INTERVIEW:"Before Night Falls," Art and Politics with Julian Schnabel and Javier Bardem
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 12.14.00) — To find politics in an American film these days is a rare treat. But to have art and politics together in one breathtaking package is rarer still. Leave it to famous artist, painter and cigar-smoking narcissist Julian Schnabel (“Basquiat“) to delicately bridge these themes in “Before Night Falls,” his stunning second feature about Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was imprisoned by the Castro regime in 1973, then left in 1980 to New York City, only to die tragically of AIDS 10 years later. Arenas’ story is brought to life by Spanish actor Javier Bardem (“Jamon, jamon,” “Live Flesh“) in a performance that has been lauded worldwide — he won a Best Actor prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, while Schnabel took home a special Grand Jury Prize and a distribution deal from Fine Line. Opening next week in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco during the rush of Oscar pushes, “Before Night Falls” promises to put the spotlight on both Schnabel and Bardem come awards time.
At this year’s Toronto Film Festival, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman sat down with Schnabel and actors Javier Bardem and Andrea Di Stefano to talk about the art and politics of “Before Night Falls.” While the intricacies of Schnabel’s elegant filmmaking did not make it into the conversation, the greater issues of repression, totalitarianism, and the immortality and importance of the artistic process did.
indieWIRE: I want to talk about some issues that your film brings up. The first topic being creating art within repressive cultures, whether it be ours or others, and how to really create breakthrough art.
Julian Schnabel: That’s a good question. Well, it’s always a problem, and actually we should break it down in a few different categories. For example, he’s a young Italian actor [gestures to Di Stefano], so, as a young Italian actor, the same way it is for say a young American painter, before people know who you are, they always treat you like shit. And then you have to kind of somehow battle through that.
As an artist in the art world in the ’80s, I was once asked this question, if I believe that Jean-Michel [Basquiat] was a product of the hype of the art world of the ’80s, and this was after I made the movie. I was sitting in a hotel room in the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, and I said, “Look, I never met a visual artist that had a publicist, that had press interviews set up on a press junket.” I said, “I’m talking to you because I’m selling tickets, whether my movie’s good or bad. You sit in that chair, I sit in this chair, there’s a camera over there, there’s one over here, this is shameless.” It’s a convention in this business. Visual artists don’t do that. I mean, I never had a publicist when I was a painter. I’m still a painter, but until I started making movies, there was never this kind of thing around it. And it’s the most narcissistic kind of situation where they have pictures of everybody and they’re selling people. People selling faces.
iW: Do you think Reinaldo’s story is relevant to today, to yourself as an artist making movies?
Schnabel: Well, if you’re asking me if there’s a form of censorship in Hollywood, if you’re asking me if there’s still a totalitarian system over there, or in other places in the world, ethnic cleansing going on in Yugoslavia, a kid getting crucified in Wyoming, yeah, I think it’s pertinent. And it’s two things. One, it’s historic, because it’s something that happened, and just like, what’s the guy’s name that used to run Yugoslavia, the one who’s wife owned all the TV stations?
People in the country over there don’t know what happened with the Croatian camps in the ’60s or whatever, they don’t know it. And in the United States probably, there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know about what happened, what kind of testing has been going on in places, and god knows what else. I mean, I don’t know anything about it, I don’t read the paper. But Martin Luther King said, you can build your house in the forest but the world will find its path to your door. So here we are, talking about this issue, which I think in the year 2001 coming up, is appropriate, important and we’re living in the present and we have to deal with whatever we’re doing. I’m guilty at least, I mean, he can say, [gesturing to Bardem], “I was just an actor, he made me do it, I was just following orders.”
iW: Guilty of what?
Schnabel: Of taking a stand and not accepting certain things, and saying that this person is entitled to a voice, that the people who are living in exile who have really not had a voice, we’re going to clarify some of this stuff. And if you watch the news and you see the whole Elian [Gonzalez] thing and you hear Fox News, what they don’t know about Cuba — and we’re talking about people who work in the government in the United States, it’s so like a bunch of Neanderthals — they don’t know what the hell is going on over there. One of the great things about the United States supposedly is that you have the right to information as your constitutional right. So anybody can go to Cuba if they want to go to Cuba according to the constitution, but they don’t want people to go there because they want to stop something. But unfortunately, all they are doing is giving Castro somebody to point the finger at, the horrible Americans who are stopping everything. In the mean time, the Mexicans, the Italians, the French, the Canadians are buying up the country and selling the country, and it’s a capitalist country. So it’s just another dictatorship and this beautiful utopic possibility that it once was is gone. And a lot of people, real idealists, fell along the wayside. There are still more of them that are there, and everybody is in the present and they want to know, what is the future, do they have a future? So if that’s the question, yeah, I think it’s important right now.
iW: Do you think more movies have to go out on a limb to make political statements?
