Secretary Scribe Is Hell on Heels

When Erin Cressida Wilson walks the red carpet at Secretary ‘s Sept. 18 premiere at Clearview’s Chelsea West theater, she’ll be wearing “simple” Hermès pants and an Armani shirt with “witchy, slutty shoes that counteract the conservatism of the rest.”

That kind of contrast is part of what appealed to the Duke University writing professor and playwright about doing the screenplay for Secretary , an unlikely S&M office romance that puts a twist on Mary Gaitskill’s 1989 short story of the same name.

“I often write characters that walk a political line. I never lay any blame on them,” she told The Transom on a recent Monday afternoon over a cup of tea at her newly redesigned West Village apartment. “I try to juxtapose fairly rough images with very tender images”-a natural atmosphere for developing those kinds of characters, she said.

And New York, she added, is a natural environment for the movie.

“It’s an extremely sexy city,” Ms. Wilson said.

She’d just gotten off the red-eye from Los Angeles, part of what has been a breathtaking tour of duty since her screenplay has been turned into a movie and whipped critics into submission. (Full disclosure: The Transom took three classes from her in college.)

After winning a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the buzz started in earnest. The Hollywood Reporter , noting that Lions Gate Films had picked it up, called Secretary “one of the most original love stories to come along in quite some time.” The acting got raves, too. In the title role, Maggie Gyllenhaal-who has said she called her agent to get an audition after reading only three-quarters of Ms. Wilson’s screenplay-makes a startling debut (she isn’t exactly a Hollywood unknown, what with her brother Jake’s star turn opposite Jennifer Aniston in the recent hit The Good Girl ), while James Spader-the actor who made heartthrobs out of perverts with his role in 1989′s Sex, Lies and Videotape -lent the film a credibility he hasn’t always been able to confer on other genres.

But Wednesday will be Ms. Wilson’s moment to shine in New York City, where life has not always been so good.

She’s lived in New York since 1985, when she graduated from Smith College, and took a while to settle in.

“I had a very hard time in New York. I came in completely without connections-no family connections, no friend connections,” she said. “I was so totally unwilling to play the game.”

It wasn’t until she accepted a job offer at Duke 10 years later and moved to North Carolina that her writing fell into place. “The moment I stopped trying to make the city work for me was the moment I started writing,” she said.

It was in her play Hurricane , staged in late 1999 by the Classic Stage Company in the East Village, that Ms. Wilson got her revenge.

“It’s very cynical towards the city,” she explained. “New York didn’t love that.”

But the reviewers seemed to: The New York Times ‘ Bruce Weber called it a “sardonic, breast-beating discourse on the power-or lack of it-that sexuality confers on a woman in the post-feminist world.” There’s no mention of any quarrel with New York, and that may be over, anyway: Ms. Wilson spends most of the year here again with her boyfriend, John Mackenzie, who had recently returned from Vancouver, where he’s been shooting Dark Angel .

“This is the place where I see my psyche reflected outside myself the most,” said Ms. Wilson, who is now working on a novel about a woman’s sexual coming of age in the late 70′s and early 80′s. “[I've] found the nicest people I’ve ever met in New York. I think the brusqueness is honesty.”

For all her admiration of tough love-and her extensive exploration of the mysterious sides of it-Ms. Wilson said that in her initial research into S&M, she found in herself “complete naïveté.” But soon the scales dropped from her eyes.

“We all live with it on a daily basis,” she said-the conclusion of a rigorous regime of reading books about S&M and watching couples interact nearly everywhere she went. “Every couple is extremely involved in S&M without even knowing it,” she said.

“Having a power dynamic isn’t simply a negative; being a submissive is not an illness, like many people think-like they thought about homosexuals.”

Ms. Wilson sees the movie as a feminist film, but not feminist in the usual sense of the word.

“This is the coming-out movie for the submissive,” she said. In the film, after Ms. Gyllenhaal’s character is spanked by her aggressive boss, a lawyer played by James Spader, she listens to tapes on dominance and submission to get her boss to hit her again.

“Feminists insist they must be dominant, but it’s the submissive that is actually in control; the submissive is the one that allows the dominant to be dominant,” she said. And it seems that notion is finding its audience-everywhere.

“At one screening, there was a woman in her 80′s cracking up at everything,” said Ms. Wilson. “Men think they’re pulling the wool over our eyes, but [they] don’t know that we’re controlling [their] dominance.”

It’s a role in which Mr. Spader has acquitted himself admirably-and now Ms. Wilson has closure on yet another chapter of her life.

“I’ve always been in love with James Spader,” she said. “But now I don’t have to be anymore, because he’s in my movie!

-Alexandra Wolfe

Wallsé Chef’s Chelsea Kaffeehaus …

Kurt Gutenbrunner, the blond-haired, blue-eyed chef of the West Village restaurant Wallsé, has a plan to feed all those famished Chelsea artists who haunt openings in search of hors d’oeuvres: It’s called Schlag . The Bouley-trained Mr. Gutenbrunner, whose Austrian-themed restaurant is a local hangout for artist Julian Schnabel and musician Lou Reed, is actively looking for real estate in Chelsea to open a Viennese Kaffeehaus -inspired space that would be “a café during the day and, later, a place for people from the openings to come by.”

