Burr Steer: 'My family's suing me, but we're a litigious bunch'

He's probably joking, but Burr Steer's first film, 'Igby Goes Down', doesn't look kindly on his upper-class, Wasp background. Mike Higgins met him
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The Independent Culture

Burr Steers first sent his script for Igby Goes Down to his uncle. "He called me back early on the day after New Year's day, and I hadn't been to bed: 'Boy! I think you've got something here!'" That's uncle as in Gore Vidal, the august conscience of the American artistic Left. So it was a compliment worth acting on. In fact, Uncle Gore liked the script so much that he agreed to perform a cameo role in his nephew's first feature film.

And you can see what might have attracted him - imagine Ferris Bueller's Day Off rewritten by Jay McInerney, with a bit of a polish from JD Salinger (as Igby's mother comments on him: "His creation was an act of animosity - why shouldn't his life be?"). Steers' film charts the alienation of 17-year-old Jason "Igby" Slocumb Jr from his imploding Wasp family - from his malicious mother (Susan Sarandon), creepy friend of the family DH (Jeff Goldblum), mentally unstable father (Bill Pullman) and overachieving automaton of a big brother (Ryan Phillippe). It's not sure whether it's a black comedy or a rites-of-passage drama, but there's enough sour wit to make it the movie of choice for discerning teenagers this summer.

You needn't search far to figure out who inspired Igby. Burr Steers may be 37, but, at over 6ft, he looks like a scaled-up version of the actor who plays Igby, Kieran Culkin. Culkin is excellent in the role, and his deadpan disillusionment isn't too different from Steers' own. Just as Steers did, Igby absconds from military school to hang out in New York. Still, the writer insists he's not airing his family's dirty laundry in Igby.

"The Slocumbs are old-money Wasps who don't have any money - all they have is exclusivity and snobbery." Still, everyone in the film - even Sookie (Claire Danes) the sensible girl that Igby falls for - is more or less out for themselves. The film has it in for the East-Coast social elite, but if Steers is a class traitor, he's an acute one. "One of the things I know from that world is a sense of entitlement. [Wasp children] resent their parents' longevity, which stops them from getting their money. Every vacation their parents go on they see as taking money from out of their inheritance. Igby is trying to cut himself loose from that world."

Steers' Wasp qualifications are impeccable. His mother is step-sister to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; she married twice - the first time to a millionaire Republican politician, the second time to a man who previously, in the Sixties, managed to get tangled up with Anthony Blunt's shadier dealings. Of Steers' older brothers, one is dead and the other he says he isn't in contact with. As for his Christian name, he can thank Aaron Burr, a predecessor of his who at one time was vice-president to Thomas Jefferson - in 1804 he killed a rival in a duel, misguidedly attempting to revive his political career. ("Wonderful man," says Steers, archly.)

Dysfunctional his family may be, but what does it think of Igby Goes Down? "They're suing me, but it's a litigious family," he smiles. "I'm joking - everyone enjoyed it." It's not an entirely convincing answer. "If they're not going to leave me money, the least they can do is leave me material that I can use." Surely there must have been something worthwhile about an upper-class childhood, despite what the film says? Apparently not: "It's a pretty empty, country club, republican existence - it's like a cult." These days, though, it's difficult to tell true blue-blood from the upstart wannabes. "They're dying out, but they're being studied and replaced by the new money that's coming up round the Hamptons. There's a Ralph Lauren recreation of that Great Gatsbyesque lifestyle."

Steers, be assured, is the real thing; yet he's adamant that he hasn't exploited his family connections. Not even Uncle Gore? "He's the one person in my family who I stay in touch with," Steers admits. "It's tough for me to take the implication that I somehow had an advantage in getting this movie made. It took me a long time to get this made - five years without getting paid, doing anything I had to do." Steers points to the similarly determined efforts of his brother, before his death from Aids-related illness, to make it as a painter in New York: "He was a figurative painter so he was fucked - he was painting what he saw in Greenwich Village which was young people dying, corpses. Aids was wiping out the arts community. He could have painted landscapes and used his connections, but he didn't take the easy way."

For his part, Steers served his time in Hollywood, with various bit parts (he is shot by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction and appeared in The Last Days of Disco). But he was delivering real-estate catalogues in the suburbs of Los Angeles ("to these housewives with bouffant hair-dos and claw-like fingernails") when he first conceived of Igby Goes Down. "Driving around, I started improvising these conversations. Initially, Igby was just one character in a much bigger story." He had originally wanted to write a novel, but the intimidating presence of Gore Vidal put paid to that.

Five years later, with a critically and commercially successful film under his belt, his application has been rewarded. He's working on an adaptation of Robert Bingham's book about American drug smugglers in Cambodia, Lightning on the Sun, and he is in demand as a script doctor (he co-wrote How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days). But he's got to keep taking the rewrite jobs to pay off his debts - he received no money for writing and directing his first film. The profits for Igby, he says, will go to "a fat man in Berlin" - and not even Uncle Gore can do anything about that.

'Igby Goes Down' (15) is released on Friday