Initially gaining fame as an artist, Julian Schnabel transitioned his creative passions into films that explored individuals dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. While Schnabel only has a handful of films under his belt, and an overall approach to filmmaking that differs from his peers, he has quickly emerged as one of cinema’s most intriguing filmmakers.
Born in the Brooklyn, New York City in 1951, Julian Schnabel spent a good portion of his youth in Brownsville, Texas. It was in this small Texan town where Schnabel learned about art and surfing, before going on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Houston. In the early 1970s he was admitted to the study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was around this time that Schnabel became part of the city’s culture scene, developing his artistic style at establishments like Max’s Kansas City, a club/restaurant where the likes of Lou Reed and David Bowie hung out.
After holding his first show in 1975 at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Schnabel traveled to Europe and spent years garnering major attention in the art world. He showcased his work at the Mary Boone Gallery in 1979 and became one of the prominent figures of the Neo-expressionist movement of the 1980s. Throughout his rise in the art scene, Schnabel had a thirst for film that he wanted to quench. Feeling that artists were not being represented properly on the big screen, it took until the 1990s for him to officially step in the cinematic realm.
One of the artists Julian Schnabel knew in the 1980s was street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a man considered one of the finest painters of his generation. After his death from a drug overdose in August of 1988, Schnabel felt compelled to tell Basquiat’s story on the big screen. Knowing that a conventional portrait of the painter wouldn’t work, Schnabel took several years to develop the script with collaborators Michael Thomas Holman, Lech J. Majewski, and John F. Bowe. The film focused on Basquiat’s (played by prominent theater actor Jeffrey Wright) struggles with fame as well as the dichotomy of him wanting to be both a rebel and adored.
Schnabel assembled a who’s who of talented actors, known for their works in American indie films, to fill out the cast. The supporting actors included Parker Posey as gallery owner Mary Boone, Michael Wincott as the famed art critic Rene Ricard, and Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger. The rest of ensemble also featured Benicio del Toro, Claire Forlani, Tatum O’Neal, Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Willem Dafoe, and Gary Oldman as an artist based on Schnabel himself. For the role of Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel enlisted the services of music legend David Bowie partly because Bowie actually knew Warhol and could capture his essence.
Since he was unable to get the rights to Basquiat’s actual works, Schnabel and his assistant Greg Bogin created paintings that mimicked Basquiat’s style. To set the tone musically, Schnabel hired John Cale, of the Velvet Underground fame, to compose the score. Utilizing songs from David Bowie, Public Image Ltd., Tom Waits, and the Pogues, the soundtrack further accentuated both Basquiat’s diversity as an artist and the internal struggles he faced in the final years of his life. Basquiat premiered in August of 1996 and did modestly well on the art-house circuit. While critics showered the film, and Jeffrey Wright’s performance, with praise, some in the art world were critical of the dramatic liberties that Schnabel took with the story.
Before Night Falls (review)
Following the release of Basquiat, Schnabel immediately started working on film based on the life of the Cuban novelist, poet, and playwright Reinaldo Arenas. Having read Arenas’ autobiography, Schnabel knew that the man’s story needed to be told cinematically and sought the assistance of Arenas’ partner Lazaro Gomez Carilles and screenwriter Cunningham O’Keefe to work on the project. It took several years to get Before Night Falls off the ground as investors were hesitant to support a film that was not only told partially in Spanish, but whose central character was a gay writer. Thankfully, with the help of producer Jon Kilik, Schnabel was able to get both funding for the film and Spanish actor Javier Bardem to play Arenas.
Production began in 1999 in Mexico due to the fact that American embargos on Cuba restricted Schnabel from shooting there. Gaining the services of cinematographers Xavier Perez Grobet and Guillermo Rosas, as well as the famed music composer Carter Burwell, Schnabel crafted an episodic film that both utilized Arenas’s poetry and defied typical convention. The narrative covered several of the key events in Arenas’ life, including his arrival into America during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, up to his death from AIDS in 1990. The film featured appearances from Sean Penn, Michael Wincott, filmmaker Hector Babenco, Najwa Nimri, and Diego Luna. Schnabel also got French actor Olivier Martinez to play the role of Lazaro Gomez Carilles and even managed to convince Johnny Depp to make a cameo as both a drag queen and a Cuban prison officer.
