DVDTalk Interview - Steven Shainberg
by Phillip Duncan
Steven Shainberg, the director of the new to DVD film Secretary starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a man passionate about his work. Anxious to dispell the myth that the film is nothing but S&M action aimed at the 18 and over crowd, Shainberg sat and talked with DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan recently about the difficulties in getting the film made and the luck that brought him the right actors.
I know that Secretary began as a short film more than 10-years ago, which got you interested in the story?
If you go back and read the original Mary Gates Gill story, which almost all of 12-pages long, it has a basic relationship between a lawyer and a secretary which instinctually I felt could flower into a love story. It doesn’t do that in the story that Mary Gates Gill wrote. Essentially, in the story they young girls experiences with the lawyer is very damaging to her. One of the things I felt when I first read it is that this relationship doesn’t have to go in that direction, and that direction is in someway the expected thing of sadomasochism. That sadomasochism, the expected cliché of it is that it’s dark, and scary and weird with leather and whips and chains. Things that are scary and go bump in the night. My feeling was that it did not have to be that way. That it could actually be a liberating experience for a young girl.
That took a lot of convincing out in the world. To some extent I’m still trying to convince people to go rent the DVD and the video so that they can see for themselves. That sort-of the short version of a long period of developing into something different than what it started out as. Hear the answer...
Did you initially try to do full-length version after completing the short film?
When I did the short, a lot of people saw it and they were interested into developing it into a feature, but when I would tell then that the feature would end with these two people in love and sort of never “getting over their problem,” interest dwindled quickly. I put the film, my short, on the shelf for quite a long time (a few years) and I came back to it because I had a different idea for it, a way to make it funnier and a way to make it more playful. To really shift the tone to something that was tender and human and I think more romantic. Once I did that, I felt stronger about it myself and no longer felt the need to run around to and find somebody to support it. I just went and did it with a friend of mine, a playwright here in New York, and then we had the script after a year, year and a half. Things became a little easier once we had the script. Hear the answer...
What changed from the original version?
Once the film was made, it’s interesting, because we went to Sundance feeling like the film was really strong and unusual and powerfully romantic, ultimately. Whether as a theatrical film or as a video or DVD, that it was a date movie. So we went to Sundance. The audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive and during the course of Sundance nobody bought the film. We went to the awards ceremony terrified! Thinking, “Oh My God, this is a disaster.” Then we won the special jury prize. That turned some heads and ultimately Lions Gate picked it up. I think what turned the audience and what turned the distributors and ultimately what turned the general public, because the movie did $4-5 million at the box-office as a film that was only in 150 theaters at its widest. The idea of the film got out there. It got out into the world that this wasn’t something creepy or ugly or unappealing. Do you know what I mean? That it was something else, and that made people stand up and take a look. Hear the answer...
It’s a more realistic look at romance that Hollywood usually gives.
Absolutely. With the inherent subject matter, you have to get over the clichéd expectations. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important I talk to journalists and radio stations and all of that, because I don’t want and the studio doesn’t want the new audience for video and DVD to just make an assumption about the movie. It’s something else and we want to encourage them to find that out for themselves. Hear the answer...
On a related note, the original theatrical artwork with Maggie grabbing her ankles was removed from the theatrical poster and is cropped on the DVD cover. Is this to downplay the suggestive view of the film?
It’s interesting because the idea behind the second theatrical poster was always there. The idea was to have a more titillating poster as the first piece of publicity and then to play with the second poster more romance. The reason on the DVD and the video you don’t have her butt and you just have her legs is that the approval board, or whomever it is that makes these assessments, wouldn’t allow us to use her butt. It’s just one of those hilarious, absurd things. You can open up Vogue magazine or Elle magazine or People magazine and you can literally see topless women in Sadomasochistic situations but on a DVD and video cover you can’t show someone’s butt.
Wearing a skirt.
Wearing a skirt!! So you know I can only get myself involved in these things to some extent. If I got myself too involved with it I would never make another movie. The history of these ad campaigns is always very involved. Hear the answer...
Was it difficult casting the two lead roles?
Maggie was the first girl who came in to audition and me and the casting director just fell in love with her right away. She had absolutely everything that the part required. From a filmmaking point of view, there was something extremely exciting about casting somebody who you had no associations with. It’s a very different movie if it’s Reese Witherspoon. You know what I mean? So, one of the things about the film is that it’s an innocent young girl going to meet someone with a lot of authority. So you get a lot out of having someone like Spader in that role because he has tremendous authority and he is also somebody we know and have associations with. So I wanted to use that. It just turned out that James Spader was willing to do the film with an unknown actress. That is a tremendous risk that he took and I will always bee appreciative of that. Hear the answer...
Was there a lot of pressure on her, since this was her first major role?
I think everyone was aware that the movie was a huge risk. Certainly her agent, her manager, her mom and her dad and her brother; everybody was concerned what was it going to be like. How sexy was it going to be? How risky was it going to be? How much were we going to see, quite literally, from scene to scene to scene? I think from that point of view, of course she was quite aware of the risk she was taking, but so were we. We were casting somebody who carries the movie who had never played anything but a small role. After reading her two or three times, it was clear to me what she had. I wasn’t as afraid as some of the other people involved with the film were. You know like, “Can she do it?” I had a lot of confidence in her. Hear the answer...
DVDTalk would like to thank director Steven Shainberb for taking the time to answer our questions.