The intense, surreal new horror film Rupture, in which Noomi Rapace plays a single mother abducted and experimented upon in a mysterious complex, comes from an unlikely source: Steven Shainberg, director of the bizarrely romantic 2002 S&M comedy Secretary and the 2006 un-biopic Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. But the new movie shares elements with those films, including complex characters undergoing dramatic transformation, a fascination with textures, and a genre-confounding mixture of tones. We spoke to the director about the film, the changing industry and the odd correlations among his movies.

Rupture is your first film in a decade. What have you been up to?

After Fur, I wrote this script with a friend called The Big Shoe, about a genius shoe designer who hasn’t done anything in shoes for years because his father devastated him. His father is a bootmaker, and he doesn’t believe that his son should stray from the bootmaking profession. In the beginning of the movie, the mother sends a woman to Arizona, where the hero is living in kind of squalor, and says, “Your father’s dying, and I will help get you back to Los Angeles for a few days so you can say goodbye.” But it turns out the woman is actually a psychiatrist who basically moves into people’s lives to help them. She brings in a girl with a beautiful foot. He sees the girl’s foot and he gets so turned on, he starts creating shoes for her. And what develops is a sort of wonderfully perverted funny relationship between him and the girl.

It’s about what happens between his family, the shoemaker and the beautiful shoes that he makes. It was a perverted love story that’s really funny, about art and commerce. I sent it to, like, five producers, and Andrew Lazar called me the next day and said, “I want to do it!” The first cast was Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Mia Wasikowska. That’s a pretty nice cast. We went out, and nobody would finance the movie except Avi Lerner. And Avi Lerner said, “I’ll give you $7.5 million to make this movie, but I will give you $10 [million] if you can put a gun in Joaquin’s hand.” And I said, “There’s no guns in this movie. I can’t do that.” He said, “OK, well, then, you can have $7.5 million.” It might’ve even been eight. Anyway, Joaquin turned the deal down and basically pulled the movie down. So the movie fell apart. That was the first time. Then we replaced Joaquin with Andrew Garfield, and we sold the movie at Cannes with Garfield. Then Garfield was coming off Spider-Man.

His nervous-breakdown years…

Yeah. Basically he pulled out … not just from my movie but from everybody’s movies. Then we were gonna do the movie with Jim Sturgess, Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, which I thought would’ve just been fantastic. And we had all the money. We would shoot in South Africa. I had gone and scouted for 10 days, met tons of South African crew. We were getting assurances that this South African fund was really real, and in fact they did finance a movie before us. We were the second. Turned out the guy who was running the film fund was, like, an absolute lying motherfucker. And he had so many problems on the movie that preceded us that they pulled the fund out — even though we were getting letters of assurance from the minister for art saying it was happening. And it fell apart.

Is there a chance you’d still be able to do it?

It’s not dead. We’ve got Nicholas Hoult now, who actually is kind of the best version of the guy. And we have Elizabeth Banks, who I think would be really wonderful as the shrink. And we’re out to a couple of people to play the younger woman. My pitch on it is, “Latin America, Asia, Europe, North America … women love shoes.” We have Alexander McQueen’s shoe designer, who designed the shoes for the movie. During the course of the film, the character makes 20 pairs of shoes for this woman. And the drawings are astounding! At one time, Christian Louboutin was gonna make the shoes. Now it’s Georgina Goodman, who was Alexander’s person for a long, long time. We’re gonna make the shoes on a level that’s incredible.

You have a pretty elegant, composed style of filmmaking. Do you find that approach has become more out of fashion as films have become more gritty and handheld and realistic?

I think that the experience of movies as a metaphor and dream is [out of fashion], to some extent. Re-creating naturalistic environments and worlds was never really interesting to me at all. Mike Leigh is a fantastic filmmaker, but I could never make a Mike Leigh movie. I’m interested in how dream and reality are completely entwined and how reality is the creation of a kind of dream.

Meanwhile, the $15 million movie of yesterday is now the $8.4 [million] movie of today, and the $8.4 [million] movie is now maybe $5 [million]. And the $5 million movie, there’s no way you can make that movie for $1.8 [million]. That’s why you see a lot of movies now where the characters are renovating their home, you know, or they just moved in. It’s hard to make the dreaminess and the otherworldliness happen with no production design and no time to light.

Tell me about how Rupture came about.

