Basquiat, Bowie and Bardem: Julian Schnabel Reflects on a Varied Career

Julian Schnabel TASCHEN
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images; Courtesy of TASCHEN

The subject of a new book from Taschen discusses how he bridges the divide between the fine art world and Hollywood.

Few have managed to bridge the divide between the fine art world and Hollywood quite as successfully as Julian Schnabel. The Brooklyn-born painter and Oscar-nominated director of films like 2000's Before Night Falls and 2018's At Eternity's Gate, 69, is now the subject of his own Taschen retrospective: a 17-pound, 570-page pink colossus entitled Julian Schnabel.

The first limited run of 1,100 copies, each numbered and signed by the artist and priced at $1,500, have already sold out. Schnabel sat for a rare interview with The Hollywood Reporter on everything from his close friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat to his own cinematic inspirations.

Let's start by talking about the undertaking of this book, which is the size of a Buick.

It's something that we've been working on for years. In fact, when Ingrid Sischy was alive, she and I talked about doing this Taschen book. She died a few years ago from cancer, and it never happened. We were great friends. Do you know who she was, Ingrid Sischy?

The former editor of Interview magazine.

Yeah. And she was also the photography critic at The New Yorker. She actually wrote the essay about Robert Mapplethorpe's Whitney show that [was cited in a debate about "obscene" art in] Congress. She was a brilliant person. Anyway, we were best friends. She died a few years ago. So the notion of doing this was there for a while. Benedikt Taschen seemed to become more and more engaged in the idea of having me make this book. My wife Louise Kugelberg ended up editing the book, and so it was such a vast amount of stuff. The earliest paintings I think are from 1973 until paintings that were made this past year.

Did you have to track down pieces that are in private collections to photograph for this book?

I always kept pretty good records. We had transparencies from as far back as the early or mid-'70s. So there was really very little to re-photograph. There's probably about 700 works in the book.

So how do you tackle your films in the book?

Daniel Kehlmann is a young author who has probably sold the most books in Germany as a novelist since Patrick Süskind. He wrote a book called Tyll, about a jester during the Thirty Years' War in Europe. It's amazing. Really filmic books. His father was a director. He had seen all my films, and Max Hollein, who's the director of The Met and who also wrote about the paintings in the book, introduced us. We kind of became fast friends, and he even worked with Louise and I on a couple of scripts that we were working on. He ended up writing the text about my films. I think the title of it is "Storytelling Techniques While Fastened to a Dying Beast." It was very, very complimentary. But insightful.

Anything about your childhood in there?

There is a picture of me with my mother and father in Lakewood, New Jersey. We were staying in this hotel. I guess they left me up in the room, and I left the room. I was in my pajamas, got in the elevator, and walked down, and somebody took me into the main dining room where they were celebrating New Year's Eve. So I was the New Year's Eve baby, and I was standing on the table in my pajamas with them. So that photograph's in there.

How do you decide what films you are going to make?

I don't know about a lot of other things, but I guess I do know about being an artist, since that's what I spend my time doing. They're not biographies. It's more of a portrait of Jean-Michel [Basquiat], or a portrait of Van Gogh, or a portrait of Reinaldo Arenas, or Jean-Dominique Bauby. How do you include a lifetime in a couple of hours? It's really about a personal selection of language.

Can we talk a bit about some of your films?

Sure. I mean, yeah.

Let's start with 1996's Basquiat. I remember specific scenes very vividly, like when Jeffrey Wright's Basquiat collaborated on a painting with Warhol (as played by David Bowie). We're talking about legends playing legends. Was David Bowie a friend?

I knew David, but we weren't close friends. He was good friends with Lou [Reed]. But I did know David. He was always interested in painting. He collected art. I think Jared Harris [who played Warhol in I Shot Andy Warhol] really looked liked Andy. I also think Gus Van Sant looks like Andy. But David ... I didn't want an actor to be playing Andy. They were both so famous. It was a kind of a perplexing or complex decision, but I thought it was an interesting one to go with. And David was extremely affable. He's a wonderful actor. When he put Andy's wig on and his jacket, he really acted like he was somebody's aunt.

Speaking of Basquiat, I keep seeing the mass-marketing of his imagery. Like, I've seen it in Hermes purse ads on Instagram. I'm wondering how that makes you feel.

I'm not particularly interested in that. It's pretty offensive.

But how do you think he would feel about it? Seeing as he's not even around to sign off on it or get paid for it.

I can't tell you how many young artists said to me, "I saw that movie and I wanted to move to New York and be an artist." Which let me to think, "Well, weird. Didn't you ever see that the guy dies at the end?" I think Jean-Michel wanted to be famous, and I think he enjoyed that, and I think he was very, very young when he died. But how do I think he would feel about all that? I don't know. I don't think he would give a shit about it. Because it's not the same thing as your art — having your image plastered on a tote bag.

What's something I wouldn't know about Andy Warhol?

I would say he was absolutely one of the most important painters — and I do mean painters — of the 20th century. He changed the way we look at things. I don't know if you've ever seen any of those big skull paintings, the really big ones. There's one that's lavender and robin's egg blue, and the darkest color in it is cadmium yellow, and it's one of the most extraordinary paintings I've ever seen. Anyway. I don't know if this is an article for The Hollywood Reporter. It seems like we could write a novel here.

Let's just talk about Before Night Falls a bit, because I loved it so much.

Yeah, I love that movie, too.

You know, about five years ago I brought the book with me with the theatrical poster on the cover, and I went to Havana and I read it in Havana by myself, just walking around. I went to the fortress where Reinaldo Arenas was held prisoner. I did my own Before Night Falls tour. But I would never have done that had I not seen your film, which made such a huge impression on me.

That's nice. I mean, that's what art or film's supposed to do. That's what [the 1966 Gillo Pontercovo film] The Battle of Algiers did to me, and [the 1966 Andrei Tarkovsky film] Andrei Rublev. There's those movies that grab you. Also, [the 1968 Cuban drama] Memories of Underdevelopment was a great movie. Have you ever seen that one?

No, but I'm adding it to my list.

I have these Cuban friends down in Miami. After I made the film about Jean-Michel, this friend of mine, Esther Berkel, sent this black-market video to me that was Jana Boková's documentary, and when I saw Reinaldo Arenas sitting in Miami in front of some hotel on that strip there, saying, "I'm homosexual. I'm anticastrista. I have all the qualities of never being published. I literally don't exist. I live in nowhere." Javier Bardem delivers that speech on the roof of his place in New York City in our movie.

I thought Javier Bardem gave the best performance of his life in that film. I mean, when we were making it, nobody ever heard of him. I had been living in Spain and I had seen him in Bigas Luna's work Jamón Jamón and Huevos de Oro. And in Jamón Jamón, I thought either this guy is exactly like who he is there, or he's a really great actor. And I think the latter was true. I think he's a brilliant actor, and we were very very lucky. I was very privileged to work with him. He's very smart.

Are you going to make another film?

There's a couple films I'd like to make before I die. About 18 years ago I wrote a script for Perfume by Patrick Süskind, and then nothing ever happened with it. During the pandemic, Louise and I rewrote that script as a six-part miniseries with Daniel Kehlmann, the guy who wrote Tyll. And In the Hand of Dante was a book that was written by Nick Tosches. He died a couple years ago, but I wrote that script about eight years ago. We worked on [revising] that script, too. So we're very productive during the pandemic.