Before Night Falls made its premiere at the 2000 Venice Film Festival where it won both the festival’s special Silver Lion jury prize and the Best Actor Volpi Cup prize for Javier Bardem’s performance. Well-received by critics, the film grossed $8 million worldwide upon its release in 2001. Bardem received numerous accolades for his work including an acting prize from the National Board of Review, an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor, and his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Before Night Falls was also voted one of the ten best films of the year by the National Board of Review.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (review)
After taking a break between films, to work on various art projects and deal with some personal issues, Schnabel set his sights on adapting a memoir by Dominique Bauby. The editor of Elle magazine in the 1990s, Bauby suffered a stroke which left the majority of his body paralyzed with the exception of his left eye. Teaming up with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who is one of Steven Spielberg’s frequent collaborators, Julian Schnabel’s film offered a rather bold portrait of Bauby’s paralysis. Unlike most films, half of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was shot in a style that mimicked Bauby’s paralyzed perspective. Kaminski’s occasional blurring of the lenses allowed the audience to truly understand what the world looked like through Bauby’s eye. Mixing elements of surrealism with tender moments, such as Bauby’s conversation with his father with his physical therapist, Schnabel’s film was a unique and captivating exploration of the human spirit.
Johnny Depp was originally cast in the lead role but departed from the project once funding from Universal fell through. While the plan was to make the film in English, Schnabel agreed to film it in French – he learned to speak the language throughout the production – after Pathé studios stepped in with $14 million dollars in funding. Mathieu Almaric eventually played Bauby and spent months learning to use his left eye to convey emotion. The rest of the cast included Emmanuelle Beart, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Isaach de Bankolé, and Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival where it was a major hit. The film won two prizes for its technical aspects and Julian Schnabel took the prize for Best Director. The picture received rave reviews upon its theatrical release and grossed more than $20 million worldwide. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly garnered numerous accolades including four Oscar nominations for its editing, cinematography, adapted screenplay, and a Best Director nomination for Schnabel.
Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse (review)
In late 2006, Schnabel made a concert film for one of his favorite artist, Lou Reed. Julian Schnabel wasn’t just a fan of Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground, and his solo efforts, but also lived across the street from Reed. Schnabel’s film didn’t have the traditional schematic of most concert pieces, it intertwined footage from Reed’s five nights stand at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, where he performed his 1973 album Berlin in its entirety, with fictional elements. Hiring Ellen Kuras to shoot Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, and getting his own daughter Lola to film some backdrop sequences, Schnabel enlisted Emmanuelle Beart to play the role of Caroline, album producer Bob Ezrin in the role of a conductor, and Antony Hegarty and Sharon Jones, of Antony and the Johnsons and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings respectively, as background vocalists.
The film had an intimate feel as Schnabel both appeared on stage to introduce Reed and his band, and talked about why the Berlin album meant so much to him. Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse premiered at the 2007 Venice Film Festival before receiving a very limited theatrical release in October of 2008. The film was well-received by critic as well as fans of Reed’s work.
Schnabel returned to the director’s chair to make Miral, his most controversial work to date. Based on Rula Jebreal’s semi-autobiographical novel, the story focused on a Palestinian orphan who comes of age during the Palestine and Israel conflict. The orphan finds herself torn between picking up the fight against her oppressors and devoting herself to the teachings of Hind Husseini. With Jebreal writing the script herself, Schnabel knew that making a film from a Palestinian point of view would be a risky proposition. Despite his Jewish heritage, and overall support for Israel, Schnabel felt that it was important to shoot the film in many locations in Israel and in the nearby Palestinian states.
With Eric Gautier shooting the film, Schnabel incorporated stock footage and news clippings to provide greater insight into Hind Husseini, who founded the famed Dar Al-Tifel Institute. Hiam Abbass was cast as Husseini and Indian actress Freida Pinto was chosen in the lead role of Miral. The casting of the latter caused quite a stir as the actress wasn’t Arab. Miral also featured appearances from Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave, Schnabel’s daughter Stella, and British-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig was cast as Miral’s father.
Debuting at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, Miral divided critics and audiences. The film received a very limited U.S. release in March of 2011 where it drew its harshest criticism over its subject matter. Making slightly above $900,000 worldwide, the poor box office was not a surprise to either Schnabel or the film’s producers given the nature of the film. Despite the less than stellar reception, Schnabel worked hard to get both members of the American Jewish community and those in the Israeli government to see the film without any preconceived judgments.
While he only has five films to his credit, Julian Schnabel remains an intriguing figure in the world of cinema. He is not afraid to tackle films that are complex and lack mainstream appeal. Schnabel brings a sense of artistry and emotional depth to his films that frequently focus on controversial figures. His fearless approach to narrative filmmaking is one of reasons why Julian Schnabel is such a compelling figure in cinema.
© thevoid99 2015