Art is Not an Elitist Activity
Somebody Called It Method Directing
Julian Schnabel is what you might call an intense personality. He talks in large hunks of prose, language that is layered roaming, attentive to the details of the surfaces around him. He has a grand sensibility, full of passion and unstoppable opinion. Born in New York City in 1951, he went to the University of Houston, Texas from 1969-1973, where he received a BFA. He had his first solo painting exhibition at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery just six years later, and since then, his work has been included in collections owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as London’s Tate Gallery and DC’s National Gallery. His first film, 1996’s Basquiat won him praise for his nerve as well as his sense of style and outrageousness.
I’m talking with Schnabel in the car, on his way to DC’s National Airport. He’s on his way back home, in New York, and he’s had a long day. But it’s clear that he does not tire of talking about his work. At the moment, it’s his new film, Before Night Falls, based on the writings of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, played in the film by Javier Bardem, who won the 2000 National Board or Review and Venice Film Festival’s Best Actor Prizes, while the film took the Grand Jury Prize at Venice. Schnabel still sees himself as an a fine artist who’s recently come to making movies. And while he’s pleased with this all this attention and praise from his new peers (at Venice, he says, “There were all these directors, and they couldn’t say enough about the film”), Schnabel doesn’t pretend to be a conventional director.
Both your films feature strong central performances, by Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat and Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls. How do you manage that?
I’m a behavioral scientist. I knew Jean Michel [Basquiat]. I knew what his voice sounded like, I knew his responses to things. I knew what I wanted Jeffrey Wright to do. He didn’t know what I wanted him to do. He fought. Jeffrey didn’t know that being like Gandhi and taking the blows, he would win the war. Which I think he did, ultimately, as an actor, I think he won. He’s doing pretty well. He’s going to play Howard Bingham, actually, in the movie they’re doing about Muhammad Ali. That was difficult, because he was younger, and I think he was scared. In the case of Javier, he’s had more experience. When I talked to him, he had a lot of faith in me. He went to the edge of the earth, in terms of his performance, but he worked very, very hard, he was very prepared. Finally, when he was screaming on those rocks, that crane shot, even though I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, I said, “That’s it, I won’t do it again.” It was hurting me because I love him, and I didn’t want to hurt him. I also locked myself in the isolation prison cell with him, and my eyes were rolling around in my head, and he said, “God, you’re a great actor.” And I said, “I am not a great actor. I have claustrophobia. I’m just here so you could see what would happen to somebody who had that problem.” Somebody called it Method Directing.
How do you select your actors and crew?
Usually the people I work with, I know quite well. Like Michael Wincott, I’ve known a long time, he lived around the block from me and I kind of took care of him for years when he was unemployed. But he also took care of me. Willem Dafoe is a close friend of mine. Chris Walken is one of my best friends. So, when Chris and Willem came in to do that stuff on Basquiat, they knew it cold, because we’d been talking about the shit for years before I had the money to do it. But they walked in, they knew who the people were, they knew exactly what to do. I think that one of the great things about, say Marty’s [Scorsese] work with Robert [De Niro], they know each other so well that they bring something to each other, it’s not a one shot thing where you work with somebody once and never see them again. It’s really about trust, and also, you have to let people do what they can do. I think casting is about 90 percent of it. You have to know what they have in them. People have asked me, “Why did you want to cast Javier Bardem in this role? He’s this heterosexual, machista kind of toro. How’s he gonna be this guy?” But I obviously see something else in him that they didn’t see. Or, they asked, “How can you hire Olivier Martinez to play Lazaro”? The fact is, Olivier Martinez’s father is from Savilla and his mother is from Algeria, and they’re both refugees, and they live in Paris. His father’s a boxer and a mechanic. He is from people who are on the outside in some way. And he said something really beautiful when we were in Venice. He said, “I think Lassero is somebody who comes from the street who can appreciate art. He loves art even though he wasn’t educated.” And he was talking about himself also. It’s great when somebody says that and you see that art is not an elitist activity.
How did you work through all the complexities that make up Arenas as a character?
