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Interview with Julian Schnabel

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  • "I like the way that that chalking looks like toothpaste"
  • "Painting is an act of peace"
  • "When it says 'arts and leisure,' that's an oxymoron"
  • "Art is a utilitarian thing that people can use to find a way into their interior life"
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(CNN) -- Julian Schnabel, the 1980s "bad boy" artist turned director and interior designer, is in the spotlight again for his latest release, "Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Schnabel is best known for his million-dollar broken crockery paintings and critically acclaimed biopics "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls."


Artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel

As he prepares to launch his film, which has already snatched three Golden Globe nominations and the Best Director prize at Cannes this year, Schnabel joins Talk Asia to discuss his eccentric style of film-making and takes host Anjali Rao on a tour of his latest art exhibition in Hong Kong.


His artwork is unique, his personality eccentric. Known as the "Enfant Terrible" of the 1980s New York art scene, Julian Schnabel became an overnight superstar with his smashed crockery on large canvas.

Donning a dilettante uniform of pajamas and sarongs in public and mingling with the likes of Andy Warhol, his billboard-sized paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it was his dabbling with film in the mid-'90s which really turned him into a mainstream name. Schnabel's first film "Basquiat" is a biopic of his friend and famous graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who catapulted to stardom in the '80s, only to be disillusioned of the commercialization of the art world.

His second film traces the life of a Cuban poet whose work and openly gay lifestyle conflicted with Fidel Castro's communist government, ultimately forcing him to flee to the United States. Schnabel won the Director's Prize at Cannes this year for his third and latest release, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- a real-life account of a French magazine editor who becomes paralyzed and tells his story by blinking one eye.

Never ceasing to raise eyebrows, Schnabel recently unveiled his enormous pink palazzo in New York City's Greenwich Village, where he'll live and work. We catch up with him in Hong Kong at one of his latest exhibitions, and the consummate director takes a keen interest in our set-up.

AR: Julian, welcome to Talk Asia, it's a great pleasure to have you with us today. Before we start talking about your painting career, let's just talk about your directing career. You won the Best Director's award at Cannes earlier this year for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Did you expect the recognition that you got for that movie?

JS: I don't think when you start to make something, you expect anything like that. I thought the movie was pretty good, and so, it's such a political thing winning an award or dealing with people's temperaments, whole jury full of them or whatever, but I think it was a nice thing to have happened and it was exciting. Unexpected, actually.

AR: When you're directing, you do seem to like to take on these stories of deep anguish, and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" seems to be no exception. Tell us a little bit about it and why you decided to choose this story.

JS: Well, the man who wrote the book, Jean-Dominique Bauby, was reporting back from a place that nobody had ever been. He was paralyzed and he had locked-in syndrome, he was inside his body. Speech therapists and nurses gave him a key -- what letters were most frequent in the French alphabet, and he would blink whenever they hit the right letter. And then arduously, they would put those letters together to make words, and he wrote this book by blinking his eye. He needed to do something to escape his diving bell.

His diving bell was this very claustrophobic metal suit that kept him underneath the water. That was a metaphor for his body. And the butterfly was his imagination and his memory. And then he said, as he was to begin writing this book, "Had I been blind and deaf for it to take the harsh light of disaster, for me to find my true nature." And then you wonder, does everybody have to do that in order to find their true nature? Does something catastrophic have to happen to them to find self-realization?

AR: How do you go about bringing something like that to the screen though, and to audiences, to really show them what deep distress this person was going through by basically only being able to communicate by blinking?

JS: Well, I put the audience in his body. Everybody talks to him. You don't see the main character for the first 40 minutes or so. So it's a very unusual convention.

AR: Your directorial career began in the mid-1990s with the biopic "Basquiat," based upon the also troubled life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. What are your recollections at that time working on your first movie?

JS: The reason why I made that movie is because Jean-Michel and I were friends, and after he died, so many had come around and been asking me, they wanted to interview me about it. So I thought ok, I'll help them. And then I realized they didn't know anything about the subject and it was more of a rescue mission. A lot of friends of mine that are actors... loved painting, so they knew my paintings. Dennis Hopper being one, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman. So they showed up and helped me do this.

AR: You are known to pick stories that depict human struggles, and they do tend to be based on real characters, real people who actually lived. Why?