I had gone to see Paranormal Activity, the first one, and I had this thought coming out of it. I was reading about people who say they’ve been abducted by aliens, and there are a lot of theories about why they say that. Because we have to assume that it’s not true, and yet they [these people] speak of a literal reality. So, what is going on? I thought, “What if somebody was abducted by aliens and there was a video camera there?” But the more I thought about it, the more I thought: I can’t do one of those [found-footage] movies because I won’t be able to do what I naturally do. That’s not how I think things through; it’s not how I visualize things. So it kind of morphed out of that into what I would call a “real” movie, where there’s set-up shots and things look beautiful and so forth.

The film is a great exercise in visual storytelling. It almost feels like you’re getting all this cinema out of your system.

It was pretty pent up. [Laughs] One of the really fun things that obviously is intentional about Rupture is that Renée [Noomi Rapace’s character] is unaware of what’s going on, and she’s looking around, and every time somebody comes in her room or anytime she sees something, she’s trying to put things together in her mind. So the opportunity to be inside somebody’s traumatized experience in that way with the camera is part of the kick of making the movie.

Were you cognizant of how far you could push the idea of seeing through the eyes of someone who has no idea what’s happening? Because consequently, viewers have no idea what’s happening. More than almost any horror movie, this film really pushes that uncertainty.

Yeah, that was the whole idea. A little bit more of that, and it’s an art piece in a gallery. I wanted to come as close to “you never know” as I could get. I mean, in a certain way that’s actually the experience of fear: You don’t know where things are going, and you don’t know why things are happening inside you.

That’s sort of what all your movies are about, isn’t it? In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character winds up being liberated by a bizarre, sadomasochistic relationship. In Fur, Nicole Kidman’s Diane Arbus discovers this initially creepy upstairs neighbor, and then she winds up having her world opened up. Both of these characters confront uncertainty and fear and wind up becoming more themselves.

That’s how I could connect with this movie — the idea of going to a place that you need to go to, but which you resist going to, and which is going to essentially transform you in a positive way. That’s where the attitude [of her abductors] in Rupture comes from. They think they’re doing something beautiful for her. Their point of view is, “You don’t know who you are,” and, you know, you could say that that’s Maggie Gyllenhaal’s experience in Secretary, it’s Nicole Kidman’s experience in Fur. Of course, in the case of Rupture, it’s different because she’s been forcibly taken there, and that’s why it’s a horror movie. But that deep, transformative journey of the central character is what I’m drawn to.

This basic idea, at its highest levels, is Woman in the Dunes — where you are trapped in a place and you’re put into an experience that you would never want to have, but which is scary, perverted, electric, intimate and so forth. That’s why Misery is so good, you know: I mean, she fucking crushes his feet, you know, because she doesn’t want him to leave, right? So fantastic! You can make that movie for a price. But what’s happening psychologically is, in a way, the same thing as the family comedy of Thanksgiving or the wedding movie — we’re all here for the weekend. Or it’s any [dramatic] shape where the people are put into a box, they can’t leave the box, and they have to deal with each other. The Celebration is the same movie, just in a different shape.

So, Home for the Holidays and Cube are the basically the same film.

They’re the same movie! And The Celebration is actually really the same because it’s both funny and absolutely emotionally terrifying, right? So, you know, who is trapped and, you know, is the gate to the estate closed? Great shit.

All your other movies are kind of “genre-adjacent.” Fur is biopic-adjacent, and Secretary is erotica-adjacent — if you go in expecting those kinds of movies, you might be disappointed. But this one you can really accept as a horror movie.

I did some interview about it, and the journalist asked me, “So what are your favorite torture-porn movies?” And I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a torture-porn movie.” I wanted the movie to function for horror fans and fans of psychological thrillers. But I also wanted it — and to some extent this was the route into the material for [screenwriter] Brian Nelson and me — to function as a kind of spiritual parable. Because I’ve known a bunch of people who have gone on real religious quests in their life, and a few have come through truly enlightened, and several have cracked up and gone crazy. The experience of facing the things that terrify you and the way in which that fear can transform you is both a horror movie and a religious story. I couldn’t make a straight-ahead horror movie, but I could make one with a really great operating metaphor. Same thing with Fur. I couldn’t make a straight-ahead biopic. I’ve probably been offered 50 of them, and when I read them I’m like, “I don’t want to tell the story about the childhood in Wales or whatever.”

Watching Fur again I was really struck again by how much it's a movie about texture. There’s a bit of that in Rupture, too. When she’s on the gurney, trapped, you really feel those straps on you.

