek and I had achieved as collaborators.
I stupidly did as I was told, ending with the comment that, although we were making progress on the screenplay, it wasn't working yet because there was not enough story. After I sent the memo, 1 heard that Romanek had holed up in his hotel room to write the script himself and that he wanted me off the project. (Romanek admits there was a "creative stalemate" but attributes his behavior to "an unexpected burst of creativity.")
I was out. I hadn't seen it coming, even though I'd heard so many horror stories from other screenwriters about how they'd been treated in similar situations. And I'd read Monster, John Gregory Dunne's scathing account of Hollywood's writing life.
I remembered, too, the words of William Goldman, who wrote All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: "In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio (this week), and there's a whole world to which we are not privy."
Needless to say, I was upset. I felt a terrible sense of loss. It wasn't just the loss of my book, which I'd already given up to other people to do with as they pleased, but now my potential screenplay too, which was becoming a vivid movie in my head. It was hard to accept that it would never be realized.
I went to see my old friend David Newman, a former Esquire editor who had co-written the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde. A funny, decent man with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and a deep understanding of the business, Newman, who died in 2003, had guided me through the first phase of writing the treatment. "You're lucky they got rid of you when they did; it would have just gotten worse," he told me. "The bottom line is, unless you have the director on your side, forget it." Then he added, "No matter how wonderful his cockamamy screenplay is, unless he gets a big movie star to want to be in it, that movie ain't gonna be made!"
Romanek went on to finish the Arbus screenplay by himself, and in 1999 Bonnie Timmermann organized a reading of it in L.A., with Holly Hunter playing Diane. A lot of money people were invited, including Arnon Milchan, who produced Pretty Woman and L.A. Confidential. Halfway through the reading, Milchan excused himself, saying he had to catch a plane to Israel.
After failing to get enough financing for his version, Romanek parted ways with Pressman, and the Pressman office informed me that they did not intend to pay me for the screenplay I hadn't finished. They argued that since I was a producer I was responsible for Romanek's involvement as screenwriterdirector‑and, by extension, 1 was responsible for my own firing!
It got pretty ugly for a while, but the Writers Guild helped me get the money I was owed. When I told screenwriter friends what had happened, they laughed; screenwriters are always in litigation for some reason or other.
Then Pressman offered to pick up the option again, with the earnest promise that "this movie is going to be made," because "we believe in the material." I agreed to it, but I had already accepted that my work would be appropriated, would become someone else's property.
Over the years more options were forthcoming from Pressman, and there were more promises and disappointments and disagreements. But by then I'd detached myself emotionally from the project. I went back to writing books and was much happier, and a tiny bit wiser.
"A Leap into Fantasy"
I n 2000, Tamara Jenkins entered the picture. A wisecracking former performance artist, Jenkins had written and directed Slums of Beverly Hills, a rollicking autobiographical account of her vagabond upbringing, which opened to great acclaim at Cannes in 1998.
Jenkins's idea was to put herself into the screenplay. The movie would be about Tamara Jenkins struggling to write a movie about the photographer Diane Arbus. Ed Pressman would be in it, sitting in his big office on West 57th Street, and I would be in it, too. Her screenplay was called Arbus Untitled, and I liked it. Francis Ford Coppola liked it, too. There was talk he might become executive producer.
Jenkins wrote a second draft, and then, in the middle of 2002, we started hearing about a movie called Adaptation, in which a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) struggles to complete a script based on The Orchid Thief a book by Susan Orlean that began as an article in The New Yorker.
The device in Arbus Untitled seemed just too close to Adaptation, and after failed attempts to secure financing, Tamara Jenkins was gone from the project.
In the fall of 2002, director Steven Shamberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson signed on to adapt my Arbus biography. They had collaborated on the beguilingly transgressive and critically acclaimed movie Secretary, which starred James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal and was based on Mary Gaitskill's short story about an S&M relationship between an office temp and her boss.
Coincidentally, Shainberg's father, the late psychoanalyst David Shainberg, and his uncle Larry had been extremely helpful to me when I was researching my book. They were the only friends of Marvin Israel's who agreed to talk frankly to me about how much he had meant to Diane.
Steven Shainberg had grown up hearing about Diane Arbus. He'd always wanted to direct a movie about her, and he had a very specific vision about how he was going to do it. First off, he did not want it to be a biopic. I was involved only peripherally in Shamberg and Wilson's process. Basically, I gave them my blessing and went on with my own work.
