Who wouldn't want to star
in a juicy S&M romance destined for the Sundance Film Festival?
Well, lots of people, actually. Here's the whole sordid story, from
the first gleam in an indie director's eye to James Spader delivering
a climactic spanking--without padding.
ONE DAY LAST APRIL, James
Spader spanked Maggie Gyllenhaal. This was hardly a fond gesture between
actors. No, this spanking occurred during a climactic scene, one full
of "sexuality" and "love," according to the participants,
and, also, just a bit of violence. After all, the smack of Spader's
hand against Gyllenhaal's butt - her bare butt - sounded like coconuts
hitting the sidewalk.
Director Steven Shainberg is particularly proud of this scene, which
is at the heart of Secretary, his provocative new film. "It's
irrefutable," he says on the set in Los Angeles, as if someone
might already be arguing against it. Shainberg, 39, is compact and
fit, and as he warms to his topic, he sounds a bit ecstatic. He moves
his arms like an orchestra leader. During shots, he stands at the
monitor, one foot forward, the other scissored back - as if the orchestra
leader might be about to leap. "De-lightful!" he shouts.
And sometimes,"De-licious!" He seems full of hope.
Is it possible that things are finally going well for Shainberg and
his S&M romantic comedy?
Just four months earlier, the director had taken to bed in his New
York apartment, almost too depressed to speak. Secretary was supposed
to be Shainberg's second independent feature and the one that, he
hoped, would help him break through. But "a year after starting
to cast this," he managed to report, "I still have no male
lead." Actually, he underreported the bad news. He had no leads.
And it was going on two years.
STEVEN SHAINBERG had long been that terrible thing, a person of promise.
After graduating from Yale, he secured the rights to Denis Johnson's
wonderful debut novel, Angels. (He was 22 at the time but looked 15,
so to be taken seriously, he refused to meet Johnson until the deal
was signed.) Three years later, he optioned five Jim Thompson novels
--- shelling out only about $5,000. (This was before Hollywood turned
Thompson's work into The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet.) He graduated
from the directors program at the American Film Institute, where David
Lynch, Terrence Malick, Mimi Leder, and Darren Aronofsky are fellow
alumni. His onetime girlfriend, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, had
starred in his class projects, which he wrote with novelist Johnson.
After AFI, he created shorts for MTV. He shot commercials, directed
Shainberg has a quick sense of humor --- he can flop to the floor
in laughter --- and studios periodically sent him scripts --- broad,
comic, Animal House kind of things. But, the director says, "that
stuff is boring." He loves singular movies like Happiness, Breaking
the Waves, and sex, lies and videotape. In general, he's fascinated
by sex and the trouble it gets people into. Over the years, he visited
strip clubs, S&M clubs. He interviewed foot fetishists and sex
slaves. Then he read "Secretary," a short story by Mary
Gaitskill. It's about an S&M love match between office colleagues
--- he's the sadist, she's the masochist --- and it had the effect
of an epiphany. "I've got to make this," he thought. "I've
already put years of research into it." He optioned the story
in 1998 and eventually commissioned a screenplay by playwright Erin
In the meantime, he concentrated on his first feature, Hit Me, loosely
based on the Jim Thompson novel A Swell-Looking Babe. Shainberg raised
$700,000 to film the heist-gone-wrong drama, which stars Elias Koteas.
"A bleak, rewarding film noir, "The New York Times said
when it was released in 1998. But more independent films than ever
before were vying for screen time, and Hit Me stayed in theaters for
just a few weeks. "I'm not going to make another movie that no
one sees," Shainberg vowed at the time.
The only way out of that bind was to cast stars who could get the
movie into theaters. "All distributors want to know is, "Who's
in the film?" Shainberg says, "Your mother-in-law asks that.
My dentist asks. That's all I want to know." But who would sign
up for a low-budget film --- Shainberg raised $2 million from the
same investors who'd backed Hit Me --- that featured, as casting agent
Ellen Parks alerted agents, "self-mutilation, sado-masochism,
masturbation, and a hunger strike?"