I’m completely involved with the color, texture, light of every single moment. I love that, and it’s important. We had a lot of conversations early on in Rupture about, for example, should her arms be above her head? And to me, if you put her hands above her head, you’re making an entirely different movie. If a woman is subjugated in that way, in a certain sense it really does flip different switches in your mind. It was really important to me that the gurney looked the way it looked and that her body positions be what they are in the film. Also, we’re talking about Noomi Rapace, who is so powerful, so intense, so smart — you’re on the gurney with a certain mentality. You’re not there with somebody whimpering.

At the same time, I look at the movie, and I think that there are some directors who get off on a certain kind of cruelty that I just could not really perpetrate. And maybe that, in the end, is good for the movie, because it doesn’t go to certain places that another, more sadistic movie might go to. But I actually struggled with this privately. We started designing the gurney and we started making the place, and I would go into the set as it was going up, and I would feel like, “Oh, God, this is a really scary place. What have I done?”

I’ll give you one other dimension of this. Noomi Rapace, in her life, is really scared of spiders. And so one of the things we were talking about before shooting was, “How do you wanna deal with this?” At one point, she said, “Look, have a spider on the set so that before we do the scenes, maybe I’ll want to put a spider on me to have that surge of fear, then you can take it off of me and we’ll play the scene.” So I said, “Geez, OK, well, we can do that if you want to just have that choice.” And maybe, like, two weeks into the shoot, we were there and both of us were, like, completely gone. We were totally into the movie — head-tripping like crazy, in a good way. But she did want the spider on her, and she went absolutely nuts. I could’ve made things worse for her. But the fact that the movie pulls back from that in some sense elevates it.

In other horror films, things just get worse and worse; the genre traffics in helplessness. This one seems to go somewhere different.

Well, it operates on that baseline that we all know that at any moment horror can enter our lives. If you’ve ever been on a plane where there’s suddenly turbulence, the fear that comes into your throat enters you immediately. That’s also why horror movies are great, because it’s kind of like a super-energized release that is important to go through on occasion. And that’s why the degraded version is kind of insulting to our inner lives. I guess that’s why they call it exploitation, because it is exploiting that essential terror that we carry with us. One of the questions that was at the root of Rupture was, “What is there to be learned from that experience? Where can that experience lead us? And what is that experience connected to?”

You’re always mixing tones, in a purposeful way. Rewatching Secretary, what really struck me was the balance in that film between playful and scary and sexy. James Spader, in particular, manages to be creepy and pathetic and charming all at once. That’s what the 50 Shades movies seem to be missing.

Well, in addition to everything else. The very reason that they’re successful is why they’re so bad — they’re just utter clichés. There’s no character there at all. It’s very hard to make an S&M movie that isn’t pathologizing or morose. As great a movie as The Piano Teacher is — and I think it’s an amazing film, with a crazy-wonderful Huppert performance — that’s the movie I didn’t want to make. Obviously, [Michael] Haneke is such a great filmmaker, and she’s such a great actress, that that movie takes on a completely different dimension. But I wanted to see it in a different way. I didn’t want to make a movie where she’s condemned to madness and the expression of her madness is S&M. And that’s what I didn’t want to do with Mary Gaitskill’s original story. In the story, the character’s destroyed by this, and it is entirely dark and sad — they’re two people locked in their disease. Secretary is about a girl being in power and being liberated paradoxically, and that’s much more interesting than a girl who’s turned on by being spanked or hit or whatever.

I’d also forgotten, of course, that Spader’s character is named Mr. Gray.

Thank you very much. [Laughs] I’m not getting any residuals from 50 Shades, I’ll tell you that. Nobody’s called me.

Do you feel like you could get away with a movie like Secretary today?

It’s always hard to get movies made where the tone or the answers to “What is it?” aren’t completely obvious. A lot of people read Secretary and said, “Oh these are really unappealing characters who do really creepy things in a lawyer’s office.” And I would say, “No, I love them, they’re wonderful people, I love her, she’s fantastic, and he’s actually really painfully charming, and he’s got a lot of problems, but they’re gonna love each other, and it’s gonna be beautiful!” And people would look at me like, “This guy is crazy.”

One thing I often say to people is, “Hollywood is a place where Darren Aronofsky could not get Black Swan financed with Natalie Portman.” Why? Two reasons. He was coming off a movie that didn’t do well, and people thought, “Effete art film set in the world of New York City ballet — who’s gonna go?” That was 75, 80 rejections from financiers. If I were a film financier and I had money to make movies, I would go to CAA and WME and UTA, and the first question I would ask is, “What are the movies that everybody’s afraid to make?”

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