14 May 2009 - 10:18 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls Director

Film director Julian Schnabel made a big impression when he moved from the world of art to that of the movies with his debut feature Basquiat. Jumping the sophomore slump, he delivers an even more acclaimed second feature with the masterful Before Night Falls. He spoke to FILMINK's Erin Free.

Julian Schnabel's reputation precedes him with a forceful, almost blinding fury. To some, he's a major talent, to others a hype driven poseur. In 1979, Schnabel came hurtling out of Texas (where he'd attended university) and returned to his hometown of New York where he soon became one of the leading lights on the city's booming art scene, turning his talent and cocky swagger into money at a break-neck rate. His fractured, aggressive works of art – some made up of shattered crockery and other household goods – were soon slapped up on the walls of some of the world's most respected galleries and museums. Schnabel ultimately came to personify New York's 1980's art scene, strutting his canny mix of street attitude, commercial savvy and highflying hype.

In 1996, Schnabel made the move to film with his striking debut feature Basquiat, a biopic about his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, the black artist and street visionary who became a cause celebre with his jagged artistic outpourings of confusion and desperation. The film had a pitch-perfect, street literate verisimilitude, and Julian Schnabel was on the cinematic map.

For his follow-up film, Schnabel brings the life of tortured Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas to the big screen in Before Night Falls. Filmed with delicate, knowing sensitivity, and anchored by a stunning performance from the Javier Bardem (nominated for an Oscar for the role), the film represents a major shift for Schnabel. It takes him out of his comfortable New York surrounds and onto the streets of Mexico (doubling for the still politically hot Cuba); it unravels principally in Spanish and deals with complex issues of politics, sexuality and art. And Schnabel paid for the shoot himself when too many studios balked at the film's potential for controversy. It's strong, potent stuff, and Before Night Falls marks Schnabel as a filmmaker who'll happily step up to a challenge.

Schnabel is a strong, potent personality. Often dressing in sarongs at high society events, and prone to slightly eccentric behaviour (he sat down on the floor with his kids at one of the swanky premieres of Before Night Falls), Schnabel is also known not to suffer fools gladly. His image is of the bearish, appropriately intense artist, bristling at the intrusion of the media. But as he greets me down the line from his home in New York, his voice is light and friendly, and makes for an easy, comfortable approach.

“Can you hang on one second please?" Schnabel says, putting me on hold. After a brief pause, he's back. “Hello? Sorry about that. That was Lou Reed on the other line. He's coming to see me. He's one of my buddies.”

This could be read as the standard line of bullshit dealt out by players in the film industry, but Schnabel says it with complete candour – he just happens to have friends like Lou Reed, and dropping them into a conversation isn't a ploy to big himself up or show off; it's just his life. On the phone, Schnabel is totally unpretentious about his role as an artist and filmmaker, and is characterised by a warmth and intelligence that filters through in his humanist tendencies as a director. He's totally in touch with his lead character in Before Night Falls, who at first embraces Castro's revolution, and then gets thrown on the scrap heap when his work is increasingly informed by his homosexuality. He worked on the character intensely with leading man Javier Bardem, right from the beginning.

“Well, Javier lived with me in New York. He lived with some Cuban people in an apartment that I had. He was very concerned about all of that voice-over in English, and how he had to do it with a Cuban accent, because he has a Spanish accent, and not a Cuban one. Just a second...” Schnabel says, momentarily distracted. “That's my dog. I actually found a dog down in Cuba, and I brought him home with me. I'd done all these paintings with the word 'Zeus' written on them, and I was looking for a location, and I saw him and said 'What's his name?' They said 'Zeus' and I said 'Well, I think that's my dog!' I asked if I could take him. He's a white pit bull. I really wanted a boxer, and so I brought the dog home. And now he's terrorising everyone in my house! But he loves me, he's very affectionate.”

Throughout the rest of the conversation, Schnabel is equally loose and relaxed, cooking spaghetti sauce while talking to me (“You've got to get your tomatoes down, and then treat 'em right.”), fretting about a blown fuse in his house, trying to get his dog to stop shitting on the floor and speaking to his wife (actress Olatz Lopez Garmendia, who plays Reinaldo's mother in the film) in Spanish. But when it comes to Before Night Falls, he's articulate and enthusiastic. “I like being outside,” Schnabel says. “And I wanted to make a movie in the landscape, and not a movie that was so compartmentalised in New York City, like Basquiat was. I wanted to shoot floods and rainstorms and make a movie like The Seven Samurai. I wanted big depth of field in terms of the landscape, the language and the visual palette, which I think was intrinsic to Reinaldo's writing. I mean, the guy was like Walt Whitman. We had to shoot in Mexico, and I had a great crew. I ca'nt praise them highly enough. Anyone who says Mexicans are lazy is just a stupid racist! They're hard working and they're skillful. There's a whole tradition of filmmaking artisans that worked with Eisenstein and Bunuel, and their grandchildren are now like clapper loaders, and working on the crew. So there's a real tradition of that in Mexico.”

Constantly tagged as a “painter turned filmmaker”, Julian Schnabel is characteristically laid back about the possibility of being pigeonholed. He's equally laid back about his role as a filmmaker in general. “I haven't turned into anything,” he laughs. “I\'m painting right now, and just trying to get my life back. And that's important for me. Whatever I do, I like to reassess things. I'm not in a rush. I'm not looking for a job. I'm a painter, and you can't substitute movie making for making paintings. The freedom you have when you're painting is immeasurable. They can say whatever they like, and I'll just keep doing what I'm doing.”