JS: Well, I think that truth is stranger than fiction, and it's nice to know the people you're making a movie about. I think most people don't know their subject matter. I don't just pick a topic and then get hired to make a movie. It's more like what's particular to me, what is personal to me, why do I think I need to do that? Why am I compelled to do that? Because I'm not doing it for the money, I'm doing it because I feel like that story needs to be told or clarified, or something needs to be shown about that. In Reinaldo Arenas' case, I felt like if I told his story, I could tell the story of the Cuban Revolution.

AR: And he was the lead character in your second movie, "Before Night Falls"?

JS: Javier Bardem played that role, yeah. He was nominated for the Academy Award for that.

AR: How did that movie come about?

JS: Well, I had always wanted to go to Cuba. I thought Florida was a little flat, always listened to Cuban music since I was a child, and my wife's Spanish. I liked it very, very, very much and I love Cuban music, but I felt like the people there were having a very hard time that I wasn't having, and it was difficult for me to be there in the sense of having things accessible to me but not other people. And so I thought it was important to tell Reinaldo's story. I read the book "Before Night Falls," and I just felt like it was something that I needed to do.


Schnabel Walk and Talk

AR: What's with that big sort of sloshes of white that you've got throughout the bunch of these paintings?

JS: Well, if I explain to you it wouldn't really help you.

AR: What would help me?

JS: Just to look at them and to kind of... Well, if you have the luxury of like looking at one painting then another, you might look, ok, well the white in that one is used in this particular way. Kind of looks sort of like the edge of an old lady's bonnet or something like that.

AR: Yeah. Was that the intention, or did it just turn out like that?

JS: Well, I don't know what that means, I mean, I think when somebody's painting they don't necessarily... I'm not illustrating what I know. I'm mapping out, like topographically, some terrain I am satisfied with, how awkward that mark is. I like the way that that chalking looks like toothpaste. Then I think this has some pink drips that are going on it, so it's not really white white. And you know there are obviously drips that I could have wiped off the painting, but I left them there.

And so if you stand back there and just look at one painting maybe, instead of a million paintings, and you keep going back... then you start to see the space behind it more, like the pillow back there or whatever is just going on over there. And who the hell knows what it is? You know what's really funny? Right now we're walking through this thing and we're talking, looking at these things, and you're saying this stuff. And if I look back at the film "Basquiat" and you see Chris Hawkins going, "Why'd you do that? So those are like leeches, there's thousands of leeches." "So why do you draw these things so crudely?" "Well, most people are pretty crude." And you hear Jean talking as a young person, saying these things, and it seems like we didn't get very far, in a way, because the whole point is not to say why that's there.

AR: You're just supposed to accept that it is?

JS: Would you say to Miles Davis, "Where did you get that note?" We don't ask why. We accept that that is the form that that takes. Why is it so hard for somebody to go, "Ok, that is sort of drippy purple paint, the surface of this thing is, it seems like a sand paper."

AR: Oily sand paper.

JS: And then it's sort of dull in some part and shiny in other parts and then there's red paint that's painted on top of it. There's another type of red that's printed. There's this white shape that looks like a newspaper hat and I think it looks like a bubble, and it says, "I always thought of myself as taller." What does that mean? It doesn't mean anything other than what it is. You will not find a little rabbit in there.

JS: Yeah, so that's a portrait of my wife.

AR: You've got a lot of your wife in your work.

JS: Well, she's very beautiful, and she's also very intense, and it's a little nerve-racking to paint her, because I like to get it right. Most people, I can paint them quicker than I paint her.

AR: What on earth is that about?

JS: When Marlon Brando was horsing around on the set of "Candy" when he was playing the guru. I own these photographs, I bought them from his estate, and I blew them up and I put some resin on them. Here he's levitating.

AR: Oh, there's more.

JS: But the thing is that, when I made the film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," there's one section where Jean-Dominique Bauby's talking and he says, "Now I'd like to remember myself when I was handsome, debonair, devilishly handsome and very glamorous." And I thought, you know Jean-Dominique Bauby was never really handsome. I didn't think he was. And Mathieu Amalric is very attractive, but there could be people that could say that he's not handsome. But nobody would say that Marlon Brando wasn't handsome.

So, in the film, all of a sudden you start seeing these pictures of Marlon, like, in his wig, and he's looking, and our main character says, "That's Marlon Brando! That's me!" You know, and then you'll see him do that. So there's things that you end up able to put into the movie that are very, you know, if you have the freedom to do it, you can have a lot of fun with it. I think it's important to have a lot of fun.

AR: Of course.

JS: This is a nice painting. I like this painting.

AR: That's a tarp, isn't it?

JS: Yeah, it's an army tarp. Yes, it's been glued together, and it's got some wrinkles in it. And I painted it around the time my mom died.

