District native Burr Steers sounds a bit snooty in describing why he simply had to direct as well as write “Igby Goes Down.”
“The script meant too much to me to hand it to some schlub,” says Mr. Steers, a nephew of author Gore Vidal and a distant cousin of former Vice President Al Gore.
Imagine the liberties a vulgarian Hollywood type might take with “Igby,” a darkly comic saga of self-discovery set among the Eastern Establishment elite.
Who could blame a first-time auteur for protecting a project with more autobiographical echoes than he might care to admit?
When Mr. Steers decided about seven years ago to follow the old fiction saw “write what you know,” he turned to his own tony upbringing and all the accompanying archetypes.
Old money is nothing new to him. His father, the late Newton I. Steers, was a millionaire and a longtime Republican political figure in Maryland. His mother, Nina Gore Auchincloss Straight, a stepsister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, later married Michael Straight, a former editor of the New Republic and an heir to the Whitney family fortune.
Shot for about $8 million, “Igby” tells the curious tale of 17-year-old Igby Slocumb and his wealthy, uberdysfunctional family. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is a mean-spirited pill popper. Poor Dad (Bill Pullman) has been institutionalized for schizophrenia. Materialist big brother Oliver (Ryan Phillippe) makes Michael J. Fox’s narcissistic Alex from “Family Ties” seem like a tree hugger in comparison.
Mr. Steers, who returned to his hometown recently to screen and promote the film, says “Igby’s” autobiographical elements are few but his life unerringly mirrors that of young Igby. Both got bounced out of one private school after another before finding themselves in military academies they soon fled. Both also earned their GED diplomas before traveling out West.
The film’s voice, he readily admits, is no work of fiction.
“All the characters are me. The way I worked, I’m literally talking out loud and improvising. I’ve drawn them from observation,” says Mr. Steers, whose plummy tones are juiced by a Christopher Walken-style delivery.
The task was made easier thanks to the cast, including Miss Sarandon.
“Susan could give a dissertation on these kinds of women. It’s almost tribal how she’s broken down how they dress,” he says with an explosive laugh that sounds deliberately unpolished.
Perhaps to counter rumors that Miss Sarandon’s character was inspired by his own mother, Mr. Steers recently went on record saying that another member of his family was far closer to the mark.
He didn’t say who, of course but informed opinion at the film’s New York screening on Sept. 4 suggested the role model may have been an auntie: Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ only full sibling).
Asked about her son’s film, Mrs. Straight comments that its messages and humor prove universal, despite the title character’s obvious wealth.
“If you were poor, you’d be saying the same to your kid, ‘Look, please get educated and pay for your meals,’” she says, offering a soupcon of sympathy to Igby’s mother.
The elite do at least provide “a good background for satire and for archness,” she adds.
Mr. Steers was born 36 years ago in George Washington University Hospital he weighed in at a whopping 10.5 pounds, he notes with a wicked grin. He spent time in both Bethesda and Georgetown, including many an hour in the region’s classic movie houses, such as the Biograph and the Circle.
His formative years matched Igby’s for their sense of unrest, a condition worsened by dyslexia.
He straightened out his educational intentions long enough to graduate from New York University. From there, he studied acting with Stella Adler, among others, and worked off-Broadway at the Actor’s Playhouse and the Provincetown Playhouse.
He would move later to California, finding minor acting work in “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “The Last Days of Disco” (1998) and the low-budget horror yarn “Intruder” (1988), in which, he says, his character’s head gets crushed in a trash compactor.
Acting wasn’t the answer, but it opened him up to the world of playwrights and then to screenwriting.
His pen provided an emotional release after the deaths of his older brother, Hugh Steers, and his father, from AIDS and cancer, respectively.
The double blow forged his sense of black humor.
“You get the absurdity of death,” he says of that time in his life. “You have to make jokes. It’s gallows humor for survival.”
Mr. Steers also drew inspiration from his iconoclastic and acerbic uncle Gore Vidal, who has a brief cameo in the film.
“Not because he was my uncle, but because he’s so provocative and fearless,” Mr. Steers says. “I always loved that sharp writing.”
Mrs. Straight wasn’t aware of her son’s artistic bent during his formative years, but when he traveled to Martha’s Vineyard after his sophomore year at prep school to work with a local dance troupe, she began to realize that his creative potential mirrored that of his late older brother, a painter.
The director may have been born to the manner as well as the manor, but he survived for years on little money by working a series of odd jobs during his acting days.
He also knows the delusions of the aristocracy. Money, for his characters, he says, “is a substitute for love. It’s poisonous. It’s so divisive.”
“Igby knows when he accepts the money [from D.H., his arrogant godfather, played by Jeff Goldblum], he’s compromising himself,” says Mr. Steers, who continuously rakes his fingers through his thick brown hair, which remains casually imperfect despite the attention he pays it.
To bring Igby to life required an extensive search for an actor who could balance the character’s immaturity with his humanity.
“I was gonna get the right kid, and I met with every kid who was the right age,” he says. He finally decided on Kieran Culkin, one of the famed Culkin brood (Macaulay Culkin of “Home Alone” fame and Rory Culkin from this year’s “Signs”), who cameos as the young Igby).
Mr. Steers’ pen already has earned him a series of post-“Igby” assignments. Next up: 2003’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” a romantic comedy he wrote that stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. He also is writing a script for “Airplane!” director Jerry Zucker and will write and direct the film version of Robert Bingham’s novel “Lighting on the Sun.” (Mr. Bingham, another disaffected Washington rich kid, died of an overdose of heroin in his Manhattan apartment in 1999.)
“Igby,” though, is the work that could define Mr. Steer’s future career.
“I put so much work into it,” he says of the script, which he completed in 1997. “You get one chance to make your first film and one chance to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I like and what I’m about.’”