It was just one of those magic things. We just invented this character. I had [the cast] live with Cuban people in New York City. And I sent all of them to Cuba. And we had this whole hotel in Vera Cruz, we lived together. And the day that [Arenas] died, I was in my pajamas, because I’m usually in my pajamas, and he’s in his pajamas [for the scene], and the two of us are just sitting on the couch crying, because we had seen his whole life. Sometimes it’s not acting going on, it’s just acting and being in the present. But one thing that Javier can do is bring everybody into the present. He’ll do something to someone he’s working with that will make them be real. The fact is that the Cuban people that were extras on the movie—and there were lots of them—they instinctively got it, as extras. I’d say, “Do something like that,” and they’d just do it.
What was your thinking about the voice-over, using the memoir and poetry?
The voice-over says, “I had this supernatural quality of nonchalance, even though I was accused of being a murderer and a rapist and was thrown into prison alongside common thieves, people who were real murderers and would kill you for no reason.” I thought, how do you achieve that? I’ve never seen a movie where somebody’s really in trouble, and came into prison laughing his head off. So I thought, the fact that he had these drugs would allow that. I always want to do something that I haven’t seen before. And I also like to do things that are inspired by something. I love in The 400 Blows when Jean Pierre Leaud is plastered to that centerfuge, and he can’t move. So I thought, when they first get to New York and are riding around in the back of that white convertible. He’s glued of the back of the trunk. And the guys from Techno-Crane who worked on the shot, said they’d never had so much fun. I’m more like, give me the tool, and let’s see what we can do with it. We used it until the damn thing broke—the wheels came off, and it was daylight. We were like these gypsies trying to get home.
It sounds like accidents and circumstances play a role in your art.
People have asked me, as a painter, how do I do it? There’s no separation really, between life and art for me. That can sound like a pretentious thing, but what’s the fucking difference? Art, that’s what I do, and I use everything, consciously or unconsciously. For instance, in 1977, I recorded the music from The Battle of Algiers. I’m recording the record with a mike, and the telephone rings while I’m making the tape, so I have this sound of the telephone ringing in the background. That’s very important to me, that music, and I wanted to use it in the film, during the harbor exodus, and they wanted to take the telephone ring out, because it sounds like someone is calling Reinaldo to stop him from leaving. The fact is, I’ve had that telephone on there for 23 years, so to take the sound off the record sounds absolutely unnatural to me. There are so many things like that. Like, why use the Arabic music in New York? You can use Cole Porter, but his music by Feruz meant something to me, at a moment in my life, and also New York is a melting pot and all that.
How would you describe the film’s attitude toward Cuba?
My goal is not to assassinate Cubans. I love Cubans. I don’t agree with the government. I’ve broken the U.S. embargo, because Constitutionally, we’re allowed to go wherever the fuck we want. And I’m interested in showing my work to young Cuban artists, people who can’t leave the country, and have seen pictures of my work in magazines. I’ve shown Basquiat there, in 1996, and talked to film students. At the same time, I don’t believe that anybody can bring anybody else any freedom. I’m not pretending to think that. All I can say is that maybe I can share something with them that they can’t get elsewhere. And I think it’s good to break down culturally barriers that politicians can’t solve. I didn’t do all this to set back relations between Cuba and the United States and I’m certainly not right-wing, but the fact of the matter is, there were these pogroms, in a way, and they did put homosexuals in camps. People like Reinaldo weren’t writing political attacks against the government. They were just writing what we would call “novels” or “poetry” in this country, or poetry. But because they didn’t fit into the ideology, they were banned. Imagine being Marlon Brando and you cannot act. I made the movie in Mexico, knowing that if people do it in Cuba, they’d probably get in trouble. I think what would be really great is if Cuban citizens had the same rights as an American or an Italian or a Canadian tourist, in their own country. And if the people could have a free election, and elect a Cuban person and they can run their own country. I don’t want to see a bunch of McDonalds and Burger Kings, but if you look over there now, there are shopping malls and tacky hotels. The money doesn’t necessarily come from the Americans, but they’re getting it from everywhere else. And the people are not getting the dough.