Steven Shainberg has a thing for strong women in strange situations. His breakout second feature Secretary was one of the first major, careful, honest depictions of kink and BDSM on screen, and it catapulted the career of Maggie Gyllenhaal for her portrayal of the submissive secretary, Lee. His followup Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus was an unofficial, unauthorized biopic of the iconic photographer. This year Shainberg continues the trend with his first feature in a decade: Rupture.

Rupture (starring Noomi Rapace, Peter Stormare, Kerry Bishé, and Michael Chiklis) tells the story of Renee, a single mother who’s suddenly and unexpectedly kidnapped and taken to a strange facility. While there, she’s subjected to strange tests and noxious chemicals in an effort to make her “rupture,” or reveal her true self.

We spoke with Steven Shainberg over the phone about his new film and the legacy and impact of Secretary.

Tribeca Shortlist: What was the initial inspiration for Rupture?

Steven Shainberg: I’ve always loved the Teshigahara movie Woman in the Dunes, and that movie, if you don’t know it, is about a guy who’s held captive in a sand dune by a woman and in the course of the day with her, he essentially discovers who he really is as a person, and he gives up his whole way of life. And in that movie he ends up living with her and staying with her forever, and it’s this crazy, captive love story.

And it was kind of a tributary into thinking that led to Rupture. But I’ve always wanted to do a movie where somebody is taken to a place and they don’t know where they or what they’re going to do about it. And at first they’re struggling against it, but eventually they learn something that is integral to their life.

One of the elements of Rupture that really stuck with me was Renee’s resourcefulness. That seems very hard to capture on film, but you nailed it. Can you talk to me about the process of charting and displaying her resourcefulness?

Yeah, I really like that question because it’s a real filmmaking question, you know, when you have somebody in that kind of situation one of the fun things for me was: How long can I keep her tied to the gurney and still maintain the audience’s interest? How can I do that? So that’s the first question. The second question is: she’s gonna have to get off that gurney, and when she does, what is she gonna do and what is she gonna encounter? So the key elements of that narrative, more than what you invent and come up with, the true key to that is the actors. You better have somebody who you believe can figure that shit out. You better believe that she can figure out that at a certain point she’s better off going back to that room. Because if she continues to wander around they’re gonna kill her. That’s her thinking, anyway.

You know, Noomi Rapace, because of her dual capacity to convey intelligence and power, makes you say “Yes, this is a person who can figure these things out,” using the drug that they inject in her against them, she’s thinking very, very fast. That’s one of the fun things, too, it has that sort of methodical, very weird pace, and yet at the same time it’s very intense. And the tension’s not coming from the speed, it’s coming from the question of “what can happen next?”

Is that what drew you to this new foray into the thriller genre?

I’m interested in how I can hold the audience’s attention. One of the great things that Tarantino said was that the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience is a sadomasochistic relationship, and the filmmaker is the sadist. And I just think that’s an incredibly brilliant thing to say because the filmmaker’s is in control of where you look, and how you look, and what you get to see, and what you get to know. And one of the really fun challenges of the movie which I set out to do was to see how long could you be interested without really knowing what’s going on. When she goes into that place, she has no idea what’s happening to her, and you don’t know anything for a really long time. And there’s no way for you to figure it out.

And that’s the kind of fun and really challenging thing to try to accomplish. To just create enough fear and enough anticipation, and enough excitement. And I can tell with the few screenings that I’ve sat through with the audience, the audience gets still, absolutely still, because they’re just waiting and waiting and waiting to see, is she going to be able to get out of there? That’s just a really cool thing to be able to do.

It’s not so dissimilar from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader’s characters navigating this sort of maze of a relationship.

Yeah, they’re both in situations where they have to face the truth about themselves. And to face the truth about themselves, they really have to surmount their own fear. They have to experience their own fear. I mean the tone of both movies are completely different, the circumstances are totally different, but the essential, psychological experience is very similar. You could say that Ruptured is Secretary as a horror film, and you wouldn’t be very far off.

Looking back fifteen years to Secretary, the film really started and shifted conversations about kink. How do you feel about the way Secretary has contributed to that conversation?

[Laughs] Well, I think that we have certainly become much more tolerant and accepting and aware of various sexual and gender positions, and that’s great! That’s great, you know, but cinematically it creates problems because when I made Secretary it was daring and shocking, and the humor of it, the fun of it, allowed you to swallow the shocking part of the pill. That was very deliberately made in that way. But you couldn’t make that movie now because it turned into Fifty Shades of Grey and all that other stuff that just becomes pure repetition.

In a way it’s like every ten or fifteen years we see a movie that’s about sadomasochism or about interracial love or, you know, these themes come back and they come back again, and I’m glad that the movie took a very strong, feminist point of view to that character’s particular sexuality, and it did not make sadomasochism or S&M into something ugly or creepy or crazy. That’s kind of what I object to when I see certain movies just pathologize it. And that’s what makes the movie such a pleasure, and such a wonderful experience, and a lot of fun.

Absolutely. And while it opened the conversation it also set a template that’s been misunderstood.

Well it’s not that it’s been misunderstood, it’s just that the cliché will always come back. I mean, Fifty Shades of Grey might be the worst example of this, it’s nothing but cliché. There’s nothing there. So the clichés will always come back, you can’t beat that in American filmmaking.

And in closing, let’s talk about the impact Secretary has had on you as a filmmaker.

I wish the financiers could look at the movies I’m trying to get made right now, and when they say “I don’t understand the tone of this,” and I say “Well, take a look at Secretary, it’s just as funny as that was” that that would mean something. But I don’t think Secretary could get made today. I don’t think there’s anybody that pays to make that movie. And I guess all I could say is that I wish that some financier loved the movie enough to be able to give me the money to make the films that I want to make. That’s all I care about, I don’t really look back much in life, I’ve got too many things I want to do.


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