AR: But you do love to use all these different materials as canvases.

JS: Well, if you go up close, you'll see that the way the paint is on here, which is very different from the way the paint is put on that, I mean they're quite physical, you know, and there're finger paintings in there.

AR: This is all fingers?

JS: Yeah.

AR: Wow. What, even these big long sweeps of purple, all fingers?

JS: Yeah, look. See that?

AR: But it doesn't sort of stop anywhere, like you'd imagine that it would.

JS: Well, that's because you have to keep walking. When you work on something like that you walk, and you walk along it, you know.

AR: That's your wife and baby, right?

JS: That's my son, Cy, with my wife, when he was one. He's 14 now.

AR: How do you set about creating something like that?

JS: Well, I decided that the armature would be that size, it's made out of wood. And then I smashed a bunch of plates, covered this thing with bondo...

AR: Is it really good fun smashing up these plates?

JS: I think I got over that, I mean, you can smash then if you want.

AR: I would, yeah. The next plate that you needed smashing, just call on me.


AR: When you had your first show in 1979, you were said, suddenly, you know, you were this overnight sensation. How did you handle it, suddenly being the darling of the New York art scene?

JS: It's very difficult, I think, for people to be around you when you're getting lots of attention. It's very difficult for young people to understand what that's about when people start treating you differently when you've been doing the same thing you were doing the day before. Whether it's the actor that's acting that one part where they're totally in sync with that moment, or it's that trumpet player that hits that note, or there's that moment when you do something and that painting looks right. It's all the same. The quality of that activity at that moment is preserved in the transiency, in a sense, and the recognition in you.

Hopefully you can use that stuff to navigate your way through the world. I just feel right now, that things are so bad, and I'm so ashamed of what has happened in my country and the kind of explosive nature and the brutality of what's going on all around us -- that kind of blind understanding and stupidity that has been the policy in my country. You know, painting is an act of peace.

AR: I was just going to say, does that make it more important because people need something to escape to?

JS: Well, it's not about escape. In fact, when it says "arts and leisure," that's an oxymoron. Art is not leisure; art is a utilitarian thing that people can use to find a way into their interior life. And it's really not a business, even though a lot of people are in the art business. That's not what I do. And obviously they'll sell some paintings here and I'm on TV advertising, whatever that is. But, the point is, just to be able to be free enough to work, and if you have the privilege to do that. The reason why I make the films is because people need to be made aware of certain things. And my father was terrified of death, I thought if I could make this film, I could save him from that fear. Unfortunately, he died before I made the movie, but I think I actually made something there.

AR: You really are though, a creative jack-of-all-trades -- directing and painting and interior designing now as well. When you look at all the different things that you do though, is painting still your first love?

JS: I'm a painter, that's what I do. That's why I'm an interior decorator, because I keep moving the paintings around. You know, painting has given me a lot of freedom, because for some reason, I've been able to paint things, organize things in a way that I see that don't have any buffers or compromises in them. So, one might think that that's very capricious, you know, a guy just painting whatever the hell he feels like painting. What good does that do for anyone else? But maybe if somebody sees something that they hadn't seen in that, so in a sense, it's an educational thing. It's a way of communicating, sharing something that even though there're words in the painting, they're basically non-lingual. They're not discursive, and then there's another side of my brain that is a storyteller. I use other materials to communicate or to convey something. Like for example, they're filming us right now, and they're filming your face and my face. The camera is panning, it's on a track. You'll see that over there, you'll see this.

AR: Hey, you're giving away all our secrets!

JS: Well, it's not a secret, everybody does it, but somehow it's an accepted format. I mean, when I made the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," I used swing and tilt lens so only part of your face would be in focus and the other part would be more crisp. And since the man can't -- he can only blink -- the cameraman would put his fingers over the lens like that. So it would look like the eye was blinking. You start to see things inside the frame that are not what you usually look at. Then maybe the audience gets to be told a story in a different way that they're not accustomed to, so we're not always chewing people's food for them. The fact that I'm a painter has always given me the freedom to... You know, I don't need to take a job as a movie director in order to survive, so if I don't have final cut, if I don't do the movie exactly the way that I want to do it, I don't do it. And that is freedom.

AR: Julian, thank you so much for sparing your time to speak with us today. It has been wonderful to meet you.


JS: My pleasure.

AR: And that brings us to the end of this edition of Talk Asia. Thank you for being with me, Anjali Rao, and my guest today, the artist and director Julian Schnabel. I'll see you again soon, bye-bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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