SHAINBERG and his producing partners, Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby
of Double A Films (Sunday; the Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke), decided
to approach James Spader, an actor whose resume' of sexually provocative
films includes Crash, White Palace, and Bad Influence. The first of
these, of course, was sex, lies and videotape, and it made Spader
famous to a generation of moviegoers. In that 1989 hit, a commercial
watershed for indie film, the actor transformed a weird, hung-up guy
--- Graham, the videotaping masturbator --- into an alluring truth-teller.
Shainberg was sure Secretary would intrigue Spader. After all, the
lead might be Graham ten years later, now a marginally successful
lawyer with, still, a weird, secret sex life. In January 2000, word
came back via Joe Funicello, Spader's agent at ICM, that "he
doesn't respond to the material."
They tried Michael Keaton. Fierberg knew they might be crazy, but,
as he explains, "You think, 'He hasn't done a big movie in years.
He needs us.' " Keaton passed. They approached Aaron Eckhart,
of In the Company of Men. He too said no. (Eventually, he'd turn it
down five times.) Shainberg leaned toward Ray Liotta, but after Hannibal,
Liotta didn't seem as interested.
The casting process "is enough to make you want to blow your
head off," Shainberg says. Fierberg, though, was more philosophical,
as one might expect from a man who had been in the construction business
for years. (Perhaps as a result, Fierberg has a refreshingly patchy
memory for actor's names. "That was with the guy with the white
teeth," he'll say.) The producer had an idea: Robert Downey Jr.,
in jail at the time on charges of drug possession. No insurer would
bond a Downey movie. Studios won't make movies without insurance;
Fierberg would. Downey, however, opted for a role on Ally McBeal ---
a blessing, perhaps, since he was soon busted again. The filmmakers
approached Greg Kinnear, who seemed intrigued. "And we're talking
about offering bupkus," Fierberg says. But Shainberg wanted Kinnear
to audition, which killed that. Wim Wenders's distribution company,
Road Movies Filmproduktion, expressed interest in investing in Secretary
when Vincent D'Onofrio seemed like a possibility. Fierberg managed
to suggest that they were in negotiations. D'Onofrio, though, didn't
return calls. They offered the part to the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard
(Breaking the Waves), even though they were pretty sure he couldn't
do an American accent. Skarsgard turned it down.
If casting the male lead was difficult, what woman would sign on to
play the secretary, who, before blooming into a self-confident masochist,
is a secret self-mutilator, an activity she carries out with scissors,
bottlecaps, can openers, and a tea kettle? Later in the story, she
crawls to her boss on her hands and knees with a letter in her mouth
--- and loves it. (Seven females would later refuse to even meet with
Shainberg.) Christina Ricci, Sarah Polley, Claire Danes, Juliette
Lewis, Kate Hudson, and Reese Witherspoon said no. The filmmakers
eyed Samantha Morton, who'd been nominated for an Oscar for Woody
Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. She'd recently had a baby and looked pudgy
at the Academy Awards; they'd heard she was looking for work. Her
agent was interested. Morton passed.
As a backup, Shainberg auditioned unknowns. The first he met was Maggie
Gyllenhaal, older sister of actor Jake (she plays his sister in Donnie
Darko). Gyllenhaal, who has long legs, long arms, and an Ivy League
pedigree --- she's a recent graduate of Columbia --- received the
script with a note from the casting agent that said, "You might
be appalled." And so, she says, she was determined not to be.
To Shainberg she seemed winning, innocent, a little zany --- just
what he was after in a self-mutilator. Shainberg told his coproducers,
"I'd hire her in a minute if she had any value (in the marketplace)."
But she didn't.
A year had passed since Spader turned down the part. It had been almost
18 months since Double A Films signed on for no money, just a portion
of the film's receipts. ("We'll do it quickly and get out the
other side," Hobbly recalls saying back then.) Shainberg, who
had finished three other scripts in the interim, felt time slipping
away. "The movie that could bust my career open," he said
then, "probably won't."