Schnabel: I can’t be responsible for everybody else, but I can just say that what our pleasant experience has been is we showed the movie, we had the world premiere in Venice, [gesturing to Bardem], he won the Volpe Cup for the Best Actor, the jury gave me the Grand Jury Prize, and they never give a film two prizes. We also got the Catholic Award, which they gave to Pasolini. And also, Carter Burwell got an award for the score. So that’s a good way to start. I mean, I made another movie; my reality testing is usually pretty good about this stuff. You can tell if people don’t like something, they can’t lie to you, you see it in their eyes. And I think everybody worked so hard and we just were very lucky and blessed.
iW: How did you guys hook up?
Javier Bardem: I met him three years ago at the San Sebastian Film Festival. He asked me to play the role Latharos, the role that is played by Olivier Martinez, and then after that, he called me up asking me if I could do Reinaldo. So he insisted, like he always insists, but he’s clever enough as you will make you believe that you can do whatever you want, even fly. So I went to New York and I started to read Reinaldo’s book, because I didn’t know who he was before, and I was really impressed because I didn’t know that part of the story. So I said, okay, let’s go.
Schnabel: I mean, he also grew up in a family of communists, no?
Bardem: Well, my uncle was 10 years in jail. He was one of the main people in the communist party. My mother also is a really hard left wing. And when I read the script I said, this I can do. But when we won the Volpi Cup and the Jury Prize, my uncle sent a very beautiful fax saying that he is proud that we’ve done this movie.
Schnabel: It’s really beyond the left and the right, like Reinaldo said: I’m not a member of the left, I’m not a member of the right, I just tell my story the way someone who has eyes to see the way things really are. And so we tried to stay true to his voice. I’m not a politician, you know. But there’s great beauty that he made. . .
iW: So not only do you not need a publicist, but you didn’t seem to need a casting agent?
Schnabel: I actually cast the whole movie by myself. I didn’t take credit for it, but I didn’t take credit for editing the movie or producing the movie either.
iW: And you did?
Schnabel: Yes. I mean, John Kilik produced it with me. I decided where the camera was going to go, what color the movie was going to be, and we got everything set up and then they took over [gesturing to Bardem and Di Stefano]; once they got in front of the camera, it was up to them to finish the work.
iW: After seeing the film, one of the themes that emerged for me was that there’s a real value in creating art, because it outlasts life. It sort of immortalizes your ideas. What do you think?
Schnabel: I do it, so I don’t have to be ashamed to be alive. I mean, you try to find a reason to live or something. I mean, if I go out and paint in the backyard, I feel better, I feel like I’m not wasting my time, and somehow you can have some pride about yourself in some way, but I think that the idea of putting your name on something and owning that, I don’t believe that there’s reason for doing that. I know that everybody has to have a career in a sense, these men have careers as actors or whatever, but I don’t believe if they were thinking about that, that’s why they would do a film like this. I think they did it because they thought it was something that was worthwhile and you’d have to ask them that question, but it’s not about having your name remain forever in some way, because like Ozymandias, in Keats, when the guy walks up and he sees these big feet in the desert, and he says, “Behold, I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, all others behold my kingdom and despair.” And basically it’s only two big broken feet left in the desert because his kingdom doesn’t exist anymore. So why do you work as an actor?
Bardem: I try to find the joy and the pleasure and the game of it, the same way I found when I was a kid. It’s the only reason that makes me feel alive and makes me feel, like you said, like I’m not wasting my time. At the same time, you are wasting your time because maybe you could be doing something worthy for humanity. But if you’ve done it well, like many great actors and actresses, then that’s it, you are doing a great thing for humanity, because you are serving a human behavior.
iW: Right, so do we agree that art in and of itself is as good for humanity as giving some food out?
Schnabel: Yeah, it’s like breathing. Without freedom, without the concept of utilizing those other parts of your anatomy, what is life without art? And I think one reason why we feel, I mean, we’re friends, and maybe people can make a movie and they hate each other by the time they get done, but I think that we did something meaningful together and we’re proud of it, and we love looking at this thing, and we can bathe in the reality of what that movie is. It’s like everything that’s not in the movie doesn’t exist [laughs].