Julian Schnabel wants to make one thing clear. Yes, he wrote and directed the much-praised 1996 film, "Basquiat," and, yes, his new film, "Before Night Falls," has already garnered the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor at the 2000 Venice International Film Festival, along with a number of other prestigious awards, nominations and "best" lists. It is also being mentioned as an Oscar contender.
But he's not about to put "film director" in front of his name just yet.
"I'm a painter," he says with some emphasis, "I'm looking at paintings right now."
He's saying this toward the end of a long phone interview from his New York City studio in which most of the talk is about "Before Night Falls" (opening in Buffalo Friday) and the joys and trials of filmmaking. Still, he's a painter.
"On a film you're working with maybe 150 people," he continues. "You get tired. It's very liberating to paint and not talk with anyone."
Except with all those media folk out there anxious to hear how a painter -- with little discernible training in the complex art of putting full-length feature movies together -- has been able to pull off two very remarkable films and still maintain his high profile status on the international art scene.
When a painter becomes a filmmaker, it's tempting to imagine that some momentous, imaginative leap must have taken place. One day the stillness of painting must have become just a bit too still. You can see the painter sitting there, staring at that quiet, immutable thing on the wall, hoping against hope that it might actually move, might get up and dance around the studio and tell its story in flickering light.
It won't, of course. If the painter wants stories and movement, he best turn to the medium that refuses to be still -- film.
That's not at all the way it happened with Schnabel, though. Painting was doing just fine by him. (A prominent figure since the 1980s, he has exhibited all over the world and his paintings are in just about every major international collection from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Bilbao's Guggenheim to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery).
He says the filmmaking came about more or less accidently. It happened that Schnabel was a friend of the late New York City artist Jean Michel Basquiat and was sought out by a documentary filmmaker.
"This guy came to interview me about Basquiat," Schnabel recalls. "I thought I'd help him. I gave him a little seed money to do interviews and things and I thought that some of the Hollywood people who bought my paintings might help."
When that didn't happen, Schnabel saw the project fading and didn't want to see it die. "I basically found myself in a rescue mission," he says. "I bought the rights back and made the film myself."
Despite the success of "Basquiat," Schnabel had no plans for a second film. But he had earlier seen an interview with the Cuban poet and writer Reinaldo Arenas and was struck by the way Arenas, who was then an exile in New York City, told his story with a kind of mild self-deprecation that was both humorous and humble. Once he started reading his work, he realized that if he was ever to do another film, here was his subject.
"This guy's life reflected 50 years of Cuban history," Schnabel says. "There was a lot of conflict in his life; it was a roller-coaster ride. By being a witness, he became a stain on Castro's shirt. Since Castro controlled the press and television most young people don't know what happened in those days when people were being put in camps."
The camps of the '60s and '70s were designed to redirect "ideological misfits" of all sorts, including artists who didn't toe the party line and homosexuals even when they did. (Catholics were another favorite target in atheist Cuba.)
In the film one of the characters says to the young Arenas, "People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. Artists make beauty and beauty is the enemy." Arenas was doubly dangerous: He made beautiful, image-filled poetry free of ideological cant, and he was homosexual.
It was Arenas' dazzling imagery that finally compelled Schnabel to make the film. "As I was reading the books, the images began rushing through my mind like a waterfall, one upon the other." Schnabel says.
From the film's very first frames, Schnabel establishes that images -- distinct, metaphorical images outside those needed to carry the narrative -- will stand as the visual equivalent of Arenas' poetic voice. In the opening sequence, on a farm in Cuba's Oriente Province where Arenas lived in 1943 as a child, a swooning camera looks up into the trees and watches the light break and shatter through the ragged foliage.
Moments later, the camera rushes across a patch of barren soil to a pit where the naked child Arenas plays, while the adult poet (Javier Bardem, the Spanish actor, who had to learn English for the role) narrates his story in voice-over. Water imagery appears early on in close-ups: waves pursuing the camera, torrents rushing past, big tropical leaves with raindrops falling from their tips, momentary underwater dives. (Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas were nominated best cinematographer by Independent Spirit Awards).
"Water falling on water . . . the mystery of destruction," is how Arenas describes it. It is a theme that will appear and reappear throughout the film -- in a brief comic water ballet of two men, in an erotic shower scene, in the harrowing sequence in which Arenas attempts to escape Cuba in an innertube, in the rainy scenes on a replica of Malecon (Cuba's famous seawall), in the many beach scenes. Then finally, in the 1980 exodus scene in the Mariel Harbor with the poet safely aboard a ship for America, water becomes a symbol for freedom.
"The weather was my assistant," Schnabel says about the 60 days of filming in Mexico, chiefly in Veracruz and Merida. "It was the rainy season, and I had this band of people who would march through hell with me."
The reason the hearty band endured this watery hell may be that the film -- remarkable in this day in which corporate control can impinge on the most independent of filmmakers -- was Schnabel's project from beginning to end.
"I'm totally responsible for every frame," says Schnabel. "I never had a meeting; there was no eleventh-hour quarterback waiting in the wings. I financed it, made it and sold it after it was complete.
"I loved doing this movie," he continues. "It was a film about freedom that was made with complete freedom. There wasn't a 'grown-up' on the set."
This rare independence may explain how Schnabel landed his sterling cast. The French actor Olivier Martinez is the poet's lover and heir (and co-writer with Schnabel and Cunningham O'Keefe), Lazaro Gomez Carriles. (Schnabel tells of how he sat with the real Lazaro and cried while Carriles did the final death scene with Bardem).
Andrea Di Stefano (Bellocchio's "The Prince of Homburg") is the charming Pepe Malas. Johnny Depp plays, back to back, Bon Bon, the transvestite who carries the poet's writing out of prison, and the baiting Lieutenant Victor. Sean Penn is on for one delightful scene as the oxcart-driving farmer, Cuco Sanchez. Others in the cast are Michael Wincott, Schnabel's wife Olatz Lopez Garmendia and his son, Vito Maria Schnabel as the young Arenas.
Schnabel has high praise for everyone in the cast, but when it comes to Bardem's portrayal of Arenas he even loses his sense of the divide between fiction and reality. A couple of times during the interview he referred to the actor by the poet's name.
"If I'm calling him Reinaldo instead of Javier," Schnabel says, "it's because it's an absolute incarnation."
Others agree. Bardem ("Live Flesh," "Jamon, Jamon"), in addition to winning the coveted Coppa Volpi award in Venice, has won Best Actor from the National Board of Review and is nominated for Best Male Lead by Independent Spirit Awards and Best Actor in a Drama by Golden Globe.
The critics have given extravagant praise both to Bardem and the movie as a whole. It's made 50 top-10 movie lists.
Hector Babenco, the director of such films as "Pixote," "Kiss of the Spiderwoman" and "Ironweed," goes further. Schnabel's "Before Night Falls," he writes, outshines a host of South American films trying to tell stories "that combine poetic elements of our culture and our social and political background. . . . It is a strong, poetic and imaginative piece of work." He ends with this surprising superlative: "Julian Schnabel has created the best Latin American movie ever made about the subject of freedom."
"I didn't do this film as a job," says Schnabel. "I did it to last forever -- or at least until it disintegrates into nitrate."
And painter Schnabel also has his opinion about director Schnabel's work: "Me personally? -- I think it is the best film of the year."