In January 2001, the producers forced Shainberg to fly to L.A. to
begin preproduction. "It's torture to sit around and talk about
movies and not make them," Hobby says. While Shainberg scouted
sites and hired a cinematographer, Fierberg wondered, "Are we
shutting up shop?" Then, after they'd approached close to 30
actors, ICM's Funicello called. "I know this is going to sound
weird," Fierberg remembers Funicello saying, "but I've got
the perfect actor to be in this movie... James Spader."
IN HIS TRAILER, Spader, eating pasta with fancy mushrooms and listening
to Django Reinhardt, says he may be as comfortable on a movie set
as he is anywhere --- "that feeling of relaxation and serenity
and comfort" is how he puts it. In fact, the 42-year old, who
sometimes has trouble sleeping at night, naps effortlessly on a sofa
or on the floor of a set. And yet Spader, a veteran of more than 30
movies, is quick to add that he doesn't really like to work that much.
"I've never been interested in a career," he says. "Do
I think [making movies] will consume my life? Not a chance."
He likes to sail, to read, to walk; he takes summers off.
The way he tells it, he never even considered the script the first
time it was sent to him --- "for simply financial reasons."
"At a certain point, one has to be practical," he continues,
sounding like the working man's movie star. "I have to make my
nut." And so when he finally read the screenplay a year later,
he was intrigued.
Spader can be rather stiff and formal, speaking so carefully you can
almost hear the punctuation. Sex, he says, is probably the subject
that intrigues him most. "I understand desires and needs. I understand
sexuality. And obsessiveness," he says, sounding like the erotic
explorer from sex, lies. "And I am very curious about all that
I understand of it and all that I don't understand of it." Spader,
it turns out, sees the world in sexual terms. "I find that everything
relates to sexuality," he says. "It's unavoidable, inevitable.
It is what it's all about." He'd decided to take a role in another
small movie, and with both that and Secretary, he'd calculated he
could make his nut.
Would Spader play sexual sadist to an unknown masochist? He reviewed
Gyllenhaal's tapes. Shainberg recalls his reaction distinctly: "Spader
said, 'I think I would have quite a time spanking the hell out of
"James," Shainberg replied, "I think we're going to
get along just fine." Spader agreed to $100,000 per week for
four weeks, plus a percentage of the revenues --- not a lot by Hollywood
standards, but more than the production could easily afford.
Gyllenhaal, who'd been checking weekly with her agent, was thrilled
to finally be offered the part, her first lead. Then, with the role
in hand, a minor freak-out ensued. Look what she was being called
upon to do! Not only would Spader spank her bare behind --- the first
time he touches her onscreen --- but, in another tender moment, he
was supposed to masturbate on her. The film could descend into pornography.
"I was thinking about my grandfather coming to see this,"
the 24-year old actress says, winding one long leg around the other.
"The script has a lot of provocative questions that I didn't
know the answer to. And I felt like a lot of it was out of my control."
Her mother, Naomi Foner, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Running
on Empty, thought the script was good, if Gyllenhaal was ready for
it. Gyllenhaal showed it to her father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, director
of A Dangerous Woman and Waterland. "It was a little weird for
my dad," she says. At one point her agent, lawyer, and manager
tried to hammer out some ground rules for Shainberg to follow for
their young client. After all, Gyllenhaal had never played a love
scene of any kind before. They wanted Shainberg to sign an agreement
stating that "her nipples, crotch, and for lack of a better term,
'butt crack' will not be shown." Shainberg almost laughed out
loud, and refused to sign.
