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Wilson's New Beat 

In Secretary, a controversial Duke playwright probes the good side of sadomasochism in America

Duke theater professor/playwright Erin Cressida Wilson wrote the screenplay to Secretary, the new James Spader -- Maggie Gyllenhaal film opening locally this weekend. In it, Mr. Grey, a lawyer, and his secretary, Lee, explore the benefits of S&M. Wilson's earlier works, including Hurricane, The Erotica Project and The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, have dealt with human sexuality as well. We spoke with her last week in New York.

Wilson: I didn't want to write another victim's tale about a woman. I though it would be interesting if instead of following the short story, the protagonist fell in love with her boss when he spanked her, and then he became afraid and she had to chase him down.

Independent: You didn't want to write another victim's story. Were you thinking of any movie in particular you wanted to avoid?

Every film that's made. It's pretty hard to think of any that aren't.

What I have struggled with for 15 years is creating three-dimensional characters: women that are highly sex-driven but not whores or sluts or victims. Three-dimensional human beings who have the right to be highly sex-driven--and who also love men. I see so many stories about perfectly strong women blaming men and hating men. I'm very dedicated to writing plays about men loving women.

Secretary is the second film recently involving self-mutilation. The Piano Teacher showed a woman's sado-masochism in a very different light.

I thought Isabelle Huppert was unbearably ... brilliant. But I really couldn't watch the film, when she cuts her labia. The woman behind me was hyperventilating; she almost fainted. It was so ... horrific. Not at all what I was writing about, obviously. I was glad I went, but I don't have the stomach for some of it.

There's this character having this erotic experience that just horrifies everybody else. What research did you do about self-cutting?

It's weird to say, but I don't know anybody who does it, or says they do it. There's a book called Bodily Harm. I read some other books. Mainly, I used my knowledge of being self-destructive as we all are, and of feeling frustrated. That's what I worked with since I haven't had the experience.

Is more about self-mutilation coming out now? Angelina Jolie's talking about her knives ...

Lots of people are self-destructive in one way or another, if they're honest with themselves: from cigarettes to self-mutilation to being a heroin addict. I chose self-cutting because it's visual, quick and clearly self-destructive. It has an interesting relationship to S&M, and also distinctions. There's a clear distinction between her clearly self-destructive self-cutting, and the activities she embarks on with the lawyer, which are not.

He seemed to understand that when he told her not to cut herself anymore. But he seemed to have his own pathology that was unexplained in the movie.

Yes. I wanted the movie completely from her perspective, from her eyes. That way he remains mysterious, the object of her desire, and therefore not completely dimensional. I think he has sadistic tendencies he's ashamed of that she brings out.

So it's a coming-out movie for a masochist--and a sadist. If you know anything about S&M, he's a masochist and she's a sadist as well: they're two sides of the same coin.

One thing about Secretary was its presentation of S&M in a very positive light--has that been done before?

Well, S&M has been made fun of, and turned into a fashion statement. But I've never seen a movie seriously take sadomasochism, like homosexuality, and say, "This is not necessarily a deviance, it is a choice for one's sexuality," and then become a coming-out film.

When the two get married, it's implied they continue that component of their relationship. Is S&M healthy?

It can be. It can also not be, but in this case I think it's very healthy for them.

It's no mistake that middle America seems to be relating to this film. I think sadomasochism is more prevalent than we admit, psychologically and physically, on a destructive level and sometimes in a constructive way.

Was it an accident that Mr. Grey is from Des Moines?

Was it an accident?

I read somewhere that Des Moines comes in first on a lot of indices of alternative sexual taste in America--

That's hysterical! (laughs) I just think the words "Des Moines, Iowa" are funny.

It sounds like James Spader was in on this very early.

He passed on it, at first! Then it turned out he hadn't read it. But he did, and thankfully said yes. That saved the movie, because it wasn't going to be made. He saved the movie in a matter of twelve hours.

He has a reputation for being drawn to edgy sexual material.

Well, he was perfect for the part, but [director] Steven Shainberg had some hesitation because of his reputation. He didn't want the film to have too much of a "James Spader" cliché on it. [Spader's] become his own cliché, but I think he proved himself far beyond any you could create.

Was Maggie Gyllenhaal the first person to be auditioned for her part?

Yes, the very first person to come in. Meanwhile, they were offering it to every starlet in Hollywood.

Were you present during the shoot?

Yes, during a little over half of it. It was fun. Because the budget was so cheap, they couldn't get a soundstage; they had to use an old movie theater in East L.A.

It was very surreal: You walk in and there's this incredibly beautiful lawyer's office. I very much wanted the hallway to be very long, so there would be expectation and foreplay before getting to his office--that it was a real passage.

There was a surreal, Tim Burton quality to the set: little touches like that permanent "Secretary wanted" sign out front...

Steve said it was like Mike Leigh meets Tim Burton: realistic and gritty in a way, but also fairy tale-like.

At the end it seemed that Maggie's was the aggressive character--that the lawyer wasn't doing enough to earn her, and she was taking charge.

Traditionally, the submissive is the one who's really in charge, controlling the dominant's domination. They can't do it without the submissive's participation, or else it's over.

In the last scene of your play, Hurricane, Katy, the main character, is being interviewed by a reporter. She's a writer recently returned from Africa, where she'd been imprisoned. The reporter insists on reducing her experience to "rape." Katy responds by saying she's fed up with knee-jerk feminist criticism. Was that sentiment from your own personal vantage point?

No question about it.

You haven't had that kind of critical obtuseness with Secretary?

I've been flabbergasted by the response to Secretary. I think feminism has finally turned the corner. It's OK to like men. Love does not have to be careful, sensitive and sexless to be OK. We all have dark sides and it's OK to fall in love with one another's dark sides. I think the movie has come out at a moment when feminism has come to a point where it can handle such complexity.

Your theater writing has a cinematic sensibility. There's a scene in Trail of Her Inner Thigh that calls for a spotlight to come up on a character's thighs. But it seems like Secretary, on the other hand, could be readily adapted into a two-hander for the stage.

Oh, god, I'd love to. I don't know if I'm legally allowed to, but I would love to. EndBlock

  • In "Secretary," a controversial Duke playwright probes the good side of sadomasochism in America.

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