“A lot of artists want to go and have something to eat,” Mr. Gutenbrunner said with a Teutonic matter-of-factness. “It doesn’t have to be a restaurant with three courses; I have one already. It will have cakes, coffee with Schlag , Sacher -cake-the more Sacher -cake, the better!”

Mr. Gutenbrunner is something of an aesthete himself. The design of his sleek West 11th Street space was inspired by the work of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, right down to the original black Loos chairs, and there are currently four works by Mr. Schnabel (including a broken plate piece and an Oskar Kokoschka portrait), an Andy Warhol photograph by Dennis Hopper, a piece by Austrian artist Albert Oehlen and paintings that German artist Martin Kippenberg did on Viennese hotel stationary, all hanging on his walls, on loan from Mr. Schnabel’s collection.

“These are the kinds of paintings I grew up with in Austria,” he said. “With all the history.”

Mr. Gutenbrunner said the inspiration for the Chelsea place came from Vienna, too, where, by the turn of the century, cafés had turned into the haunts of writers, architects and painters. The place will have a more relaxed feel than Wallsé, he said, with a no-reservation policy, and it will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“If you go to a Gasthaus in Vienna, you go with friends and every once in a while at night, to listen to some good music,” the restaurateur explained. “You do relaxed stuff.”

No word yet on whether Mr. Reed would have some improv gigs there, but the restaurateur said that both Mr. Reed and Mr. Schnabel thought the project was a good idea. Until then, Mr. Gutenbrunner is working on a shorter-term project, a tiny wine bar next-door to Wallsé that should open by the beginning of next year. Inspired by Vienna’s 1907 Kärntner Bar-also known as the American Bar, which Adolf Loos built in 1907-the bar should have the same “minimalistic, elegant” feel as the Kärntner, Mr. Gutenbrunner said. Just no brioche or knödel yet.

-Elisabeth Franck

… And Denise Rich’s Aspen Alpenzoo

The von Trapp Family Resort in Stowe, Vt., may be getting more competition from Aspen if songwriter and local Clinton-booster Denise Rich goes through with plans to build an ersatz Austrian village in the elite Colorado resort town.

She’s been teaming up with Peter Cervinka, an Austrian developer who has remodeled one Upper East Side townhouse with curlicues and a canary-and-cream color scheme, to design the place (see also Manhattan Transfers).

“We’re thinking of building an Austrian village in Aspen,” Mr. Cervinka confirmed. “We want to do real-estate things together.”

Not that it’s such a crazy idea: The shopping area of posh resort town Vail, Colo., is modeled, after all, on an Austrian village.

If Ms. Rich, Steve Wynn–style, lends her persona to the place, it stands to attract massive attention. For New Year’s Eve of 2000, Ms. Rich was able-on 48 hours’ notice-to gather guests from Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones to Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Ivana Trump and beau Count Roffredo Gaetani, plus about 300 others, to a hastily convened party at her 10,000-square-foot mansion on Aspen’s Red Mountain, when nothing as fabulous seemed to be happening anywhere else.

Given further notice, she may have been able to assemble something as ambitious as her 1998 Grammy party, where ice-skaters in gold body paint whizzed around her Fifth Avenue patio, or her Valentine’s Day party, which featured a performance of “It’s Raining Men” by 17 Cupids in red hot pants.

All of which might look only slightly out of place in front of Innsbruck’s Goldenes Dachl.

Perhaps The Transom’s imagination has run away with it?

“It’s still very much in the preliminary stages,” a spokesperson for Ms. Rich told The Transom. “They’re looking at a number of different projects, including something in Aspen-you know she has a home there. There’s nothing formal, but she is discussing it.”

It will be Ms. Rich’s first real foray into real-estate development, though she has investments in the industry, her spokesperson said.

“She’s always been interested in real estate,” the spokesperson said. “In the present economy, many people are looking at alternative forms of investment.”

Climb every mountain!

-Blair Golson

The Transom Also Hears …

… that fall means back-to-school for Hollywood, too. A source spotted actress and Columbia University student Julia Stiles strolling down Broadway below Houston Street on Wednesday, Sept. 11, chatting away on her cell phone about her day. According to the source, she said that she’s “met the director” and “talked to Kirsten Dunst.”

Sounds like Ms. Stiles, clad in a pretty fall dress, wasn’t recapping her history seminar, but rather her first day of rehearsals for Mona Lisa Smile , the new Julia Roberts film about a free-spirited art teacher who takes a job at straight-laced women’s college Wellesley in the early 50′s. Her class will include Ms. Stiles, Ms. Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal of Secretary .

Mike Newell, who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral , is directing the project-which sounds an awful lot like an estrogen-based Dead Poets Society -for Revolution Studios.

-Rebecca Traister