In the end, of course, Gyllenhaal couldn't turn down the part. And
as she sits with Shainberg on the set, she seems almost embarrassed
by her hesitation. She might still have a lot to figure out --- even
basic stuff, like what to do during 15 minutes of downtime while the
lights are rearranged. (First she tried "to stay as full of energy"
as she is right before the camera goes on. Then she realized it was
better to just relax in her trailer.) But she's intrepid, and clearly
likes that about herself. "It's the hugest challenge I've come
up against," she says in her pluckiest voice. Now she tells Shainberg
that she doesn't want any distance between herself and her screen
persona. She has decided to really experience everything --- the spanking,
the bondage, the whole range of unfamiliar activities. "I had
never explored S&M in my own life," she explains. "Why
don't I feel what it feels like?" And she wants to have the experience
for the first time in front of the camera.
The producers worry about that. They ask her to wear a protective
pad during the spanking. "Why not pretend?" suggests Fierberg,
concerned how her management might react. But Gyllenhaal insists.
As she explains it, she has a delicate challenge. "My character
is supposed to be moved by the tiniest movement of [Spader's], or
look or breath," she says. "So, I've allowed myself to be
totally open to him."
Spader isn't physically imposing --- take off his shoes and, as he
jokes one day, "I'll disappear" --- but on the set he can
be commanding, almost stern. Gyllenhaal finds him debonair, delightful,
and they fall into an easy rapport. "He's got a power,"
she says. "I think he's very sexy." Sometimes, while lights
are being set up or a camera shifted, Spader and Gyllenhaal simply
stare into each other's eyes. Other times he provokes her; he does
it easily, as if teasing. During a rehearsal, Shainberg recalls, Spader
asked Gyllenhaal, "Do you masturbate often?" In the movie,
her character does so twice. But in rehearsal, she blushed silently,
allowing Spader to offer, in his precise diction, "Because I
do, as often as I can."
DESPITE the S&M backdrop, Secretary is, in many ways, an old-fashioned
love story. To Spader, "the film is about people searching for
something that fills their hearts." To Gyllenhaal, "everything
that happens between us [is] about sexuality and love." Indeed,
the movie endorses the corniest view of love: that there's a mate
for every lost soul. Even a budding young masochist.
En route to discovering that true love, Gyllenhaal undergoes a workout.
Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey, Saving Private Ryan) plays her
gentle nebbish of a boyfriend, a persona he carries around off-stage.
"I'm underwhelming," he says in his trailer one day. Davies's
and Gyllenhaal's characters have a fight; she takes a swing at him.
"She won," says Davies, who adds that the fight was real,
not just acting. The next day, Spader's character has sex with her
while she's tied to a tree. And in the movie's most provocative scene,
Spader, wild-eyed with furtive pleasure, spanks Gyllenhaal as she
bends across his office desk.
Shainberg doesn't show the act --- it is the sound that rivets the
viewer --- but focuses on the emotions, the reactions. ("I'm
so relieved," Gyllenhaal's mother told Shainberg when she saw
an early cut of the film.) The camera closes on Gyllenhaal's face.
This moment is supposed to open her up to him. A myriad of emotions
seems to register. One is surprise. If she had it to do again, she
later confesses, she might wear a pad. "I forgot you have to
do 15 takes," she says. "I hurt myself in ways I didn't
expect." (She ended up with a football-sized bruise and had to
wear body makeup for the nude scenes later in the film.)
And yet perhaps her idea to experience it all on camera works. She's
vulnerable, oddly tender. Spader slumps over her. Their hands touch,
fingers clasp. Gyllenhaal's character really feels a connection ---
maybe for the first time in her life.
Shainberg loves the spanking scene. "You haven't seen anything
like it since Last Tango in Paris," he says. After getting a
peek at that scene, Two Pound Bag Productions stepped in with enough
money to finish the movie. And Secretary was selected for the dramatic
competition at this year's Sundance Film Festival. With any luck,
a distributor would bite. The years of fretting and travail are over.
Shainberg is sure he's on to something, sure he'll get to direct a
$10 million film. He is optimistic, full of hope and --- yes --- joy.
Steve Fishman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, is writing
a book about his life, the new economy, and karaoke.
© BY STEVE FISHMAN for Premiere
- The Movie Magazine (March 2002) (Thank you, Patti)