In the spring of 2004, Shainberg sent me Wilson's screenplay, which he described as "a leap into fantasy." It was entitled Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arhus. I read it and reread it, and my overall impression was that, while it was original and unsettling, it bore no resemblance to my book. However, the screenplay did deal with many of the same themes‑ mainly, how an exceptionally gifted woman juggles the roles of wife, mother, and artist. Wilson handled these themes with sensitivity and intelligence. The essence of Diane Arbus is there; her spirit illuminates the story.
In Fur, Wilson creates a series of fictional incidents ‑Diane's tumultuous meetings with a mysterious neighbor named Lionel‑ which transform her into an artist. These incidents are surrounded by some of the facts from my book, especially scenes with Diane's wealthy and powerful father, David Nemerov, who, as I wrote, j new that women will always love furs because they are so soft and luxurious.
A lot of people got excited about Fur. For a while, Samantha Morton (In America) was going to play Diane, but she held out for too much money. Naomi Watts and Toni Collette were also considered.
But Fur didn't get off the ground until Ed Pressman decided to sell his interest in the project to Bill Pohlad and Laura Bickford. (Pohlad and Bickford are currently collaborating with this magazine's editor on a documentary about the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial.)
Bonnie Timmermann gave the script to Nicole Kidman's trusted acting coach, Susan Batson, who passed it on to Kidman. The actress had been set to star in Eucalyptus with Russell Crowe in Australia, but that project fell apart. After Kidman became enthusiastic about Fur, Shainberg flew to Australia to clinch the deal. Then he drafted Robert Downey, Jr. to co‑star as Lionel.
Movies Are Uncontrollable
I t is a hot, humid afternoon in July 2005, 21 years after the publication of Diane Arbus: A Biography, and I am walking into the gigantic Steiner Studios, where Fur is being filmed. (Picturehouse will release the film this November.) Formerly part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Steiner is now a complex with enough space to shoot several movies at once. The Producers just wrapped here, and Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington are beginning work with Spike Lee on Inside Man.
The soundstage I'm on is as big and echoing as a cathedral. All the Fur sets have been constructed here: Diane and Allan's studio, the Nemerov home, the fictional Lionel's apartment. I sneak onto an adjoining soundstage and watch the award‑ winning photographer Mary Ellen Mark take portraits with a massive, 20‑by‑24‑inch Polaroid of some of the cast members: dwarfs, a woman with no arms, then Robert Downey Jr. holding a snow‑ white rabbit.
Back on the Fur set, I am surrounded by hardworking craftspeople‑ carpenters, grips, lighting designers, hairdressers, coaches, P.A.'s murmuring on walkie‑talkies. Over in a corner, Steven Shainberg is conferring with the cinematographer, Bill Pope. In another corner, Nicole Kidman is having her makeup touched up.
I still can't quite believe that my book has been completely reimagined as a $17 million movie. Part of me is thrilled, but another part of me is conflicted. Movies are uncontrollable. With so much money and so many players, no one person, not even a star, can exert his or her will completely.
Shainberg is preparing to shoot a scene with Kidman, so I go over to her, hoping to chat with her for a bit. She is very tall and beautiful and serene ‑in spite of the bodyguards, assistants, and makeup people who threaten to engulf her.
She seems so different from her most recent roles: the lovable witch in Bewitched, the stern political activist in The Interpreter. The spirit of Diane seems to inhabit her; it's as if she's in a trance. Kidman tells me that she can't be interrupted or else she might lose the vision she has for her upcoming scene. With that, she glides away to join Jane Alexander and Harris Yulin, who play Diane's parents, Gertrude and David Nemerov.
The scene depicts a birthday party where Diane is toasted by Allan, movingly played by Ty Burrell (Friends with Money). Later, watching it on the monitor, I'm struck by Kidman's expression in close‑ up. It reminds me of the look on Diane Arbus's face when she first saw me so many years ago, when she didn't just look at me but considered me.
Then I remember that, before filming started, I had sent Kidman a photocopy of that ghostly self‑ portrait Arbus took when she was 21. I wonder if Kidman ever received the picture; she never mentioned it.
When I return home, there's a fax for me on Kidman's letterhead. It reads, "Dear Patti‑ I'm sorry there was no time to talk. It's very hard ... in the middle of the work. Thank you for the photograph. It is a great inspiration. Love, Nic."
I go back to my office and study the self- portrait again. I still imagine Diane pondering all those questions about illusion, authenticity, life, death, voyeurism the ones at the heart of photography.
It occurs to me, not for the first time, that Diane was a rule breaker‑ determined to have love, adventure, and fame on a grand scale. She reached deep down into herself to confront her fantasies and her fears, and Wilson's screenplay for Fur reflects that. It shows Diane beginning her journey into all the worlds she wanted to explore with her camera, all the worlds she opened to the rest of us with her piercing, transformative eye.